Posts Tagged ‘wind’

Heatwaves, Southeast Alaska style

Friday, May 19th, 2017

We’ve had some warm days lately in northern Southeast Alaska, and if perception is worth anything, it always feels warmer just coming off winter. Actually much of Alaska feels this surge of warmth in May (and sometimes in April), but it is a time of the year when southeast can keep up with the interior and southcentral areas in terms of summer-like warmth. (And compare our sunny, 70F (21C) to Colorado, Wyoming, etc., where they just got more than a little snow.) Here’s the daily high-low graph for Skagway, Anchorage, and Fairbanks since April 1.
temperature graphYou can see that Skagway (as well as other parts of the panhandle, particularly the northern parts) is an early bloomer with regard to spring temperature spikes compared to the other regions. However, this is starting to change the interior keeps getting steadily warmer, and coastal warming stalls out some as onshore flow increases.

Onshore vs offshore flow

Onshore vs offshore flow is a crucial driver of the weather/climate in coastal areas. In general, high pressure predominates over the continent in winter producing offshore flow which brings dry, cold, windy weather to the coast (yes, there are commonly interruptions that bring mild, wet weather, especially in early winter). In summer, pressure is usually lower over the continent and onshore flow results, keeping coastal areas cool, with ample clouds, fog etc. Right now we’re in the crossover season…the offshore flow has been still with us at times, but the cold interior air that hits like a ton of bricks in January is gone. The interior has thawed out, and as that moderately warm air descends to the coast, it warms further due to compression, and places like Skagway, Haines, Juneau, Valdez, and Seward might be surprised to find themselves listed as the warmest spots in the state, and sometimes get to gloat over big regions in the lower 48 that are hanging onto winter. Skagway has bagged quite a few daily Alaska hot spot medals this spring. The following meteogram shows an example day from Skagway. When the north winds picked up early in the morning the temperature jumped too. With the addition of the sun during the day it make it to 65F (18C), cooling off some as a light southerly (a weak sea breeze) developed.

Skagway, AK meteogram

Here’s the past 30 days’ winners in Fahrenheit:

19-Apr 54 at Talkeetna
20-Apr 58 at Klawock
21-Apr 58 at Annette
22-Apr 69 at Annette
23-Apr 65 at Skagway
24-Apr 60 at Annette...Northway
25-Apr 60 at Juneau...Klawock
26-Apr 61 at Haines
27-Apr 55 at Koliganek...McGrath...Whittier
28-Apr 57 at Eagle...Northway
29-Apr 62 at Skagway
30-Apr 58 at Eielson AFB
1-May 59 at McGrath
2-May 61 at Eagle...Skagway
3-May 61 at Palmer
4-May 59 at EAGLE
5-May 66 at Skagway
6-May 67 at Nenana
7-May 69 at Eagle
8-May 66 at Eagle
9-May 64 at Koliganek...Fort Yukon
10-May 68 at Skagway
11-May 71 at Skagway
12-May 70 at Kaltag
13-May 65 at Shungnak
14-May 65 at Galena Airport...Kaltag...Tanana
15-May 69 at Bethel...King Salmon...Nenana
16-May 73 at Annette...Nenana
17-May 74 at Fort Yukon
18-May 67 at Fort Yukon

As spring progresses, the crossover runs its course and the interior ends up warmer than the coast most days. Note in the list above that maritime stations such as Annette and Klawock are more represented early in the list, interior stations more so toward the end and coastal “in between” places such as Skagway, Whittier, King Salmon, and Bethel appear scattered among, but would be shown to be strong mostly in the middle if the list ran from, say, March through June. [Anyone know of a tabulated source for this state high/low data? It gets weary calling up each daily bulletin and copying/pasting.]

In spring and summer the large-scale onshore flow manifests itself as a stiff sea breeze in many places due to the local sharpening of temperature differences. More on the sea breeze phenomenon here and here.

Warm vs Hot

Now for those of you in Hawaii or the lower 48 chuckling over the upper 60s to low 70s (18-23C) we call warm, lets consider what might happen if a strong offshore flow sets up, not in the winter when those on the coast endure -20F (-30C) wind chills, or the spring boosting us to 70F or so, but in the middle of summer when the interior has heated to 80 or 85 F (~28C). That’s a rare combination, but that’s when coastal towns push into the upper 80s and even upper 90s (30-37C). Let’s look at the few stations in any part of Alaska that have been 95F (35) or above:

map of Alaska record highs 95F+Click on the map for a larger version, or see the list below for details. (Note: on the map I’ve left off a couple locations that were virtually on top of each other, and several labels where several adjacent stations had the same temperature.)

deg F station    date (YYYYMMDD)
100 FORT YUKON 19150627
98 HAINES 19760731
98 RICHARDSON 19690616
98 MATANUSKA VALLEY 16 19660806
97 EAGLE 19500618
96 CLEAR 4 N 19690616
96 MC KINLEY VIEW 19690614
96 TOK 19690615
96 WEST FORK 19690615
96 WILLOW WEST 20090707
95 LADD AFB 19550725
95 NORTH POLE 19690615
95 SEWARD 19660812
95 SNOWSHOE LAKE 19910621

I’ve highlighted non-interior stations in green. My data only run through 2010, so if any readers know of any updated records to this list, please share them. The records at Tenakee Springs and Snowshoe Lake seemed a bit implausible to me, so I looked at the scans of the original paper forms…nothing obviously fishy…they are official records. Would you have guessed that coastal or near coastal towns are 3 of the hottest 5 in Alaska? Grab an ice-cold lemonade and let me know your thoughts on the topic via the comments link below.

Sea breezes: an Alaskan spring-summer staple

Friday, May 30th, 2014

You’ve heard it said…Alaska has sooo much coastline… We do, about 34,000 miles (54,700 km) worth, and we have the perfect weather phenomenon to go with it: the sea breeze. The sea breeze is a local wind blowing from water to land arising from the relative warmth of the land vs. the water. Warmer land leads to rising and/or expanding air and lowers the surface pressure, drawing in the cool  air off the water. It is not unique to Alaska–It is found (more…)

Alaska weather on a roller coaster

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Wind-blown dust in Haines and other places.


Red flag wildfire danger for the Mat Valley.

Strong pressure gradient along coast.

Back into the freezer

The strong “January thaw” that pushed well into the interior and tied the all time January record for Alaska is being pushed toward the back of our memories by seasonal and colder weather. Boy, it feels colder after a long warm spell! Wind chills here in northern Southeast Alaska are bouncing down to 5 to 15F below zero (-20C to -26C) at times. (more…)

Flying through the JAWS of Southeast Alaska Weather

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

While waiting to board my Alaska Airlines flight from Juneau to Seattle April 9, the all-to-common announcement came over the PA about a likely weather delay. As I happened to have my laptop handy with Internet access available, I quickly checked the Juneau airport weather observations. I did not see any weather issue that would keep the 737 on the ground. The ceiling and visibility were way above minimums. The wind was strong, but pretty well aligned with the runway…not too bad. Here are the observations in METAR format (click here for help in reading them).

PAJN 091353Z 12021G36KT 10SM -RA FEW018 BKN036 OVC050 06/02 A2918 RMK AO2
     PK WND 12036/1349 PRESFR SLP880 P0001 T00560022
PAJN 091453Z 13028G37KT 7SM -RA FEW013 BKN032 OVC045 05/03 A2914 RMK AO2 
     PK WND 13041/1431 SLP867 VIS LWR S-SW P0000 60004 T00500028 58048 

PAJN 091553Z 12022G33KT 3SM -RA FEW013 BKN032 OVC045 05/03 A2912 RMK AO2 
     PK WND 12036/1501 SLP859 P0004 T00500033

What was I missing? Before I could dig deeper, one of the pilots got on the PA and re-educated me, and the whole crowd–mostly seasoned Alaskan flyers with way more weather and aviation savvy than you’d find at a typical airport down south. (more…)

Two kinds of cold in Alaska

Friday, February 1st, 2013

Dry cold, wet cold?   no.

Winter cold and summer cold?  no. Bitterly cold vs extremely cold?  no. Calm vs windy cold? close.

All these would make good blog subjects, but what I’m thinking about today is domestic cold vs imported cold. Seriously.

I have a good recent example. (more…)

Skagway gets slammed

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

By the time we get to June, we expect the weather to settle down a bit…even here in Alaska. But weather would be boring if it were not for a few surprises now and then. Skagway was sucker-punched this day with a sharp front featuring wind gusts up to 52 mph (22 m/s) and a quick temperature drop of 15F (8C). Check out the loop made from the FAA’s wx cam at the Skagway airport. You can see the large plume of dust kicked up by the wind:


1.56 MB animated gif

This gusty south winds impacted more than Skagway. Somewhat gusty wind shifts could be tracked up the panhandle. At Eldred Rock, about 35 miles south of Skagway in the highly channeled northern Lynn Canal, winds switched to south at 37 kts with gusts of 51 kts (43 & 59 mph or 18 & 25 m/s) about an hour before Skagway. Haines got hit with less ferocity, but still enough to get everyone’s attention and kick up a bunch of dust and pollen. Here’s a shot of the pollen being whipped up and blown right up and over the 2000+ ft (600+ m) shoulder of Mt Ripinski in Haines:


Skagway, the real windy city

Skagway, if you’ve never been there, sits in a narrow valley extending off Taiya Inlet—the northern end of Lynn Canal (a fjord, not a man made canal). The wind sweeps through the town proper with pretty much the same strength as it does at the closely adjacent airport (where the weather station is). So we can say the airport ASOS (automated wx station) is quite representative of the town, something that cannot be said for many cities. This day, Skagwegians and thousands of visitors off the 4 large cruise ships in port were no doubt enjoying the 77F (25C) warmth and light winds at 1pm. Yes, the north winds had been blowing–up till a couple hours earlier–around 15 mph (7 m/s), which, incidentally,  is why the temperature had risen so quickly.

Bait and switch

The switch to a cooler south wind in the afternoon is actually fairly common here, but the surprise was the magnitude of the contrast. Check out the progression from the hourly reports:

Site M/A Day Time Sky Conditions           VIS Weather Temp DP Wind(kt)  Alt  RH  Chill Peak
PAGY  AA 02 0853  CLR                       10          70  39 03014G24  920  32%  70
PAGY  AA 02 0953  CLR                       10          73  38 04011     917  28%  74
PAGY  AA 02 1053  CLR                       10          76  37 05011     915  24%  78
PAGY  AA 02 1153  CLR                       10          76  37 03007     913  24%  78
PAGY  AA 02 1253  CLR                       10          77  39 00003     910  25%  77
PAGY  AA 02 1353  FEW100                    10          62  46 22013     909  56%  60
PAGY  AA 02 1453  FEW110                    10          63  44 22014     908  50%  61
PAGY  AA 02 1553  BKN110                     5 H        64  44 20032G44  912  48%  61  45
PAGY  AA 02 1653  BKN100                    10          63  45 19029G35  916  52%  59
PAGY  AA 02 1753  OVC090                    10          59  47 20017G26  924  64%  55
PAGY  AA 02 1853  FEW055 OVC070              6 R-       56  49 21020G25  928  77%  51
PAGY  AA 02 1953  SCT055 OVC065             10 R-       55  49 19013G19  932  80%  51
PAGY  AA 02 2053  BKN055 OVC070             10 R-       55  50 16007     935  83%  53

The report times are in local time (ADT), so this covers 9am to 9pm inclusive. The switch to a south wind and the drop in temperature happened between 1 and 2pm. But, again, locals would recognize that as the sea breeze kicking in. But a couple hours later the wind doubled, with a peak gust of triple the former speed…enough to wreck havoc with loose items or un-braced lightweight people. The “H” under the weather column at 1553 stand for haze but was really local dust, silt etc being lofted by the wind. The peak wind notes on the 1553 ob occurred at 1540 (2340 UTC) a detail I got from the undecoded ob:

METAR PAGY 022353Z AUTO 20032G44KT 5SM HZ BKN110 18/07 A2912 RMK AO2
    PK WND 19045/2340 WSHFT 2336 SLP860 T01780067 10250 20167 53006

What caused this blast?

As you can see on the surface chart below (valid at 4 pm, close to the time of the Skagway blast), there is a front cutting across SE AK (click on it for larger version). The front is moving north, and on the previous map (6 hrs earlier), it was drawn at Dixon Entrance (not yet in AK). Sure, fronts cause wind shifts and temperature changes, but looking at this chart and thinking June it is not obvious what was going on in upper Lynn Canal. Three things seem to not jive with the ground truth at Skagway. (That’s the fun of weather.) 1: The front is drawn as a occluded front, meaning the warmest air has been pushed aloft, and such fronts often have a subdued effect on the surface. 2: The front is drawn with a broken line, which indicates the analyst decided it was beginning to dissipate. 3. The front is drawn as barely past Sitka, about 100 miles (160 km) south of Skagway.


One solution

Here’s some factors I think bridge the seeming discrepancy. I think the front intensified and accelerated as is moved up SE AK, due to low air densities in northern SE. The analyst who drew in the fronts can hardly catch every detail when he or she has much more than just Alaska to worry about (the chart you and I see on the internet is drawn at the NWS HQ back east—our local offices draw their own or at least add their own detail.) It could be argued that this was a mesoscale effect and did not need to be drawn on the synoptic scale chart. That may be partly true, but looking at the buoys off the coast, one could track this front both with more speed and power than the map suggests. Here’s a graph of wind and pressure for the Cape Edgecumbe Buoy off Sitka:


Remember, fronts are boundaries between air masses of differing densities (to keep it simple). Higher density air is going to tend to displace lower density air, push it back or up or both. This is pretty intuitive. Lower density air is air which is warmer, more humid, or under lower pressure, or some mix of the three. What happens when an air mass is moving and displacing less dense air ahead of it, and the air ahead of it is getting less and less dense? Just like an army who has broken through the heavily guarded battle front and finds little resistance behind it, it will accelerate. The warming of the land in the northern Panhandle and onshore into Canada created a region of low density air (for you pilot types the density altitude prior to the front was around 2200 ft (>600 m)).

I’d love to hear your thoughts (or direct experiences) on this situation, or at least what you thought of the write-up.