A Science for Everyone, Community, Meteorology

Stahl Peak on 5/23

It’s the time when the snowpack can rise quickly – a cool, rainy Spring.  The latest observation is 34.3 inches of water on the pillow – 151% of the 30 year average.  It is definitely a lot easier to click the link than it was to haul the snow tubes up to get the data in the late seventies.

What happens next is a question for the weather forecasts.  NOAA has released these projections for June, July and August. 

The folks who know about these things are calling for a warmer and drier summer than normal.  If that’s the case, it is good to be going in with a little extra water in the high country.

Community, Meteorology

Stahl Peak Snow Pack Still Increasing

This graph, from 4-30-22 shows that the snowpack on Stahl is still increasing.  The upper line on the record suggests that there’s only a week or so left for it to increase.  Still, 127% of the long-term average is nice to see.

NOAA has this posted for May-June-July, suggesting we can expect the chances of warmer temperatures and less than normal precipitation coming up.

A Science for Everyone, Meteorology

Monitoring Snow- the Easy Way

Times have changed.  In the seventies, I would have been up and out this morning to snowmobile in to Weasel Divide, Stahl Peak, and Grave Creek snow courses, and worked the details out in the evening in a Libby motel room.  Now, I can get the data in my kitchen by clicking a link.

So we’re going into February at 127% of average – 5 ½ inches of water more.  Something interesting happened between 2:00 pm and 3:00 pm on January 27 – the snow depth reported went from 187 inches to 75 inches, while the snow water equivalent stayed the same at 27 inches.  This is why we carried so many spare parts on the back of the old Ski-doo Alpines – one ski up front, two tracks behind, and a small pickup bed behind the seat.  Monitoring equipment needs to be monitored.

DateTime PSTSnow Water Equivalent (inches)Snow Depth (inches)Snow Density (%)Precipitation To-Date (inches)Current Temperature (degrees F)

So what’s in store?  As the chart below shows, there isn’t enough data yet for projecting seasonal precipitation reliably on the first day of February.  Still, with the normal high around 39 inches on the first of May, we need only10 more inches of water to make it, spread over the next 90 days.

If you want more data relative to the upcoming temperature and precipitation projections, NOAA has the official long-lead forecasts available at:  cpc.ncep.noaa.gov

It looks like our temperatures will be a little below normal for March-April-May, leading to a bit slower snow melt.

The precipitation probability is also above average – so things look good for the Spring.

As I look back, it is easy to see how a career starting in snow surveys provided good experience as I moved into demography.  There really isn’t a lot of difference between projecting snow depth and human populations.

Community, Meteorology

Ice Pillars

It’s that time of the year again, or rather the temperature is that low again. Strange pillars of light in the sky? Ice pillars, or light pillars, form under conditions of very cold temperatures.

Edmonton, Canada -not my photo, I wasn’t about to stay out in the cold long enough to take one!

They are caused by light being reflected by crystals in the atmosphere, and careful observation of them can actually provide some insights about the weather. The source of the reflected light can be anything from the sun to streetlights. Color will vary depending on the light source.

Since these require very dense, cold air, with many ice crystals, they are common in polar regions.

Community, Meteorology

Measuring Temperature

There was a meme out a while back, pointing out the differences between Fahrenheit, Celsius, and Kelvin.  Measuring was a challenge in those early days – heck, measuring was a challenge to me after I had completed college classes on the topic.  Somewhere in the Glen Lake Irrigation District files of “as built” projects, my blunder on the Tamboer Siphon may still be recorded – I carefully picked the best spot for an inlet structure, numbered it 0+00 and began surveying.  A couple weeks later, I realized that I needed shots further upstream and had to start using negative numbers to finish the project.  It was a solution, but not an elegant solution.  After the experience, I started at 10+00.  Less mockery occurs when your mistakes aren’t so obvious.

Anders Celsius made a similar blunder – he set the boiling point of water at 0 degrees and the freezing point at 100 degrees.  Then as he continued his studies, he found that the boiling point of water changes with elevation (atmospheric pressure) while the freezing point of water was independent of both latitude and atmospheric pressure.  After Celsius died, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted that Celsius’ successors had reversed the measurements.  It does make more sense to start measuring from something constant.

The amazing thing about the Fahrenheit scale is that it came first.  Without a consistent scale on the thermometer, the extra energy involved in shifting from water to ice (or vice versa) makes precise and accurate measurements somewhere between difficult and impossible.  Fahrenheit chose to set his zero at the point that the reaction between ice, water and ammonium chloride quit working.  Once he had that, and marked his thermometer, he could repeat his experiment and determine that he had a consistent zero, based on a chemical reaction.  His next line was assuming the human body temperature was 100 degrees.  Then he could measure the temperature of ice water.  A bit of refinement, and freezing became 32 degrees, body temperature 96 degrees, and individual degrees could be measured by cutting the difference in half – 32 to 16, 16 to 8, 8 to 4, 4 to 2, and in 5 steps Fahrenheit had the gradations on his thermometer.  In the US we still use his method, though the rest of the world uses the modification of the Celsius system.

William Thompson (Baron Kelvin) came up with the Kelvin scale in 1848 – where zero was based on his calculations of absolute zero.  Thompson’s calculations showed absolute zero at -273 degrees centigrade.  In the following century and a half, his calculations have been corrected to -273.15. 

All told, it’s kind of humbling to see what these folks could do in the 18th and 19th centuries, without calculators and computers.  Thermometers of sorts were invented long before – but developing a universal measuring scale was long in coming.

A Science for Everyone, Community, Meteorology

Time to Look at Snow

In the last half of the seventies, the Monday after Christmas was committed.  I would meet Jay Penney at Graves Creek, get into the Snow Survey crummy and then we would measure the snow depth at Weasel Divide, Stahl Peak, and Graves Creek.  It’s so long ago that none of our measurements remain in the 30 year average.  We were the moderns – 440 cc Skidoo Alpines, and clockwork recorders that measured the snow-water equivalents through the month – all we needed to do was wind the clock and pack the chart away.  The guys we followed had done things differently – drive up Burma Road, snowshoe or ski to Weasel Cabin, build a fire, measure the snow course, eat dinner, sleep, hike into Stahl the next morning, measure the snow course, camp in the lookout, hike down, measure Graves Creek, reach the road and drive back into town.

My work was transitory – duplicating the traditional measurement dates and working with new recorders, battery power, early solar cells, and working with the technology that would make us unnecessary. 

My work was easier than my predecessors.  I used snowshoes where I couldn’t take a snowmobile.  Today, the remote monitoring is so good that I can click the link, and learn what the snowpack is on Stahl without leaving the warmth of my house.  Try it, you’ll like it.  https://www.nwrfc.noaa.gov/snow/snowplot.cgi?STAM8

DateTime PSTSnow Water Equivalent (inches)Snow Depth (inches)Snow Density (%)Precipitation To-Date (inches)Current Temperature (degrees F)

Nearly 19 inches of water in 67 inches of snow – 28% density, and warming after a near-zero night.  Of course, this is what would have been the January 1 run, and definitely not the time to announce whether the year was a high or low snowpack.  The next chart replaces the hand-written notes that Jay carried when I started, or that I carried after congestive heart failure took him off fortyfive time – 045 was the code we used for time spent on snow surveys.

26% above the thirty-year median.  It’s a number, but if we use it, we’re projecting from too little data.  Things can change with January and February’s snows – but above the mean is good.  Full soil profiles are good for plant growth and delay the susceptibility to fire.  And the Corps of Engineers paid that fortyfive time to get information to manage the reservoirs.

The next chart shows the 30 year mean, average and this year’s numbers in the lines – but the shaded area shows the variance.  You may note that by August 1, the snow is always gone, but the chart shows that it has melted off by the first week of June. 

As an old man, it’s good to be able to keep up on the information.  We did haul a lot of equipment in and out on those Alpines to help move toward the automated systems we have today.

A Science for Everyone, Community, Meteorology

I Could Visualize the Adiabatic Lapse Rate

Fall ended, and my winter started in December.  It may be due to a warming global temperature – but in the seventies, when much of my life was dedicated to snow surveys, I would have been explaining it by la nina.  Add the tilde to the second n – the Spanish word for little girl, the situation of the coast of Peru that increases precipitation here in the northwest.

I’m not one to complain about rain – one of the predictable portions of our climate is that early Summer has rain, and we tend to harvest alfalfa later than the optimal 10% bloom because of rain.  After July 4, we’re moving into the dry times that make drying hay easier – even if its a bit late.  You develop an appreciation for rain when your climate gives you long, hot dry spells.

This Fall, I could watch Mount Marston and Stahl Peak as the snow would come and go – I have a good view of their western slopes, and my thermometer lets me watch the difference in temperature.  I live at about 3,000 feet elevation.  The top of those two mountains is about 6,000 feet.  It’s one of the great things of living here – mountains are great, and altitude kind of sucks.  Nothing personal, but I like 3,000 foot valleys and 6,000 foot mountains a lot more than 6,000 foot valleys and 10,000 foot mountains.  My lungs fit better.

Back to the topic – the adiabatic lapse rate.  As you go up, atmospheric pressure goes down.  It is kind of obvious – as you climb the mountain, there is less atmosphere above you.  Less atmospheric pressure means that there are fewer particles of atmosphere – nitrogen and oxygen – in any particular unit of volumetric measurement you care to use.  Colloquially, the air is thinner.

It kind of makes sense – with more space between the molecules, molecules hit each other less frequently.  Fewer molecular collisions correlate with a drop in temperature.  (Physicists might invoke causation here – my training really doesn’t let me offer an explanation, but I can point out a correlation.)

So we need two tools to develop an understanding of the adiabatic lapse rate – the thermometer and the barometer.  Evangelina Torricelli invented the barometer in 1643.  Fahrenheit invented the alcohol thermometer in 1709, and a more useful mercury thermometer in 1714.  Paul Kollsman modified the idea of the barometer and developed a usable altimeter in 1928.

The adiabatic lapse rate is defined as the rate at which the temperature of an air parcel changes in response to the compression or expansion associated with elevation change, assuming no heat exchange occurs between the air and its surroundings.  Aviation, and icing wings gave an impetus to quantifying this rate of temperature change – and the need for weather forecasts provided even more.  The number is 5.2 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1000 vertical feet, or 5 degrees Celsius per 1000 meters.  (in the real world it can vary from 4 to 9 depending on humidity, etc)

So this Fall, with its snows and thaws, left me with elevation contours I could watch on the mountainsides – something that the deep snows of winter do not readily allow in the Spring as things warm up.  Since nobody came along and asked “What’s the temperature half-way up Marston?” it has been a private observation – but it has been fun to watch.

Community, Meteorology

Blessed Rain

It isn’t perfect, but it is improving.  My alfalfa seedlings are recovering from the long dry spell – on the other hand the deer are discovering them and trying to graze them down.  NOAA shows this map for soil moisture:

This next map shows precipitation during August – again, it isn’t perfect, but coming out of a drought it shows us on the fringe of recovery – far ahead of southeast Washington down through most of Oregon and California.

It may be too early to say that we dodged the bullet for another month or so – but at least the recent precipitation has moved us to a place where we can dodge. At least the long-term predictions are pretty much back to normal probabilities of precipitation:

Community, Meteorology

Lightning Strikes and Power Outages

Can lightning cause power outages?

As it turns out, lightning doesn’t even have to strike a power pole or knock over a tree to cause a power outage. The build up of charge nearby can actually cause power surges -no contact necessary.

Additionally, lightning gives off electromagnetic radiation. The phenomenon itself is called “sferic“, and it means you might notice static on the AM radio frequencies around the time of a strike.

That said, outages are more likely to be due to tree branches hitting power-lines than an actual lightening strike; Power-lines are often in the position of being the most attractive thing around for a lightening strike, and that is considered in their design.

What brought all this to mind?

It was a dark and stormy night. Well, it was a bit after midnight on what had just become Saturday morning. Heavy Rain. A flash. A house-shaking kaboom. The power suddenly out. It seems to have been the start of an outage on the section of power-line that goes up along Griffin Road. Lincoln Electric had everything back up and running later on Saturday.

Speaking of outages, though- there’s a planned one this week (11 PM Wednesday ’til 5AM Thursday) for everyone served by Lincoln Electric. Another overnight maintenance outage, courtesy of Bonneville Power Administration, since they need to replace structures damaged by gunshots (They’d love to have more information about that- call the BPA Hotline if you have any).

Community, Meteorology

What Last Week’s Rains Did for Us

These maps, taken from NOAA’s website show what the early August rains did to change the moisture stored in our soil.  For us, the rains lifted the pond by almost an inch and a half.  They didn’t add enough soil moisture to fill the cracks in the vertisols, or create any puddles – but we have hopes that the slight increase in soil moisture will help at least some of the little alfalfa plants survive. At any rate, the NOAA website demonstrates how much more information on weather is available now compared to a half-century ago.  The difference between July 31 and August 9 is impressive – though we will probably check again next week to see how the soil is doing.