El Niño-linked weather arrives with a vengeance
El Niño, which refers to abnormally warm water in the equatorial Pacific Ocean and associated changes to atmospheric circulation, typically brings wetter-than-normal winters across the southwestern and southern United States, due to an active subtropical jet stream.
Currently, there is a moderate El Niño event in progress. Yet up until last week, the winter of 2009-2010 had featured relentlessly dry and mild weather in the Southwest, while the rest of the country plunged into the deep freeze.
Then, as if it had intended to be fashionably late all along, Western storms finally showed up, announcing their arrival with a grand entrance.
A series of four storms slammed into California and tore a path across the Southwest, into the south-central states and the eastern seaboard. The storms smashed longstanding records for lowest barometric pressure readings, spawned tornadoes in places not typically known for them -- like Ventura County, Calif. [pdf] -- and dumped enough snow on the Sierra Nevada and in Arizona to significantly ease drought conditions.
Victor Murphy, climate services manager at the National Weather Service Southern Region, said the strong west to east jet stream (about 200 mph) across much of the Pacific Ocean, along with the low latitude storm track were "classic El Niño signals."
The statistics demonstrate just how unusual the storms were, and may make you question whether "The Niño" was taking steroids during its unscheduled break.
During the storms, which lasted from Jan. 17-22, wind gusts reached 93 mph at Newport Beach, Calif., 75 mph on the midspan of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and a whopping 101 mph in Kingman, Ariz.
Copious amounts of rain fell in parts of Central and Southern California, including 14.49 inches at Lytle Creeke in the higher elevations of San Bernardino County, 11.56 inches at Warner Springs, 6.03 inches at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, 4.1 inches in Los Angeles, and 3.3 inches in San Diego. NOAA's National Weather Service has more information on California rainfall totals.
Heavy rains also soaked Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, with a weekly total of 1.7 inches in Las Vegas. This was .11 inches more than fell during ALL of 2009.
A squall line not typically seen in Arizona slammed the Phoenix metro area with heavy rain and high winds on Jan. 21. A tornado was reported near Phoenix as well. As you can see from the radar image captured as the storms were nearing downtown, this was a wall of water to be reckoned with. Phoenix recorded a five-day rainfall total of 2.4 inches, which means January is now running 1.73 inches above normal. The Arizona Republic newspaper has posted photos of the flooding that ensued, particularly from the record rains of Jan. 21-22.
John Fleck, a science reporter for the Albuquerque Journal in New Mexico, sent me this dispatch about the storms:
"I was watching in awe Thursday as the Agua Fria rose. It's a "river" north of Phoenix. Normal flow this time of year is less than 10 cubic feet per second (cfs). Late Wednesday night it hit over 40,000 cfs. That's not a typo. By comparison, the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon typically carries 17,000 cfs this time of year."
Gargantuan snow totals
While rain fell at lower elevations, in the mountains the precipitation came in the form of snow -- enough to shut down D.C. for the entire year, I think.
For example, seven feet of snow fell on Mount Baldy, in Los Angeles County, Calif. A staggering 112 inches were estimated to have fallen at Kaiser Point in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In Arizona, 70 inches of snow fell at Sunrise Mountain, and 54.2 inches were recorded in Flagstaff. Heavy snow also fell in parts of New Mexico. Compared to these snowfall totals, D.C.'s "Snowpocalypse" seems rather wimpy, doesn't it?
As reported by the always meticulous Jeff Masters of Weather Underground, many stations in the Southwest also set new all-time records for lowest barometric pressure readings on Jan. 21. In Los Angeles, the pressure fell to 29.07 inches of mercury, which broke the old record of 29.25, set in 1988. Big cities from San Diego to Salt Lake City saw their records fall as well, leading Masters to state (about the Jan. 21 event in particular), "We expect to get powerful winter storms affecting the Southwest U.S. during strong El Niño events, but yesterday's storm was truly epic in its size and intensity."
More storms are forecast for the West this week, although nothing like last week's fierce assault.
| January 26, 2010; 11:15 AM ET
Categories: Capital Weather Gang, Freedman, News & Notes, Science, U.S. Weather, Winter Storms
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