The starting point for an accurate forecast is an accurate representation of the atmosphere’s current state. This is why MetService operates extensive observing and weather modelling programmes and runs a large 24/7 forecasting operation. For much more about this, see the blog on MetService’s Investment in Forecasting and TVNZ’s recent Breakfast programme: “How does the weather work”.
The 7-day rain forecast on www.metservice.com is very useful for planning purposes, with the maps showing pressure, direction and strength of wind, and where rain is expected to fall. The forecast is in the form of a series of maps, which are also provided in a player, so you can animate the series of maps to see how the situation could change over the period of time.
Our 3-day model provides a closer look at New Zealand. On these charts, the thick purple line is a guide to where precipitation may fall as snow.
However, computers deal only in numbers and don’t give the complete story – this is where human expertise comes into play. Trained forecasters do things that weather models cannot, for example:
Consider, in real time, conflicting information – from models and observations – and determine which outcomes are more likely, based on an understanding of the weather situation
Steer a steady course when the model forecasts are “jumping” from run to run
Reconcile observed and forecast weather and recognise when the forecast needs changing (regardless of what the models say)
Explain the weather, particularly to those who are managing weather-related risks (people talk to people; computers talk to computers)
It is vitally important for forecasts (and updates as they happen) to be communicated in a measured, timely and credible manner.
On Wednesday 10 August, days before the outbreak, MetService published a media release and contacted farming organisations, to alert those with a real need to plan in advance about what forecasters were anticipating. Snow and cold would have a large impact to farmers in the lambing and calving season so this was highlighted in the news release.
Because of the chaotic nature of the atmosphere (and the variation of predictability with time), the forecast for a given day (or time) in the future can change as we get closer to it. This is why the forecast issued on a Monday for the weekend to come might be very different to the forecast issued on, say, the Thursday of the same week.
This polar blast was long lived and delivered snow to many regions of the country. While heavier snowfalls have been recorded before in some regions, this is undoubtedly the most widespread and prolonged event since 1939 – the subject of a blog by Erick Brenstrum.
It’s early days in a weather event which is likely to be memorable for its coldness.
Below is a satellite image for midday Sunday. The wind flow over New Zealand is generally from the southwest; the coldest showery air has made its way onto Fiordland, Southland, Otago and south Canterbury.
It’s not raining or snowing over all of southern New Zealand because the wind flow is more or less lined up with the South Island, thereby sheltering some places, and because the precipitation is showery.
The surface temperature doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. Below is a graph of the air temperature for the 24 hours from 1:00pm Saturday 13 August to 1:00pm Sunday 14 August. Note how the air temperature at Invercargill Airport and Nugget Point, both fairly open to the southwest, has been on a pretty steady downward trend. At 2:00pm Sunday, the temperature at Nugget Point was 1.0 C and the wind speed was 85 km/h. Brrr.
At Timaru Airport, on the other hand, the temperature rose sharply when the southwest change arrived mid Sunday morning – the reverse of what might be expected. The period overnight Saturday to dawn Sunday at Timaru Airport was one of clear skies and fairly light winds, so the quickly-cooling land surface during this period cooled the air immediately above it and an inversion formed. When the southwest change arrived, the air once again became well-mixed. But this southwest air is expected to also become steadily colder.
4:15pm Sunday 14 August 2011
Here’s another look at why the surface temperature doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.
In my blog post about the winter storm of early July 2011, I partially explained how showers may form in cold air moving over a warmer sea surface. The (relatively) warm sea heats “blobs” of the air immediately above it; these blobs then ascend because they are less dense than surrounding air. For the ascending process to continue, the surrounding air must remain relatively cooler than the ascending warm blobs. Thus, it is important to have information – that is, observations and forecasts – about the vertical temperature structure of the atmosphere.
Observations of the temperature structure of the atmosphere are primarily made using weather balloons. Below is a graph of the temperature at three levels in the atmosphere above Invercargill, obtained from radiosonde balloon flights. The blue line is the temperature at about 5000ft, the red line is the temperature at about 10000ft, and the green line is the temperature at about 18000ft. These heights are approximate; the height of a given pressure level varies with the air temperature; here, we should probably discuss the idea of the thickness of an atmospheric layer – but I think we’ll do that some other time.
Anyway, the graph shows that the atmosphere above Invercargill has been cooling off steadily since the middle of Saturday 13 August. In depth, it is now very cold.
6:15pm Sunday 14 August 2011
It snowed quite heavily in Wellington City, above about 100 metres, from approximately 4:30pm for at least an hour. This is the heaviest and most widespread snowfall in Wellington City for at least 30 50 years.
At midday Sunday 14 August the freezing level around Wellington, obtained from the Paraparaumu radiosonde balloon flight, was just over 1000 metres and falling (it was around 1600 metres at midnight Saturday 13 August). But late on Sunday afternoon, it would still have been well above the level to which snow fell in Wellington. Snow starts melting once it falls below the freezing level – but the melting process draws heat from the surrounding air, which lowers its temperature; thus, the melting snow “drags” the freezing level down with it, at least for a while. How far the freezing level within the area of falling snow is dragged towards the ground depends mostly on the intensity of the snowfall and the vertical variation of temperature and humidity of the air it is falling into.
1:00pm Monday 15 August 2011
So far in this blog, I’ve been talking quite a bit about the temperature throughout the depth of the troposphere (the troposphere is the part of the atmosphere in which weather systems exist). Time, now for a picture. Below is a plot of:
Forecast temperature (colours) at the 500 hPa level (roughly 18,000 ft, or about halfway up the troposphere)
Forecast wind speed (black lines) at the 250 hPa level (near the top of the troposphere)
… for midday Monday 15 August.
The colours in this plot are forecast temperature; over most of New Zealand, the temperature at around 18,000 ft was forecast to be -30 C or lower. The important thing to note is that a large mass of Antarctic air covers almost all of New Zealand.
The red arrow on this plot shows the forecast position of the axis of strongest winds, near the top of the troposphere, at midday Monday 15 August. This is the polar jet, on the border between the deep pool of Antarctic air over New Zealand and the warmer mid-latitude air around it.
Incidentally, the forecast temperatures compare very well with the observed temperatures at midday Monday 15 August, as shown in the table below.
Forecast 500 hPa temperature (C)
Observed 500 hPa temperature (C)
4:30pm Monday 15 August 2011
Here’s a graph of how the freezing level over New Zealand has changed over the last few days.
As of midday Monday 15 August, the freezing level varied between about 1000 ft at Invercargill to about 2000 ft at Whenuapai. Snow has fallen to sea level in many parts of southern and central New Zealand – that is, to at least 1000 ft below the freezing level.
This is a classic example of the melting effect (see the post made at 6:15pm Sunday 14 August 2011, above). Over the last few days, MetService’s Severe Weather Forecasters have spent a lot of time considering how far below the freezing level snow would fall. This requires a good understanding of cloud physics.
9:30am Tuesday 16 August 2011
Here’s a few photos from the Wellington snow of June 1976.
10:30am Tuesday 16 August 2011
In southerly flows, the West Coast of the South Island is well sheltered by the Southern Alps. Since the southerly took hold on Sunday, the air on the West Coast has been very dry because of the Foehn Effect.
Below is a graph of the dew point temperature (the temperature which air must be cooled to for water vapour to condense into water liquid or water solid) at Hokitika Airport from 10am Sunday 14 August to 10am Tuesday 16 August. On the afternoon and evening of Sunday 14 August, there’s a huge change in dew point (around 13 degrees), down to around -10 C. Since then, the dew point has remained negative, generally fluctuating between about -3 C in the morning and -7 C in the afternoon. Such a low dew point makes the air feel much colder than its temperature would suggest. We take the dew point into account when calculating the “feels like” temperature.
2:30pm Tuesday 16 August 2011
This event has been characterised by many places having low daytime (maximum) temperatures.
Maximum temperature on
Lowest daily maximum temperature on record
Month / year occurred in
Monday’s max temperature is the lowest since …
15 August 2011
New Plymouth Airport
25 July 2011 and 12 July 1951
Napier (Nelson Park)
25 July 2011 and 17 July 1995
Monday night / Tuesday morning was very cold in some places, though. Here’s a few notable overnight minima from MetService automatic weather stations.
Waiouru Automatic Weather Station
-7.7 C (new record for August)
Blenheim Airport Automatic Weather Station
-6.2 C (new record)
Rotorua Airport Automatic Weather Station
-5.2 C (equals record)
Taupo Airport Automatic Weather Station
5:00pm Tuesday 16 August 2011
Below is a plot of where the air arriving at an altitude of 500 metres above Auckland at midday Monday 15 August came from. Four days previously, it was over the Antarctic landmass; two days previously, it was still over the Antarctic sea ice. The Antarctic sea ice edge is close to its northern-most extent and is near latitude 60 degrees South. Thus, the air arriving at Auckland passed very quickly over the relatively warm ocean between the Antarctic ice edge and New Zealand. In contrast, the air from the Southern Ocean which arrived over Auckland on Saturday 9 July (see my blog post on the stormy period of early July 2011) had travelled over a much longer stretch of ocean, over a longer period of time, and consequently was warmer and moister.
6:00pm Tuesday 16 August 2011
As of 2:00pm Tuesday 16 August 2011, the extent of snowfall in this storm is as shown in the image below.
4:00pm Wednesday 17 August 2011
During the next few days, while an anticyclone advances onto the country, the general wind flow will decrease in strength and the depth of cloud along eastern coasts gradually reduce. Near sea level the air over New Zealand remains very cold, and the advancing anticyclone more or less “traps” it in place. Very cold air, clear skies and light winds overnight are a recipe for hard frosts.
Hopefully, the diagram below – known technically as a tephigram – helps illustrate this. It is a plot, in the vertical, of the air temperature and the dew point temperature derived from the radiosonde balloon flight at Invercargill at midday Wednesday 17 August. At Invercargill there is already a large mass of sinking, warming (and drying) air above about 5000 ft (see text in red on diagram). This sinking air presses on the (relatively) colder air beneath it, trapping it near the Earth’s surface. In this particular case, the zone of transition between the two different air masses is known as a subsidence inversion. I’ve marked the subsidence inversion on the diagram; it’s the broad blue horizontal bar near the bottom.
The very cold air trapped below about 5000 ft at Invercargill is much less inclined to move around than the air further up in the atmosphere. As I’ve explained above, this is partly because of the advancing anticyclone. But it’s also partly because cold air is less “runny” than warm air. (Treacle flows much more readily when warm than cold). On the right of the diagram below are the winds in the vertical, as they were above Invercargill at midday Wednesday 17 August. Clearly (see text in green on diagram), the one wind barb shown below 5000 ft indicates quite a different flow from all the winds above 5000 ft: the flow near the surface has become decoupled from that above.
In a general sense, this vertical temperature and wind structure is expected to spread over eastern parts of New Zealand during the next few days as the anticyclone moves closer and pressures over the country rise.
Forecast surface pressure field for midnight Wednesday 17 August 2011.
Forecast surface pressure field for midnight Thursday 18 August 2011.
3:30pm Friday 19 August 2011
Finally today, cloud over the south of the South Island has cleared enough to reveal the extent of snow cover there.
Below are two visible satellite images. The first is for around 10:00am on the morning of Wednesday 10 August, some days before this extraordinary cold outbreak. The second is for around 10:00am on the morning of Friday 19 August. Nearly all of the white over Canterbury, Otago, Southland and Fiordland is snow. The imagery only shows the extent of the snow, not its depth.
Since Wednesday 6 July, stormy westerly conditions have affected New Zealand. In this blog, we’ll look at why.
The “Long Waves”
Below is the mean sea level analysis – the weather map – for 6am Sunday 10 July. In between big highs over the mid South Pacific and south of western Australia is a really large trough; it’s the area shaded light blue. The weather map has looked like this, more or less, since Wednesday 6 July: that is, the big features on it aren’t moving much.
There’s good reasons why these big features aren’t moving much. They reflect the so-called “long waves” in the troposphere (the troposphere is that part of the Earth’s atmosphere in which the weather occurs), which are stationary at the moment. Below is an image made from a Fourier analysis of the wave pattern in the Southern Hemisphere at midnight Saturday 09 July. There’s a trough (blue) in this wave pattern more or less in the same place as the one shaded light blue on the weather map above. And either side of this trough, there are ridges (pink) in about the same place as the big highs on the weather map above. For more about this, see my blog post on Wave Three.
Below is a plot of where the air arriving on New Zealand’s west coast at midnight Saturday 09 July came from. The air is from the Antarctic.
On its way to New Zealand, this air travelled over a long stretch of ocean. It will have been colder than the surface of the sea it passed over, and will therefore have taken up heat from the sea surface. As heat transfers from the sea surface to the air immediately above it, “blobs” of air become warmer than their surroundings and rise upwards. This process is known as convection (see Chris Webster’s blog post about predictability and popcorn). If convection continues for long enough, showers and/or thunderstorms are the result. In the satellite picture below, more or less all of the clouds over the Tasman Sea, New Zealand and the seas to the south of the country are “blobs” of air which is rising (or has recently risen) convectively.
A major flood of air out of the Antarctic region, like this, has other consequences. The northern boundary of the cold air pushes against the warmer air further north. Thus, the north-south temperature contrast increases and simultaneously the strength of the westerly winds increases – not just at the Earth’s surface, but throughout the depth of the troposphere. (How this works might be the subject of a future blog post). This is at the heart of why many places have been windy over the last few days.
The axis of the strongest winds, in the mid- to upper troposphere, is known as the jet stream. In the plot below (for midnight Saturday 09 July), the polar jet has two branches (arrows in black): one curving across the south Tasman Sea and over the South Island, and the other crossing the south of the North Island. Over central New Zealand, wind speeds above 10,000ft were generally 80 kt (150 km/hr) or more.
Thunderstorms and Tornadoes
Air ascending into convective clouds (showers and thunderstorms) comes down again. When a convective cloud collapses, the resulting downdraft hits the Earth’s surface and spreads out, much like water does when tipped from a bucket onto the ground. When the showers and thunderstorms are themselves fast-moving (on the afternoon of Saturday 09 July, storm motions on the Kapiti Coast were 70 to 90 km/hr), the winds near the Earth’s surface can become very strong when downdrafts occur: this is very likely to be the cause of some of the wind damage on the Kapiti Coast on the afternoon of Saturday 09 July. And this is one of the reasons why the various Severe Thunderstorm Outlooks, Watches and Warnings issued over the last few days have included the mention of damaging wind gusts.
Imagery (see below) from the Wellington radar for 4:00pm Saturday 09 July shows a line of thunderstorms extending across Cook Strait onto the Kapiti Coast. The tornado is very likely to have been associated with the strong thunderstorm shown just east of Waikanae at 4:00pm; eye witness reports suggest that the tornado crossed State Highway 1 around 3:55pm. The tornado’s genesis remains unclear: it may be that a low-level vortex was “spun off” the northern end of Kapiti Island just at the time that this thunderstorm passed by, and the strong ascending motion in the thunderstorm developed it into a tornado between there and landfall on the Kapiti Coast. Once again, it is remarkable that there was no loss of life.
The Southern Alps are a significant barrier: in westerly airstreams, generally only a moderate amount of precipitation falls any distance east of the Divide. How much precipitation falls east of the Divide, and how far east of the Divide it reaches, depends on a number of factors. Not the least of these is the Foehn Effect. Overnight Saturday 09 July and on the morning of Sunday 10 July, a reasonable amount of snow fell east of the Divide, in parts of Otago, to below 500 metres, in a northwesterly airstream. This is an uncommon occurrence, and reflects how deeply cold and showery the air passing across Otago was at the time.
Large Sea Waves
Since about the middle of the first week of July, sea waves arriving on New Zealand’s western coasts have been notably large. In some places, they have probably attained heights observed only once every year or two – and will remain high until late in the week ending Fri-15-Jul. The weather map below, from about the time large waves began arriving, shows why:
The fetch – that is, the expanse of ocean over which waves arriving on New Zealand’s western coasts have been generated (pink arrow) – is very long
The waves are still growing as they reach New Zealand’s western coasts, because the winds across New Zealand are themselves strong.
MetService’s Auckland office is in Westhaven, and often I can be seen at lunchtime wandering around Victoria Park. Much to my delight yesterday I came across some daffodils blooming outside one of Auckland’s oldest pubs (photo).
These are wonderful signs that warmer days are coming. But not quite yet! Late July to early August is, on average, the depths of winter in New Zealand. It is the period with the coldest days- the season for curling.
Last night, Basil, one of my sailing buddies, commented on how he had a wonderful time in the squadron race last Saturday. “What happened to that harbour gale warning?” he asked me. I know that many fellow Aucklanders may also be interested in the answer, so here goes:
The above graph shows the wind speed average as measured in knots at three of the Coastguard Nowcasting stations around the Hauraki Gulf (maintained by MetService). The time stamps are in UTC, so 11 0000 translates to noon Saturday, and 12 0000 is noon Sunday.
Channel Island (yellow) increased to storm force (over 47 knots) by noon on Saturday and Tiritiri (blue) to gale force, as correctly predicted in the MetService recreational marine forecast .
Bean Rock at the harbour entrance only increased to 25 knots (strong) and for much of the time was less than that.
Why so? Friction is part of the explanation—wind can blow smoothly over the sea but when it blows over land the extra friction can knock around a third off the average speed. MetService refers to wind speed in its land forecasts in km/hrand for marine areas in knots – this way people can tell that they have the right forecast for land or sea.
Another factor is air density. The day started with a buffer zone of cold dense air hugging the ground over Auckland. The incoming gale was coming from the southeast, and blew over the Coromandels and then over the top of this buffer zone, unable to dislodge it. The gale blew over the city, and for a brief time it dipped down to touch the Skytower, but it never dropped to sea level. In this case the gale couldn’t dislodge the antecedent cold air. This is rare, and it is more reasonable to assume the gale would get to sea-level rather than not, hence our forecasts.
MetService checks all its Auckland marine forecasts and we have a monthly average accuracy of 94%. OK, this one didn’t work out and we will mark it as wrong. In this case the gale didn’t get to sea level. Please don’t assume that this happens often.
For example: check the following graphs:
These show what happened at Whangarei on the same weekend. The coastal wind, as measured at Tutukaka (in yellow), rose to storm force on Saturday afternoon, peaked near midnight, and eased below storm force late Sunday morning, all as forecast, and with similar timing and intensity to what was happening about the outer Hauraki Gulf.
In this case there was no mountain range upstream from Whangarei to help disrupt the wind, and a gale was able to touch down into the city. The winds at the airport (in red) were knocked back a third by friction (as per normal) but still reached gale force. That was consistent with the damage reports around the area, including fallen trees and flying branches taking out powerlines.
I’ve also included the barometer and rain readings from Whangarei. Note the close but not-quite-mirror link between pressure and wind speed. This is typical for a low like this, so if you have a barometer you can use it, in cases like this, as a rough wind speed forecaster. Also note the peak in the rain occurred as the low was still approaching and eased off before the barometer “bottomed out”. This is also fairly typical, but each low-pressure system is slightly different in this regard.
I find it fascinating that there is so much pattern in our weather, and I find it frustrating when, sometimes, chaotically, one of them behaves slightly differently, as in this case producing wayward winds for Auckland.
With clear skies over most of Canterbury on Monday, we got a good look at the fresh snow that fell on Sunday (10th May). Here’s the view late Monday morning (around 10:30am) from NASA’s Earth Observing System Terra Satellite,
Based on the coverage in that image and reports from snow observers, the bulk of the snow in South Canterbury fell above about 300 metres, although some places lower down, especially near the foothills, may still have had light snow that didn’t settle appreciably.
While this wasn’t the first cold outbreak of the year, Sunday’s snow event over the lower South Island (including Fiordland, Southland and Otago) was certainly the most significant of 2009 to date. If you have any tales of how you were affected that you’d like to share, please feel free to leave a comment below.
The arrival of colder southerlies over the past few days has made many of us move into our winter mode … turning up the home heating, putting an extra blanket on the bed, etc. It has certainly put an end to the golden weather that Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay have been experiencing.
My barometer here in Auckland is reading 988 hecto-Pascals and our latest weather map shows that much of the country has values below 1000. What has happened is that this low pressure centre has filled itself with air that has come from as far as 55 South….brrrr…. that’s cold air. At those latitudes it is a dry cold, but when the southerlies shovel this air towards New Zealand it picks up moisture and drops this as flurries of snow on places exposed to the south. As the cold air moves north across the Tasman Sea it encounters warmer temperatures and bubbles up, making bands of squally showers that affect places exposed to the south.
The large, complex and multi-centred low took several days to build to this extent and will take a few days to weaken. One of the reasons this large low is here is to do with the gap between Highs — there is a large High out at 140 West and another weaker High in the Australian Bight, and so New Zealand is caught between two Highs at present.
Today’s weather map shows that this link to the southern ocean is now weakening, and so this large area of cold air should now start to gradually warm up.