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The Weather Element of Shell’s Oil Exploration‏

An international controversy has broken out and Seattle is caught in the cross-hairs. The oil giant Shell is planning an exploratory mission to start drilling in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska.

Shell has chosen Seattle as their base of operations to prepare the rigs and support fleet for their trip which is planned this summer. Environmental activists have been very vocal in their opposition against Shell’s operation.

One of the arguments the activists make against the giant oil corporation, is that any spill or disaster would be impossible to respond to due to the extreme arctic environment. This got me thinking: “how much does the weather affect these drilling operations?” and “how accurate are the forecasts for these areas?”
To start this research I started looking into the 2012 Shell oil rig “Kulluk” grounding.

Their plan was to time the mission so that they could drill and cover their wells in the Arctic Seas in the summer, and return to their first stop in Dutch Harbor, and then Seattle by the winter.

The crew of this operation had to overcome a number of obstacles. Firstly, the sea ice in the Arctic. If the Kulluk and its support ships weren’t retrieved from the drilling location by the time the thick ice sheets started encroaching on them, there was a danger of being stranded.  Secondly, the fall and winter storms of the Bering Sea, and Gulf of Alaska.

Photo from Cliff Mass Blog. A strong low pressure cyclone centered west of Kodiak Island, where the Kulluk Oil Rig was being towed to Seattle.

The latter is what resulted in the grounding and dramatic rescue operation of the Kulluk crew. Shell decided to make the journey from Dutch Harbor in the Alaskan Aleutians to Seattle in the middle of winter. This was a huge mistake. In the midst of a typical winter monster storm near Kodiak Island, the tow lines of the two towing boats attached to the oil rig snapped multiple times, and the crew aboard had to be rescued by helicopter.  The Kulluk was subsequently salvaged and then scrapped.

In order to look into the weather risks of the planned drilling operation this summer, I separated the two geographic locations where the fleet will be most in danger.

The Chukchi Sea:

In researching the weather and climate of the Chukchi Sea, it became immediately apparent that there wasn’t a lot of information on the weather patterns of this area.

The Chukchi Sea is located just north of the Bering Strait (the gap between Russia and Alaska).  During the summer, a high pressure center usually dominates the Beaufort Sea to the east, which helps keep summer storms away from the region. However, some moderate storms do move into the region from the East Siberian Sea.

As a response to current and future oil exploration, the International Arctic Research Center and the University of Fairbanks Alaska developed a weather modeling system that will help meteorologists forecast the weather over the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.

It appears that the main challenge is drifting sea ice in the summer. Unfortunately, sea ice is very difficult to forecast despite the efforts of many scientific organizations. However, the current trend is towards less sea ice each summer due to steady warming (climate change).

The time in the Chukchi Sea during the summer should not be the most difficult for Shell fleet.

The Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska:

The Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska is one of the stormiest and dangerous places in the world.

The most dangerous part of the Shell operation is the trek between Dutch Harbor, AK, and Seattle, WA on their way back in autumn.

These waters are known for their intense and common storms during the fall and winter seasons. Hurricane force winds commonly occur at least once or twice a year.

The Shell operation will have to work very closely with forecasters so that they do not make the same mistake that they did in 2012. They had plenty of warning beforehand, but apparently disregarded the forecast for the massive storm that shoved the oil rig onto the shore.


National Snow & Ice Data Center

N.S.I.D.C – Ice Extent Forecasting Study

Tide & Storm Surge Observations in the Chukchi Sea

NYTimes – Wreck of the Kulluk

U of Fairbanks Alaska – Mesoscale Modeling Chukchi & Beaufort Seas

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Return of The Thunderstorms

What to Expect May 5th 2015:

  • It’s a sweater wearing day. Cooler temperatures in the mid 50s.
  • Hold on to your hat! Gusty winds (15-25mph) continue through the day.
  • Time your dog walks. Showers will intermittently interrupt the sunshine through the morning into early afternoon.
  • Keep your eye on the sky. Showers will liven up with lightning, thunder, or small hail this afternoon.
  • When thunder roars, head indoors. Beware of dangerous lightning, watch the weather from the safety of your home, or on my live stream!

Any fellow weather geeks should be excited by today’s forecast! Scattered thunderstorms  are in the forecast for Puget Sound this afternoon and evening.

The cause is (unsurprisingly) an upper level low pressure system that has meandered it’s way onshore. As is typical with these systems, this one is carrying a large blob of really cold and fast moving air in the upper parts of the atmosphere at about 25,000 ft (near airline cruising altitude).

Upper Level Low Pressure Systems: 

An upper level low pressure system can be described as rotating pocket of cold rising air in the upper atmosphere. These systems are responsible for most of our thunderstorm activity. They are typically harder to forecast because of the lack of frequent observations at those altitudes.

If you follow this blog with any regularity, you’ll find that a great deal of our lightning or hail excitement comes from upper level low pressure systems.

I spent some time to look at some of the most notable thunderstorm events in Washington that I remember during the last few years, and I found that nearly every one was associated with an upper level low pressure system.

March 31st 2015:

Image of lightning striking a plane over Sea-Tac April 1st 2015. Photo courtesy: Owen Craft, Filmcraft Productions. Click image for KOMO News Story & Video

A multi-day thunderstorm outbreak took place as a deep upper level low pressure system traversed the Northwest. Some amazing images were captured around the Puget Sound.

March 31st 2015, A deep upper level trough caused multiple days of thunderstorms.


August 9th-10th 2013 Extreme Lightning Producer:

Amazingly close lightning strike from my home at Three Tree Point, Burien. Click image for Youtube Video.

On August 9th, an upper level low pressure system was spinning along the Oregon coast, causing numerous thunderstorms across central OR, that eventually moved north into western Washington, bringing with it the best lightning I’ve ever seen.

Upper Level Map on August 10th 2013. Low pressure system highlighted in red caused tstorms across the NW.


July 19th 2012:

Distant lightning on July 19th 2012

A very similar situation was in place on July 19th, 2012 when a closed upper level low was situated over the northern CA coast and OR border.

July 19th 2012 Upper Air Analysis



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Drought Explanation and El Niño Outlook

Last week I wrote an article about diminishing water concerns. In less than a week after I published that article, Governor Jay Inslee and the NWS declared drought for 44% of Washington. Why are there mixed messages?

The first reason that this message conflicts with previous information is that the drought concerns are more focused on rural areas east of the Cascades, and in the Olympic Peninsula that rely much more on snow-pack water for agricultural purposes. Like I said in the previous article, our snow-pack is dramatically and historically below normal (less than 25% of normal).

It does appear that the most populated areas west of the Cascades will remain mostly drought free. We most likely won’t have to worry about a water crisis in Seattle or surrounding metro areas this summer

The second reason is that the latest long range climate forecasts released by NOAA show little to no drought relief in the coming months. The summer outlooks for rain in the Northwest are much below normal.

Produced by Chris Scragg & Steve Pool – WSI 3D Live

River flows are forecast to be greatly affected by the lack of snow-melt this summer. River flow and water supply models by the NWS are showing some rivers to be flowing at less than 35% of normal. This would impact water treatment plants, fish hatcheries, and wildlife including fish and other animals that rely on fresh river and stream water.

The low snow-pack could also enhance the fire danger this summer by limiting the water that wildland firefighters can use, and also by drying out brush and trees.

El Niño Situation:

On top of all this, the large scale seasonal shift known as “El Niño” is in full effect. An El Niño condition occurs when the sea surface temperatures over the central Pacific Ocean are warmer than normal.

The Climate Prediction Center of NOAA recently forecasted that there is a 70% chance of El Niño continuing through this summer, and a 60% chance of it continuing through this autumn.

What does this mean for us? Well during El Niño years, the Southern portion of the country is wetter, while the northern and Northwest portions become drier. The seasonal outlooks reflect this change, by forecasting drier and warmer trends for the Northwest and wetter and cooler trends for the South.

One year precipitation outlook over North America.

In summary: The upcoming summer and autumn will likely be much warmer and drier than normal for us here in the Northwest.


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Water Concerns Diminish

There’s been some good news for the western Washington region that will, at least for now, quiet the concerns of local residents. The water outlook for western Washington is looking better.

According to UW Professor Cliff Mass, the recent systems (including the one forecast for Monday), have considerably improved the water situation here.

The national drought outlook has come out for the month of April, and it shows no signs of drought intensification in the western Washington region.

This is mostly a result of multiple disturbances that have loaded up the lowlands with rain, and even the mountains with some snow! The snow-pack in the mountains is still very much below normal, and that may still cause some problems later in the summer. But for now, the reservoirs are full.

Dark red dots indicate snowpacks that are less than 25% of normal.

A frontal system connected to a strong low, will bring another big batch of rain into the region, and also numerous snow-showers in the Cascade peaks on Monday.

Also forecast, is another convergence zone that may setup smack dab over Seattle on Monday after the front pushes through. This “CZ”, combined with the very cold air aloft may be enough to generate small hail through the Puget Sound region in the afternoon, and late evening.

UW WRF-GFS 4km 3hr Precip

After this storm is out, we’re looking at a big protective hill of high pressure to setup. The  High will fend off any precipitation for the next week. Temperatures also may start rising toward 70 soon!

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Multi-day Thunderstorm Outbreak

For the last few days, thunderstorms have dotted western Washington; stunning photographers, weather enthusiasts, and commuters. Lightning, heavy rain, and a blanket of hail struck the I-5 corridor on Tuesday (3-31) and Wednesday (4-1). Continue reading

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In The Spring Swing This Week

Some exciting weather may be on the way early this week, and I’ll be watching “from the sidelines” in warm and clear Phoenix, Arizona. A cold front will drop some light to moderate rain into western Washington tonight (Monday), and will also drop the temperatures down a few notches for the next few days. Continue reading

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First Week of Spring Forecast

Hey Everyone! The calender has finally caught up with the unseasonable weather Seattle has been experiencing these last few weeks, and I want to welcome you into the first official week of Spring.  This week we will continue to see a mixed bag of weather, with the forecast showing the possibility of warm and clear conditions on the approach. Continue reading

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Sunday’s Day-Long Downpour…What Happened?!

This weekend I took a mini-vacation to Vancouver BC, and was unable to update the blog.  Upon my departure, the weather in Seattle was forecast to be rainy on Saturday, with a transition period on Sunday; a reasonably straightforward situation that we’ve seen numerous times this season, or so I thought. Continue reading

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Dream Weekend Weather – Possibly Stronger Storms This Spring

My claim of the ” the return of winter” in my last article may have been slightly premature or unwarranted. After a few chilly nighttime lows dipping into the 30s, it appears that for the foreseeable future, cold weather is long gone from the Pacific Northwest.

Continue reading

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Return of Winter – Northwest Weather Workshop

This article, I’m going to briefly describe the forecast for the next few days, and then go over the topics discussed during the Pacific Northwest Weather Workshop. Continue reading

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