Viewscapes

Weather Watch: Reflecting on a Year of Extremes with Nathan Santo Domingo

January 12, 2024 Washington State Magazine Season 3 Episode 27
Viewscapes
Weather Watch: Reflecting on a Year of Extremes with Nathan Santo Domingo
Show Notes Transcript

2023 was a year of weather extremes, with damaging floods, fires, and storms unfolding across the globe.

The United States logged a historic number of billion-dollar weather disasters, while smoke from Canada’s wildfires choked parts of the country.

“It’s kind of odd to be talking about our neighbor just to the north, but they really did have such a big impact in North America and also globally,” says Nathan Santo Domingo, a field meteorologist with Washington State University’s AgWeatherNet.

Besides the highest ever reported number of acres burned, the Canadian wildfire season was unusual for its longevity. “Wildfire season got going in late spring and didn’t relent until early fall.”

The Pacific Northwest, in contrast, had its second highest number of recorded fire starts, but a smaller than average number of acres burned.

Santo Domingo discusses the conditions behind 2023’s extreme weather and how some of those events are affecting food prices with Washington State Magazine science writer Becky Kramer. He also talks about the Northwest’s forecast for 2024.

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Viewscapes Episode 27 – Weather Watch

January 12, 2024

[music]

Larry Clark  00:00

Heat waves and hurricanes. Floods and fires. 2023 was quite a year for weather events. We tapped an expert weather watcher to help explain it. 

Welcome to Viewscapes. Stories from Washington State Magazine, connecting you to Washington State University, the state and the world. 

Nathan Santo Domingo is a field meteorologist with WSU’s AgWeatherNet. He talked with Washington State Magazine science writer Becky Kramer, about 2023 extreme weather events, La Nina and El Nino, weather effects in the Pacific Northwest, and a bit about what 2024 might bring.

 

Becky Kramer  00:37

So Nathan, welcome to Viewscapes. Thanks for being here today. 

 

Nathan Santo Domingo  

Yeah, thanks for having me really excited to chat about the weather. 

 

Becky Kramer  

So you're a field meteorologist. And you work for AgWeatherNet at Washington State University. And tell me what that is and a little bit about what you do. 

 

Nathan Santo Domingo  01:16

Yeah, sure. So my main responsibility with AgWeatherNet is helping to build and maintain the network of weather stations that AWN operates around the state. It's a program through WSU that was initially way back in the late 80s just built to support agriculture. And now we're kind of taking it to a broader picture to not only support the ag industry with the various products and decision support tools that we have, but you know, also looking at what other sectors could we help by providing some of the best quality weather data possible. And really what we're trying to do is, you know, fill the gaps between all of those federal stations that are put out there by the National Weather Service, the FAA, and really provide a high-density, high-quality weather network for the state. 

 

Becky Kramer  

Besides the agriculture industry, who else might use the AgWeatherNet? Would that include utilities? 

 

Nathan Santo Domingo  

It definitely could. We haven't, to my knowledge worked directly with you know, like PSE or anything. But I'm sure that they are probably aware of us and use our data. But other people who are interested in emergency managers, conservation districts, natural resources, labor, and industries, they're all looking at our data to better make decisions for whatever field that they're in.

 

Becky Kramer  02:40

2023 was a year we heard a lot about the weather, and particularly extreme weather events. You know, the heavy snowfall in California, and then there was flooding, and wildfires in Canada, heat waves in Europe. And can you talk just a little bit globally about what were some of the events that really stood out in 2023 for weather?

 

Nathan Santo Domingo  03:10

Yeah, so you mentioned Canada. And, you know, it's kind of odd to be talking, you know, on a global scale with someone who's, you know, just to our north here in Washington, but they really did have such a big impact in North America and also globally. 45.7 million acres burned in Canada this year. That's not only the largest for Canada, it's the record for North America as well. So all those smoke events that we had from wildfire smoke coming out of Canada, impacting good portion of the United States, a lot of that was coming from Canada this year. And the thing that was most striking, I think about that one was, there's a state of emergency in Alberta on May 6, which is really, really early to be having such big wildfire concerns. So not only was it unprecedented in terms of acreage, but the length of the wildfire season really got going late spring and didn't really relent until early fall.

 

Becky Kramer  04:25

Well, Canada was definitely one that hit home for us because of the smoke impact. And not only for us in the northwest, but particularly on the East Coast. What were some other things that were notable?

 

Nathan Santo Domingo  04:41

I think when you first kind of said what you wanted to talk about for this podcast, the first thing that jumped into my mind is, as a weather nerd but also as someone who really values the impact of forecasting, was Hurricane Otis. Maybe not one as well known for folks in Washington and really the United States as a whole. A lot of our forecasting and focus usually goes on the Atlantic basin and storms making their trek across the Atlantic Ocean, and having potential impacts to Florida and the Carolinas, the Gulf Coast. This one was an extraordinary event where the forecast was pretty poor. There was a meteorologist from Yale University, who called it one of the biggest and most consequential forecast model misses of recent years. No weather model that we have in our repertoire handled this well at all. Most weather models in the, you know, four to five days leading up to this event forecast a tropical storm, maybe a weak hurricane making landfall somewhere along the Mexican coastline. And instead, you had a system that developed into a tropical storm on October 22. And just over 48 hours later, it rapidly intensified into a Category Five hurricane and costs somewhere in the range of 10 to $15 billion in damage, mainly near Acapulco and Mexico. So to see really every model that we have every forecast that we have be so behind the curve for something as impactful as a hurricane with 165 mile an hour winds, that stands out to me. Because that tells me that we've made so many advances in the weather industry, but even in 2023, Mother Nature can throw you a curveball, and it'll throw you something that your best computers cannot predict. And there's a lot to learn. And I think that something that consequential, something causing $15 billion in damage, that's the consequence of a poor forecast. And we have a lot to learn from that.

 

Becky Kramer  07:04

Let's switch gears a bit and talk a bit about the Northwest and Washington state. Were there things that were unusual weather wise for us? 

 

Nathan Santo Domingo  07:14

Well, I think that one sort of unusual thing was that we had an interesting fire season in Washington, in that it was the second most fire starts on record in terms of individual fires that started in the state, but the acreage burned was much lower than average. And so that tells me that the fire starts were probably due to human activity, but also a lot of lightning. But thankfully, last winter, we were coming off of a La Nina year transitioning into neutral conditions. So I think we had above normal precipitation going into the summer, which would mean that, you know, our vegetation might have been a little bit wetter, especially early in the year, which probably helped with some of those fire starts to prevent explosive fire growth. So that was kind of an interesting one. You know, it goes to show that even in a year where the acreage isn't that impressive, you can have a fire like the Gray Fire and Medical Lake, went from zero to 500 acres in two hours and 10 minutes. 259 structures were burned. So unusual, statistically. But even in a year where acreage isn't necessarily off the charts, we still have impactful fire seasons.

 

Becky Kramer  08:49

Overall, it sounds like we kind of lucked out last year because you said there were the highest or second highest number of fire starts but that the total acreage burned was not as high as you might expect from that.

 

Nathan Santo Domingo  09:03

Correct. Yeah, kind of an interesting statistic. And it almost feels like an anomaly. But it could also, you know, there's so many things that that factor into that. So it's hard to say for certain why that happened. 

 

Becky Kramer  09:18

You mentioned El Nino. Let's talk a little bit about that, and how that impacted the weather last year. Sure.

 

Nathan Santo Domingo  09:25

So to start off, like I mentioned, last winter, we were at the waning stages of La Nina. And what we're talking about with El Nino, La Nina is what's called the El Nino Southern Oscillation. So it's a weather pattern feature where we're looking in the Central Pacific, the central equatorial Pacific and in the La Nina year, you will get what's called upwelling. So you have a lot of cold water that's coming down from the depths off the coast of South America and the eastern Pacific cold water will rise up, and then it'll spread westward towards the equatorial waters of the Central Pacific. And so temperatures in the central equatorial Pacific sea surface are below normal, more than half a degree Celsius below normal. That's considered a La Nina. And the inverse happens when you have waters in the equatorial Pacific that are warmer than normal. And so that's been a big weather story. For 2023, the end of 2022, La Nina is weakening, we're in kind of a neutral phase for the beginning of 2023. And then, by September, we had fully transitioned into El Nino conditions. And so we're starting to see the impacts of that. I think now, usually in El Nino winters, I think you have to think back to, I think 2015 was a pretty big El Nino, winter ski resorts really struggled. Because El Nino winters usually have a stronger southwest flow off of the Pacific so milder air entering the Pacific Northwest that usually elevates the snow levels a little bit. And we've kind of seen that this year. With ski resorts struggling to open, snow levels skyrocketing to near 10,000 feet. This happens on periodic timescales. And it looks like that we're stuck with El Nino, at least for winter. The recent forecasts that just came out, suggest a transition back to more neutral conditions by the summer. So it is possible that perhaps this is not going to be a prolonged El Nino, which would be good news for the ski resorts and snow lovers in Washington.

 

Becky Kramer  11:50

How did that flux an ocean in ocean temperatures, how did that impact weather in 2023?

 

Nathan Santo Domingo  11:57

Right. So one thing that also impacted 2023 was that, as we transitioned into El Nino, not only were the waters in the equatorial Pacific warmer than normal, but overall sea surface temperatures of the ocean, were also warmer than normal. And that could be a result of multiple things. But one thing that is a concern moving forward is that with warmer ocean temperatures, you're naturally going to have warmer air temperatures, and warmer air is capable of holding, quote unquote, more water vapor. More water vapor can be in the air when it's warmer. And that could really lead to in the future more heavy precipitation events. Now, what the El Nino and La Nina do is where those warmer waters are in the Pacific, it drives where thunderstorms like to form. It's called the intertropical convergence zone. And when that shifts east and west, that has some pretty profound impacts on the ridges and troughs, the highs and lows that impact us and where they tend to set up changes depending on whether you're in El Nino or La Nina. So that's what's kind of going on with that. But then when you combine it with the overall warmer ocean, overall, why you see some of these strong rain events in California or the atmospheric river that hit Washington state back at the beginning of December of 2023. So it's all kind of interconnected, which is fascinating. And you can't really point your fingers at one event and say that this caused this, but there are general trends that you can follow.

 

Becky Kramer  13:55

Is climate change part of the equation too? 

 

Nathan Santo Domingo  13:59

Certainly. I mean, goodness, you could talk about how you know, melting of glaciers is changing the ocean salinity, and that impacts ocean currents and ocean temperatures. And so there's a whole host of ways that that a warming planet will impact the ocean, but in a general sense, yes. A warmer atmosphere and a warmer ocean are kind of intuitively coupled together. You know, like I mentioned, the warmer the atmosphere is overall on average, it can hold or contain more water vapor. And so you know, we're talking about weather extremes of 2023. I think one to highlight too is an event in April, April 12 to the 13th in southern Florida. Fort Lauderdale reported 25.91 inches of rain in 24 hours. So there's growing concern and growing fear from scientists that events like this with a warming planet, with more water vapor potentially in the atmosphere, more events like this could happen. Another thing that you get with a warming planet is you have a smaller difference in temperature between competing air masses. So there's also potential that at certain times of year, fronts could not be as strong, therefore not moving as much. So stalled fronts, which is part of why Fort Lauderdale saw that much rain, you get a stalled front over the southern Florida peninsula. That'll focus the precipitation on one area for longer. So you can again point one event at climate change. But you can point at multiple events like this heavy rain events like this increasing in frequency at climate change. 

 

Becky Kramer  16:05

It's hard to imagine 20, or did you say 25 inches of rain? 

 

Nathan Santo Domingo  

Almost 26, almost 26. 

 

Becky Kramer  

And I was just wondering how much rain do we get in Pullman per year. Is that like our annual average in 24 hours? 

 

Nathan Santo Domingo  16:23

Off the top of my head, I do not know the average rain in Pullman in a year. But I would presume it's probably pretty close to that. Maybe upper 20s, 28 inches or so. I know Seattle is around 39 inches a year. So yeah, you're talking a good chunk of our annual rainfall that we would get here falling in 24 hours, which, you know, is that ever going to happen in Washington? Probably not. That's, you know, it's a lot more likely to happen in tropical or near tropical environments. But when you put it in that perspective, it kind of like, you know, makes your jaw drop a little bit.

 

Becky Kramer  17:06

So some of these extreme weather events, this unusual weather that happened on a global scale, did it have any impact on crops and food prices?

 

Nathan Santo Domingo  17:17

Well, let's go back to Canada. And the wheat production in Canada this year was actually pretty poor, serious drought conditions really played a role in that. A report in July showed that the price of semolina flour rose 24 percent. The International Grains Council forecasts a 22 year low for 2023-2024 durum wheat production. So not all of that is because of Canada. But that is a big driver in the global wheat market. And so that I think was one of the biggest impacts that we saw, especially for you know, relatable agriculture here in in Washington state. The other thing that we saw, I don't know if you remember this, but back in spring, there were a lot of news articles that came out about olive oil prices skyrocketing. And in places that are known to grow olives and produce olive oil, Morocco, southern France, northern Italy, temperatures above normal up to as high as four degrees Celsius above normal. That had a big impact on the olive crop. And so olive oil prices went up, which I love to cook with olive oil so that probably put a bigger dent in my pocket than you know, I really think about. But those were some of the agricultural events of 2023 that were really impacted by the weather, and especially drought and above normal temperatures.

 

Becky Kramer  19:05

Let's look ahead to 2024. And what can you tell me about that? What might we be looking at or experiencing in the Northwest in the coming year?

 

Nathan Santo Domingo  19:16

So like I mentioned, El Nino was going to be in charge of our weather for at least the first four months of the year. And so that typically does not bode well for ski resorts having a long season which hopefully will be made up for by the fact that last season was pretty extended. I know that some of the higher elevation sites were skiing into you know, mid, late April, I think couple of them even opened for a weekend in May, so that was great for them. Snowpack was really good. This year, we're looking at an El Nino year which typically is a condition where precipitation might be right around normal, maybe slightly below normal, especially for the eastern third of the state. But precipitation usually isn't impacted terribly. It's the temperatures and the higher snow levels that really get us. And we've seen that so far this winter with that atmospheric river that came in early December, snow levels went way up above 10,000 feet. We had some river flooding, because the snow that had fallen, melted, and went right into the rivers. So it's a really a delicate balance, especially the first few months of the year where, you know, it's going to be a struggle most likely to bank our snowpack. And that has a huge impact river flow later in the year. It's going to have a big impact on potentially wildfire season with a lower snowpack. Typically, the fuels are going to be more volatile, especially, you know, once we get to August, and things have really dried out. So overall, especially for the first half of the year, above normal temperatures, near to slightly below normal precipitation will probably be the trend. But like I mentioned, the latest forecasts that came out, does not show as robust in El Nino as we had initially thought and many of us in the Northwest feared. So a transition back to more neutral conditions would be probably seen as a good thing as you get towards August. And that could mean not quite as prolonged heat waves and stretches of temperatures in the 90s. We'll still get our 90s. We'll still get our triple digits in eastern Washington but with a transition back to neutral or even weak La Nina by the end of the year. That signifies to me that, you know, it’s still gonna get hot at times, but it might not be quite as you know, hot late into the year and things like that. First half of the year, I'd say forecast looks pretty solid; forecast in the second half of the year a little fuzzier. There's not really a strong signal either way when you get into those neutral conditions, but it does tend to favor not quite so hot when you don't have El Nino persisting so long. 

 

Becky Kramer  22:28

So Nathan, it was great to have you on the program. Thank you so much for your insights about the weather in 2023. 

 

Nathan Santo Domingo  22:36

Hey, you know if you want to hear what happened in 2024, let's bookmark this and do it again 365 days from now. That'd be fun.

 

Becky Kramer  22:45

I'd like that. Thank you so much.

 

[music]

 

Larry Clark  22:48

Thanks for listening. You can find insightful stories about weather and many other topics at magazine.wsu.edu. 

 

We'd also love to hear what you think about the podcast, and your ideas for future episodes. 

 

Music was by WSU emeritus music professor and composer Greg Yasinitsky.