Atmospheric rivers (ARs) and Santa Ana winds (SAWs) are impactful weather events for California communities. Emergency planning efforts and resource management would benefit from extending lead times of skillful prediction for these and other types of extreme weather patterns. Here we describe a methodology for subseasonal prediction of extreme winter weather in California, including ARs, SAWs and temperature extremes. The hybrid approach combines dynamical model and historical information to forecast probabilities of impactful weather outcomes at weeks 1-4 lead. This methodology (i) uses dynamical model information considered most reliable, i.e., planetary/synoptic-scale atmospheric circulation, (ii) filters for dynamical model error/uncertainty at longer lead times, and (iii) increases the sample of likely outcomes by utilizing the full historical record instead of a more limited suite of dynamical forecast model ensemble members. We demonstrate skill above climatology at subseasonal timescales, highlighting potential for use in water, health, land, and fire management decision support.
The 1997 New Year’s flood event was the most costly in California’s history. This compound extreme event was driven by a category 5 atmospheric river that led to widespread snowmelt. Extreme precipitation, snowmelt, and saturated soils produced heavy runoff causing widespread inundation in the Sacramento Valley. This study recreates the 1997 flood using the Regionally Refined Mesh capabilities of the Energy Exascale Earth System Model (RRM-E3SM) under prescribed ocean conditions. Understanding the processes causing extreme events inform practical efforts to anticipate and prepare for such events in the future, and also provides a rich context to evaluate model skill in representing extremes. Three California-focused RRM grids, with horizontal resolution refinement of 14km down to 3.5km, and six forecast lead times, 28 December 1996 at 00Z through 30 December 1996 at 12Z, are assessed for their ability to recreate the 1997 flood. Planetary to synoptic scale atmospheric circulations and integrated vapor transport are weakly influenced by horizontal resolution refinement over California. Topography and mesoscale circulations, such as the Sierra barrier jet, are prominently influenced by horizontal resolution. The finest resolution RRM-E3SM simulation best represents storm total precipitation and storm duration snowpack changes. Traditional time-series and causal analysis frameworks are used to examine runoff sensitivities state-wide and above major reservoirs. These frameworks show that horizontal resolution plays a more prominent role in shaping reservoir inflows, namely the magnitude and time-series shape, than forecast lead time, 2-to-4 days prior to the 1997 flood onset.
Increasing wildfire and declining snowpacks in mountain regions threaten water availability. We combine satellite-based fire detection with snow seasonality classifications to examine fire activity in California’s seasonal and ephemeral snow areas. We find a nearly tenfold increase in fire activity during 2020 and 2021 compared to 2001-2019 as measured by satellite data. Accumulation season snow albedo declined 17-77% in two burned sites as measured by in-situ data relative to un-burned conditions, with greater declines associated with increased soil burn severity. By enhancing snowpack susceptibility to melt, decreased snow albedo drove mid-winter melt during a multi-week midwinter dry spell in 2022. Despite similar meteorological conditions in 2013 and 2022, which we link to persistent high pressure weather regimes, minimal melt occurred in 2013. Post-fire differences are confirmed with satellite measurements. Our findings suggest larger areas of California’s snowpack will be increasingly impacted by the compounding effects of dry spells and wildfire.