A Synoptic Climatology and Composite Analysis of the Alberta Clipper

Blaine C. Thomas Meteorology Branch, U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range, White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico

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Jonathan E. Martin Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of Wisconsin—Madison, Madison, Wisconsin

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Abstract

Surface and upper-air analyses from the ECMWF Tropical Ocean Global Atmosphere (TOGA) dataset are used to construct a climatology of 177 Alberta clippers over 15 boreal cold seasons (October–March) from 1986/87 to 2000/01. The Alberta clipper (hereafter simply clipper) occurs most frequently during December and January and substantially less frequently during October and March. These cyclones generally move southeastward from the lee of the Canadian Rockies toward or just north of Lake Superior before progressing eastward into southeastern Canada or the northeastern United States, with less than 10% of the cases in the climatology tracking south of the Great Lakes. Characteristics of the structure and evolution of clippers during a 36-h period leading up to departure of the cyclone from the lee of the Canadian Rockies and a 60-h period after departure as the cyclone traverses central and eastern North America are examined through composite analyses. Over the course of the predeparture period, a cyclone over the Gulf of Alaska approaches the west coast of North America, and through its interaction with the mountainous terrain of western North America spawns a surface lee trough, characterized by a thermal ridge at 850 hPa, to the east of the Canadian Rockies. This thermal ridge dampens considerably as the composite clipper moves into central North America away from the immediate lee of the Canadian Rockies. The composite clipper system evolves from a lee cyclone with its nonclassical thermal structure to a more classically structured midlatitude cyclone as it moves through central and eastern North America largely as a result of rotation of the low-level thermal gradient and the increasing westward tilt with height of the composite clipper over the last 36 h of the postdeparture period. The thermal gradient rotation is dynamically linked to convergence of the along-isentrope component of the Q vector and thus to the ascent that sustains the clipper and creates some of its characteristic sensible weather elements. Such dynamical forcing is a direct consequence of the persistent westward displacement of the 500-hPa vorticity maximum with respect to the composite clipper sea level pressure minimum that characterizes the postdeparture period.

Corresponding author address: Jonathan E. Martin, Dept. of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of Wisconsin—Madison, 1225 W. Dayton St., Madison, WI 53706. Email: jemarti1@wisc.edu

Abstract

Surface and upper-air analyses from the ECMWF Tropical Ocean Global Atmosphere (TOGA) dataset are used to construct a climatology of 177 Alberta clippers over 15 boreal cold seasons (October–March) from 1986/87 to 2000/01. The Alberta clipper (hereafter simply clipper) occurs most frequently during December and January and substantially less frequently during October and March. These cyclones generally move southeastward from the lee of the Canadian Rockies toward or just north of Lake Superior before progressing eastward into southeastern Canada or the northeastern United States, with less than 10% of the cases in the climatology tracking south of the Great Lakes. Characteristics of the structure and evolution of clippers during a 36-h period leading up to departure of the cyclone from the lee of the Canadian Rockies and a 60-h period after departure as the cyclone traverses central and eastern North America are examined through composite analyses. Over the course of the predeparture period, a cyclone over the Gulf of Alaska approaches the west coast of North America, and through its interaction with the mountainous terrain of western North America spawns a surface lee trough, characterized by a thermal ridge at 850 hPa, to the east of the Canadian Rockies. This thermal ridge dampens considerably as the composite clipper moves into central North America away from the immediate lee of the Canadian Rockies. The composite clipper system evolves from a lee cyclone with its nonclassical thermal structure to a more classically structured midlatitude cyclone as it moves through central and eastern North America largely as a result of rotation of the low-level thermal gradient and the increasing westward tilt with height of the composite clipper over the last 36 h of the postdeparture period. The thermal gradient rotation is dynamically linked to convergence of the along-isentrope component of the Q vector and thus to the ascent that sustains the clipper and creates some of its characteristic sensible weather elements. Such dynamical forcing is a direct consequence of the persistent westward displacement of the 500-hPa vorticity maximum with respect to the composite clipper sea level pressure minimum that characterizes the postdeparture period.

Corresponding author address: Jonathan E. Martin, Dept. of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of Wisconsin—Madison, 1225 W. Dayton St., Madison, WI 53706. Email: jemarti1@wisc.edu

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