On 29 November 1991 a series of collisions involving 164 vehicles occurred on Interstate 5 in the San Joaquin Valley in California in a dust storm that reduced the visibility to near zero. The accompanying high surface winds are hypothesized to result from intense upper-tropospheric downward motion that led to the formation of a strong upper front and tropopause fold and that transported high momentum air downward to midlevels where boundary layer processes could then mix it to the surface. The objectives of the research presented in this paper are to document the event, to provide support for the hypothesis that both upper-level and boundary layer processes were important, and to determine the structure of the mesoscale circulations in this case for future use in evaluating the navy's mesoscale data assimilation system.

The strong upper-level descent present in this case is consistent with what one would expect for jet streak and frontal circulations in combination with quasigeostrophic processes. During the period examined, upper-level data and analyses portray a strong upper-tropospheric jet streak with maximum winds initially in excess of 85 m s−1 (≈170 kt) that weakened as it propagated southward around the base of a long-wave trough. The jet streak was accompanied by a strong upper front and tropopause fold, both of which imply intense downward motion. The vertical motion field near the time of the accidents had two maxima—one that was associated with a combination of quasigeostrophic forcing and terrain-induced descent in the lee of the Sierra and one that was associated with the descending branch of the secondary circulation in the jet streak exit region and the cold advection by both the geostrophic wind and the ageostrophic wind in the upper front. The 700-hPa wind speed maximum over and west of the San Joaquin Valley overlapped with the latter maximum, supporting the hypothesized role of downward momentum transport.

Given the significant 700-hPa wind speeds over the San Joaquin Valley during daytime hours on the day of the collisions, boundary layer mixing associated with solar heating of the earth's surface was then able to generate high surface winds. Once the high surface winds began, a dust storm was inevitable, since winter rains had not yet started and soil conditions were drier than usual in this sixth consecutive drought year. Surface observations from a variety of sources depict blowing dust and high surface winds at numerous locations in the San Joaquin Valley, the Mojave and other desert sites, and in the Los Angeles Basin and other south coast sites. High surface winds and low visibilities began in the late morning at desert and valley sites and lasted until just after sunset, consistent with the hypothesized heating-induced mixing. The 0000 UTC soundings in California portrayed an adiabatic layer from the surface to at least 750 hPa, also supporting the existence of mixing. On the other hand, the high winds in the Los Angeles Basin began near sunset in the wake of a propagating mesoscale trough that appeared to have formed in the lee of the mountains that separate the Los Angeles Basin from the San Joaquin Valley.

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*Computer Sciences Corporation, Monterey, California

+Additional affiliation: Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.

#Naval Research Laboratory, Monterey, California.