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Russ S. Schumacher

Abstract

This study makes use of operational global ensemble forecasts from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) to examine the factors contributing to, or inhibiting, the development of a long-lived continental vortex and its associated rainfall. From 25 to 30 June 2007, a vortex developed and grew upscale over the southern plains of the United States. It was associated with persistent heavy rainfall, with over 100 mm of rain falling in much of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri, and amounts exceeding 300 mm in southeastern Kansas. Previous research has shown that, in comparison with other rainfall events of similar temporal and spatial scales, this event was particularly difficult for numerical models to predict.

Considering the ensemble members as different possible realizations of the evolution of the event, several methods are used to examine the processes that led to the development and maintenance of the long-lived vortex and its associated rainfall, and to its apparently limited predictability. Linear statistics are calculated to identify synoptic-scale flow features that were correlated to area-averaged precipitation, and differences between composites of “dry” and “wet” ensemble members are used to pinpoint the processes that were favorable or detrimental to the system’s development. The maintenance of the vortex, and its slow movement in the southern plains, are found to be closely related to the strength of a closed midlevel anticyclone in the southwestern United States and the strength of a midlevel ridge in the northern plains. In particular, with a weaker upstream anticyclone, the shear and flow over the incipient vortex are relatively weak, which allows for slow movement and persistent heavy rains. On the other hand, when the upstream anticyclone is stronger, there is stronger northerly shear and flow, which causes the incipient vortex to move southwestward into the high terrain of Mexico and dissipate. These relatively small differences in the wind and mass fields early in the ensemble forecast, in conjunction with modifications of the synoptic and mesoscale flow by deep convection, lead to very large spread in the resulting precipitation forecasts.

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Russ S. Schumacher

Abstract

Using a method for initiating a quasi-stationary, heavy-rain-producing elevated mesoscale convective system in an idealized numerical modeling framework, a series of experiments is conducted in which a shallow layer of drier air is introduced within the near-surface stable layer. The environment is still very moist in the experiments, with changes to the column-integrated water vapor of only 0.3%–1%. The timing and general evolution of the simulated convective systems are very similar, but rainfall accumulation at the surface is changed by a much larger fraction than the reduction in moisture, with point precipitation maxima reduced by up to 29% and domain-averaged precipitation accumulations reduced by up to 15%. The differences in precipitation are partially attributed to increases in the evaporation rate in the shallow subcloud layer, though this is found to be a secondary effect. More importantly, even though the near-surface layer has strong convective inhibition in all simulations and the convective available potential energy of the most unstable parcels is unchanged, convection is less intense in the experiments with drier subcloud layers because less air originating in that layer rises in convective updrafts. An additional experiment with a cooler near-surface layer corroborates these findings. The results from these experiments suggest that convective systems assumed to be elevated are, in fact, drawing air from near the surface unless the low levels are very stable. Considering that the moisture differences imposed here are comparable to observational uncertainties in low-level temperature and moisture, the strong sensitivity of accumulated precipitation to these quantities has implications for the predictability of extreme rainfall.

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Russ S. Schumacher

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In this study, idealized numerical simulations are used to identify the processes responsible for initiating, organizing, and maintaining quasi-stationary convective systems that produce locally extreme rainfall amounts. Of particular interest are those convective systems that have been observed to occur near mesoscale convective vortices (MCVs) and other midlevel circulations. To simulate the lifting associated with such circulations, a low-level momentum forcing is applied to an initial state that is representative of observed extreme rain events. The initial vertical wind profile includes a sharp reversal of the vertical wind shear with height, indicative of observed low-level jets.

Deep moist convection initiates within the region of mesoscale lifting, and the resulting convective system replicates many of the features of observed systems. The low-level thermodynamic environment is nearly saturated, which is not conducive to the production of a strong surface cold pool; yet the convection quickly organizes into a back-building line. It is shown that a nearly stationary convectively generated low-level gravity wave is responsible for the linear organization, which continues for several hours. New convective cells repeatedly form on the southwest end of the line and move to the northeast, resulting in large local rainfall amounts. In the later stages of the simulated convective system, a cold pool does develop, but its interaction with the strong reverse shear at low levels is not optimized for the maintenance of deep convection along its edge. A series of sensitivity experiments shows some of the effects of hydrometeor evaporation and melting, planetary rotation, and the imposed mesoscale forcing.

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Russ S. Schumacher

Abstract

On 31 May 2013, a supercell thunderstorm initiated in west-central Oklahoma and produced a deadly tornado. This convection then grew upscale, with a nearly stationary line developing early on 1 June that produced very heavy rainfall and caused deadly flash flooding in the Oklahoma City area. Real-time convection-allowing (Δx = 4 km) model forecasts used during the Mesoscale Predictability Experiment (MPEX) provided accurate guidance regarding the timing, location, and evolution of convection in this case. However, attempts to simulate this event at higher resolution degraded the forecast, with the primary supercell failing to initiate and the evolution of the overnight MCS not resembling the observed system. Experiments to test the dependence of forecasts of this event on model resolution show that with grid spacing smaller than 4 km, mixing along the dryline in northwest Texas was more vigorous, causing low-level dry air to move more quickly eastward into Oklahoma. This drying prevented the supercell from initiating near the triple point in the higher-resolution simulations. Then, the lack of supercellular convection and its associated cold pool altered the evolution of subsequent convection. Whereas in observations and the 4-km forecast, a nearly stationary MCS developed parallel to, but displaced from, the supercell’s cold pool, the higher-resolution simulations instead had a faster-moving squall line that produced less rainfall. Although the degradation of convective forecasts at higher resolution is probably unusual and appears sensitive to the choice of boundary layer parameterization, these findings demonstrate that how numerical models treat boundary layer processes at different grid spacings can, in some cases, have profound influences on predictions of high-impact weather.

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Russ S. Schumacher

Abstract

Floods and flash floods are, by their nature, a multidisciplinary problem: they result from a convergence of atmospheric conditions, the underlying topography, hydrological processes, and the built environment. Research aimed at addressing various aspects of floods, on the other hand, often follows paths that do not directly address all of these fundamental connections. With this in mind, the NSF-sponsored Studies of Precipitation, Flooding, and Rainfall Extremes Across Disciplines (SPREAD) workshop was organized and held in Colorado during the summers of 2013 and 2014. SPREAD brought together a group of 27 graduate students from a wide variety of academic disciplines, but with the unifying theme being research interests in extreme precipitation or flooding. During the first meeting of the workshop, groups of graduate student participants designed interdisciplinary research projects that they then began work on over the intervening year, with the second meeting providing a venue to present their results. This article will outline the preliminary findings of these research efforts. Furthermore, the workshop participants had the unique and meaningful experience of visiting several locations in Colorado that had flooded in the past, and then visiting them again in the aftermath of the devastating 2013 floods. In total, the workshop resulted in several fruitful research activities that will advance understanding of precipitation and flooding. Even more importantly, the workshop fostered the development of a network of early-career researchers and practitioners who will be “multilingual” in terms of scientific disciplines, and who are poised to lead within their respective careers and across the scientific community.

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Russ S. Schumacher and Christopher A. Davis

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This study examines widespread heavy rainfall over 5-day periods in the central and eastern United States. First, a climatology is presented that identifies events in which more than 100 mm of precipitation fell over more than 800 000 km2 in 5 days. This climatology shows that such events are most common in the cool season near the Gulf of Mexico coast and are rare in the warm season. Then, the focus turns to the years 2007 and 2008, when nine such events occurred in the United States, all of them leading to flooding. Three of these were associated with warm-season convection, three took place in the cool season, and three were caused by landfalling tropical cyclones. Global ensemble forecasts from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts Ensemble Prediction System are used to assess forecast skill and uncertainty for these nine events, and to identify the types of weather systems associated with their relative levels of skill and uncertainty. Objective verification metrics and subjective examination are used to determine how far in advance the ensemble identified the threat of widespread heavy rains. Specific conclusions depend on the rainfall threshold and the metric chosen, but, in general, predictive skill was highest for rainfall associated with tropical cyclones and lowest for the warm-season cases. In almost all cases, the ensemble provides very skillful 5-day forecasts when initialized at the beginning of the event. In some of the events—particularly the tropical cyclones and strong baroclinic cyclones—the ensemble still shows considerable skill in 96–216-h precipitation forecasts. In other cases, however, the skill drops off much more rapidly as lead time increases. In particular, forecast skill at long lead times was the lowest and spread was the largest in the two cases associated with meso-α-scale to synoptic-scale vortices that were cut off from the primary upper-level jet. In these cases, it appears that when the vortex is present in the initial conditions, the resulting precipitation forecasts are quite accurate and certain, but at longer lead times when the model is required to both develop and correctly evolve the vortex, forecast quality is low and uncertainty is large. These results motivate further investigation of the events that were poorly predicted.

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Russ S. Schumacher and Richard H. Johnson

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This study examines the radar-indicated structures and other features of extreme rain events in the United States over a 3-yr period. A rainfall event is defined as “extreme” when the 24-h precipitation total at one or more stations surpasses the 50-yr recurrence interval amount for that location. This definition yields 116 such cases from 1999 to 2001 in the area east of the Rocky Mountains, excluding Florida. Two-kilometer national composite radar reflectivity data are then used to examine the structure and evolution of each extreme rain event. Sixty-five percent of the total number of events are associated with mesoscale convective systems (MCSs). While a wide variety of organizational structures (as indicated by radar reflectivity data) are seen among the MCS cases, two patterns of organization are observed most frequently. The first type has a line, often oriented east–west, with “training” convective elements. It also has a region of adjoining stratiform rain that is displaced to the north of the line. The second type has a back-building or quasi-stationary area of convection that produces a region of stratiform rain downstream. Surface observations and composite analysis of Rapid Update Cycle Version 2 (RUC-2) model data reveal that training line/adjoining stratiform (TL/AS) systems typically form in a very moist, unstable environment on the cool side of a preexisting slow-moving surface boundary. On the other hand, back-building/quasi-stationary (BB) MCSs are more dependent on mesoscale and storm-scale processes, particularly lifting provided by storm-generated cold pools, than on preexisting synoptic boundaries.

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Samantha L. Lynch and Russ S. Schumacher

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From 1 to 3 May 2010, persistent heavy rainfall occurred in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys due to two successive quasi-stationary mesoscale convective systems (MCSs), with locations in central Tennessee accumulating more than 483 mm of rain, and the city of Nashville experiencing a historic flash flood. This study uses operational global ensemble forecasts from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) to diagnose atmospheric processes and assess forecast uncertainty in this event. Several ensemble analysis methods are used to examine the processes that led to the development and maintenance of this precipitation system. Differences between ensemble members that correctly predicted heavy precipitation and those that did not were determined, in order to pinpoint the processes that were favorable or detrimental to the system's development. Statistical analysis was used to determine how synoptic-scale flows were correlated to 5-day area-averaged precipitation. The precipitation throughout Nashville and the surrounding areas occurred ahead of an upper-level trough located over the central United States. The distribution of precipitation was found to be closely related to the strength of this trough and an associated surface cyclone. In particular, when the upper-level trough was elongated, the surface cyclone remained weaker with a narrower low-level jet from the south. This caused the plume of moisture from the Caribbean Sea to be concentrated over Tennessee and Kentucky, where, in conjunction with focused ascent, heavy rain fell. Relatively small differences in the wind and pressure fields led to important differences in the precipitation forecasts and highlighted some of the uncertainties associated with predicting this extreme rainfall event.

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Gregory R. Herman and Russ S. Schumacher

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Quantitative precipitation estimate (QPE) exceedances of numerous different heavy precipitation thresholds—including spatially varying average recurrence interval (ARI) and flash flood guidance (FFG) thresholds—are compared among each other and against reported and warned flash floods to quantify existing deficiencies with QPEs and to identify best practices for using QPE for flash flood forecasting and analysis. QPEs from three different sources—NCEP Stage IV Precipitation Analysis (ST4), Climatology Calibrated Precipitation Analysis (CCPA), and Multi-Radar Multi-Sensor (MRMS) QPE—are evaluated across the United States from January 2015 to June 2017. In addition to evaluating different QPE sources, threshold types, and magnitudes, QPE accumulation interval lengths from hourly to daily are considered. Systematic errors with QPE sources are identified, including a radar distance dependence on extreme rainfall frequency in MRMS, spurious occurrences of locally extreme precipitation in the complex terrain of the West in ST4, and insufficient QPEs for many legitimate heavy precipitation events in CCPA. Overall, flash flood warnings and reports corresponded to each other far more than any QPE exceedances. Correspondence between all sources was at a maximum in the East and worst in the West, with ST4, CCPA, and MRMS QPE exceedances locally yielding maximal correspondence in the East, Plains, and West, respectively. Surprisingly, using a fixed 2.5 in. (24 h)−1 proxy outperformed shorter accumulation exceedances and the use of ARIs and FFGs. On regional scales, different ARI exceedances achieved superior performance to the selection of any fixed threshold; FFG exceedances were consistently too rare to achieve optimal correspondence with observed flash flooding.

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Russ S. Schumacher and Richard H. Johnson

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This study examines the characteristics of a large number of extreme rain events over the eastern two-thirds of the United States. Over a 5-yr period, 184 events are identified where the 24-h precipitation total at one or more stations exceeds the 50-yr recurrence amount for that location. Over the entire region of study, these events are most common in July. In the northern United States, extreme rain events are confined almost exclusively to the warm season; in the southern part of the country, these events are distributed more evenly throughout the year. National composite radar reflectivity data are used to classify each event as a mesoscale convective system (MCS), a synoptic system, or a tropical system, and then to classify the MCS and synoptic events into subclassifications based on their organizational structures. This analysis shows that 66% of all the events and 74% of the warm-season events are associated with MCSs; nearly all of the cool-season events are caused by storms with strong synoptic forcing. Similarly, nearly all of the extreme rain events in the northern part of the country are caused by MCSs; synoptic and tropical systems play a larger role in the South and East. MCS-related events are found to most commonly begin at around 1800 local standard time (LST), produce their peak rainfall between 2100 and 2300 LST, and dissipate or move out of the affected area by 0300 LST.

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