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Matthew E. Jeglum, W. James Steenburgh, Tiros P. Lee, and Lance F. Bosart

Abstract

The topography in and around the Intermountain West strongly affects the genesis, migration, and lysis of extratropical cyclones. Here intermountain (i.e., Nevada or Great Basin) cyclone (IC) activity and evolution are examined using the ECMWF Re-Analysis Interim (ERA-Interim) the North American Regional Reanalysis (NARR), and the NCEP–NCAR reanalysis from 1989 to 2008, the period during which all three are available. The ICs are defined and tracked objectively as 850-hPa geopotential height depressions of ≥40 m that persist for ≥12 h.

The monthly distribution of IC center and genesis frequency in all three reanalyses is bimodal with spring (absolute) and fall (secondary) maxima. Although the results are sensitive to differences in resolution, topographic representation, and reanalysis methodology, both the ERA-Interim and NARR produce frequent IC centers and genesis in the Great Basin cyclone region, which extends from the southern “high” Sierra to northwest Utah, and the Canyonlands cyclone region, which lies over the upper Colorado River basin of southeast Utah. The NCEP–NCAR reanalysis fails to resolve these two distinct cyclone regions and produces less frequent IC centers and genesis than the ERA-Interim and NARR.

An ERA-Interim-based composite of strong ICs generated in cross-Sierra (210°–300°) 500-hPa flow shows that cyclogenesis is preceded by the development of the Great Basin confluence zone (GBCZ), a regional airstream boundary that extends downstream from the Sierra Nevada across the Intermountain West. Cyclogenesis occurs along the GBCZ as large-scale ascent develops over the Intermountain West in advance of an approaching upper-level trough. Flow splitting around the high Sierra and the presence of low-level baroclinicity along the GBCZ suggest that IC evolution may be better conceptualized from a potential vorticity perspective than from traditional quasigeostrophic models of lee cyclogenesis. Although these results provide new insights into IC activity and evolution, analysis uncertainty and the cyclone identification criteria are important sources of ambiguity that cannot be fully eliminated.

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