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Weather and Climate Extremes

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Climate -- Research, Weather -- Monitoring, Weather -- Research -- Pacific Northwest


In September 2020, Western North America was impacted by a highly anomalous meteorological event. Over the Pacific Northwest, strong and dry easterly winds exceeded historically observed values for the time of year and contributed to the rapid spread of several large wildfires. Nine lives were lost and over 5000 homes and businesses were destroyed in Oregon. The smoke from the fires enveloped the region for nearly two weeks after the event. Concurrently, the same weather system brought record-breaking cold, dramatic 24-h temperature falls, and early-season snowfall to parts of the Rocky Mountains. Here we use synoptic analysis and air parcel backward trajectories to build a process-based understanding of this extreme event and to put it in a climatological context. The primary atmospheric driver was the rapid development of a highly amplified 500 hPa tropospheric wave pattern that persisted for several days. A record-breaking ridge of high pressure characterized the western side of the wave pattern with a record-breaking trough of low pressure to the east. A notable anticyclonic Rossby wave breaking event occurred as the wave train amplified. Air parcel backward trajectories show that dry air over the Pacific Northwest, which exacerbated the fire danger, originated in the mid-troposphere and descended through subsidence to the surface. At the same time, dramatic temperature falls were recorded along the east side of the Rocky Mountains, driven by strong transport of high-latitude air near the surface.


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