January and February 2016 Backpacking Sky Tracking: When Will the Sierra Open?

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 09 January 2016

Start the Heart of Winter
 Below we are tracking specific observations, forecasts, and weather events affecting the trajectory of the Spring Snowpack along this year's specific, unique evolution to open, Summer-condition status for Summertime backpacking.

See the Backpacking Tracking Introduction, for an assessment of the  general background of our current weather-climate situation and to identify the specific forces influencing the development of weather conditons with the advent of the new year. You will find links there to our best tools and resources for tracking Winter weather and snowfall realities and trends.

This page page below is the first in a series of ongoing reports. They will overlap somewhat with the topics of the Weather Trends and Backpacker News pages. The difference is that this page applies the same spectrum of information to the  specific purpose of understanding when the highest trails will become passable for Summertime Backpackers.

 Begun Jan 9, 2016. 


 Updated Feb 26 2016 

Great persistent ridges of high pressure air have formed over the West Coast of the US and East Pacific over the duration of Winter approaching Spring. The vast majority of the early-season El Nino moisture we've seen has been transported around the Sierra by this high pressure mechanism.
 Feb brought almost no rain, Summer-like temps, and a general Spring-Bloom during the depths of Winter. These are not good signs. More weirdness in weird times does not one cancel the other out.

Stranger in a Strange Land
 Highs building through Feb have brought freakish Summer conditions which have rekindled drought fears in the middle of Feb during the biggest, most sustained El Nino in human history. Our drought has not been broken, despite the size, length, and strength of this El Nino. The El Nino is literally down, but certainly not out.

El Nino Status
  At this very moment, 17:04:11 GMT 2-26-16,  a vast and powerful flow of tropical moisture alive with storm activity is centered about ten degrees South of the Equator and one-fifty East of zero, pouring out of the heart of El Nino. This is a classic vast flow of El Nino tropical moisture.
 This vast flow is pointed Southeast across the South Pacific towards Tierra Del Fuego. It is surging out of the heart of El Nino, which has been relatively quiet for us in the Northern Hemisphere, as the equatorial belt of hot water reaches its furthest Southern limit. That is due to change in about three weeks. El Nino is coming back.

It looks like I've detected the first actual Northward movement of the equatorial belt of warm water wrapping around the planet. Specifically, the belt of warm water now located a bit South of the Equator in the Pacific has begun to move North with the rising Arc of the Sun on Feb 17.

Storm activity in "the belt" has also intensified, producing the great flow of Southbound tropical moisture mentioned above. More importantly for us is that the Northwestern edge of the Central Pacific El Nino-hot water/storm activity has been throwing plumes of moisture and warm water to the North of Indonesia.

As this vast belt of equatorial warm water holding El Nino moves North I believe the strong Pacific Highs we have been seeing transport moisture around us here will also provide help moving super-heated El Nino atmosphere and water to the North of Indonesia. That position North of Indonesia is ideal for potentially transporting vast flows of El Nino moisture towards the High Sierra.

When and Where
 I suspect the Northward movement of the equatorial hot water belt and its flow to the North-Northwest of Indonesia will take 3 week to fall into place, if it does fall into place, putting the tentative beginning of potential tropical flows towards the West Coast of the US somewhere around March 18.

Again, the distribution of El Nino moisture and Winter precip for the last 8 years on the West Coast of the US has been controlled by the presence or absence of these freakish persistent High Pressure Zones.
 The vast majority of any potential El Nino tropical flows could easily be transported around California and the Sierra Nevada by these Persistent Highs, as they have done during all or part of almost every one of the last eight Winters...

Big Wheels are Spinning
  Nonetheless, these are the factors bringing together the potentials for a profound or a poor Winter, and they are all lining up right now, and beginning to gradually move into position. The equatorial belt of hot water containing the super-hot El Nino is moving North. Exactly how these factors configure themselves will determine exactly how this plays out.

Thus we observe the present carefully  to understand the future.

Until these factors fall into place and change the standing conditions, I expect warmer and more humid conditions than normal for a latitude 38 Winter to persist as we continue to experience a weak "tropical" Winter, and these persistent high pressure zone to continue to deflect the weak lows and fronts that so far define this Winter, around the Sierra.
  I expect these weak fronts and lows to get progressively "charged-up" as super-heated El Nino waters continue to move North, and the front lines dragging Southward off our weak North Pacific Lows begin to draw vast tropical flows up into these lows.

That's when things will get interesting. When super-heated El Nino storms move to the North of Indonesia all the pieces will be in place for the transportation of great flows of moisture across the Central Pacific.

The only thing between them and us will be the presence or absence of vast ridges of high pressure along the California Coast.

Like to gamble? Well, being human we apparently can't help ourselves with the weather...

Feeling Lucky?

Keep putting your chips on, "Endless Growth."

I dare you.

Feb 18

Heat Wave
Snowpack dips below average as dry spell hits Nor Cal,
KPCC, 2-16-16.

The first two weeks of Feb 2016 featured record temps and no rain under a series of vast High Pressure Zones. Weak front finally broke through with some precip 2-17.

See the 2016 Backpacking Calendar.


Jan 12 , 2016.

NASA looks at storms hitting California,
 1-8-16, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center.

More Freak Weather
 For the past few days prior to Jan 7 we've been watching a huge unseasonable freak Central Pacific storm. I thought this activity was so significant I changed my image linking to the global IR  to highligh this amazing, weird, out-of-season storm.

It is still boiling alway on Jan 12 !

Unusual Tropical Storm Pali still thriving far from Hawaii,
1-11-16, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center.

The atmospheric moisture moving downstream out of this storm from the underlaying EL Nino energy fueling it is forking North and South (from around 120 degrees W Lat) as this vast flow of tropical moisture moves East.
The Southern flow has been flooding South America, the Northern fork is hitting England and West Europe right now, but just finished filling up the center of the US with floodwater.

Pretty remarkable.

NASA sees out-of-season Central Pacific tropical depression form,
 1-7-16, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center.

This baby is spewing a vast amount of tropical moisture East, and whoever it squares-up on is going to be swimming. So far it's been S. America and England, with the Miss. watershed getting full-up once. All of these global events are completely out of season, and most beyond the scope of human experience, too...

Tracking the Pali the Freak,
1-8-16, NASA.

At this time the mechanism driving vast flows of tropical moisture out of superheated central-West Pacific waters, and from freak storms like Pali to the East has begun in earnest.

Pali's position assures most its vast tropical moisture passes South of California and the High Sierra. The tropical flows of moisture generated by these fierce storms will move into the global air currents pointed directly at California If and when storm locations shifts from the Central Pacific to the North of Indonesia, and stays there for any period of time.

The Transport Mechanism
   These vast flows of tropical moisture have been and are flowing North and North-Northeast along thousand-mile long front lines anchored in the tropics who's North ends are following weak-to-medium strength low pressure zones in the North Pacific.

These weak low-pressure vortexes dragging long "tropical tails" behind them are currently meandering around the North Pacific, as of this writing on Jan 9. Our best tool to observe these activities is the 14 Day Pacific Surface Map.

An East Pacific-Western US High Pressure Zone has set up and maintained itself fairly persistantly through Fall into Winter. This high is continuing to deflect most tropical moisture pointed our way around the High Sierra.
The Sierra would be seriously buried in snow right now  if that high pressure zone was not as persistant. The Sierra will get buried in snow if the high weakens further or breaks down, even for short periods of time.

IN the meantime, the High Sierra is taking a fairly constant flow of light to moderate snow accumulation even with the "protection" of the high pressure, with expectations for much more snow to come in either case.


This Winter will be the best Winter backpacking and Winter sports year in the Sierra for a long time.
Wintertime backpackers are seeing brief windows of ideal conditions between weak storms.




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