A Comprehensive Winter Weather Forecast Checklist

 

John D. Gordon
National Weather Service Office
Springfield, Missouri

 

1. INTRODUCTION

There has been a plethora of winter weather papers (e.g., Albrecht 1979, Koontz 1986, Weber 1979) written on a wide variety of topics. It is very difficult for an operational forecaster to keep track of all of these manuscripts. The last major winter weather checklist to be published as a regional technical attachment was nearly 10 years ago (Goetsch 1987). Furthermore, there are several local techniques and "rules of thumb" that exist on winter weather that have not been widely circulated to the field. This checklist attempts to fill that void for forecasters. The purpose of this checklist is to help operational forecasters to become more proficient at predicting winter weather and to have a "winter cheat sheet" right at their fingertips.

The following material is an attempt to compile an updated and comprehensive list for forecasting various types of winter weather. In this form, the material can be utilized as a quick and easy reference guide by operational meteorologists during subjective assessment and forecasting of winter weather systems. An in-depth section is included on freezing precipitation, moderate-to-heavy snow, as well as local snow prediction techniques from across the country. References are included, for further study.

The checklist was initially developed for the staff at NWSO Springfield, MO (SGF). However, with the exception of mountainous regions, it can be utilized almost anywhere across the country. Forecasters across the central and eastern United States can use this checklist as a starting point to handle a variety of winter weather. In applying this information, caution must be exercised. No one method can be applied by itself without consideration of all other parameters. Thus, it is essential to know how and when to apply such techniques. Considerable experience and knowledge of the atmosphere, local climatology, and model information are crucial.

2. WINTER WEATHER TABLES

First, the forecaster must determine what type of precipitation is expected. Use Table I as a guide to determine whether you will have liquid or frozen precipitation. In addition, one can also use the Freezing Drizzle vs. Snow Checklist (Table II) developed by Headquarters Air Weather Service, Technology Training Division at Scott AFB, IL (1996). It will help determine whether to forecast freezing or frozen precipitation.

Table I

 

RAIN/SNOW LINES USING THICKNESS
Critical Thickness Rain/Snow Line
1000-500 mb 5400 m
1000-700 mb 2840 m
1000-850 mb 1300 m
850-700 mb 1540 m
850-500 mb 4100 m
700-500 mb 2560 m

 

Table II

 

CHECKLIST FOR FREEZING DRIZZLE VS. SNOW

 

 

***Use this checklist only for an atmosphere completely below freezing***

 

 

 A.
Is a low level moist (T-Td depression 5 degrees C) layer (below 700 mb) between 0 degrees C and -15 degrees C?
If yes, then freezing drizzle is possible.
 Y N
 B.
Is a mid-level dry layer (800-500 mb) present or forecast?
If yes, freezing drizzle or a mixture of snow and freezing drizzle is possible.
 Y N

C. 

 

Is a mid-level dry layer deeper than 5000 ft and have a dew point depression GTE 10 degrees C?
If yes, the precipitation may completely change to freezing drizzle or a prolonged period of a mixed snow and freezing drizzle is possible.

Y

 

N

 

 D.
Is mid-level moisture increasing?
If yes and freezing drizzle is occurring, the precipitation may change to all snow.
Y N
 E.
Is convection occurring or forecast?
If yes, the mid-level dry-layer may erode causing snow to fall instead of freezing drizzle.
 Y N

 

Additional information on winter precipitation type can be found in Albrecht (1979), McNulty (1988), and McNulty (1991). When certain about the precipitation type, either use Table III for forecasting freezing precipitation or Table IV for forecasting snow.

Table III

 

FORECASTING FREEZING PRECIPITATION

 

FREEZING PRECIPITATION CURRENT FCST
a. For ZR/ZL to occur exposed surfaces must be LTE 32 degrees F Y N Y N
b. Surface based depth of cold air<1200m? (LTE 0 degrees C).
If not...Frozen Precipitation is more likely

Y

N

Y

N
c. Is there a warm pocket (>0 degrees C) aloft and above the surface cold pocket?
Y N Y N
d. Is the warm pocket aloft at least 400m thick?
Y N Y N
 
The 1000-500mb thickness is:
(5340-5460m = FREEZING RAIN)
(5340-5520m = FREEZING DRIZZLE)
____________________________________________________________________________
 
The 1000-850mb thickness is:
(LTE1310m for FREEZING RAIN)

____________________________________________________________________________

The 850-700m thickness is:
(GTE 1555m for FREEZING RAIN )
____________________________________________________________________________
The more yes answers you have, the better chance for freezing precipitation. If (a) through (d) are yes and the thickness value falls within parameters listed above, call and coordinate with surrounding WSFOs immediately for the appropriate watch, advisory or warning.

Table IV

 

FORECASTING SNOW

 

SNOW CURRENT FCST
a. Is the surface temp <35 degrees F (1.7 degrees C)? Y N Y N
b. Is the freezing level <1200 ft (366m)? Y N Y N
c. Is the 850 mb temp <0 degrees C? Y N Y N
d. Is the 700 mb temp <-4 degrees C? Y N Y N
e. Is the 1000-500mb thickness <5400m? Y N Y N
f. Is the temp <0 degrees C from 1200ft to 700 mb? Y N Y N
g. Is there a moist layer (T-Td depression 5 degrees C from surface to 700mb? Y N Y N
The more yes answers you have, the better chance you have for snow. If (a) through (g) are yes or forecasted yes, forecast snow!

If the weather situation has the possibility of moderate or heavy snow, continue with Table V. This table has specific parameters and features to look for at mandatory levels from the surface all the way up to 200 mb. This information was gathered from a multitude of sources, the bulk of which came from McNulty (1991), Terry (1995), and Weber (1979). Other sources came from academicians such as Djuric (1994), Moore (1989), and Ucccellini (1990).

With winter weather lasting 3 or 4 months in most locations, forecasters tend to forget what to look for at various levels. The following information will ease that memory loss, and allow operational forecasters quick and easy reference, to better forecast major snowstorms.

Table V

 

HINTS FOR FORECASTING MODERATE TO HEAVY SNOW (S+)

 

1. Surface

  • Around 2 to 2.5 degrees latitude to the left of the track of the low (150-240 nm)
  • Approximately 5 degrees latitude ahead of the low
  • As long as low is deepening, heavy snow will still occur
  • When low fills, the heavy snow usually ends.
  • When the cold surface anticyclone is to the N or NW--typically enhanced by confluent mid level flow
  • Optimum surface temperature 27 to 32 degrees F

2. 850 mb

  • About 1.5 degrees latitude to the left of the track of the low (60 to 240 nm)
  • When cooling occurs in the rear quadrant of the low during early stages of development, heavy snow occurs
  • Heavy snows occur more frequently with lows that generally move NE
  • Heavy snows less rare with lows dropping south of east (e.g. Alberta Clipper or Manitoba Mauler, Saskatchewan Screamer)
  • -5 degrees C isotherm bisects the heavy snow
  • -2 degrees C to -8 degrees C for moderate snow
  • >5 degrees C of WAA moving into area of interest (overrunning)

3. 700 mb

  • S+ band between -6 degrees C and -8 degrees C (-7 degrees C best) temperature, and south of -10 degrees C dew point line.
  • S+ band along path and just left of low
  • Snow begins at 700 mb ridge line and ends at trough line
  • S+ band with greatest moisture at H7
  • North of the 700 mb closed contour

4. 500 mb

  • About 7 degrees latitude downstream of the vorticity max
  • Slightly left of the track of the closed low/strong vorticity max (approx 2 degrees)
  • Slightly downstream from where the curvature changes from cyclonic to anticyclonic
  • When low or trough deepens (look for significant height falls GTE 90m)
  • When the average lowest 500 mb temperature within distance of 3 degrees latitude of the vorticity max is -30 degrees C
  • S+ band between -20 degrees C and -25 degrees C (-23 degrees C best)
  • If a storm warms at 500 mb, S+ left of 500 mb low. Otherwise, S+ left of surface low track.
  • S+ begins at 500 mb ridge line. Ends at either the trough or the inflection point between trough and ridge.
  • Vicinity of a vorticity max path: varies from 60 miles left of vorticity max in open trough or shear zone, to 150 miles left of vorticity max in circulation center or closed low
  • If surface low is to right of 500 mb height fall center track, S+ will lie parallel and left of height fall track
  • If surface low is to left of 500 mb height fall center track, S+ parallel and left of either the surface low or 500 mb low track

5. 300 mb

  • S+ along left front exit region and right rear entrance region of jet max
  • S+ in area between coupled jet
  • Look for strongest Q-Vector convergence
  • Typical S+ occurs with deep or deepening long wave

6. 200 mb

  • Look for stratospheric warming on 200 mb chart, as well as on cross section and time section
  • Heavy snow occurs just to the north of 164 height line

The next step, after looking at the various levels of the atmosphere, is to forecast snow amounts. Table VI will help you come up with the accumulations. There are four methods listed: Lemo Technique, Magic Chart, Garcia's Method, and Cook Method. Each method keys in on different parameters and levels to come up with accumulations. However, each method has been used quite effectively to better forecast snowfall amounts.

The Lemo Technique was developed by a forecaster several years ago at WSFO CHI. The other three techniques are more widely known and have had numerous papers and studies written about them. The method that seems to have worked best on major snowstorms over the NWSO SGF county warning area is Garcia's Method.

Table VI

 

SNOW ACCUMULATION FORECASTING TECHNIQUES

 

A. Lemo Technique (Used by WSFO CHI)

 

 MS = (Va - 10) x 30/s  MS - total maximum snowfall in inches
   Va - absolute vorticity (interpreted from progs)
    S - estimated speed of vorticity max in knots

 

  1. Va is found by taking a straight line from the center point of the estimated area of max snowfall and extending a line perpendicular until intersecting the estimated path of 500 mb vorticity max. This point is then interpolated from your model of choice.
  2. Estimate the speed of vorticity max in knots and then plug in the values.

NOTES

  1. Clipper systems (NW-SE) reduce LEMO estimate by 25%
  2. Increase LEMO estimate for thundersnow situations
  3. Technique is only as good as model output is

B. Magic Chart (Sangster 1985 and Chaston 1989)

  1. Call up 12-hr Net Vertical Displacement (NVD in mb, AFOS graphic 7WG, over a 12hr period ending 24hrs after data time for parcels arriving at 700 mb.
  2. Overlay 12hr or 24hr 850 mb temperature prog, AFOS graphic 82T or 84T, from the NGM.
  3. Overlay the NGM MRH for 12hr or 24hr, AFOS graphic I2D or I4D.
  4. Where the greatest NVD overlays the temperature region of -3 degrees C to -5 degrees C and the MRH of GTE 70% is where the heaviest snow is likely to fall.

 

NVD 12-hr Snowfall
20 to 40 mb 2 to 4 in
40 mb 4 in
60 mb 6 in
80 mb 8 in
100 mb 10 in

 

NOTES

  1. Does not work well with very cold systems.
  2. Only as good as model data.

C. Garcia's Method (Garcia 1994)

  1. Make a cross section (XSCT) over the area of concern and pick the theta isentropic surface that intersects the 700-750 mb surface.
  2. Analyze the isentropic surface for pressure (every 50 mb) and mixing ratio (every 1 g/kg). Then select forecast hour (either 12 hour or 24 hour point)
  3. Determine the mixing ratio over the area of concern.
  4. Multiply the average wind speed by time increment (12 or 24 hours). This computed distance must be followed using the direction of the prevailing wind flow to locate the highest advected mixing ratio that could move into the area of concern.
  5. Average the mixing ratio over the area of concern with the mixing ratio that could be advected into this area. Compare this number with the table below:

 

MIXING RATIO AVERAGE
FORECAST
SNOWFALL
AMOUNTS
1-2 g/kg 2-4 inches
2-3 g/kg 4-6 inches
3-4 g/kg 6-8 inches
4-5 g/kg 8-10 inches
5-6 g/kg 10-12 inches
6-7 g/kg 12-14 inches

 

D. Cook Method (Cook 1980)

  1. 200 mb warm pocket coincides with 500 mb vorticity center (vorticity center moves toward 200 mb cold pocket, with movement parallel to line connecting 200 mb warm and cold pockets). Coldest 200 mb temperature downstream from a warm pocket is area of heavy snow in the following 24 hrs
  2. Snow Index: Average snowfall (in) for next 24hrs = to one half the maximum WAA expected at 200 mb (maximum WAA of 840 NM in 24 hrs)

There are additional beneficial winter weather products and charts to use at your disposal (Table VII). Skew-T information is critical in forecasting winter weather. The Sharp Workstation enables the forecaster to manipulate the sounding, and better predict what weather will move into your area. AFOS charts K0L, K0S, and K08 can be extremely helpful in winter. They all contain specific critical thicknesses in their plot, and are manually computed twice a day at 12Z and 00Z. Table VII is not complete, but it gives the forecaster additional winter weather information to better forecast the winter precipitation type.

Table VII

 

AFOS CHARTS/PRODUCTS

 

Use the following products and tools to help you better forecast winter weather.

  1. Look at surrounding SHARP Skew-Ts
  2. Look at the 925 mb chart for temperatures and warm air advection
  3. Analyze K0L, K0S, K08 (Issued by NWSFO TOP via AFOS, explanation of charts is given below)

K0L...LOW LEVEL THICKNESS/MEAN WIND CHART. The upper and lower left numbers are the 850 mb temp and dew point respectively. The upper right number is the 1000-850 mb thickness. Wind plot is mean wind from the surface to 5000 ft.

K0S...RAIN/SNOW THICKNESS CHART. The Upper left number is the 850-700mb thickness; the Lower left number is the 1000-850 mb thickness. On the Right side is the 1000-700 mb thickness with the wind plot being the 850 mb level.

K08...COMPOSITE STABILITY/THICKNESS CHART. The upper left number on plot is the K Index; the lower left number is the Total Totals, and the lower right number is SSI. The upper right number is the 850-500 mb thickness. Wind plot is the mean from 5000-10000 ft.

  1. Look at model thickness guidance, graphic products are listed below:

1000/500 mb AVN ETA NGM
0 hr KAK K03 K0K*
12 hr KCK K23 K2K **
24 hr KEK K43 K4K
36 hr KGK K63 K6K
48 hr KIK K83 K8K
60 hr KJK  
72 hr KTK
96 hr KVK
120 hr KXK
* K1K 06 hr fcst
**K3K 18 hr fcst

  1. Look at the NGM FOUS Guidance which has 1000-500 mb thickness in HH column. The HH is two numbers with the 4 or 5 omitted in decameters. Example 66 is 566 dm
  2. Run PCGRIDDS macros on: (See Przybklinski 1994 for more information)
  • CSI
  • Frontogenetical Forcing
  • Garcia's Method
  • Low Level Jet and Low Level WAA
  • Magic Chart
  • Moisture
  • PVA/PIVA
  • Q-Vectors
  • Stability Indices
  • Temperatures (Surface, Boundary Layer, 850 mb, 700 mb, and 500 mb)
  • Time and Cross Sections
  • Thickness Comparisons
  • Upper Level Jet (Look for entrance/exit regions of jet)
  • Vertical Velocities

3. ACKNOWLEDGMENT

I am very grateful to David Gaede, SOO at NWSO Springfield for all of his help in preparing this lengthy checklist, especially for all of his computer assistance.

4. REFERENCES

Air Weather Service, 1966: A Technique for Forecasting Freezing Drizzle. Technology Training Division, Scott AFB, IL, 32, 14pP.

Albrecht, L.F., 1979: A study of Freezing Precipitation Parameters. WR Technical Attachment 79-2., DOC/NOAA/NWS Western Region, Salt Lake City, UT, 4pp.

Chaston P.R., 1989: The Magic Chart for Forecasting Snow Amounts. Nat Wea Dig., 14, 20-22.

Cook, B.J.,1980: A Snow Index Using 200 mb Warm Advection. Nat. Wea. Dig., 5, 29-40.

Djuric, D., 1994: Weather Analysis. Prentice Hall, 304pp.

Garcia, C., Jr. 1994: Forecasting Snowfall Using Mixing ratios on an Isentropic Surface - An Empirical Study. NOAA Technical Memorandum NWS CR-105. DOC/NOAA/NWS Central Region, Kansas City, MO, 28pp.

Goetsch, E.H., 1987: Checklist of Significant Winter Weather Forecasting Techniques-A Summary of Some Long Established Methods. CR Technical Attachment 87-30. DOC/NOAA/NWS Central Region, Kansas City, MO, 5pp.

Koontz, G., 1986: Heavy Snow Forecasting Aids, CR Technical Attachment 86-26. DOC/NOAA/NWS Central Region, Kansas City, MO, 3pp.

McNulty, R.P., 1988: Winter Precipitation Type, CR Technical Attachment 88-4. DOC/NOAA/NWS Central Region, Kansas City, MO, 9pp.

____________., 1991: Heavy Snow. DOC/NOAA/NWS Training Center, Kansas City, MO, 9pp.

____________, 1991: Precipitation Type. DOC/NOAA/NWS Training Center, Kansas City, MO, 11pp.

Moore, J.T., 1989: Isentropic Analysis and Interpretation. DOC/NOAA/NWS Training Center, Kansas City, MO, 84pp.

Przybylinski, R.W. 1994: New PCGRIDDS Command Files, PCG Note 94-1 (Memorandum to WSFO St Louis Staff), 9pp.

Sangster, W.E., and E. Jagler, 1985: The (7WG,8WT) Magic Chart. CR Technical Attachment 85-1, DOC/NOAA/NWS Central Region, Kansas City, MO, 5pp.

Shea, T.J., and R.W. Przybylinski, 1995: Forecasting the Northern Extent of Significant Snowfall in a Major Winter Storm: An Operational Forecasting Problem, 14th Conference on Weather and Forecasting, AMS (Boston), 6pp.

Terry, B., 1995: Heavy Snow Forecasting at the NMC (Lab sessions A & D), Fourth NWS Winter Weather Workshop, DOC/NOAA/NWS Central Region, Kansas City, MO, 10pp.

Uccellini, L.W., and P.J. Kocin, 1990: The Interaction of Jet Streak Circulation During Heavy Snow Events Along the East Coast of the United States, Wea. Forecast., 2, 298-308.

Weber, E.M., 1979: Major Midwest Snowstorms. USAF 3WW Technical Note 79-2, Offutt AFB, NE, 95pp.

 


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