The extreme weather event that occurred in the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains in 2020, leading to devastating wildfires and record-breaking cold, has been the subject of new research conducted by Portland State University. This research aims to shed light on the meteorology behind the event and its impacts. The study, published in the journal Weather and Climate Extremes, delves into the amplified weather patterns that caused opposing extremes in these regions, as explained by Emma Russell, a master’s student in geography and lead author of the study.

Meteorological Causes

According to the research, a high-pressure ridge was responsible for the unusually warm temperatures that preceded the extreme weather event. This ridge, coupled with a highly amplified wave pattern, resulted in strong easterly winds over western Oregon. The event was fueled by warm temperatures and dry winds, leading to several large wildfires that forced the evacuation of thousands of people, destroyed homes and businesses, and tragically claimed lives. The study highlighted the role of dry air originating from western Canada at high altitudes in exacerbating the fire danger.

The same weather system that brought wildfires to the Pacific Northwest also brought record-setting cold temperatures to parts of the Rocky Mountains, Southwest, and Great Plains. The study explains how the positioning of the jet stream determined whether warmer or colder air surged into different regions. This event was described as a confluence of record-breaking intense patterns, emphasizing the complexity of such extreme weather phenomena.

While it is uncertain whether events like these will become more common, one thing is evident – the overall trend is towards warming temperatures. The study’s co-authors, including experts from Emory University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, noted that if similar events occur in the future, the warmer side is likely to be even warmer, while the colder side may be less cold. The implications of these changing temperature dynamics on future extreme weather events remain a critical area of research.

The extreme weather event in the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains in 2020 served as a stark reminder of the unpredictable nature of weather patterns and their far-reaching impacts. The research conducted by Portland State University provides valuable insights into the meteorological factors behind such events and underscores the importance of continued study in this field. As we navigate a changing climate, understanding the dynamics of extreme weather events becomes increasingly crucial for preparedness and response measures.


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