Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Carbon Fee Initiative (1631) Has Major Problems: Let's Try Something Better

This fall, voters in Washington State will consider an initiative (1631) that, if passed, would put a fee on carbon and use the funds to "reduce pollution, promote renewable energy, and address climate change impacts."  Superficially it sounds good, but underneath the hood there are very serious problems.

In this blog, I will analyze Initiative 1631, note some its major deficiencies, and suggest a far better approach (a revenue-neutral carbon tax that would improve Washington's regressive tax structure).

As I described in my previous blog, I am a strong believer in carbon taxes and was an enthusiastic supporter of the defeated Initiative 732.   Mankind is doing too little to slow carbon emissions into the atmosphere, and a well-designed carbon tax or fee can use the free market to effectively respond to the problem.  Economists of all political backgrounds acknowledge the power of taxing what you don't want (in this case emissions of carbon) in encouraging people to make different choices.  Like driving smaller cars or switching to electric vehicles.

But Initiative 1631, whose goal is to initiate a carbon fee in Washington State, is deeply flawed and poorly constructed, and I believe destined for certain and dramatic defeat.

The Essentials

Initiative 1631 would establish a carbon fee that would slowly increase over time.  Unlike Initiative 732, it would not be revenue neutral, but would use the proceeds of the fee to support climate justice, renewable energy, retraining, and other activities related to global warming impacts.  
The Problems

There are so many serious deficiencies with this initiative, one hardly knows where to begin.

1.  How the money will be spent is vague

There are really no clear guidelines on how the money will be spent.  15%  should address the "energy burden" of poor households, 10% goes to the Tribes, 35% to environmental justice, $50 million to help displaced fossil-fuel workers, and the rest to vague goals in supporting renewables and clean energy.

Decision authority on how the money will be spent will be given to a 15-member board appointed by the Governor to four-year terms, and would include one tribal representative, one representative of vulnerable populations/health action areas, and the six co-chairs of a collection of panels.   So basically a group of liberal activists, appointed by a Democratic governor will make the decisions.

There is no strategic plan, no requirements for technical knowledge, and a guarantee the spending will be highly political.  Not only is such a group practically guaranteed to spend the funds unwisely, but such a plan would certainly lose the support of moderates and Republicans. 

Most folks are not willing to spend money when they don't know what they will get.  That is the problem of I-1631.  Can you imagine if the bill had specified real, tangible benefits?   Such as supporting the rapid build out of rail from Seattle to its eastern/northern suburbs?

2.   The Initiative Would Make Washington State's Regressive Tax Structure Even Worse

Whether the money comes from a tax or "fee", the effect is the same... to make the cost of carbon fuels more expensive. Money people will have to pay out.  Unlike I-732, the proposed initiative will not return the funds to taxpayers, but use the funds for a wide range of unspecified activities that are somewhat connected to climate change in the minds of the oversight board.   

The financial impacts of I1631 are clear:  this is essentially a new tax that is not based on income.   It will substantially raise the tax burden on everyone, including low-income folks, who are just as dependent on cars and trucks as anyone.  Thus, just like the sales tax,  it will be highly regressive, with the poor paying a higher percentage than their richer neighbors.  The media has headlined our regressive tax structure in Washington State.  I-1631 will make it much worse.

3.  I-1631 is Highly Partisan

To pass in Washington State and to serve as a blueprint for action for other states, any carbon tax or fee must have bipartisan support.  A revenue-neutral carbon tax could garner support from both sides of the aisle, as was true for for I-732.  For example, ast year, major Republican figures came out in support of a national revenue-neutral carbon tax.

Unfortunately, it would be hard to design an approach more likely to turn off Republican and independent voters than I-1631.  Not only is it not revenue neutral, but the funds are hardwired in the direction of Democratic supporters (labor, the tribes, minority and low-income "climate justice" groups).   Even worse, the control of the funds is put in the hands of an oversight committee selected by a Democratic governor.

I-1631 is designed to reject the moderate and conservative electorate (e.g., nearly all of eastern Washington and Vancouver, WA) and will not be suitable to serve as an example to the nation.

4.  I-1631 Gives Too Many Exemptions and to the Wrong Groups

To garner support, I-1631 gives exemptions to many business groups.  For example, it exempts local power companies (e.g., PSE), which is a total mistake since it represents a major user of fossil fuels.  The initiative also exempts coal-burning facilities (e.g., the Centralia coal plant), that offering perverse incentives to burn more coal, one of the dirtiest fuels.  And there a dozens more exemptions that I won't list.   I-732 did not do the exemption thing, but removed the B & O taxes to help businesses.

5.  I-1631 Starts Off With Too Little Impact

This initiative begin with a fee of $15 per ton, which would increase gas prices  by about 14 cents a gallon.   Not enough to make folks alter their lifestyle or the vehicles they purchase. Everything we know about climate change tells us that a large and immediate reduction is needed.  I-1631 starts weak, particularly compared to I-732, which began at $ 25 a ton of carbon emissions.

I could go further about the problems with I-1631, but you get the point:  this is a hopelessly flawed initiative that not only won't effectively address climate change in our state and would waste huge sums of money, but it will needlessly politicize what should be a bipartisan effort.   I should note that the key supporters of I-1631, The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, the labor unions, and the Sierra Club actively opposed the revenue-neutral carbon tax (I-732).  

Why?  Clearly, because they did not gain access to the money.  With I-1691 they would.

A Revenue-Neutral Approach:  Far Superior By Any Measure

Now imagine a different approach, one in which a sufficiently large carbon tax is applied to encourage folks to reduce their carbon emissions.  An approach that would refund ALL the money back to the people so they are not taking a financial hit.  A revenue-neutral approach.

But it could be better than that, we can refund the carbon tax in a way that provides preferential relief to low-income people.  There are many ways to do this.  We might reduce the State sales tax by 1-2%, lessening the most regressive tax we have.   Or we could give everyone back the same carbon tax dividend, which would preferentially help low income folks that can't afford the carbon rich lifestyle of the wealthy.   Some funds could go into a low-income tax credit, as done in I-732.   

Our state has the most regressive tax structure in the nation.  The proper use of a carbon tax could help improve this dismal situation.

But it is even better than that.  The carbon tax could be bipartisan, bringing the State together to begin to address the threat of anthropogenic global warming.  And such a carbon tax could have legs, with the ability to spred to red and blue states around the union.

The question is not whether I-1631 will pass.    It won't.  Can you image folks taxing themselves to contribute to such a poorly designed and vague plan?  Will low-income people willingly tax themselves hundreds of dollars a year to support the vague goals of some environmental activists?  You know the answer.

The real question is what happens after I-1631 fails.  Will the environmental left that killed I-732 decide to drop their financial demands and join in a bipartisan effort to deal with carbon emissions without social engineering and giveaways to their constituencies?    We will see.  

Climate change forced by increasing greenhouse gases is too serious an issue to waste time and effort, which is exactly what 1631 will do.


Announcement:  The Northwest Weather Workshop is on April 27-28

The NW Weather Workshop is the big annual meeting for those interested in Northwest meteorology.  This year we will have a major session on the meteorology of NW wildfires and others on other aspects of our regional weather.  The gathering takes place at the NOAA facility in Seattle.  To view the agenda and to register, go to the meeting website.  The workshop is open to everyone, but registration is required.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Localized Deluge

News flash:  It is 9 AM on Sunday and it should be generally dry for the next 4-5 hours.  Immediate response necessary (e.g., go outside).    There are a few residual showers, some of which are producing rainbows (see 9AM Seattle SpaceNeedle panocam).  Note the blue skies.

Yesterday was an amazingly wet day for April, and a "highlight" of one of the wettest Aprils on record.   A number of locations (like Seattle) had their wettest April 14th on record and April is now the 4th wettest on record and WE ARE ONLY THROUGH HALF THE MONTH.

The rain distribution yesterday was interesting, with the heaviest precipitation found in a southwest-northeast band from SW Washington across Seattle and into the central Cascades. 

Here are the 24h totals ending 11 PM Saturday (only showing the locations with at least 1.5 inches).   1-5-2 inches over Seattle, but 3-5 inches over SW Washington and nearly 5 inches on the western side of the Cascades NE of Seattle.  8 inches near Mt. Rainier.

The heaviest rain was during the late afternoon and early evening when local streets started to flood.

A radar-based estimate of 48-h rainfall ending 11 PM Saturday show the band of heavy precipitation across central Puget Sound, with 2-4 inches being prevalent.  And you will also notice the rainshadow over NW Washington--those lucky folks from Sequim and Port Townsend to Bellingham.

What was going on?   A relatively narrow atmospheric river of moisture that sat over us for over 12 hours.    You can see the culprit in an infrared satellite picture at 11 AM Saturday (below).

A plot of the moisture content of the atmosphere at 11 AM yesterday shows the feature, with the orange and red colors indicating high values of total moisture in the atmosphere.  Heading right towards us.

Another very useful tool can be created by multiplying the moisture content by the wind...something called Integrated Vapor Transport (IVT).   That is what really controls how much rain we get on our mountains.  IVT at the same time (11 AM) as above  shows significant values moving off the Pacific, with an configuration matching the heavy rainfall.

The forecast for the next 24 hours?  Good news for sodden Washington, bad news for Oregon.  The accumulation from 5 AM Sunday to 5 AM Monday indicates lots of rain in Oregon and northern CA, which is excellent--they need more water down there.  Washington has enough.  More than enough. Our snowpack is above normal.  Our reservoirs are full.  Our rivers are running high.  Our soil moisture is high.

I am heading outside for a run with my dog while I have a chance.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Is this an unusually poor spring in the Pacific Northwest?

The complaints are coming in. 

I can't tell you how many people have told me that this spring is unusually bad.  My son, a Northwest native, is threatening to move to southern California because of the weather.

Green slime is spreading on my deck.

So have we really been cooler and wetter than normal?  How bad is it really?

Ok, let's check the facts.    We can start by look at the difference from normal of the average temperatures over Washington State for roughly the last month.  Most of the Washington State is green, blue, or purple--the colors indicating below normal temperatures.  The above normal temperatures at Yakima I would ignore, there is something wrong with  thesensor.  Slightly warmer than normal east of the Olympics.

  So yes, the state has been a few degrees below normal.  Looking at Seattle's temperatures for the last four weeks (red lines), compared to the normal highs and lows  (purple and cyan lines), we can see that  things weren't that unusual, with temperatures rising above and below normal. 
Yakima temperatures look pretty normal to me.
Spokane does appear to be significantly below normal for the past month.
Bottom line:  the complainers probably have a point about it being cooler than normal, something that is typical of springs during La Nina years.  But around Seattle, just a little below normal.

What about precipitation?

A much more complex story.  Here is the difference of observed precipitation from normal for approximately the last four weeks.  Wetter than normal along the western slopes of the Cascades and much of eastern Washington, but way drier than normal to the east of the Olympics and in locations just to the east of the Cascade crest.

I bet I know what is going on. During the last month we had an unusual number of days with westerly winds (from the west), which resulted in a strong rain shadow to the lee (east) of the Olympics as the air descends down towards Puget Sound.  And persistent westerly flow explains the heavier rain on the windward (west facing) side of the Cascades. 

Here is the cumulative precipitation at Sea-Tac compared to normal for the past month... the observed (purple) was a bit more than normal  (cyan).
Yakima and Spokane?  Considerably more than normal, at least percentage wise (they don't get that much there).
What you really want to know is the future, right?   Well, there is plenty of cool, showery weather through the weekend.

The next week will make ducks very, very happy.   Here is the forecast accumulated precipitation through next Thursday at 5 PM.  Large amounts (5-10 inches in the Olympics and Cascades) and  even substantial precipitation down into California.  And freezing levels will be low enough for substantial snow from BC to the Sierra Nevada. 

I think I will see if my son can get a ticket for California for me as well.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Good Example of Why Need a Weather Radar Along the Oregon Coast--AND--The Northwest Weather Workshop

The value of having a radar on the Washington coast has been so clear since it was installed in 2011, that the lack of radar coverage over a large portion of the Oregon Coast and western Oregon is even more obvious.  And today provides a great example of the problem.

This morning at 11 AM, the infrared satellite imagery showed a front approaching the Northwest coast.   But where was it raining?

The UW WRF model forecast for precipitation for the 3-h precipitation total ending 11 AM predicted a continuous band of rain along the coast.  But was that right?

Well, to tell that you either need a LOT of rain gauges or good weather radar coverage.  The National Weather Service radar locations and coverage at 10,000 ft above ground level  is shown below.  This is optimistic and coverage can be much worse below 10,000 ft where there is blockage by terrain.  

In any case, Oregon is a radar coverage disaster, with poor coverage over the central and southern coastal zone and little coverage over much of eastern Oregon.

Here is the actual weather radar imagery at 11 AM from all available National Weather Service radars.  No precipitation over 2/3rds of the Oregon coast and offshore.   It was raining there, but it was invisible to the Portland and northern CA radars.  They desperately need a radar on the central Oregon coaast.

This problem doesn't seem to being considered seriously by the National Weather Service.   As we learned in Washington State, the National Weather Service will not address such problems without intense pressure from local citizens and their congressional representatives.  Here in Washington State, Senator Cantwell, with the help of Senator Murray, did a lot of the heavy lifting in DC.

The Northwest Weather Workshop

     People ask me all the time about whether there are any local meetings for those who enjoy learning mre about Northwest weather.  The answer is a big yes!  The Northwest Weather Workshop held in Seattle each spring.   

This year, the meeting will take place at the NOAA Sand Point facility in Seattle on April 27-28th. 

Two sessions will deal with the meteorology of Northwest wildfires and on Friday we will also have session on the results of the OLYMPEX field program (studied precipitation processes over that mountain barrier).  Other sessions will deal with the latest on NW weather modeling, communication of the risk for extreme events, reviews of major weather events of the past year, studies on NW climate, and much more.  The banquet on Friday night will include an excellent speaker, Professor Dan Jaffe of UW Bothell, who will describe some of the air quality impacts of wildfires.

To see the agenda, go to the official website and registration portal :

This meeting is open to everyone, and I suspect that even complete layfolk will get a lot out of 90% of the talks.  But keep in mind that  YOU MUST REGISTER IN ADVANCE TO ATTEND THE EVENT, which you can do at the above link.  There is a modest registration fee that includes snacks and lunch on Saturday.  If someone can't afford the registration fee, we can work something out.

Anyway, it should be a great meeting and everyone is invited, but NOAA security prevents anyone who has not registered from gaining entry.

Monday, April 9, 2018

West Coast Precipitation Trends

There is so much talk about heavy precipitation and drought along the U.S. West Coast these days, as well as claims about long-term trends, that I thought it would be useful to look at the actual data.

In the figures below, I show the winter precipitation (November through March) for the states of Washington, Oregon, and California for 1918 to 2018 using the NOAA Climate Division data available from the NOAA ESRL website.  The West Coast has a Mediterranean climate,  which means the year is divided into wet and dry seasons, and November through March includes the overwhelming majority of precipitation everywhere along the coast.

First, California.   Quite a bit of up and down, with 1977 being the lowest (about 7 inches) and 1982 the highest (about 33 inches).  Little overall trend.   With an average of only 20 inches during the winter season, lots of variability, a huge population, and an enormous agricultural establishment based on irrigation, you can see why California has invested in a  massive multi-year reservoir capacity.

Oregon also shows little long-term trend in precipitation, with 1977 (a year of a huge persistent ridge) being the driest of the last century.  Mean precipitation is higher than California (about 27 inches compared to California's 20 inches), the population in much less, and there is far less irrigated agriculture.  Thus, they can get away with less reservoir capacity than California.

And then there is Washington State.   Winter average precipitation is about 42 inches and the lowest it has fallen to is about 22 inches, far above the minima of California and Oregon.  Plenty of variability year to year.  There appears to be a slight upward trend in winter precipitation over the past century.

 So what should you conclude from all this?   

(1)  With all the talk of droughts and floods in the media, there is really very little long-term trend in winter precipitation over the U.S. West Coast.

(2)  The West Coast has a lot of year-to-year variability, so having dry and wet years is not unusual.

Why so much winter variability in precipitation along the West Coast?

Several reasons.  The West Coast is greatly influenced by atmospheric rivers, which bring periods of very heavy precipitation.  These features are intermittent and just getting one or two more or less can make a huge difference in seasonal precipitation.

Another reason is El Nino and La Nina.  The oscillation between them, a mode of natural variability, can produce wet and dry years in various portions of the coast. 

The bottom line:  West Coast precipitation is characterized by wet and dry years, precipitation increases northward, and little overall trend has occurred over the past century.  Not sexy, but the truth, nevertheless.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

A Record-Breaking Atmospheric River Hits California and Strong Marine Cyclone Offshore of Washington

A lot to talk about.   It is pouring outside as I write this....really coming down

The forecasts of an extreme atmospheric river hitting California proved highly accurate.   To start, here is a water vapor satellite image (the satellite sensor observes a wavelength for which water vapor is a very good absorber and emitter) for 5 AM this morning.

You can see the very long plume of moisture stretching from Hawaii to the central WA coast.   A very large cyclone (the swirl) is directly west of Washington State (more on that later!)

The moisture content of this atmospheric river is extraordinarily unusual, unprecedented in many ways.  To prove this to you, here is the climatology of precipitable water (PW) at Oakland, California and the value of PW  observed this morning from the twice-daily radiosonde weather balloon ascent.  Precipitable water is the sum of the water vapor in a vertical column of air.

The value (1.69 inches) blows away the daily record (the thin red line).  It is higher than any day from late September through early July.  This is huge. 

The highest value observed at this location during the wet season of the year.

And note that this is the time of the year when atmospheric moisture at Oakland is generally lowest.

With such large values of moisture heading into California, rainfall totals have been large.  As shown below (click to enlarge), a number of locations over the western sides of the coastal mountains and the Sierra Nevada have received 4-6 inches of rain over the past 48 hours--several more than 6 inches.  They would have gotten much, much more if the incoming winds had been stronger.

Some rivers in the region are already at flood stage (red circles in plot below) and CA reservoir operators are releasing substantial amounts of water to ensure to safety of their dams, especially the heavily damaged Oroville Dam.

And the rain is not over for California. ANOTHER system is expected next week, with substantial rains from northern CA into the Northwest (see 72h total ending 5 AM next Saturday).

Here in the Northwest, heavy rain is falling over Washington State as a frontal band associated with a very strong Pacific cyclone moves through (see infrared satellite image at 7 AM this--Saturday--morning).   Beautiful, large storm with the clouds swirling into the low center.

The 3-h forecast for this time suggests we are dealing with a 972 hPa low center, with an intense pressure gradient (change of pressure with distance) around the storm.  That means strong winds.

 In fact, the forecast wind gusts  for 11 AM predict 60-65 kt gusts reaching the Oregon and Washington coasts.

The maximum gusts for the 24-h ending 7 AM show strong winds already, with some favored locations in the coastal mountains getting to 70 mph, with 40-50 mph gusts at some places along the coast (click to expand map).

The low is going to slowly drift our way as it fills (decreases in strength) as shown by the forecast map at 5 AM tomorrow morning.

By 2 PM today, winds will be really cranking along the Washington coast and over NW Washington (e.g., San Juans), as shown by the forecast winds at that time.  50 kt gusts will be common in those areas.  That means some power outages.

Winds over Puget Sound should increase today as the low approaches, perhaps to 30-40 mph, later today and Sunday morning.  Not enough for major impacts.  And showers will continue until mid-day Sunday for most folks on the western sides of the Cascades.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

One of the Greatest West Coast Atmospheric Rivers on Record

The more I look at the strong atmospheric river that will strike California tomorrow, the more amazing it becomes.   In some, but not all, respects it is one of the more extreme atmospheric rivers on record.

Today's water vapor satellite imagery shows a huge plume of moisture stretching from the tropics towards California (see below)

And the values of vertically integrated water vapor (total water vapor in a vertical column of air) forecast for tomorrow (Friday) at 2 PM are immense, with the blue colors indicating values of 40 mm (1.6 inches) or more.  That means if one condensed out all the moisture in a vertical column, 1.6 inches of rain would result.  That is a very large amount.

This intense plume of water vapor will slowly move down the California coast, reaching southern CA on Saturday morning (below is the forecast map for 8 AM Saturday).

The latest forecasts promise major rain (and considering the warmth of this atmospheric river, that is what it will be, even over high terrain).  For the 72-h ending 5 AM Sunday, the total amounts reach 5-10 inches over the coastal mountains and Sierra Nevada of central and northern CA--and we also do "well" in the precipitation arena.

But for me, the most extraordinary part of this event is how unusual it will be, so let me demonstrate that to you.  Here is a plot of the forecast integrated water amount (also known as Total Precipitable Water) for San Francisco from the National Weather Service ensemble system (many forecasts using the GFS model).  The amounts get to 1.65 inches tomorrow and Saturday--and this is a confident forecast (all the ensemble members are going for it).  The black line is the ensemble average...a very good forecast to use.

We can get a feel for how unusual this is by looking at the climatology of these precipitable water values using the nearby radiosonde (balloon-launched weather observations) at Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco (see below).  The averages for each day of the year are shown in black and the daily records are indicated by the upper red lines that gyrate up and down.  The forecast value for tomorrow is shown by the black dashed line.

This is amazing: the forecast value tomorrow is higher than ANY DAY for the entire record at Oakland (about 70 years) from the period October 1 through July 1.  So tomorrow will not only beat the daily record, but the record for ANY day during the wet season of year in California.

There have been some higher values during the summer, but that reflects more moisture in the warmer summer atmosphere...moisture that doesn't result in heavy precipitation, mainly because the incoming flow is weak that time of the year.  To prove this to you, here are the extreme precipitation events at Yosemite National Park for each day of the year.  Extreme precipitation is wimpy during the dry summer.

 So to repeat...this is probably the strongest atmospheric river, in terms of water vapor content, to have ever hit central California when it really counted (during the non-summer portion of the year).    Just extraordinary.

But as strong as this atmospheric river is in terms of moisture content, it will not be the wettest on record (in terms of accumulated precipitation).  Why?  Because the incoming flow has been much stronger in some past events.   And what really counts in terms of producing precipitation on the California mountains is both moisture content AND the rate at which air is forced to rise on the terrain.  Stronger incoming winds promote more rising, upward motion, and thus precipitation.

What about the strong oceanic cyclone approaching the Northwest on Saturday?

  It is still coming.

Here is the latest sea level pressure forecast for 2 PM Saturday.  A 980 hPa low off our coast with a very large pressure gradient south of it.  Very strong winds offshore and along the WA and Oregon coastlines.

The low will slowly drift northwest of Seattle and the latest UW wind gust forecasts over Seattle for 5 PM Saturday shows 50-60 mph gusts over portions of Seattle, with 40 mph+ gusts over much of the city.  That will produce some power outages, with some mitigation by the fact that we are at the end of the winter, with a number of storms already clearing the weak stuff.  And the trees are not leafed out yet.

Anyway, the entire West Coast will be in for very active weather the next 72 hour.
Announcement:  The Northwest Weather Workshop is on April 27-28

The NW Weather Workshop is the big annual meeting for those interested in Northwest meteorology.  This year we will have a major session on the meteorology of NW wildfires and others on other aspects of our regional weather.  The gathering takes place at the NOAA facility in Seattle.  To view the agenda and to register, go to the meeting website.  The workshop is open to everyone, but registration is required.