Archives For soil moisture

synoptic chart for heat spike

synoptic chart for heat spike

In the event: July 1st 2015 Heathrow Airport recorded highest ever July Tmax at 36.7C. More here

Reigate and the southern half of Britain could see some very high temperatures from mid-week next week.  Technically this will probably struggle to become a “heatwave” because it looks like too brief a hot spell, ending by or through the weekend, to exceed the 5 day threshold for an official designation (see below). Nevertheless, a significant HEAT SPIKE is certainly on the cards.

Some very high, possibly record breaking upper air temperatures are due to arrive aloft (forecast 23C 850hPa temperatures for South are quite unheard of in recent years) and, if it’s not too cloudy, 2m surface temperatures could soar to over 30C and possibly even nudge up to 35C.

This is not a forecast, and models will ebb and flow with the event intensity up to the wire, but it’s a review of some factors that will play a part in this heat spike episode.  The synoptic set-up, on charts below and top, shows a blocking HIGH developing over Scandinavia (an omega block) and a trough in the Atlantic with a heat LOW over Iberia. This set-up brings the well known “Spanish Plume”.  Typically this involves a warm, dry upper air flow from the South, drawn up by a perky northward limb of the jetstream and accompanied by an easterly or SE surface flow.  The combination is associated with heat and thunderstorms, though not necessarily extremes of either.

Whilst the Scandinavian Omega Block persists, the easterly continental wind and drier conditions should prevail over the UK but we are close to the edge of the anticyclone and in the line of fire from Atlantic fronts nibbling at the edges and thermal LOWS from Spain running north under the jetstream. The interaction of the advancing cool Atlantic air with the warm upper flow and the increasing surface heat can crank up convective instability as the plume migrates north across France to the UK.  The CAPE and skew-t charts below show the possibility of (elevated) thunderstorms by mid week.  Interestingly at times there is a strong cap near the surface, but great instability aloft, so storms likely to be elevated AcCast (altocumulus castellanus) with potentially strong lightning shows but maybe little rain getting to the surface, at least at first / Wednesday. CAPE is through the roof on some runs but too dry at lower levels and too strongly capped to yield widespread storms as shown below on the skew-t chart.


upper level instability for potential elevated thunderstorms

Later in the week cool Atlantic air from the west is likely to interact with the plume, descending behind cold fronts and this process can cause CAPE values to increase bringing the chance of more organised thunderstorms that usually herald an imminent invasion of a cooler westerly regime.  Cool tropical maritime air behind fronts typically descends and causes increased lift as it runs into the unstable plume. Recent runs show the GFS wants to hang on to the heat longer while the ECMWF brings back westerlies more promptly by the weekend.  (update: now reversed!) This is not, therefore, likely to be a completely dry hot episode, because thunderstorms threaten especially after any really hot days.

The cross section below shows the flow of upper air clearly swinging round from a southerly direction.  Note the surface flow from the SE.  This combination, brief though it is, raises the risk of unstable conditions and thunderstorms indicated by the raised lifted index (LI) and Total Totals at the foot of the chart.  The average weekly 2m temperature anomaly charts below show how brief the heat might be… the second 5 day average returns back to normal.

Despite the likely short duration, it could be a notable period due to other factors playing a part.  Important ingredients that can be thrown into the mix of heat and thunderstorm potential are sea surface temperatures and soil moisture content. Despite a cool Atlantic, the seas immediately surrounding southern Britain are currently anomalously warm and ripe for transport of heat and thunderstorms across the Channel.

Similarly, dry soil enhances potential heat build up by reducing evaporative cooling and possibly kicking up temperatures higher as less heat is “used up” evaporating soil moisture.  Also, dry soil can enhance instability due to the rapid surface heat build increasing lapse rates.  I’m not quite sure how models handle these factors when producing their 2m temperature forecasts.

Locally, it’s worth noting the frequency of summer days exceeding 30C in Reigate, Surrey. Since 2009 only 29 days have reached or exceeded 30C and only 2 of these have been in June, most in July.  Also note the increase in hots days recently, though of course this is not a big enough sample to be significant.


It’s still too early to be precise about when and how hot and how thundery it might get next week but the ingredients are at least in place for some very interesting weather!.  Further ahead this looks like a brief heat spike as westerlies resume promptly.  However, the overall pattern seems to favour a blocking HIGH over Europe which could continue to feed the UK with warm Southerly or at least SSW winds for a while.  A cool Atlantic also favours higher pressure so this ought to reduce the chances of very wet conditions, especially here in the South East. Phase 6 of the MJO is also correlated with blocking HIGH patterns over Europe.  So July ought to continue warm, dry and occasionally sultry but with possible thundery episodes.

Media references: (twaddle)

Soil moisture: possibly the most under-rated meteorological measurement!  Rarely do weathermen get animated about the extent of wet sod across the country.  Nevertheless, soil moisture, usually measured in centimetres of water in the top two metres of soil or as % saturation (see maps below), has been found to control continental scale weather patterns, summer maximum temperatures and even heat waves and the extent of droughts.  So we ignore soil moisture at our peril, especially as soil moisture also controls vegetation growth and death and the ability of farmers to grow food.

How wet the soil obviously relates to how much it has rained recently.  During winter, in mid-latitudes, soils usually become increasingly saturated with a surplus of water building up as inputs of precipitation exceed evaporation which is reduced in the cooler months and shorter days.  During the summer, soils tend to become increasingly depleted of their moisture content as evaporation (output) exceeds precipitation (input).  This input and output of moisture forms an annual balance known as a soil moisture budget and is shown in the graph below.


High rainfall during the winter builds up a lot of water in the soil.  In the spring time a high soil water content “uses up” more energy from the sun in the process of evaporation.  The more energy “used up” in evaporation, the more energy is lost from the system to produce sensible warming at the surface. Hidden energy, or latent heat, is required to change liquid water into water vapour.  So “latent cooling” reduces the amount of energy available to warm the atmosphere as long wave radiation.  So local temperatures can be depressed over areas of wet soil especially during a spring when wetter-than-usual soils might take a long time to dry out.  It might also be expected that, after a wet winter, there could be a cooler period until such time that the soil dries out locally and more energy becomes available to produce a sensible heat flux at the surface.

In fact, the effects of soil moisture go far beyond these micro-climatic changes and can have impacts that are continental in scale.  In a 2007 study (see below) it was found that 25% extra soil moisture could reduce continental Europe-wide temperatures by up to 2c from average summer maximums. Likewise, a 25% reduction in soil moisture could raise temperatures across continental Europe by 2c in the study period.  It was also discovered that higher winter and spring soil moisture could raise summer precipitation levels and change continent-wide pressure patterns.

The study from 2007 used reanalysis of computer weather models to investigate the impact of soil moisture on the European 2003 heat wave, the warmest for 500 years.  This heat wave killed over 20,000 people and caused crop damage.  The study found that by re-running computer models just with different soil moisture values, the maximum temperatures and heat wave intensity varied greatly.  Dry soils during the spring increased summer heat wave intensities while wet soils reduced the maximum temperatures.  The difference was significant, and in some localized regions the intensity of heat anomalies varied by 40% simply due to different soil moisture content at the outset of the model runs.  The largest differences were mainly located over central Europe.  It seems that differences in soil moisture have most impact across central continental Europe and progressively less impact on summer temps with increased distance further north.

Not only did soil moisture control temperatures, it also had a control over continental pressure patterns.  Dry soils built pressure through the middle troposphere, while wet soils could lower pressure.  This has numerous positive feedbacks: wetter soils reduce pressure which increases cloud formation and summer rainfall that enhance the wet soils.  Dry soils build pressure, reducing cloud formation, reducing summer rainfall, further drying out soils.


So, in summary:

  • If the soil-moisture deficit is high, the dry soils raise the sensible heat flux, producing a deeper, warmer, drier low-level atmosphere: raising temperatures and enhancing surface heating and drying.  Increased drought risk.
  • If soil moisture is high, the latent heat flux by evaporation and transpiration dominates, enhancing cloud formation and a tendency for cooling.  lower temperatures and enhancing rainfall and further wetting of the soil.  Increased wet summer.



The full article is here: Fischer_heat_waves_2007 (1)