Synoptic Discussion - August 2015

Note: This Synoptic Discussion describes recent weather events and climate anomalies in relation to the phenomena that cause the weather. These phenomena include the jet stream, fronts and low pressure systems that bring precipitation, high pressure systems that bring dry weather, and the mechanisms which control these features — such as El Niño, La Niña, and other oceanic and atmospheric drivers (PNA, NAO, AO, and others). The report may contain more technical language than other components of the State of the Climate series.

NCEI added Alaska climate divisions to its nClimDiv dataset on Friday, March 6, 2015, coincident with the release of the February 2015 monthly monitoring report. For more information on this data, please visit the Alaska Climate Divisions FAQ.


August 2015 was characterized by an active upper-level circulation pattern over the contiguous United States (CONUS), with several troughs and ridges moving in the jet stream flow. El Niño-enhanced convection triggered tropical cyclones over the eastern equatorial Pacific, but the circulation pattern prevented much of this moisture from entering the Southwest. Several tropical systems developed in the Atlantic, but El Niño-enhanced shear inhibited their progress as they approached the Caribbean. Fronts and weather systems moving in the jet stream flow brought areas of above-normal precipitation to parts of the CONUS, along with below-normal temperatures east of the Rockies, but most areas in the CONUS were drier than normal. Warmer- and generally drier-than-normal weather dominated much of the West, where numerous large wildfires became widespread. High pressure ridging, which inhibited the development of rain-producing systems, also inhibited the occurrence of severe weather, with a smaller-than-average number of tornadoes reported. As a result, drought expanded or intensified across the CONUS and in Puerto Rico, but contracted slightly in Alaska and Hawaii where precipitation was above normal. Nationwide, the month was drier and warmer than normal. The upper-level circulation, temperature, and precipitation anomaly patterns suggest that the weather and climate of August 2015 were the result of influences from multiple atmospheric drivers originating over the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, with the El Niño playing an important role. See below for details.

Synoptic Discussion

Animation of daily upper-level circulation for the month
Animation of daily upper-level circulation for the month.
Animation of daily surface fronts and pressure systems for the month
Animation of daily surface fronts and pressure systems for the month.

In the Northern Hemisphere, August is near the end of climatological summer, which is the time of year when solar heating forces the jet stream and circumpolar vortex to contract poleward. Polar air masses can still influence the weather, but they are not as cold as in cold-season months. The warm, dry subtropical high pressure belt normally dominates the weather as it shifts northward, with warm southerly air masses moving into the contiguous United States (CONUS) more frequently.

During August 2015, the North Pacific and North Atlantic subtropical high pressure centers extended across the southern half of the CONUS, but their influence was tempered by an active upper-level circulation. Several short-wave troughs and ridges migrated through the jet stream flow on a daily basis, while long-wave troughs and ridges also migrated through at a longer, roughly weekly, time scale. Warmer-than-normal air masses accompanied the upper-level ridges, while cold fronts and low pressure systems were dragged along at the surface by the upper-level troughs, bringing areas of precipitation and cooler-than-normal air. This competition between the North Atlantic (also known as the Bermuda High) and North Pacific High pressure centers in the south and the jet stream and its troughs and ridges in the north kept most anomalous weather patterns from becoming fixed and widespread.

The oceanic and atmospheric conditions associated with El Niño enhanced tropical cyclone activity in the eastern and central equatorial Pacific Ocean, while inhibiting tropical cyclones in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Five hurricanes (Guillermo, Hilda, Ignacio, Jimena, Kilo) formed off the coast of Mexico and moved toward Hawaii during August, with the steering currents in the atmosphere generally deflecting their moisture away from the western CONUS. Meanwhile, four systems (Tropical Storm Molave, Hurricane Loke, and Typhoons Atsani and Goni) threatened the tropical islands in the central Pacific. In the Atlantic, Hurricane Danny was severely weakened by El Niño-related vertical wind shear and dry mid-tropospheric air by the time it reached the Caribbean. Tropical Storm Erika survived the regions of vertical shear, but did not bring enough rain to Puerto Rico to have much effect on the drought there.

With the dominance of subtropical high pressure systems, and lack of tropical cyclone rainfall, the Southern Plains to Southeast were generally warmer- and drier-than-normal for the month. Drought and abnormal dryness rapidly expanded in the Southern Plains to Lower Mississippi Valley. Above-normal precipitation fell with showers and thunderstorms along frontal boundaries from the Northern Plains to parts of the Southeast, bringing localized relief from drought. The cool fronts also brought below-normal monthly temperatures to a large area from the Central and Northern Plains to the Mid-Atlantic Coast. But with the subtropical highs cutting off their Gulf of Mexico moisture source, these cool air masses were dry, so August averaged drier than normal for much of the Ohio Valley, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast regions where drought and abnormal dryness expanded or developed.

The generally warmer-than-normal and snow-less winter and spring along the West Coast and in the Pacific Northwest set the stage for an active summer wildfire season. With persistently warmer- (weeks 1, 2, 3, 4) and drier- (weeks 1, 2, 3, 4) than-normal weather during August, and windy conditions brought by the passage of generally dry troughs and cold fronts, numerous large wildfires developed and became widespread, especially in the Northwest (maps for August 4, 10, 17, 27, 31). The warm and dry weather intensified and expanded drought in the Pacific Northwest and into the High Plains of Montana.

With subsiding air associated with the subtropical highs generally inhibiting convection and frontal rains in the southern CONUS, showers and thunderstorms were more localized and severe weather was reduced. Several tornadoes were triggered along the storm track from the Central Plains to Midwest, but only 44 tornadoes occurred nationwide (according to preliminary reports), which is well below the August average of 83.

When the regional variations of temperature and precipitation anomalies are averaged together across the CONUS, August 2015 ranked as the 28th driest and 31st warmest August in the 121-year record. The rain mostly fell in areas that were not in drought, so the national drought footprint expanded, with 30.4 percent of the CONUS experiencing moderate to exceptional drought at the end of August, compared to 27.1 percent at the end of July. Record warmth won out over record cold temperatures. By the end of the month, there were 3,675 record warm daily high (1,442) and low (2,233) temperature records, which is about two and a half times the 1,498 record cold daily high (985) and low (513) temperature records. The REDTI (Residential Energy Demand Temperature Index) for August 2015 ranked 25th highest for August, illustrating how the unusually cool temperatures in the heavily-populated areas of the Midwest decreased cooling demands, tempering the effects of the well-above-normal temperatures in the West, Northeast, and Gulf of Mexico coast.

North America monthly upper-level circulation pattern and anomalies
North America monthly upper-level circulation pattern and anomalies.

The movement of troughs and ridges in the jet stream flow and their interaction with the North Pacific and North Atlantic subtropical highs resulted in a 500-mb height anomaly pattern for the month that was mostly flat across the CONUS, with few areas of significantly above- or below-normal anomalies. There was a small area of positive 500-mb height anomalies over the southwestern CONUS and northwest Mexico, and a small area of negative anomalies over the Great Lakes. But significant anomalies occurred within the month. During the first ten days of August, above-normal 500-mb heights from the subtropical highs are evident over the Southern Plains, with the associated hot and dry weather, while below-normal heights from upper-level troughs characterized the Southwest and adjacent Pacific Ocean, as well as the Northeast and southeastern Canada. During August 11-15, the subtropical highs and ridging in the jet stream flow resulted in above-normal heights dominating much of the country, with warmer- and drier-than-normal weather. As the troughs and ridges migrated through the jet stream flow, the 500-mb anomaly pattern for August 17-20 flipped so that below-normal height anomalies dominated the central part of the country, bringing cooler- and wetter-than-normal weather to the central CONUS. The jet stream flow shifted to a long-wave ridge/trough pattern during August 23-28. Above-normal 500-mb heights and warmer-than-normal weather blanketed the West, while below-normal 500-mb heights and cooler-than-normal weather held sway east of the Rockies. This ridge west/trough east circulation pattern blocked moisture sources and inhibited precipitation, so the week was drier than normal across most of the country. The monthly 500-mb height anomaly pattern was more pronounced at higher latitudes. Southwestern Alaska was dominated by above-normal heights with warmer- and drier-than-normal weather, while areas further east were dominated by the opposite conditions.

Map of monthly precipitation anomalies
Map of monthly precipitation anomalies.

There were a few areas of above-normal precipitation in the West, Central and Northern Plains, and Southeast, but the August precipitation pattern was generally drier than normal for much of the CONUS. The south central and southwest portions of Alaska were drier than normal, but the rest of the state was generally wetter than normal. Most of the stations in the Hawaiian Islands were wetter than normal. An El Niño-enhanced dry spell continued to afflict much of the Caribbean. Puerto Rico was generally drier than normal, in spite of the rains from Tropical Storm Erika, except in the northwest where it was wetter than normal.

Map of monthly temperature anomalies
Map of monthly temperature anomalies.

August 2015 averaged cooler than normal from the Central and Northern Plains to the Mid-Atlantic Coast, and warmer than normal in the West, New England, and along the Gulf of Mexico coastal states. Alaska was cooler than normal, except along the southern coast where stations were warmer than normal.

Northern Hemisphere monthly upper-level circulation pattern and anomalies
Northern Hemisphere monthly upper-level circulation pattern and anomalies.
Global Linkages: The upper-level circulation anomaly pattern over North America was part of a long-wave pattern that stretched across the Northern Hemisphere. Above-normal 500-mb heights occurred across Northeastern Asia into the North Pacific, and from northern Canada across the Arctic to Northern Europe. In between these above-normal anomalies, the 500-mb heights were below-normal across northern Alaska and northwestern Canada, the North Atlantic, and north central Asia, as well as the northwestern North Pacific. The above-normal 500-mb heights were associated with upper-level ridging, above-normal surface temperatures, and (over Northern Europe) below-normal precipitation. The below-normal 500-mb heights were associated with upper-level troughing, above-normal precipitation, and (over north central Asia) below-normal surface temperatures. With large portions of the continents having warmer-than-normal temperatures, and large portions of the equatorial Pacific Ocean (due to El Niño) and eastern North Pacific Ocean having warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures, the August 2015 global temperature was well above normal.

Atmospheric Drivers

Subtropical highs, and fronts and low pressure systems moving in the mid-latitude storm track flow, are influenced by the broadscale atmospheric circulation. The circulation of the atmosphere can be analyzed and categorized into specific patterns. The Tropics, especially the equatorial Pacific Ocean, provides abundant heat energy which largely drives the world's atmospheric and oceanic circulation. The following describes several of these modes or patterns of the atmospheric circulation, their drivers, the temperature and precipitation patterns (or teleconnections) associated with them, and their index values this month:

Examination of the available circulation indices and their teleconnection patterns, and comparison to observed August 2015 temperature, precipitation, and circulation anomaly patterns, suggest that the weather over the CONUS in August reflected influences from several atmospheric drivers. The MJO and PNA indices were near zero or neutral, indicating that their associated drivers had little effect on the weather in North America this month. The teleconnections associated with the WP, EP-NP, and PT indices showed little agreement with the observed circulation, temperature, and precipitation anomaly patterns, which suggested that these Pacific drivers also had little influence on North American weather. The AO and NAO showed reasonable agreement with the temperature and precipitation anomalies in the CONUS, indicating that they played a role in this month's weather, but they had little agreement with the upper-level circulation anomalies. The August precipitation anomaly pattern was a good match to the El Niño teleconnections in most areas, but the temperature anomaly pattern was not.

The El Niño created atmospheric and oceanic conditions that enhanced the development of tropical storms and hurricanes in the eastern and central tropical Pacific Ocean. Many of these tropical cyclones moved into the North Pacific, transferring energy into the mid-latitude circulation and mixing the waters at the sea surface. This energy was an added factor which apparently disrupted the circulation patterns usually associated with the other atmospheric drivers, while the influence of El Niño (through the tropical cyclones) on the North Pacific SSTs may be interfering with the influence of the EP-NP, PT, and WP.

This month illustrates how the weather and climate anomaly patterns can reflect the combined influence of several atmospheric drivers (or modes of atmospheric variability), but also how one driver can have a disruptive influence on the other drivers and contribute to a chaotic situation.

Citing This Report

NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, State of the Climate: Synoptic Discussion for August 2015, published online September 2015, retrieved on October 13, 2015 from