Column: What is an Alberta Clipper?

WASHINGTON — Have you heard of a Manitoba Mauler? How about a Saskatchewan Screamer? And no, these aren’t Vince McMahon’s best attempts to incorporate Canada into the WWE.

And what about an “Alberta Clipper?” You might have heard the phrase several times over the last week. That is because our region has been clipped by these fast moving systems already this winter and will be clipped a couple more times in the next few days.


Above: Canadian province map

An Alberta Clipper is a very quick moving low pressure system that plunges southeast out of the Canadian province of Alberta Canada. Manitoba Mauler and Saskatchewan Screamer are the same types of systems — they just originate in different provinces.

A meteorologist in Milwaukee, Reinhart W. Harms, coined the phrase in a paper he wrote in 1970. “Clipper” comes from a term used in the 19th Century to describe fast sailing, narrow ships with three or more masts designed to transport passengers along the trade routes at record speed. The ships were originally built to meet the export demands of tea coming out of China.


Above: 1851 the "Flying Cloud" Clipper that traveled 15,000 miles from New York to San Fran in 89 days.

Clippers form when winds floating off the Pacific Ocean move over the Canadian Rockies and then meet up with the frigid winter air. Generally these low pressure systems travel into the United States via the jetstream into the Northern Great Plains, trek across the Midwest and Great Lakes region and then often times navigate towards the Mid-Atlantic and off the coast where they tap into some moisture from the Atlantic Ocean.


Above: Path of Alberta Clipper across U.S. (Courtesy NOAA)

They bring with them the chance of snow showers, colder air and also some breezy winds.

Since they really have no fuel, they lack the moisture needed for a big snow storm. Therefore, by the time they reach the D.C. region, they usually can only squeeze out a minimal amount of precipitation to accumulate before they quickly move on. Once off the East Coast, these clippers can transition into a Nor’easter.


Above: Another look at the trek of an Alberta Clipper

“A jetstream conveyor belt will set up over the area from South Central Canada toward the Mid Atlantic starting on Friday,” the National Weather Service says. “This will allow a train of clippers to line up and make a fast track down across the northeast.”

This weekend’s forecast calls for light snow showers and flurries early Friday morning and night into Saturday morning and again on Saturday night into Sunday morning. We’re not expecting much in accumulation with any of these little precipitation bumps in the road.

Unfortunately, cooler air and winds will accompany these as well each time. Temperatures move into the mid-40s on Friday, but barely get out of the 30s on Saturday with breezy conditions. Winds stick around on Sunday, as well, with temperatures only in the low 40s.

Just a reminder: The first day of Spring is March 20 — just 63 days away.

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