Only 6 inches of snow fell in Spokane in the past two months, leaving most people wondering when, or if, winter will arrive.
Winter officially started at 12:17 a.m. today as the sun reached its lowest point in the skies of the Northern Hemisphere.
Weather experts say it’s not too late for heavy snow in the lowlands and a healthy snowpack in the mountains.
“Don’t give up yet,” said geography Professor Bob Quinn of Eastern Washington University. “The skiers will get their fair share.”
Even so, chances of a white Christmas appear dim. Snow flurries are forecast for tonight, but that’s it through Christmas Day.
This is good news for travelers who want ice-free roads. About the only driving danger could be fog in the valleys and Columbia River Basin. Temperatures should be in the upper 20s at night to the mid-30s during the day, forecasters said.
Looking down the road, the weather service is calling for normal amounts of precipitation and below normal temperatures for the next 90 days.
“I see more snow,” said John Livingston, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service bureau in Spokane.
That would be a switch from the past 12 months, which have been relatively snow free. Only 14 inches has fallen since Jan. 1, while the average winter here sees 50 inches of snow. In 1992-93, more than 87 inches fell.
Despite the lack of snow, 1995 is going down as one of the wettest in the past 30 years.
More than 21.5 inches of precipitation have fell this year at Spokane International Airport, the official weather service measuring station.
That’s the highest precipitation total since 1983, and the second highest since 1950 when 23 inches were recorded. Normal annual precipitation is 16.15 inches.
Some weather observers believe the Pacific Northwest is moving out of an extended period of dry weather and into a phase of higher-than-normal precipitation.
If so, that could mean significant snow later this winter and in coming winters, they said.
“I have a tendency to think we are moving back into a wetter cycle,” said EWU’s Quinn.
Experts aren’t sure what causes the swings between periods of wet and dry, but records document the swings.
An extended period of wet weather started in the late 1940s and continued through 1964. In 1948 and again in 1950, Spokane had two of its wettest years on record.
Precipitation in those two years contributed to a string of four winters with snow accumulations in excess of 70 inches each, including the very white winter of 1949-50 when 93.5 inches fell. One factor suggesting a return to wet weather is the decline of El Nino in the Pacific Ocean, Quinn said.
El Nino is the name given to the abnormal warming of tropical waters between South America and Australia. It brings mild and generally dry winters to the Pacific Northwest. El Nino occurred in four of the past 10 winters.
Searching further for an explanation to long-term weather trends, scientists are even looking at the possibility that sun spots may have a connection to climate swings.
Whatever happens, this year’s heavy rains are a mixed blessing.
Severe floods on the West Side of Washington and Oregon damaged homes and farms. The scouring of river beds may have killed 90 percent of the wild baby salmon emerging from river gravels following the fall spawning season.
Young hatchery salmon should fare better because river runoffs next spring will allow them to swim to the ocean under plenty of current.
For dryland farmers, soil moisture levels have built up, and that should help their yields. Arctic winds still could kill the small grass-sized plants if they are not covered with snow.
The mild autumn hasn’t helped the snowpack. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service reports snowpacks as low as half of normal for this time of year in Washington’s mountains.
What snow has accumulated on the slopes is laden with lots of water content, agency officials said.
Quinn said he expects the storminess to continue off and on throughout the winter because two large pools of warm water in the North Pacific should continue to allow low pressure areas to form and breed storms.
But he cautioned his predictions are mostly scientific speculation. “Mother Nature does what she wants,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Spokane’s snowfall vs. precipitation