Weather experts who correctly predicted a mild winter this year are saying spring will be wet and a hot summer lies ahead.
Spring officially begins at 6:20 p.m. Monday.
The winter ends as the fourth warmest in the past 20 years in Spokane. Nationwide, it was the second warmest winter in four decades.
In Spokane, the average temperature for December, January and February was 3.5 degrees above normal. Snowfall for December, January and February was only a third of average.
While long-range forecasts can be as much guess-work as science, experts are becoming increasingly confident through the use of new technology.
The National Weather Service now issues outlooks 13 months in advance based on updated computer models.
The latest data calls for above normal precipitation and above normal temperatures through the end of June in the Inland Northwest.
After that, forecasters believe the probabilities are greatest for a typical Spokane summer, in other words, hot and dry.
Geography Professor Bob Quinn of Eastern Washington University correctly predicted Spokane’s mild winter based on a strengthening of the tropical El Nino. Quinn, an expert on El Nino, says outbreaks of the phenomenon commonly result in mild winters and wet summers.
However, the latest data shows El Nino to be subsiding. “If El Nino fades, I think we will have a more normal, dry summer,” he said.
El Nino, a Spanish term, refers to the warming of equatorial waters between Indonesia and South America, which disrupts global weather patterns.
El Nino invariably causes a mild winter in the Pacific Northwest and rain in California, Quinn said.
This latest El Nino episode has been intense, but short in duration.
The result was the fourth mildest winter in Spokane since 1971-72, said John Livingston, meteorologist in charge of the NWS bureau at the airport.
The mildest winter in the past two decades was 1990-91, when El Nino was present. That year, Spokane’s average temperature was 5 degrees above normal.
A mild winter translates into savings. Washington Water Power Co. estimated the residential customers saved an average of $20 a month for gas heat and $40 a month for electric baseboard heat, said Dana Anderson, WWP spokeswoman.
Along with the milder temperatures came less snow.
On the average, Spokane can expect about 50 inches of snow through the course of a season. A total of about 30 inches fell this past season, but nearly half of that came during November.
The city of Spokane saved $700,000 on snow removal, said Jim Smith, street maintenance supervisor.
As for precipitation, Spokane is nearly two inches ahead of normal since Jan. 1. The month of March already is the fourth rainiest on record.
The storm track, which has been centered over California, is bound to move north during the spring and bring with it periods of wet weather.
All the rain is seen as good here.
Tonie Fitzgerald, agricultural extension agent in Spokane, said low soil moisture puts stress on trees and shrubs and makes them susceptible to insects and diseases. The current outbreak of pine beetle infestations is linked to repeated dry years, she said.
“Any amount of moisture that can be saved in the soil is real good for agriculture and horticulture,” she said.
This year’s extra rain will ensure good growth of winter wheat crops not damaged by erosion or February’s Arctic outbreak. Farmers could plant spring wheat.
In the Yakima River basin, reservoirs are filling up, and growers are likely to have the water they need.
The latest surveys from the National Resources Conservation Service show snowpacks in North Idaho and the Spokane River drainage to be at 80 to 90 percent of normal.
An early runoff in February caused the snowpacks to shrink from normal levels earlier in the winter.
“For the first time in six years, we’ve got a lot of water out in the scablands,” said Professor Quinn. “It is good news for waterfowl, fisheries and agriculture.”
Scientists like Quinn who keep track of the weather are getting more sophisticated in the use of technology.
For example, infra-red satellite images and sea water temperatures provide greater detail for computer predictions of long-range weather.
NWS meteorologist Livingston said the long-range outlooks are designed to help industry and agriculture plan ahead. They are not intended to help people decide “whether you can have your wedding on a certain day in June,” he said.
Graphic: Spokane’s mild winter