February 2, 1996 in Nation/World

Harsh Truth: 22 Below Zero Thursday’s Low Ties Record, Forecasters Say Worst May Be Over

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Twenty-two below zero.

Early Thursday, Spokane’s deep freeze made the record books, tying the all-time low temperature for the date.

It was the coldest the city’s been - on any day - in nearly three decades.

Winter hasn’t been colder since Dec. 30, 1968, when the mercury dropped to minus-25 degrees.

The worst-case scenario? A punishing 30 below zero that struck on two consecutive nights in January 1888.

Elsewhere in Eastern Washington, Thursday’s lows were similar to the official reading at Spokane International Airport. Coeur d’Alene plunged to minus-5.

But the worst may be over.

Forecasters say the bitter cold should end next week, although tonight’s low is expected to be minus-15.

Two more subzero nights are forecast, then a warming trend should kick in as milder air from the Pacific moves ashore.

Snow and a possibility of freezing rain are forecast for Monday when highs should edge toward 20 degrees. Since warm air rises, the change will start at higher elevations and eventually work its way into valleys.

Meteorologists say Spokane’s coldest temperatures - those of minus-20 or below - don’t often occur in February. That kind of cold comes during the deepest part of winter, from late December to mid-January.

“It’s kind of unusual we’ve gotten into these real cold temperatures so late in the winter,” said Paul Frisbie, forecaster for the National Weather Service in Spokane.

Meteorologist Milt Maas said one of the reasons for the current deep freeze is the insulating blanket of snow, which prevents warmth from the earth from moderating the temperature of the air just above the ground at night.

Early February in Spokane has a reputation for harsh cold.

Residents still talk about Feb. 2, 1989, when a high of minus-4 was accompanied by winds gusting to 40 mph. The low that date was 11 below zero.

The current string of subzero nights is expected to end at seven in a row.

That sounds impressive, but oldtimers know cold spells linger for a week or two at a time. Arctic air is stubborn about leaving.

“Cold air is not very easily replaced because it’s so dense,” Frisbie said.

In December 1990, Spokane notched nine subzero lows during an 11-day span.

The 1980s saw a number of Arctic outbreaks. In January 1985, temperatures dropped below zero seven nights in a row. December 1983 saw 10 subzero lows in 11 nights.

Those who believe this kind of cold is un-Spokane-like probably were lulled by recent mild winters.

The El Nino warming of tropical waters in the Pacific has kept Arctic air at bay in three of the past five seasons.

The cold snap during December 1990 and the snowy winter of 1992-93 occurred when El Nino was absent.

Still, January 1996 joins an elite group of harsh winters.

The last time it was minus-22 on Feb. 1 was the winter of 1949-50 when Spokane’s all-time snowfall record of 93.7 inches was set.

Longtime residents still talk about the winter of 1968-69 when 4 feet of snow fell in January.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Graphic: Yes, it’s cold …

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IDLE TIME How cold is it? It’s so cold Spokane school bus drivers leave their vehicles running overnight to make sure they start in the morning. Laidlaw Transit, the company that operates buses for Spokane School District 81, has kept its fleet running overnight every day this week and will “as long as temperatures stay below 10 below,” said division manager Van Criddle. Night mechanics watch over the 140 rumbling buses at the company’s bus barn in north Spokane. “They’re designed to use very little gas during the idle mode so it doesn’t increase operating costs very much at all,” Criddle said.

This sidebar appeared with the story: IDLE TIME How cold is it? It’s so cold Spokane school bus drivers leave their vehicles running overnight to make sure they start in the morning. Laidlaw Transit, the company that operates buses for Spokane School District 81, has kept its fleet running overnight every day this week and will “as long as temperatures stay below 10 below,” said division manager Van Criddle. Night mechanics watch over the 140 rumbling buses at the company’s bus barn in north Spokane. “They’re designed to use very little gas during the idle mode so it doesn’t increase operating costs very much at all,” Criddle said.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email