The strongest El Nino in decades is spawning some nasty weather around the world this year, but not in the Inland Northwest.
Scientists say Eastern Washington and North Idaho can expect less snow, mild temperatures and a good slug of rain in the months ahead.
“If you look at the odds, the odds are extremely high we’ll have less snowfall this winter,” said Professor Bob Quinn of Eastern Washington University, an expert on El Nino.
Over the past seven El Ninos, Spokane averaged 23 inches of snow a year, less than half the normal amount of 50 inches.
El Ninos have been blamed for drought in the Northwest, but this year’s El Nino is so strong that Quinn expects plenty of rain instead.
He and other scientists say El Nino probably will push storms to California that are so powerful their moisture will sweep into the Inland Northwest.
“I think there is potential for enormous storms,” Quinn said.
El Nino is a Spanish term given to the warming of the tropical Pacific every two to seven years. It literally means Christ child, and comes from Peruvians who historically recognized the irregular arrival of devastating storms at Christmas.
The phenomenon is far-reaching. Drought is withering parts of Asia and Australia. The northern storm track will sag southward over the Sun Belt states. Hurricanes subside in the Atlantic, but increase in the Pacific. Ocean life is disrupted.
Scientists aren’t sure what causes El Nino, but they are sure the warmer Pacific Ocean alters the energy balance in the atmosphere.
Quinn, who studies the relationship between the ocean and weather, accurately predicted the cold, snowy conditions in the Inland Northwest the past two winters, along with the flooding.
He also called the hard winter in January and February 1996, and the arrival of ice and snow last November.
His predictions largely were based on a mild reversal of El Nino, or La Nina, which brought cooler ocean conditions the past two winters.
This year, Quinn said he expects plentiful early rains, followed by a mixed bag of rain, snow, fog and even sunshine.
Autumn begins at 4:56 p.m. today.
If Quinn is right, roads will be less treacherous.
Ski areas may lack deep snow, but the tame weather should make winter outings enjoyable.
Sales of snowblowers and other winter products could suffer.
Wheat farmers could escape the threat of Arctic blasts that are deadly to tiny wheat plants.
On the downside, there is a risk of more air pollution because warmer air aloft puts a cap on colder valley air, trapping pollutants near the ground.
Small Pacific salmon migrating to the ocean could die off because warm ocean water suppresses the normal food chain.
At Newport on the Oregon coast, ocean temperatures this month were hitting 66 degrees, at least 10 degrees above normal.
Bill Peterson, an oceanographer based at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, said such conditions stop the growth of tiny plankton that provide the foundation for the food chain.
Plankton gives northern ocean water its normal deep green appearance. This summer the ocean was so clear visibility extended to 70 feet, he said.
“I don’t know what the salmon are going to do,” he said. “The whole food chain has collapsed.”
Even worse, warm water draws mackerel to the region that prey on tiny salmon, especially endangered wild coho that feed in the upper levels of the water where mackerel swim.
Tropical fish are showing up, too. A marlin was caught this summer off Westport, Wash., the first ever in the state.
Fishermen near San Francisco reported sightings of the top-dwelling mola mola, which sends up a dorsal fin that resembles a human hand waving from the surface.
El Nino this year is believed to be stronger than any in recent history, including the 1982-83 event when heavy storms pounded California.
Spokane that year had 14 inches of precipitation from September through March, 3 inches more than normal for autumn and winter combined.
The city recorded 36 inches of snow that year.
Quinn said one out of three El Nino episodes is wet. The rest are dry, including 1976-77, when only 3.9 inches of precipitation fell from September through March.
The common denominator is a shortage of snow and absence of Arctic air.
El Nino’s warming of the ocean promotes a split in the upper-level winds, or jet stream, that steer storms across North America during fall and winter.
Under strong El Ninos, the southern branch of the jet stream carries the strongest Pacific storms as it drops across California and the Great Basin.
The northern branch flows into Canada and Alaska, keeping the coldest air in the polar regions.
That leaves the Inland Northwest in a kind of weather void, making it less likely there will be a repeat of last fall’s ice storm or the record-breaking lows of early 1996.
At one time, scientists thought El Nino came only once every seven years.
Now, they say the cycle comes every two to seven years, in part because this is the fourth El Nino this decade.
Some scientists are starting to wonder if global warming is causing an increased frequency of El Ninos.
Tim Barnett, a expert climate researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography near San Diego, said there is no evidence world energy consumption is triggering ocean warming.
“The answer is no,” Barnett said.
Still, other scientists are nagged by the prospect.
“The question is, is this a natural cycle or is it being driven by industrial pollutants?” Peterson said.
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: EFFECTS Ocean temperatures off Oregon this month were 10 degrees above normal. Such conditions stop the growth of tiny plankton that provide the foundation for the food chain.
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