The strongest El Nino this century made winter pretty easy on the Inland Northwest.
Snowfall in the valleys was half of normal and mild temperatures prevailed most of the winter.
Now, scientists are trying to guess El Nino’s next move.
They say this global weather upsetter should ease by May, but there is no guarantee.
If it does ease off, the Inland Northwest will return to normal weather patterns, said professor Bob Quinn, a weather expert at Eastern Washington University.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if June is good and wet,” Quinn said. “We should have the routine warm, dry summer.”
If El Nino sticks around, it could mean wet weather through spring.
As of Thursday - the last full day of winter - the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center was calling for milder-than-normal conditions through April, and then a gradual return to normal weather.
The mild winter was a spinoff from the El Nino warming of the Pacific Ocean near the equator.
While California and the Sun Belt were repeatedly hammered with storms, much of the northern tier escaped the usual doses of cold and snow.
In Spokane, winter bottomed out at minus 2 degrees on Jan. 12, the only below-zero reading all winter. And, since Nov. 1, there were only 14 nights colder than 20 degrees.
The obliging winter left lower elevation forests devoid of snow, a worry for fire crews.
Bill Berrigan, a manager with the state Department of Natural Resources in Colville, said his agency is gearing up for an early start to the fire season.
But a healthy snowpack in the high mountains should delay any major blazes until the traditional fire season in July and August, he said.
Snowpack is running at 75 percent of normal in North Idaho, including the slopes above the Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, St. Joe, Palouse and Pend Oreille rivers.
Upper elevation snowpack is at 90 percent of normal in Northeast Washington, and just above normal in the upper Columbia River basin, including British Columbia.
Barring heavy rains, spring floods are unlikely.
“We’re looking at a pretty normal runoff,” said John Livingston, head meteorologist at the National Weather Service Office in Spokane.
That’s good news for power producers, irrigators and fish managers, who angle annually for shares of the region’s river water.
Salmon runs are severely depressed this year, in part because of the poor ocean food conditions that tag along with El Nino. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council may be forced to cancel offshore sport and commercial salmon seasons this summer.
Good stream flows this spring will ensure at least a starting chance for the next generation of salmon.
Even though spring officially begins at 11:55 a.m. today, the signs are already in the air. Tree pollen and mold spore counts are climbing.
Dr. Steven Kernerman, an allergist in Spokane, said his measuring equipment on the North Side already shows significant amounts of those allergens.
Most grasses don’t bloom until later in the spring. Even so, his filters have been trapping a few grains of grass pollen this week, he said.
“There’s more in the air this year than we might have expected,” he said.
Nationally, health experts are predicting a longer and more intense allergy season because of El Nino. Kernerman said that well could be the case in the Inland Northwest.
Gardeners are being cautioned to resist the urge to start outdoor planting too soon.
Even under El Nino mildness, the Inland Northwest is subject to late frosts or freezes, which could kill vulnerable seedlings or transplants.
Garden diseases such as powdery mildew and rust could be a problem, along with an increase in chewing critters.
Sydney McCrea of the Master Gardener program in Spokane County said the March warm-up could trick fruit trees into blooming too early. A late freeze would kill the tender blossoms, she said.
“Everybody’s keeping their fingers crossed,” she said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos Graphic: Winter turns into spring
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: PLANTING FOLKLORE Here’s some folk wisdom from Doris Delatte, a gardening instructor: Cool weather crops such as broccoli should be planted when oak leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear. Warm-weather plants such as tomatoes and peppers should be held back until the lilacs bloom.