November 3, 2009 in City

Mild winter on horizon

Forecasters expect brewing El Niño to bring a warmer, wetter season
By The Spokesman-Review

Matt Fugazzi, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service office in Spokane, works with a bank of computers Monday. Using data compiled over 30 years to establish a “normal” pattern, the forecasters predict the immediate and-long range weather.
(Full-size photo)

If you’ve been dreading another winter of heavy snow, something is happening thousands of miles away that might ease your mind.

El Niño is brewing in the tropical Pacific Ocean, and it’s expected to keep temperatures above normal and snowfall below normal this winter in the Inland Northwest.

The federal government reported Monday that the moderate El Niño should have wide-ranging effects on weather in the U.S., said Ron Miller, of the National Weather Service in Spokane.

The most recent moderate El Niño was in the winter of 2002-’03, when 20.5 inches of snow fell at Spokane International Airport. The average winter snowfall is 47.6 inches.

A strong El Niño in 1997-’98 brought only 15.5 inches of snow at the airport.

El Niño typically causes Pacific storms to move south and strike across California and the Great Basin states, leaving the Pacific Northwest under a fair weather pattern. Air stagnation can be a problem in this region without frequent storms to clear out low-lying temperature inversions.

Eastern Washington University geography professor Bob Quinn, an El Niño expert, said he expects the mild winter to bring more rain than snow. Wet weather in October – with 2.31 inches of precipitation in Spokane – may be a sign of things to come this winter.

“It’s more of the warm, wet variety” of El Niño, Quinn said.

In the past 60 years, there have been 17 documented El Niño events. In all but three, snowfall in Spokane was below normal.

The term El Niño is derived from folklore in South America, where El Niño can disrupt fisheries and cause storms around Christmastime. El Niño means boy, or the Christ child, in Spanish.

The Farmers’ Almanac isn’t buying into the idea that El Niño will cause a mild winter here. The almanac forecasts cool weather and average precipitation across the Inland Northwest. Bitter cold will remain east of the Continental Divide, the almanac says.

Spokane set a record of 97.7 inches of snow in 2008-’09 and saw a near-record season the year before, with 92.6 inches.

The average date for the first measureable snow at Spokane International Airport is Nov. 12. Last year, the first measurable snow came Nov. 28.

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