A year after the region saw record-breaking snowfall, folks might be wondering where winter went.
Highs in the 40s and lower 50s in the past 10 days have seemed more like March than January.
The above-normal temperatures have led to below-normal sales for snow tires, snowblowers, shovels and plowing.
“This has been one of the more unique winters. I can attest to that,” said Randy Spies, who has operated a snowplowing business for the past 17 years.
A year ago, Spokane had already seen 80 inches of snow by Jan. 20, but this year, the city has barely had a foot of new snow – only 40 percent of normal.
The National Weather Service said the milder weather is being brought north by moderate to strong El Niño warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean, which is expected to continue.
January is running 8 degrees above normal so far, making 2010 one of the five mildest Januarys on record.
“For the next 10 days, we don’t see any colder-than-normal temperatures,” said Ron Miller, forecaster for the weather service in Spokane.
This year’s mild January follows back-to-back hard winters: 92.6 inches of snow in 2007-’08 and a record 97.7 inches of snow in 2008-’09.
Cold and snow often fluctuate from year to year and even from month to month, Miller said.
December was 2.8 degrees colder than normal as the result of a strong arctic front that lasted for more than a week and froze the upper layer of soil.
“To have two bad winters around here in a row is probably more unusual than to have winters flip-flop,” Miller said.
Spies said he took in $16,000 plowing and sanding in December 2008, compared with $3,400 so far this year. “It’s a night and day difference,” he said.
Scott Banick, manager at River Ridge Hardware, 2803 W. Garland Ave., said that a year ago he would get a delivery of 300 snow shovels and sell them in two hours.
De-icer was going out the door at a rate of two pallets a day. This year, the store has barely sold two pallets all season, he said.
Mike Federico, owner of Mechanics Pride Tire and Automotive Inc., 1002 W. Third Ave., said sales of winter tires has fallen off after the initial burst of winter-related business two months ago.
At Westside Motor Sports at exit 276 on Interstate 90, owner Scott Schmidtman said sales are way down this month of ATVs equipped with snowplows, as well as snow throwers. On the flip side, he’s seeing a few customers drive up on motorcycles.
Ski areas have been operating throughout the season, and while the snowpack is below normal this year, there has been enough snow to keep winter recreation going on the upper slopes.
There is little if any snowpack on lower slopes, however, which has been a problem for snowmobilers.
Sleigh rides have been suspended at Western Pleasure Guest Ranch, located at 2,700 feet in elevation about 16 miles northwest of Sandpoint.
Janice Schoonover, who runs the ranch, said rainfall in recent weeks has created treacherous patches of ice over compacted snow.
Frozen ground has prevented rainwater from being absorbed into the soil, creating flooding in low-lying areas, but the frozen soil in lower elevations has been thawing with the sunshine in recent days, Miller said.
Ground conditions have improved so much that the Fairways Golf Course southwest of Spokane has been open since Friday with 20 to 50 golfers showing up each day, said general manager Kris Kallem.
The golf course has been open in January as recently as 2006, he said, but “you want to wear your waterproof shoes.”