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Winter severity may hinge on Southern Hemisphere

With the first day of fall about two weeks away, I’ve been getting questions about our upcoming winter. At Harris-Mann Climatology, we watch the winter’s weather in the Southern Hemisphere (which is during our summer) in order to pick up possible clues for the Inland Northwest’s upcoming winter four to six months later.

The Southern Hemisphere has had a series of unusually cold and snowy winters since solar activity dropped off in 2007. The following winters in the Northern Hemisphere were likewise colder and snowier than normal, especially in North America, the British Isles and central Europe.

Last month, a record cold blast from Antarctica brought measurable snows to New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington for the first time since the early 1970s. Earthquake-battered Christchurch had its heaviest snowfall since 1939, creating widespread travel disruptions.

This has also been the wettest, snowiest and coldest winter in decades in Chile’s Atacama Desert. This region is normally the driest place on earth.

But, the Atacama Desert has received more moisture than Spokane or Coeur d’Alene since early July. The month of July had four major storms in Chile’s arid northern interior regions. Combined, they dumped more than five times the annual average of both rain and snow on the Copiapo area, damaging the homes of more than 1,800 people. The coastal town of Antofogasta measured .29 inches of precipitation in a single day in early July, more than four year’s worth of rain. The annual normal is only a puny 0.07 inches. The above-average moisture has led to a burst of rare flowers.

The same July storm system also brought about three feet of snow to the northern mountains of Chile, more snow than had been measured previously in more than a full century combined. This region has the same annual snowfall as Riverside, Calif., less than 0.2 inches. Soldiers were forced to rescue more than 400 people trapped by 10-foot snowdrifts caused by winds in excess of 50 mph. Survivors of the big snowstorm called it “Snowmageddon.”

From the capital city of Santiago, Chile, southward, the winter of 2011 has so far been the driest on record. Severe drought conditions have drained reservoirs needed for both irrigation and hydroelectricity.

I should mention as well that rare snowfalls have likewise been reported in parts of Argentina, Australia and South Africa this chilly winter of 2011 in the Southern Hemisphere.

A weather station in Antarctica, where parts of the icepack has increased by 8 percent since 2007, reported an all-time record July low temperature of 78 below zero.

It remains our opinion that all of these global weather extremes are being caused by rapidly changing sea-surface temperature events in the world’s oceans along with variable sunspot patterns.

We are currently in between the cool La Niña and the warm El Niño sea-surface temperature patterns. But, we may move into a new El Niño by December or January, meaning less snow than normal across the Inland Northwest. However, if La Niña is reborn, we could see another tough winter like they’re enduring in the Southern Hemisphere.

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