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Climate researcher encouraged by weather

The Pacific Northwest is coming out of a short dry spell and returning to weather patterns that are more typical of La Nina winters, according to climate experts.

That means the winter still stands a decent chance of abundant snow in the mountains even though most of December was dry and some mountain ranges are holding less snow than normal.

“We have a weak to moderate La Nina that is often favorable for building a sweet snowpack in the Northwest, including the Clearwater mountains and Blues,” said John Abatzoglou, a climate research and associate professor at the University of Idaho in Moscow. “We started off great, but lost a lot of that head start over the last five weeks due to a stubborn trough that steered storms to our north. We got back on the right track this week. The general prognosis is for good chances of above-normal precipitation for (January to March).”

The Clearwater mountains have a snowpack that is 90 percent of average and the mountains that feed the Salmon River have a snowpack that measures 99 percent of average. Other areas in the region are far below normal. For example, a portion of the Blue Mountains in Washington has a snowpack that is 78 percent of average. Much of eastern Oregon, including the Wallowa Mountains, have snowpacks that are less than 50 percent of average.

Mountain snow provides a playground for skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers, but it also ensures normal ecological functions, such as healthy stream flows and water temperatures. The salmon and steelhead populations of the region depend on melting snow in the spring to provide high river flows to help juvenile fish reach the ocean. A healthy snowpack can also play a small role in reducing summer fire risk, although summer temperatures, rainstorms and lightning strikes are much larger factors when it comes to fire danger.

Storms this week delivered enough snow for Brundage Mountain near McCall and Ski Bluewood near Dayton to begin their seasons. Snowhaven Ski Area near Grangeville will begin its season on Tuesday and Bald Mountain near Pierce and Cottonwood Butte are hoping to have enough snow to open next week.

Several of the clubs that operate snowmobile trail grooming operations have either begun their seasonal operations or plan to next week. At Lolo Pass, on the Idaho-Montana state line off of U.S. Highway 12, there is more than 3 feet of snow and trail grooming operations are underway. The pass received about 4 inches of snow Friday.

Winter snow can also make driving conditions dangerous. The Idaho Transportation Department travel website reported difficult driving conditions Friday on many of the state’s highways, including U.S. Highway 12 and sections of U.S. Highway 95. The Washington Department of Transportation reported moderate conditions on U.S. Highway 195 but clear driving on the major mountain passes along Interstate 90.


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