Spokane and the rest of the Inland Northwest could get a break from severe winter weather this year due to a weak to moderate El Niño developing in the tropical Pacific Ocean.
The National Weather Service isn’t forecasting that winter won’t arrive. But it does mean the region should receive less snow in the valleys from somewhat milder temperatures.
Based on historic weather records, Spokane could get 34.4 inches of snow, which is 14 inches below the long-term winter average. Coeur d’Alene would get 44 inches of snow, which below is the Lake City’s average of 51.4 inches, and Pullman could get 25 inches of snow while Colville can expect 37 inches.
Last year, Spokane had a virtually normal winter with about 49 inches of snowfall.
“We are looking at a weak El Niño,” said Joey Clevenger, forecaster for the weather service in Spokane. “That doesn’t mean we won’t have winter. We could get a few instances of several inches of snow.”
Spokane Mayor David Condon said the city has made changes to its plowing plans.
“The heart of our current snow response plan is really pretty simple: More plowing in more areas sooner,” Condon announced Monday.
The biggest change, however, will be adding gates to plows that should reduce driveway berms.
The latest outlook from the Climate Prediction Center is calling for milder-than-normal conditions across the entire Western U.S. and slightly below normal precipitation for the Inland Northwest.
El Niño is a term for the warming of water in the tropical Pacific Ocean. The reverse is known as La Niña, which can create more severe winter weather in the U.S. While the presence of El Niño or La Niña can affect weather dramatically, the warming or cooling of tropical waters is just one of many different climate factors that can influence winter weather.
Last year, a weak La Niña was present in the Pacific, but it had little affect on what turned out to be a normal winter in Spokane.
This season, the expected El Niño should affect winter weather by allowing Pacific storms to migrate across the subtropical ocean, coming ashore to the south in California. At times, those southern storms may stretch northward into the Inland Northwest.
At the same time, a polar jet stream of high altitude air flow should set up across Canada, blocking cold air from moving into the Northwest.
A strong El Niño can create dry conditions in this region, but the current prediction for a weak El Niño seems to weigh in favor of periodic storms throughout the season, forecasters said.
That has winter sports enthusiasts feeling optimistic that snow will come to the mountains.
At Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park, general manager Brad McQuarrie is counting on snow, especially during the heart of winter from December through February.
He said a weak El Niño “usually means a good season for us. We are going to get snow up here.”
He said his crews are “preparing for a good winter.”
Mt. Spokane is getting ready to inaugurate its new Chair No. 6 on the northwest flank of the mountain, which is expected to lengthen the ski season because the new runs are pointed away from the winter sun.
A weak El Niño could be a plus for mountain driving since the slightly milder temperatures could push snow levels higher in elevation, he said.
Josh Anderson, store manager at the Alpine Haus, 2925 S. Regal St., said he is optimistic about a good winter sports season: “The mountains should just get hammered.”
He said he expects valley temperatures in the low-to-mid-30s, which will reduce snow accumulation in lower elevations, but allow the mountains to build a snowpack.
“It is going to be great in the mountains,” he said.
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