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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Christmas travel plans should include preparation for light snow and frigid temperatures

Snow gathers at Bowl and Pitcher on Friday, Dec. 15, 2017, in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Inland Northwest holiday travelers are not likely to run into the kinds of weather problems that beset the region with heavy snow over most of the past week.

Lighter snowfall is possible Thursday night into Friday before dry, cold air descends from the far north, bringing sunny skies on Saturday and Sunday.

Overnight lows should dip into the single digits Friday and Saturday nights under the arctic air.

Snow chances return gradually on Sunday evening through Tuesday, as temperatures begin to moderate, with highs going from 19 in Spokane on Sunday to the mid-20s on Monday and Tuesday.

What that means for the chances of a white Christmas is up in the air. At least there are patches of snow on the ground at lower elevations, and those will stay in place.

The winter solstice arrives at 8:28 a.m. Thursday, the official start of winter.

Nationally, the AAA organization is forecasting that 107.3 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more during the holiday season from Saturday through New Year’s Day. That is a 3.1 percent increase from last year. Of the travelers, 97.4 million will go by automobile.

Across the Inland Northwest, roadways should remain passable, although any amount of snow can cause trouble, forecasters said.

“There are no big storms coming that would produce widespread significant snowfall that we see at this time,” said Jeremy Wolf, forecaster for the National Weather Service in Spokane. “There would be mainly light accumulations.”

The forecast is different in the mountains where heavy snow fell in the past several days.

“It looks like the best chance of snow will be over the mountains and southeast Washington,” Wolf said.

All five of the region’s ski areas reported top-quality conditions where snowfall for the two days ending Wednesday ranged from 16 to 32 inches. From 4 to 6 feet was reported on the ground at the ski mountain summits.

Brad McQuarrie, general manager at Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park, said his crews were digging out Wednesday morning from the heavy snow. It was a welcome sight after an early opening in November was followed by rainy weather and then an extended dry spell.

“To have 2 feet every day before Christmas really sets you up” for what is traditionally a very busy period, McQuarrie said.

The Mt. Spokane website declared, “Yahoo. Last system dumped plenty of snow.”

There was so much new snow Wednesday at Schweitzer Mountain ski resort that crews had to perform avalanche control, which would continue in the early morning Thursday, according to the resort website.

Lookout Pass on Interstate 90 at the Idaho-Montana state line was open Wednesday with traffic moving on a snowy surface.

Snoqualmie Pass was open, as well, with slush and ice following a temporary closure Tuesday of the eastbound lanes.

The recent storms have pushed Spokane ahead of normal for season snowfall with 18.3 inches recorded at Spokane International Airport compared with a season normal of 15.8 inches of snow through Tuesday.

That’s consistent with a preseason forecast of higher-than-normal precipitation due to a La Nina cooling of ocean waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean.

It’s also prompted a new record. The National Weather Service reported that Spokane received 1.12 inches of precipitation on Tuesday, the first time more than an inch of rain has fallen in a day in nearly three years.

The amount broke the previous daily record for rain in Spokane, which was set in 1895.

The U.S. Climate Prediction Center is calling for above-normal precipitation and below-normal temperatures in January through March.

Wolf said the classic La Nina pattern where a northwest flow combines with moisture off the Pacific is nudging closer to the region and should push the arctic air mass to the east, but dry high-air pressure and cold could return.

In fact, the weather service’s main computer forecast model is calling for another dry spell starting Wednesday. However, the same model shows a storm possible in the region during the week after New Year’s.