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Friday, May 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Weathercatch: March’s exit – Mother Nature threw the kitchen sink at us

Raindrops are seen on a car window on Tuesday, March 31, 2020, off of Highway 291 in Nine Mile Falls, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Raindrops are seen on a car window on Tuesday, March 31, 2020, off of Highway 291 in Nine Mile Falls, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
By Nic Loyd and Linda Weiford For The Spokesman-Review

You know how March supposedly comes in like a lion and out like a lamb? Not this year.

On March 31, the Inland Northwest experienced snow, rain, graupel, thunder and lightning, winds and even a tornado – all topped by the biggest jolt of all: an earthquake.

All in less than 12 hours.

Conditions were driven by a cool trough of low pressure from the northwest that spun out waves of unstable air over Washington. Cold air aloft, winds and plenty of moisture created a witch’s brew of what meteorologists call unsettled weather. On this date, however, it was particularly mercurial.

The day began innocently enough, with breeziness, scattered clouds and a few brief stints of sunshine. By early afternoon, conditions were alternating between rain, snow, and graupel – a form of precipitation that resembles pea-sized Styrofoam balls that bounce on contact with the ground.

Meanwhile, up to an inch of snow fell in the Spokane area, 2 inches in Coeur d’ Alene and 4 inches in Ponderay, north of Sandpoint.

Then, a small but rare tornado touched down just north of Richland shortly after 2:30 p.m. Identified as a landspout tornado by the National Weather Service, the narrow, tube-shaped funnel is believed to have formed close to the ground and spun upward. This compares to a typical supercell tornado which is spawned by a thunderstorm and then spins downward toward the ground. On this final day in March, unstable weather conditions – courtesy of a cool trough amid fickle springtime conditions – merged with afternoon surface heating to produce converging winds near land. This resulted in a large, rapidly rotating column of air rarely seen in the Pacific Northwest.

As if a tornado, rain, snow and graupel weren’t enough for one region, isolated thunderstorms and gusty winds rolled through parts of south Spokane County and North Idaho in late afternoon. Hunkered down indoors by the coronavirus pandemic, many of us watched the multitude of weather events unfold from our home windows.

Then, with life already feeling upended, an earthquake struck north of Boise. The 6.5-magnitude quake caused a low rumble here in the Inland Northwest, where dishes rattled in cupboards and hanging lights swayed. Fortunately, the epicenter was located in a remote mountainous area so little damage was reported and no injuries. But frayed nerves? You bet.

Obviously, the earthquake wasn’t related to the day’s whiplash weather conditions. But it was a reminder that at the end of the day, Mother Nature has the final word – and that sometimes she gives us all kinds of reasons to stay indoors.

Nic Loyd is a Washington meteorologist. Linda Weiford is a writer in Moscow, Idaho, who’s also a weather geek. Contact: ldweiford@gmail.com.

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