Old Man Winter finally delivered his winter goods: frigid temperatures; wind chill advisories; heavy snow; ice storms. Over a period of five days, the Pacific Northwest endured one winter storm system after another.
Ironically, just days before this wintry onslaught, we were marveling over the unseasonably warm start to 2021 and the lack of snow. As one mild day blossomed into another in the Inland Northwest – temperatures climbed as high as 53 degrees in Spokane and 57 in Lewiston-Clarkston on Feb. 1 – it was easy to dismiss the groundhog’s prediction of six more weeks of winter. As we wrote in our Feb. 4 column, it would take a much different atmospheric circulation pattern to flip the script to hard-core winter.
Eight days later, the script got flipped.
Overnight on Friday, the Inland Northwest saw the coldest temperatures in two years. The mercury dipped to 9 degrees in Spokane, with a feels-like windchill temperature of minus 10. Deer Park, Chewelah, Bonners Ferry and Post Falls experienced similar windchill conditions. At the same time, light to moderate snow fell across southeastern Washington and the Idaho Panhandle. Even the normally temperate Lewiston-Clarkston Valley experienced its first significant snowfall of the winter, with 2 inches falling overnight and another 2 inches that fell on Saturday.
On the other side of the state, Saturday marked Seattle’s snowiest February day in almost 100 years, with nearly 9 inches of powdery snowfall. (This, compared to 1.2 inches that fell during all of 2020). Also, a rare ice storm warning in southwestern Washington and Oregon’s Willamette Valley materialized into snowfall followed by freezing rain. Significant icing led to multiple road closures, downed trees and power lines and tens of thousands of people without electricity from Vancouver southward into Portland and Salem.
Back in the Inland Northwest, Spokane largely missed the first two rounds of precipitation, with sputtering flurries on Saturday into Valentine’s Day on Sunday.
But the heaviest snow was yet to come. Widespread snowfall beginning Sunday night dumped a foot or more in some locations by Tuesday evening. Close to 5 inches fell in Spokane, while Moscow-Pullman, Colfax and Moses Lake got up to 12 inches or more. A number of schools were closed on Tuesday, along with the University of Idaho campus.
Our region was far from alone. Tuesday’s satellite images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed nearly three-quarters of the lower 48 states covered with snow.
How did we go from mild conditions to frigid temperatures followed by a destructive band of ice and snow?
It began with a spinning whirl of Arctic air from the North Pole that swooped into the Midwest and Northern Plains less than two weeks ago. That air mass then spilled east and west. Eventually, subsequent cold temperatures locked over the Pacific Northwest merged with several incoming storm systems from the northern Pacific Ocean that were packed with precipitation.
While some people are delighted to finally be skiing through deep powder, others are fed up with shoveling and commuting on slippery roads. More snow is possible tonight into tomorrow, although not of the magnitude of what we just experienced.
Perhaps it’s a good time to remind ourselves that astronomical spring is only a month away.
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