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Lackluster La Niña winter results in lighter-than-normal snowfall, low snowpack

The lower falls in downtown Spokane creates a deafening roar as the Spokane River shows the beginning of spring runoff in this March 5, 2022, photo. While the region experienced a La Nina winter, it didn’t translate to a wetter season and snowpack is well below its normal level at this time of year.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
The lower falls in downtown Spokane creates a deafening roar as the Spokane River shows the beginning of spring runoff in this March 5, 2022, photo. While the region experienced a La Nina winter, it didn’t translate to a wetter season and snowpack is well below its normal level at this time of year. (JESSE TINSLEY)

Spring is upon us, and forecasters are calling for cooler temperatures and normal rainfall amounts this season after Spokane recorded below-average snowfall this winter.

The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center issued on Thursday a seasonal temperature outlook for April through June that leans toward below-average temperatures and an equal chance for above-average and below-average precipitation.

The Northwest experienced a La Niña winter, which can result in heavy precipitation, but that wasn’t the case this year.

“Just because the odds would suggest that that’s more likely to happen, doesn’t mean that it always happens,” said Jon Fox, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Spokane.

Fox said 36.7 inches of snow fell, as of Friday, since the fall season at the Spokane International Airport. That’s 6.7 inches below the normal through March 18 of past years. It was the least amount of snowfall since the 2015-16 season (again, through March 18), when 33.6 inches fell.

Snowpack is also below normal so far this year – at least on Mount Spokane. Snowpack is at about 80% of the mountain’s average this time of year, Fox said.

“That’s not good,” he said.

Fox said, ideally, the snowpack level would be at 100% or higher, which is expected in a La Niña year.

Fox said snowpack, which is at its peak now, typically starts to slowly decrease in late March or early April and then dramatically declines later in April and into May.

A warm, dry spring accelerates the snowmelt and allows mountain vegetation to dry out more quickly, potentially leading to a busier wildfire season, Fox said.

“The quicker you melt the snow, the longer the potential fire season can be,” he said.

A cool, wet spring that continues to add snow on the mountains possibly mitigates the fire season.

“We don’t know what’s gonna happen,” he said.

Fox said it’s difficult to say why snowpack is lower than normal.

He said snowpack was at or above normal through mid-January. Spokane and the surrounding mountains got pelted with snow in early January, but a fairly dry pattern settled in the region from mid-January through most of February.

“We never really recovered from that,” Fox said. “We never really got the snowpack back to normal because it was so dry for that period.”

Light precipitation is expected overnight Sunday into Monday morning, with the possibility of some scant mountain snow, the National Weather Service reported Sunday afternoon. No accumulation of snow is expected in Spokane or Coeur d’Alene.

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