It certainly seems the mild winters of the past several years are a distant memory. This has been the snowiest winter since 2008-09 and the coldest since the early 90s. But the cold wasn't just in Spokane. Check out this list of sites that have seen their record coldest December-early January period on record (keep in mind some of these station records don't go back too far, see last column for details).
So we can see it's been cold and somewhat snowy. To see how snowy its been look at this comparison graphic of satellite pictures from early December vs. early January.
|Satellite comparison of snow cover via visible satellite. The January image suggests just about all of the Inland NW is covered with snow.|
This is quite a change. But its winter and it's not unusual to see widespread snow cover at the beginning of January across the entire Inland Northwest is it? Here is a look at the amount of water in the snow (Snow Water Equivalent- SWE) on each January 10th since 2008.
Based on this, we actually saw the entire region covered by snow in 2016 as well. But this year and that were the only ones since 2008. So if there is snow covering the entire region should this lead to concern? Well it depends. If we could melt all the snow at once it could cause a great concern due to runoff and potential flooding. This time of year it is improbable that we can melt all the snow over the mountains (where you can see the dark blue, purple, and red shading) as it doesn't get warm enough but we can melt some. But it is quite a bit easier to melt a significant (if not all the snow) in the valleys where we see the abundance of white and pale blue shading. Any area shaded in white has at least an inch of water tied up in the snow pack while the light blue shading represents values ranging from 2-4" of water. So what does it take to melt this? Obviously we need to see temperatures above freezing for a prolonged period. But that's not all. It also helps immensely to add wind into the equation. Warm winds and prolonged temperatures above freezing are an enemy of the snow and can cause it to quickly disappear. Imagine taking that 1 to 4" of water trapped in the snow and sending it into the rivers and streams. How about taking that same 1 to 4" of water over urban areas and sending it toward snow-clogged storm drains? That can cause quite a mess and obviously would lead to flooding issues. This scenario can be further complicated by rivers and streams choked with thick ice.
So why are we telling you this? Well it just so happens we are looking at a dramatic change in the weather pattern early next week. Since December, we have been stuck in a persistent weather pattern featuring cold weather systems coming from our northwest. These are notoriously cold systems, and generally pose little threat from a hydrology standpoint.
|Mean 500 mb (18,000' above ground) since December. Note how the colors (or heights) buckle north into Alaska and then drop SE into the remainder of the county. This is indicative of cold NW flow.|
When we compare this weather pattern to what's normal for this time of year we see a clear signal. The blue shaded areas represent below normal heights which generally result in cold weather whereas the orange, yellow, and green shading represent warm conditions.
|500 mb height anomaly values.|
This is quite unusual. Typically we see some warmer systems invading from the southwest tied to a nice tap of relatively warm sub-tropical moisture. When these systems arrive they can bring a rapid warming in temperatures as well as significant precipitation and snow melt. Well after a long respite from such systems, we see hints of one on the horizon. Here is what many of the forecast models are hinting at for next week.
|Weather pattern for next Monday evening (500 mb heights in white, precipitable water is shaded)|
What this reveals is our northwest flow of late will be replaced by southwest flow early next week. Of even more concern is the swath of green and blue shading headed into the Pacific Northwest. This indicates we will be subject to a very moist and warm air mass, which could do a very effective job of melting the low-level snow pack. Now if this feature were only going to be over us for a day it may not do much to the snow pack. However look at this map below for Wednesday. Not much difference is there?
|Weather pattern for next Wednesday (500 mb heights in white, precipitable water is shaded)|
So this at least indicates the potential for warm weather. Here are our forecast highs for next Wednesday.
|Forecast temperatures for next Wednesday|
Notice most of the valley temperatures are above freezing. This will be good for potentially melting the snow, especially over the SE portions of Washington and NC Idaho where you see the greens (temperatures above 45°F) during the day. But what we aren't showing here is many locations across the same area will also see nighttime temperatures remaining above freezing. So its conceivable that some locations across SE Washington and NC Idaho could see temperatures above freezing anywhere from 48-72 hours. We will also see robust south to southwest winds during portions of this period. Below is the wind forecast for Tuesday. These are sustained winds. The gusts will likely range from 20-35 mph.
|Tuesday wind forecast|
So remember earlier when we said about above freezing temperatures and good winds can result in some rapidly melting snow. It's conceivable that a good portion (if not most) of the snow over the Palouse, southern Columbia Basin, LC Valley, and even parts of the the Spokane/CdA could melt during this episode. So that's a significant chunk of the 1 to 4 inches of water tied up in the snow pack which could runoff into the area rivers. What we haven't talked about yet is how much precipitation can we expect in this upcoming weather pattern. The map below shows the GFS model forecast for precipitation amounts possible in a 48-hr period ending Wednesday afternoon.
|Tuesday-Wednesday precipitation forecast|
This is a very impressive amount and is one of the wetter model runs. Locations shaded in yellow are amounts ranging from 1.50" (around Spokane) to nearly 3.00" over parts of the Idaho Panhandle. We suspect the valley precipitation will likely be overdone, but perhaps the mountains aren't showing enough precipitation. The combination of snow melt combined with ample precipitation could lead to some bad things across the region including:
- Flooding of small rivers and streams (especially over SE Washington and the southern ID Panhandle).
- Lowland flooding where the ground is frozen prohibiting infiltration into the soil.
- Ice jams could give way and enhance the flooding potential.
- Urban flooding is a distinct possibility given snow-clogged storm drains.
But since we like to be purveyors of positivity let's not dwell on the negative and instead focus on some of the potential good:
- We will finally be able to walk on snow-free sidewalks,
- We can drive on snow-free roads,
- Just imagine how warm and refreshing 40s will feel compared to more single digit and teens.
- The ice dams on snow-covered roofs may finally melt thus alleviating our worries of potential roof damage.
- Much smaller worry of frozen pipes.
- We won't have to bundle up in countless layer of clothes just to shovel the latest dump of snow.
- Spring is only 68 days away!!