Sudden break in weather pattern brings a solid month of snow

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Steady snowfall throughout February has salvaged the winter recreation season. Photo by Marcy Stamper

By Ann McCreary

You know all those winter storms battering the Midwest and East Coast that we’ve been hearing about here in the Pacific Northwest?

“Those were our storms,” according to Scott Pattee, a Washington state water supply specialist.

Finally, the change in weather over the past three weeks has produced the winter we deserve, and the outlook for water supplies and winter recreation is looking a lot more upbeat here in the Methow Valley and throughout the region.

“We were on track to have the lowest snow year in our organization’s history, even compared to 1976-77 when the pass [over the North Cascades] didn’t close,” James DeSalvo, executive director of Methow Valley Sport Trails Association (MVSTA), said this week.

A stubborn weather pattern established itself in early winter, producing a ridge of high pressure off the West Coast. The ridge blocked storms headed for California, Oregon and Washington, sending them northward, said Pattee, who works for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Mount Vernon, Wash.

“The high pressure ridge locked in over us all the way through January … like a big glass bubble right over us,” Pattee said. “That’s why the East Coast was getting pounded. The storms were going north and getting caught up into the polar vortex, then dropping back down into the Great Lakes.”

That persistent weather system began breaking down in early February, producing almost daily snow that has finally brought winter to the Methow Valley at a time when the season is usually winding down.

“It’s been fascinating. This month we haven’t really had a break, every single day there’s a refreshment of new snow,” DeSalvo said Tuesday

(Feb. 25). “We’ve been grooming almost double-time to stay on top of the snow.”

Separate seasons

February has been a dramatic change from the first half of winter, when snow drought prevented MVSTA from opening all of its 200 kilometers of cross country ski trails until Feb. 10. “It feels like two separate seasons,” DeSalvo said.

Snow depth in Mazama measured 50 inches Tuesday, compared to about 8 inches at the beginning of the month, DeSalvo said. The snow is about 15 inches deeper in Mazama now than at this same time last year, he said.

The recent precipitation means good news for the mountain snowpack, which was at 55 percent of normal statewide on Feb. 1, said Pattee. As of Tuesday the snowpack statewide was 92 percent of normal.

The snowpack measurements refer to the water content in the snow, Pattee said. “We’ve jumped leaps and bounds,” Pattee said. “Our runoff forecast last month was beginning to look a little grim.”

The Upper Columbia region, which includes the Methow and Okanogan valleys, saw snowpack increase from 67 percent of normal on Feb. 1 to 85 percent of normal this week, Pattee said.

Snowpack measured at Harts Pass is now at 103 percent of normal, up from 77 percent of normal on Feb. 1. Snow depth at Harts Pass on Tuesday was 110 inches, compared to 60 inches on Feb. 1.

The mountain snow is good news for Loup Loup Ski Bowl, which opened to skiers on Feb. 15. The ski area has a snow base of about two feet at the top of the resort, said General Manager Sandy Liman.

Loup Loup has seen a cumulative snowfall of about 54 inches at the base, compared to 120 inches last year. “Last year it all came early and stayed. These are totally opposite types of winters,” said Liman.

Economic hardships

Lack of snow during the important Christmas and Martin Luther King holidays has caused economic hardship for MVSTA and the Loup. “You just can’t replace a lost Christmas — that’s 30 percent of our business,” Liman said.

“We’re projecting we’ll be down compared to the last couple of years. How much, I don’t really know,” DeSalvo said.

Liman struck deals this winter with a dozen regional downhill ski areas from Canada to Oregon that agreed to give Loup Loup season pass holders discounts on lift tickets or even free skiing.

“They [the resorts] really stepped up. There was a lot of solidarity. I told them, ‘The natives are getting restless. As general manager, I’m fearing for my life,’” Liman said.

The recent Presidents Day holiday and the following week, when many public schools were out for break, were as good or better for business than past years, according to Liman and DeSalvo. And both MVSTA and the Loup are hoping to make up for a little lost time and revenue by keeping operations going longer this winter.

“Last year we ended grooming on March 24. We’re looking at continuing into April,” DeSalvo said. Liman said the Loup, which typically closes the third week of March, will stay open through the last weekend in March, if snow conditions permit.

Both organizations are also offering early sales of season passes that can be used for the remainder of this season as well as next winter to entice skiers onto their trails and slopes.

While the near-normal winter snowpack means a better outlook for spring runoff, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the region won’t experience a severe wildfire season, Pattee cautioned.

“The fire season really comes down to what happens in the spring. If it’s long and cool the fire season isn’t as bad. If you get a rapid snowmelt and rapid dry-out in June and July, that’s when you can have problems,” Pattee said.

“Some of the worst fire seasons have been in heavy snowpack years. It’s a Catch 22,” he said. “You get tons of growth so you have all that fuel out there.”

The weather outlook for the next week or so looks like a drier pattern, Pattee said. For the three months beyond that, it’s hard to tell, he said.

“NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) predicts what they call ‘equal chances.’ The models aren’t agreeing well.” In other words, Pattee said, it’s anybody’s guess whether the next three months will be hot or cold, wet or dry.

Looking forward, “it’s shaping up to be another El Niño next year, which usually means pretty good snow years” for the Northwest, Pattee said.

“The storms tend to cycle off the Pacific … and come across the northern tier. It’s good for Canada and Washington,” he said.