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Forecasters optimistic for a ‘wintry’ winter in Whatcom County

Mt. Baker Ski Area opens first in 2015

Mount Baker Ski Area is the first ski area to open in Washington state, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015.
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Mount Baker Ski Area is the first ski area to open in Washington state, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015.

After two years without significant snowfall, especially in the lowlands of Western Washington, forecasters at the National Weather Service are offering hope for winter sports enthusiasts.

Danny Mercer, a meteorologist at the weather service’s Seattle office, said this year is shaping up as a “neutral winter,” without the classic weather patterns known as El Niño and La Niña, but one that holds promise for a more wintry winter in Whatcom County.

“Basically, the La Niña pattern looks pretty marginal,” Mercer said in a phone interview Tuesday, Oct. 4. “Waters are cooling. It looks like a 40 percent chance of a La Niña this year, and zero percent chance of El Niño. It looks more like it could be a neutral year this year.”

It is likely to be cooler than last year, with the snow levels lower.”

Danny Mercer, National Weather Service

Mercer said that forecast is based on measurements of surface water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific off the coast of Chile, which can influence the weather across North America. Water temperatures there have dipped by only 0.3 degrees. Warmer waters portend an El Niño and cooler waters produce a La Niña.

“Because of the transition, there might be a better chance of (lowland) snow,” Mercer said. “We don’t go very long without getting some snow. For the mountain snowpack, they’re kind of expecting about average.”

Neutral years are common, despite the emphasis on El Niño and La Niña, which are often blamed for significant weather events, Mercer said. The Holiday Blast in 1996, a snow emergency that dropped more than 2 feet of snow locally, and a heavy lowland snowfall in 2008 both occurred in neutral years.

“Neutral years don’t mean that we don’t get any weather,” Mercer said. “Neutral years are the most common for flooding.”

About the only weather variable that remains in the weather service’s long-range forecast is the so-called Warm Blob of ocean water parked off the Northwest. But that appears to be cooling, Mercer said.

The Holiday Blast, a snow emergency that dropped more than 2 feet of snow locally in 1996, and a heavy lowland snowfall in 2008 both occurred in neutral years.

“This year, we are expecting temperatures to stay above average through October with average precipitation,” Mercer said. “In the mid-winter period, January into March, we’re looking at near-average temperatures and near-average precipitation.”

Mercer said Western Washington residents should expect some windstorms and flooding in the fall, which are common seasonal events.

“It is likely to be cooler than last year, with the snow levels lower. Last year was really wet, but it was warm at times. This year, we might get a little more winter, maybe. It should be a little more wintry than last year.”

That should be good news for the operators of mountain resorts, including the Mt. Baker Ski Area, which was forced to cancel its signature Giant Banked Slalom snowboarding competition in 2015 because of lack of snow.

Mount Baker Ski Area is the first ski area to open in Washington state, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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