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Warm, wet storm quite a change from recent chill

Warm weather breaking up ice on Lake Whatcom and Lake Padden

A steady warming trend in Whatcom County is helping to break up ice on Lake Whatcom and Lake Padden in Bellingham, Washington on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. Several local lakes and ponds froze over during sub-freezing temperatures earlier in the month
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A steady warming trend in Whatcom County is helping to break up ice on Lake Whatcom and Lake Padden in Bellingham, Washington on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. Several local lakes and ponds froze over during sub-freezing temperatures earlier in the month

Winds with gusts to 55 mph buffeted lowland Whatcom County on Tuesday evening as a warm, wet storm cruised in from the west, ending weeks of cold and dry weather for Northwest Washington and setting the stage for lowland flooding.

At noon Tuesday, a high of 57 degrees was recorded at Bellingham International Airport – a drastic change after six weeks, or more, when the mercury barely rose above freezing.

December in Bellingham was one of the coldest on record, according to the National Weather Service, and the first two weeks of January were running about 10 degrees colder than the average high of 45.

Record high for Jan. 17 is 59 degrees, set in 1977.

“You’re the warmest spot in Western Washington,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Mike McFarland. Large puddles formed as ice-covered Lake Padden began to thaw, observers reported.

Sustained winds of 28 mph were blowing from the south-southeast with gusts to 55 mph around 8 p.m. at the height of the windstorm. A high wind warning was issued through 3 p.m. Wednesday, extending a wind advisory that expired at 3 p.m. Tuesday. A gale warning was in effect through 2 a.m. Wednesday for the Salish Sea and southern Puget Sound.

PSE reported a handful of power outages via its online map Tuesday, including one that affected Bellingham Technical College and nearly 700 other customers in that area north of Bellingham in late morning.

Electricity was restored to all but about 175 customers by 1 p.m., but small outages plagued the Marietta area and the Lummi Peninsula through the afternoon.

“I am stunned that we still have power,” said Judy Hannum of Agate Bay, where the trees were in constant motion. “Out on the lake, the waves are – some windsurfer would love them.”

A flood watch was issued Monday afternoon, because the storm was expected to produce heavy rain, especially at higher elevations of the North Cascades.

Only light rain fell in Bellingham through Tuesday afternoon, with little more than a trace recorded by 4 p.m. The flood watch continues until midnight Wednesday. Heavier rainfall began as winds picked up after dark.

Rain is expected to continue Wednesday and the forecast calls for a high temperature in the low 50s.

Flooding is possible in several Northwest Washington areas, including Whatcom County, where the Nooksack River is of the most concern. Meteorologists say the Nooksack is likely to hit flood stage Tuesday night or Wednesday.

Western Washington rivers are running low, but heavy rain – especially in the higher elevations – could cause them to rise quickly, the weather service said in an online statement Sunday.

The U.S. Geological Survey monitors water levels in rivers and streams. For updated flooding information, go to wa.water.usgs.gov and look under “Latest river conditions.”

In addition, an avalanche warning is in effect through 4 p.m. Wednesday for the North Cascades as rain and snow add a “significant load to existing weak layers formed during the recent cold weather,” the weather service said in a statement.

The Northwest Avalanche Center’s online map indicates high avalanche danger in the backcountry both above and below the treeline.

Mt. Baker Ski Area was closed Tuesday. An advisory at the ski area’s website said a Wednesday closure also is possible.

Whatcom County officials are setting load limits on some roads to guard against damage as the ground thaws quickly.

With the warmer weather, the ground will start thawing, possibly damaging some roads as water is trapped between the road surface and the frozen ground, causing the road to float on a layer of water. Heavy loads can break through the pavement, said Remy McConnell, coordinator of engineering services for the Whatcom County Public Works Department.

Emergency load restrictions affect only heavy loads and not passenger cars and buses, McConnell said.

For a list of roads that are built to all-weather standards and aren’t affected, go online to whatcomcounty.us.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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