El Niño is unlikely to peddle influence in Valley this winter

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Winter arrived in Walla Walla this past week as a trough of low pressure originating in the Gulf of Alaska spread chilly, wet weather over southeastern Washington.

Despite the considerable uncertainty surrounding a possible El Niño and its putative effects on our local weather for the next four months, it will almost certainly be a long, cold winter after last Tuesday for a particular political party that clearly demonstrated its dire need for some serious introspection and a major makeover.

In the Valley, wet snow mixed with rain fell Saturday afternoon and high temperatures failed to make it out of the upper 30s — about 12 degrees less than normal for the date. Snowfall in the neighboring Blue Mountains amounted to 2 to 4 inches, with more expected from a Sunday and early Monday system that was wetter but warmer before it all changed to rain later Monday.

There were more than a few grumbles heard from some locals who complained it was much too early for such unpleasantness and that they had not had sufficient time to prepare themselves either mentally or physically for such a change. But just as many — if not more — expressed their approval of the wintry turn and chose to view it as marking the semi-official beginning of the holiday season.

In the vineyard, grapevines have been preparing for this transition for some time. A combination of dwindling daylight hours and progressively cooler daily temperatures induces their gradual acclimation to winter weather, a process that will continue well into November with the vine becoming increasingly cold hardy with further exposure to lower temperatures.

In addition, grapevines use several different strategies to help them cope with possibly injurious cold, including the sequestration of free water outside of highly cold-susceptible buds and the concentration of solutes which act as an antifreeze in the cells of certain plant tissues. Genetics also play a crucial role in a vine’s ability to withstand winter’s rigors. Some, like riesling and gewürztraminer, are simply more resistant to such assaults owing to their origins in more northern climes.

In the near term, frigid weather will not be a concern. Weak ridging will occur ahead of a rather feeble-looking trough forecast for Thursday that may bring with it a few light showers. Stronger ridging in the wake of this system will encourage a milder flow from the west and southwest for the coming weekend. That will push afternoon maximum temperatures into the 50s before another moist front begins to affect our area on Monday.

If your forecaster were a betting man — and he often is — he would put most of his insubstantial 401K on a wet Thanksgiving, but that should in no way throw cold water on the unbridled overconsumption that makes the holiday such an enjoyable one for those trenchermen among us.

In the long term, the Climate Prediction Center has recently issued its latest pronouncement on the current El Niño Southern Oscillation conditions in the western Pacific. What had earlier this year looked like a developing El Niño and a possibly drier and warmer Washington winter 2012-13 has not evolved as forecast, and sea surface temperatures in much of the critical area remain below minimal El Niño criteria.

The CPC at this point has pretty much thrown up its collective hands in complete bewilderment and has asked New York Times’ blogger Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com fame ­— who was 50 for 50 in correctly calling state presidential election results — to take over the El Niño prognostications from here on in.

So perhaps we can expect considerably more accuracy from that particular news agency in the very near future and, for a small fee, Mr. Silver will also tell you what you will be having for dinner on any given evening in the next 10 years or the date of your next cold.

But with all the El Niño forecasts now thrown into utter disarray, it’s possible that not even Mr. Silver has a good handle how the coming winter will pan out for Walla Walla or anywhere else.

Stand by for just about anything.

A lifelong fan of both the weather and the Baltimore Orioles, Jeff Popick is an instructor at the Enology and Viticulture Center at Walla Walla Community College and manages the school’s teaching vineyard. Send your questions and comments to him at jeffrey.popick@wwcc.edu.

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