High pressure off coast puts squeeze on grape growers

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Your weatherperson is spending Christmas week visiting his beloved children in California’s Disneyland North — the Napa Valley, land of generally overpriced and underwhelming wine — where for quite some time now rain has been as scarce as a $20 bottle of cabernet.

Some of the locals swear the place is about to spontaneously combust which, if true, means that the curse he placed upon this long and narrow piece of real estate when he departed 37 months ago for Walla Walla (not daring to look back for even an instant lest he be transformed into a pillar of salt) is coming to fruition. When your neighborhood grocery store begins carrying Napa-grown Thompson Seedless, Perlettes and Flames, don’t blame global warming, but rather your still resentful forecaster who, tired of the soul- and spirit-sapping Napa Valley life, headed north after casting his climatic “malocchio” on the countryside.

To view maps of the current air pressure conditions over the Pacific Ocean, visit ubne.ws/1chRvqE.

The culprit for the record-breaking drought in Northern California, where precipitation for this calendar year stands at about 20 percent of normal, is the same one responsible for playing havoc with our own rainfall totals here in Southeastern Washington, though to a less drastic extent. For several months, a sprawling area of high pressure has positioned itself just off the West Coast, where its clockwise circulation has shunted fall and winter storms far to the north of California into southern Canada and just brushing the Evergreen State with the occasional bout of light rain or snow. Unless this scenario changes in the new year, California and the Pacific Northwest will be consigned to a persistently drier-than-normal existence, exacerbating an already critically dry situation to our south while increasing our own water concerns here in Washington with each passing abnormally dry month.

We have already seen a flurry of interest on the part of several California-based wineries in acquiring vineyard properties in Oregon and Washington. Much of this activity must be attributed to the serious concerns about water supplies and the resulting worries over the continuing viability of successful viticulture there in the face of a looming crisis. What is needed is for the high to move north and allow the westerly jet that screams at high altitude over the Pacific Ocean to guide a series of wet and wild storms to the coast as it would in a normal winter. Until that high either breaks down or moves away, not much is going to change, precipitation-wise, for anyone in the far West.

Fortunately, the Walla Walla Valley did receive some much-needed precipitation over the last several days in a variety of forms. The 1-2-inch accumulation from a mini-snowstorm Friday was quickly washed away when temperatures aloft warmed sufficiently to change the snow to rain. Residents who were up and about early Saturday morning were obliged to cope with a sheath of ice from freezing rain that had fallen overnight. This in turn gave way to occasional light rain Saturday night and Sunday, followed by another shot of rain and breezes on Monday. The total amounts from these events were somewhat less than scintillating, with barely four-tenths of an inch falling over those four days. Following passage of the cold front late yesterday, colder and drier weather has returned to our area on a northwesterly flow associated with our old nemesis, the West Coast high pressure. This feature will dominate our Christmas week weather and beyond with fair skies and seasonably cool to cold temperatures ranging from the 20s at night to the mid-30s in the afternoon.

As for any help in the precipitation department, the 16-day Global Forecast system outlook is not terribly sanguine in that regard. Right now, it appears that we are headed into the new year under a familiar regime: high and dry for the first week of 2014 with the possibility of a breakdown in the upper air pattern around January 6. In the meantime, let us enjoy good food, family and friends at this festive time of year while hoping for some help in reducing our troubling rainfall deficit in the coming weeks.

A lifelong fan of both the weather and the Baltimore Orioles, Jeff Popick is an instructor at the Center for Enology and Viticulture 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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