Rain, snow quench thirsty West Coast

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By anyone’s standards, it was one heck of a week for us weather people here in the West. Mother Nature rolled out her full winter arsenal and loosed a barrage of torrential rain and heavy snow on the (mostly) grateful residents of California, Oregon and Washington. Many were wondering what had happened to their usual seasonal dose of Pacific storms this year, and whether we were destined to simply dry up and blow away after suffering months of abnormally low precipitation.

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Earl Blackaby

A squirrel finally made it to Earl Blackaby's feeder after struggling to traverse a yard filled with the 7-9 inches of snow that fell on Walla Walla over the weekend.

Say what you will about whomever is pushing the weather buttons upstairs in that big control room in the sky. But whomever it is seems to have a fine sense of drama paired with a bit of a sly, mischievous streak that lends itself perfectly to performing nearly impossible acts of inexplicable natural grandeur with a wry sense of timing that can only make us shake our heads in collective wonder. No, your weatherperson has not seen the Creator in an exquisitely formed, six-sided snowflake. But our daily weather is a source of constant marvel and fascination for him, and likely will be until his dust supplies the cloud condensation nuclei for some future rain- or snowstorm.

Meteorologically, it was the infamous “pineapple connection” that furnished the copious rains and snows that fell here in the West during the last several days. A long and gloriously wet plume of Pacific moisture stretching all the way back to the Hawaiian Islands and beyond furnished the raw material for the various forms of precipitation that fell from the heavens. Multiple waves of low pressure riding that swath propelled by a suddenly reinvigorated jet stream made landfall on the West Coast from San Francisco to Seattle (hard to write those two names in such close juxtaposition in view of recent developments on the gridiron). That moisture was wrung out by both the west-facing mountains that felt its brunt to our south and by the cold air already in place here in the Pacific Northwest, courtesy of a large arctic high pressure system to our north and east.

In California, already reeling under the desperation of the driest year since record-keeping began in 1849, folks had resorted to a variety of wild and frantic acts designed to appease the weather gods and bring the rains back before the entire state was condemned by the government as uninhabitable. Last week, well-heeled — but very worried — winery owners in the Napa Valley had even amassed a burnt offering of Rolexes, Range Rovers and slightly worn pairs of Manolo Blahnik shoes in an effort to demonstrate the depth of their anguish. Vineyard managers who were already seeing a February bud break in their vines thanks to multiple winter days with highs in the 70s, envisioned a horrific multi-month frost season virtually devoid of any water with which to combat the subfreezing nighttime temperatures that invariably plague that area in March, April and occasionally May. All of that changed with the arrival of the “Express” last week. Several inches of rain poured down on the Northern California lowlands, with the Sierra benefiting from a new mantle of snow that measured 3 feet or more in many places. Closer to the coast, where mountains first intercepted the rich trove of incoming Pacific moisture, a couple of spots in Marin and Sonoma counties racked up more than 20 inundatory inches of rainfall in the 72-hour period ending Monday morning. A February miracle indeed!

Farther north in Oregon, where cold air was already well-entrenched, places like Corvallis and Eugene were blasted by 10 or more inches of snow. This was followed by an ice storm that coated most of the Willamette Valley and the Portland metro area in a shimmering sheath of freezing rain as temperatures aloft climbed sufficiently to change the snow to rain, which froze almost instantaneously upon contact with anything it touched on the still subfreezing ground. At higher elevations in the Oregon Cascades, two-three feet of new snow put a new and happy face on what had been dismal snowpack numbers up until last week.

Here in the Walla Walla Valley, three consecutive overnight snows on Thursday, Friday and Saturday deposited a total of 7-10 inches of snow over the region in what was the biggest snowfall here in quite a few years — an event that delighted many, but proved to be a serious impediment to travel on city side streets that were piled high with the stuff. For the wheat farmers and vineyard owners, it was a godsend. For those who have already tired of such winter weather shenanigans, the next few days will offer warmer temperatures entrained by the fast zonal (west-to-east) flow off the Pacific that will also bring a couple of bouts of rain and wind (particularly Wednesday) as systems zip across Southeast Washington. In other words, melting snow and rain this week will cause a real mess here locally and may even lead to some creek and river flow issues in the near term. The upcoming quagmire will practically ensure that the pruning of vines, set to start this week in your weatherperson’s vineyards at Walla Walla Community College, begins on a very muddy and sloppy note — a fact that is guaranteed to delight both students and instructor, all of whom will be buried at least ankle-deep in the muck there.

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 Jeff Popick at jeffrey.popick@wwcc.edu.

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