Winter forecast? It's going to get cold
When thinking about last year's winter in the Pacific Northwest, one word comes to mind: extreme.
Extreme snow last winter caused large-scale safety issues in the region, including people going so far as abandoning their cars on the freeways during snowstorms, long periods of time that businesses were shut down, and major delays because of impassible roads.
So how might this winter play out?
That's the question the area's most prominent weather forecasters and meteorologists spend much time analyzing in efforts to help people prepare as much as possible.
Every year, forecasters reflect on the previous winter and then present their research about how the upcoming winter may look at the annual Winter Weather Forecast Conference, held Oct. 28 at OMSI in Portland. It's presented by the Oregon Chapter of the American Meteorological Society (AMS).
"I would say for my career, that (winter 2016-2017) was the toughest winter," said Mark Nelsen, a meteorologist. "It was one of the toughest ones we've had here — just all the different events."
He said it was the most active winter since 1995-1996, and the coldest winter since 1979-1980 in the Portland area. He emphasized that during some of the snow events, there were children stuck on buses until midnight, while people were stuck in their cars for hours.
"I think (the Oregon Department of Transportation) and everybody else learned quite a bit from this. What doesn't work on roads, what does," Nelsen said, when an audience member yelled, "Pass the salt!"
"I'm not a big fan of salt, but for two days of winter, I don't think it's going to kill anybody," Nelsen said.
In total, at the highest point, there was 11.2 inches of snow recorded at Portland International Airport, where the National Weather Service officially measures — but KGW measured 15.5 inches downtown. That's compared to 1.1 inches in winter 2015-2016, which was the fourth warmest on record.
During winter 2016-2017, there were four snow events, according to the Portland National Weather Service, based at the airport.
That number would have been on par with what Kyle Dittmer predicted for last year. Dittmer is a hydrologist and meteorologist with the Columbia Intertribal Fish Commission.
However, contrary to the National Weather Service, he counted five events, meaning when there was measurable snow.
"That was my best snow forecast ever," he told the audience. "But what a crazy season that was."
What's on tap this winter?
This winter, Dittmer is predicting five snow events, three moderate (three to four inches "a pop" he said) and two minor ones. He said the first event would likely happen between Dec. 1 and Dec. 15. He also predicts intense rain, flooding and freezing rain.
Winter "outlook" predictions by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations were somewhat more vague, mainly indicating that winter temperatures will be cooler than normal, and that a weak La Nina has a 55- to 65-percent chance of developing before winter sets in.
Rod Hill, a meteorologist with KGW, predicts between 32 and 39 inches of total precipitation, a normal- to below-normal year — potentially 11 to 20 inches drier than last year. Additionally, he predicted there will be much less snow, about a trace to two inches.
"I always am nervous when I come to these events because you can look pretty silly trying to figure out the next season's forecast if, for example, it were raining today and you watched me yesterday and I said it was going to be clear," he said. "So, it's always a nice perk when it's the same forecast that we projected. But why are we doing this when we clearly, especially this time of the year, struggle getting past day five on the seven-day forecast? Quite frankly the answer is, we're trying to learn a skill."
He said there's a lot of buzz and manpower in the field of meteorology right now to get better at seasonal projections.
Some weather aficionados have been working hard to get radar on the Oregon coast, forming a committee (the Oregon Coast Radar Committee) to do so. House Resolution 353 was passed into law in Congress on April 18 to identify gaps in radar coverage across the country.
"Oregon coast radar is important because there's literally no coverage out on the Oregon coast below 10,000 feet and that's where pretty much all of our weather comes from year-round, so it's important that we have accurate information," said Bobby Corser, vice president of the Oregon AMS. However, because of back-to-back major weather events, including recent hurricanes, an expected report on the issue by the National Weather Service hasn't been completed yet.
"As soon as we know, we can ramp up our efforts," Corser said.
For now, Mother Nature still has the tendency to go against even the most informed predictions.
"You know, we talk about La Nina, El Nino; I think there's a lot we don't know about our climate," Nelsen said. "Each of these winters is different, we see different patterns each winter. We may pretend like we know a lot, but sometimes, I think there's a lot we don't know."