Southeast slammed by big snow
Last year we had a half day of snowfall on January 3, before it melted away. The year before that, we didn't have any.
This year we hit the jackpot.
Inner Southeast Portland residents didn't experience a "White Christmas" – but ice and snow swept through the area both before and after Christmas itself, starting in early December.
On December 8 came snow, followed by sleet and freezing rain – a relatively small, short-term event. Then, the city was paralyzed by a bigger snow and ice storm on December 14. But we hadn't seen anything yet.
After the Holidays, came a bit of snow and sleet on January 7. But, on January 10, there was a once-in-a-decade heavy snowfall dumping 8 to 12 inches of snow in less than half a day, which just stayed there, making travel and school difficult or impossible for the rest of the week because the temperatures stayed below freezing day and night through the following weekend. It was considered a major, almost record-setting, event.
In the frozen Christmas-Card landscape, families made snowpeople, sleds sold out in local stores, and some risked ice skating on the thin ice of Oaks Bottom lagoon. On January 12, while cross-country skiing down there, kilt-wearing Sellwood resident Ronald Brown broke through that ice, and ended up in knee-deep chilly water. He was walked out by rescuers.
To the delight of kids, and the distress of some parents, school was cancelled for days. Many shopkeepers in the area were closed, because the increasingly icy streets were impassible to both employees and shoppers. Many office workers telecommuted. Only home businesspeople, of which there are many in Inner Southeast, experienced no difficulties in the home-to-work commute!
During the big snowstorm, the crew at the Woodstock Ace Hardware told THE BEE that shovel sales were brisk – until they sold out.
BEE readers who saw the article about the annual American Meteorological Association "What Will Winter Be Like" meeting, in our December issue, may not have been surprised by this strong blast of winter weather.
That's because, at that late October meeting, Kyle Dittmer – Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Hydrologist and Meteorologist, and also Professor of Earth Sciences at Portland Community College's Southeast Campus – surprised the audience in the auditorium with a bold prediction.
We got back to Dittmer for comment after the heavy snowfall, and he remarked, "When I predicted four snow events, two minor and two major, I could hear people gasping as I announced it, all the way up to the podium!"
Earlier in his career, Dittmer had worked for the National Weather Service, before moving on to his current position. "I've been here forecasting weather for the last 20 years, but in the last few years, I feel my forecasting has gotten better. My models use data from here in the Pacific Northwest, instead of using a portion of the national weather model."
Part of his forecasting takes into account the "El Niño–Southern Oscillation" (ENSO), which he describes as an irregularly-periodical variation in winds and sea surface temperatures over the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean.
"I sometimes call the ENSO 'the heartbeat southern Pacific'; and there's a direct correlation between its activity and the Columbia Basin water supply," Dittmer explained.
He develops a mathematical relationship to calculate the overall water potential, and, over two decades he has developed a "sliding snow event" scale for each winter season. "This time I went with four snow events," he remarked.
"I've waited for 20 years to feel this good about a forecast!" Dittmer chuckled. "It comes from choosing the 'more correct' years to use in the analysis. So, It's not magic, it is experience."
"At the AMS meeting I downplayed that we'd get a big whopper of a storm in January to not incite unnecessary fear," Dittmer said, "but we were long overdue for a big storm like this, which typically comes at the end of January."
Just before this year's major storm, early on January 10, NOAA forecasters were still underestimating the amount of precipitation heading into Portland – and here is where it met cold air pushed downward by the jet stream.
"Some of the moisture in what is called the 'Pineapple Express', an 'atmospheric river', peeled off from Northern California and headed up north," Dittmer clarified. "In terms of moisture coming up, we got a 'fire hose' instead of a 'squirt' – and that, meeting the cold air here, triggered the large snowfall."
The winter season isn't over yet, Dittmer pointed out. "We're still in an active season that doesn't end until well after Valentine's Day and we could still see another snow or ice event."
According to his analysis, January will average near-normal precipitation, about 102% of normal; February will average out to be about 98% of normal precipitation; and, in March Dittmer expects above-normal precipitation – as much as 117% of normal.
It's been an eventful winter to remember in Inner Southeast Portland – and it may not be over yet.