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If we see a new chilly 'La Nina,' it could mean a snowy winter ahead

| June 14, 2010 9:00 PM

As we promised last week, this 'Gems' column will feature updates by my Harris-Mann Climatology partner, Randy Mann, concerning the latest sea-surface temperatures, plus a color map and a current sunspot forecast.

Here are Randy's outlooks:

"It appears that 'El Nino,' the warmer than normal sea-surface temperature event in the south-central Pacific Ocean, is gone. At this moment, it looks like we're in a 'La Nada,' a cycle between the El Nino and a cooler than normal La Nina pattern.

Prior to the late 1990s, it would often take several years for sea-surface temperatures to flip from the El Nino to La Nina. Within the last 10 years, though, we've seen sudden changes from El Nino to La Nina, and vice-versa, sometimes in mere months.

The latest sea-surface temperature chart shows only areas of isolated warmer ocean waters near the West Coast of South America. But, the Equatorial regions have cooled down. In fact, there is a strip of sea-surface temperatures along the Equator that are actually 'cooler' than normal. Whether this is an indication of the formation of a new 'La Nina' is still too early to tell, but certainly needs watching.

The Southern Hemisphere will soon be in its winter season, so it's possible that we may see further cooling of the Equatorial waters over the next several months.

If current trends continue, we would likely see an increase in the number of tropical storm and hurricane formations by the late summer or early fall season. If another full-blown 'La Nina' occurs, then the upcoming winter season across the northern U.S. may be severe, like the ones in 2007-08 and 2008-09.

In terms of solar activity, from late 2008 through early 2010, sunspots (storms on the sun), were almost non-existent. Since the current 'lull' in solar activity began in 2004, there have been well over 700 days without solar storms. A typical 'solar minimum' cycle is approximately 485 days. The cycle from a solar 'minima' to a solar 'maxima' is usually around 11 years.

From April 15 to 27, a time when the sun was scheduled to see an increase in solar storms, sunspot numbers returned to 'zero,' indicating that our sun was not heading toward its expected 'maxima' cycle. However, beginning April 28, sunspot numbers began dramatically increasing with a total of 61 sunspots on May 4 and 77 sunspots on May 5. During that time, these readings were some of the highest numbers seen in over a year.

Then suddenly, the sun once again 'went quiet,' as sunspot numbers returned to zero from May 9 through 19. Since May 20, however, there have been an average of 10 to 30 sunspots observed daily on the Sun's surface. Although these numbers are still low, this new trend indicates, at least at this time, that we're seeing a 'back and forth' pattern, rather than a definite course toward the new solar 'maxima' cycle.

During the 'peak' of solar activity in late 1990s, we were seeing 200-300 solar storms each day. The next solar 'maxima' cycle is due in late 2012. Many scientists suggest that the upcoming maxima will be very strong, but there hasn't been much evidence yet to support this possible event, but that could change quickly. If solar activity were to suddenly increase, then we could experience a number of communication problems that would affect cell phones, television signals, GPS and other electronics that depend on satellite transmissions.

If sunspot numbers remain low, it's likely that the Earth will not see much warming between now and early 2011. In fact, if the solar numbers remain low or even return to 'zero,' another cold winter may be in store for much of the nation, especially if we see a new cooler 'La Nina' form near the Equatorial regions of the Pacific Ocean. Stay tuned for further updates."

By the way, Randy will again be teaching two Physical Geography courses at North Idaho College beginning in late August for the fall semester.

NORTH IDAHO WEATHER REVIEWS AND LONG-RANGE OUTLOOKS

It's indeed true that most people have very short 'weather memories.' That's why I've kept daily scrapbooks for more than 58 years.

It was just three months ago in early March, following an extremely dry, almost snowless, mild El Nino-affected winter season, that area hydrologists feared "a dire shortfall of water" in North Idaho and much of the rest of the Inland Empire this fast-approaching blistering 2010 summer.

But, that was 'then,' and this is 'now.'

The El Nino is dead. The spring of 2010 suddenly turned wet and cool as we predicted. We've had nearly a 'foot' of rain in Coeur d'Alene since late February, including more than two inches of precipitation in just the first 9 days of June, already above the 1.78 inches that normally falls during the entire month.

Ron Abramovich, NRCS water supply specialist, said this past Wednesday, "these dramatic weather changes have resulted in an incredible moisture situation turn-around. We now expect adequate water supplies for most of Idaho's numerous users."

Despite briefly interrupting various outdoor activities, these recent showers have been a 'real blessing' for we residents of 'Camelot.' As the song goes, they have been "pennies from heaven." We've saved money on lawn and field irrigation. The cool temperatures have delayed the onset of rather costly air-conditioning. I'm not having my air-conditioner turned on until June 15, about two weeks later than usual.

I should mention the cool, wet weather is not abnormal for early June. Just two years ago on June 10, 2008, Pullman, Wash., had an all-time June snowfall of two inches. We had a 'trace' of the white stuff in Coeur d'Alene. Since 1895, there have been at least two dozen killer freezes locally in North Idaho during the first two weeks of June. Thus far, however, June of 2010 has been frost-free.

As I said last week, we normally gauge about half of our total June rainfall of 1.78 inches during the first 10 days of the month. Then, things usually begin to warm up and dry out.

This June's weather is no exception. We are already seeing warmer temperatures and gradually decreasing rainfall amounts.

High pressure will soon build in over the Inland Northwest for an extended stay. We still see at least 25 to 30 warm to hot 90 degree-plus 'Sholeh Days' this summer of 2010 between late June and mid- to late-September. Total precipitation should dip to just 70 percent of normal for the 90-day span ending Sept. 30.

Thank God that we had these MILLION DOLLAR RAINS during the spring of 2010. Perhaps we'll avoid an expected disastrous fire season afterall. One thing's for sure, the huckleberry picking outlook has certainly improved with the added moisture. Our gardens look great!

To the avid golfers, especially those individuals that moved up here from sunny California, I'm sorry about those rain-delayed 'tee times' that have you 'teed-off.' Have some 'tea,' iced or hot, and cool off. Better weather lies ahead. Believe it!

Remember, 'Camelot' isn't Lake Tahoe in the winter, Fresno in the spring, San Francisco in the summer or Los Angeles in the fall.

Up here ... we have FOUR SEASONS ... and much better economic conditions, I might add. Again, thank God ... Happy Flag Day!

LATE NOTE

This weekend was terrific - we had 83 degrees on Sunday afternoon - despite the fact I'm only in sales, not in production. We have much more nice weather ahead in the next 3-4 months, despite the occasional shower or thunderstorm. The worst of the spring weather is over.

Cliff Harris is a climatologist who writes a weekly column for The Press. His opinions are his own. E-mail sfharris@roadrunner.com

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