Rain, snow and ice glaze Inland Northwest

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Moisture totals for the start of 2019 are doing well across Coeur d’Alene and the rest of the Inland Empire. We did get a break from the precipitation this weekend, but more rain and snow should be seen across the region toward the middle to the end of the week.

Last Wednesday, we saw one of the biggest ice storms since the one on Nov. 19, 1996. During that year, about a half-inch of rain fell on the frozen surface, creating damage and widespread power outages. Last week, there were reports of trees and branches coming down that led to some power outages.

On Wednesday morning, Cliff had about 0.4 inches of ice at his station, as rain fell Tuesday night with surface temperatures below freezing. In fact, the reading was down to 27.8 inches when the rain was falling.

What occurs in the upper atmosphere usually determines what happens at the surface. In the case of the ice storm, the air above us was above freezing. Cold air got trapped at ground-level and temperatures went below freezing. When the cold rain hits the frozen surface, it quickly turns to ice.

For snow to fall, the upper-level air temperatures are much colder — and if readings are around freezing at the ground, we usually get the snow. However, if the ground is warmer, often above 35 degrees, then the snow will turn to rain. Cliff and I have seen snow fall with surface temperatures near 40 degrees, but conditions like that are rare.

Speaking of snow, Cliff has measured only 19.2 inches at his station for the season. The normal for this time is near 38 inches, so we’re just over half of normal. Toward the middle to the end of the week, we should once again see more rain, snow and perhaps some freezing rain in the lower elevations.

As I’ve been mentioning in previous columns, ocean temperatures are continuing to warm up in the waters of the south-central Pacific Ocean. We’re getting very close to seeing a new, warm El Nino declared. According to Australian scientists, there’s a very good chance that we’ll have an El Nino this winter and it will continue at least through the spring season.

With the warming of the Pacific Ocean, readings have been warmer than normal this winter and we’ve seen more rain than snow. Cliff and I believe that we could end up with a seasonal snowfall total of around 25 inches in Coeur d’Alene at the end of January. We’re also expecting about 22 inches of total snow for February, March and April, which would take our final snowfall total to a below-normal 47 inches.

In the mountains, however, snowfall has been pretty good. At Silver Mountain, there has been nearly 140 inches of snow measured for the season. At the top of the mountain, there is about 5 feet of the white stuff, so conditions have been good for skiers and snowboarders. At Lookout Pass, there is over 6 feet of snow on the higher tops.

When talking about snow, it’s amazing that of all the trillions of snowflakes that fall, it’s thought that no two are exactly alike. The form and shape of each snowflake depends on the air temperature and the moisture content of the cloud.

Snowflakes are white when they fall, but according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, snow can occasionally look blue, especially in deep crevasses as it travels below the surface. Snow has also been noted to turn pink from red clay and dirt in the sky or black or gray from industrial elements in the air, like coal dust.

Most snowflakes are small, but there have been occasions when the snow becomes much bigger. When my late wife, Sally, and I were married on March 24, 1991, in Yosemite Valley in California, a big snowstorm moved over the area and the flakes were the size of silver dollars. We’ve never seen snow that big. The world’s largest snowflake was reported at Fort Keough, Mont., on Jan. 28, 1887 when it was measured to be about 15 inches wide and close to 8 inches in thickness.

It was first discovered that no two snowflakes are alike by a Vermont man, Wilson Bentley, also known as “Snowflake Bentley,” in the late 1880s. He lived in Jericho, Vt. — where Cliff and his wife, Sharon, spent eight years before returning to North Idaho.

During Bentley’s 50-year-plus career, he painstakingly photographed more than 5,300 distinct patterns of snow crystals, concluding accurately that like fingerprints, “no two snowflakes have ever been identical.”

In 1885, at age 20, Bentley successfully adapted his microscope to a bellows-type camera and soon became the first person in recorded history to photograph a single snow crystal. In fact, in his 66-year lifetime, Wilson collected more photographic negatives of snowflakes than all other observers combined. His photographs also proved that all snowflakes are hexagonal, or six-sided.

Bentley’s photographs have been featured in literally hundreds of books, magazines and newspapers around the world in the past century or so.

•••

Randy Mann can be reached at randy@longrangeweather.com

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