January 12, 2011

The two faces of la niña

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: , , — geezerwriter @ 1:42 pm
Table Mt

Table Mt

The weatherman has predicted that this will be a la niña winter which here in the Pacific Northwest means that we should expect colder and wetter weather than usual. I think it is safe to say that he hit this one right on the button.


Struggling uphill

Struggling uphill

Our customary winter weather consists of a lot of gentle drizzly rain and temperatures in the forties. The most common encounter with snow amounts to some overnight flurries that may accumulate to an inch or so and generally melts by noon. Snow remaining on the ground overnight only happens a few times a year and it wasn’t until last year, after ten years in Bellingham, that I first saw fresh snow falling onto old snow.



We are subject to occasional bouts of true winter weather due to a peculiarity of geography that allows frigid polar air from arctic Canada to spill over the northern Rockies and drain down the Fraser River valley, which points straight at Bellingham. The river is blocked by a small ridge near the border and makes a sharp right turn toward Vancouver but the ridge is not high enough to stop these air masses. The cold air just barrels right on across the border despite the best efforts of the CBP and when it hits the warmer, perpetually moist air along the coast we have the fabled Northeaster. There have in the past been some truly epic storms that would even make people from Buffalo and Syracuse take notice.

Toward Lake Ann

Toward Lake Ann

But these are extremely rare. The episode I mentioned from last year was a fairly mild one, and the first of any significance at all in ten years.


Remnants of a horizontal snowstorm

[By the way, there is a range of foothills just south and east of town, including the Chuckanut mountains where we do most of our winter hiking, that is high enough to divert the polar air out into the Salish Sea. So these hardly hardly ever (but never say never) continue on south into the Puget Sound region and Seattle.]


Baker in sunshine

Baker in sunshine

But back at la niña

Right now we are experiencing our third or fourth significant snowfall of the season, which is two or three more than usual for the whole winter, so la niña seems to be here for real. These have not been true Northeaster events, although some may have enhanced by some Fraser Valley outflow. They have been just what la niña predicts – colder and wetter that usual and just enough colder to turn some of our copious winter moisture into snow.

Camp Robber - Gray Jay

Camp Robber - Gray Jay

[Note to “Climate Change Deniers”: Colder weather is not evidence that global warming is or is not taking place, and certainly not evidence that human development is or is not causing it. Global warming is a phenomenon of climate, not weather. “Weather” is about deciding if you should wear your rubbers tomorrow; “climate” involves average conditions that abide over decades and even centuries. No weather event, I repeat, NO WEATHER EVENT whatsoever could disprove or prove a scientific theory about climate. Apples and oranges. By the way, this applies as well to the lefties who’ve been making hay lately about last year’s warm summer.]

The good news for the Northwest about a la niña winter is that it serves to build up reserves of the snow and ice in the mountains that provide our water supply during our arid summers. [People in other parts of the world may not be aware that we have dry summers but we do, indeed. And don’t tell to many people about it – if they knew how spectacularly beautiful and temperate our summers are they would all want to move here and spoil everything.] And for those who love the great outdoors that means snow sports!

On Huntoon Point

On Huntoon Point

Skiing (both Alpine and Nordic), snowboarding, snowmobiling and snowshoeing are all popular here. Ice sports like skating and ice-fishing are not a big deal, since it doesn’t stay consistently cold enough to develop usable ice near where people live. But even if we don’t have snow in town, we can always get to it if we are willing to drive and maybe hike a bit.

Baker, again

Baker, again

The old geezers I hang out with have to a large extent settled on snowshoeing as the best way to get out and play in the woods in the winter. Many have skied in past, but the possibility of broken bones, especially in downhill skiing and snowboarding is not at all attractive when you get to our age and a broken bone can easily turn into a permanent life-altering event. There are also a lot of steep hills, which can cut into the fun and the safety of cross country skiing or limit it to specially groomed trails. That leaves snowshoeing, which is not exactly flamboyant or exciting, but with some effort can take us safely to some truly marvelous places.

Recent Expotitions

In the last ten days I’ve joined two groups on snow shoe expeditions to the Mount Baker Ski Area. The first was last Monday, January 3. My friend Marjan led a mixed group of 21 members and friends of the Mount Baker Club up the mountain on a spectacularly clear and sunny day. There had been fresh snow about four days earlier and it was pretty well trampled in places, but the trees that managed to poke out above the surface were all dressed in white. (The pictures I’ve sprinkled around above are all from this hike.)

This is getting long and I haven’t even gotten to the main event, so I think I’ll post this much for now.

1 Comment »

  1. I didn’t see this one before, and I left a comment on your other post, but I couldn’t resist leaving you with my old boss’ favorite weather line: “Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get.”

    Comment by DJan — January 13, 2011 @ 6:39 am

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