Weather Blog

Toasty in the Northwest? Thank El Nino

Toasty in the Northwest? Thank El Nino
YouNews contributor "kensphotos" submitted this shot of a sunset in Edmonds.
Daffodils sprouting in mid-January - that can't be right.

But they and other spring flowers are popping up from their beds, thanks to a long-lasting stream of warm Pacific air and a classic El Nino weather pattern. If this keeps up, weather experts say, parts of the Northwest could have their warmest January on record. "We are amazingly above-normal," said Cliff Mass, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Washington. "I can see in my own garden, the bulbs are pushing up."

Crocuses, usually the first spring flower here, already are blooming. While the first green stalks of daffodils have emerged, gardeners say it will be at least a few weeks before they bloom - longer if there's a late winter cold spell.

Nevertheless, Caroline Ullmann found a solitary daffodil bloom in her north Seattle yard. "Such a brave little thing," she said in a Facebook posting.

Midweek in Seattle saw sunshine, April-like warmth and the usual threat of rain. Around most of the country, winter was being winter: California has been beset with heavy rain and snow, ice storms hit the Midwest, and the Northeast has been cold and snowy. Earlier in the month, Florida was freezing and there was ice in Atlanta.

Last winter in the Northwest was dismal: A late December snowstorm paralyzed Seattle. A brutal cold snap froze eastern Washington. A record rainstorm weakened a reservoir wall at Howard Hanson Dam on the Green River, threatening the heavily developed suburbs downstream. It snowed on April Fool's Day.

Nora Van Vugt, who tends a 5-acre garden at the base of the Cascade foothills east of Seattle, went back over the years in her garden records and found the plants' progress this year is typical and the cold, nasty winter a year ago the exception.

"At least every El Nino year since I've lived here, and I moved here in 1995, it's right on target," she said.

But so far this month, the average of Seattle's daily low and high temperatures has been about 47 degrees, nearly 7 degrees warmer than normal for January, said Carl Cerniglia, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service here.

Both Washington and Oregon have had above-normal temperatures, Cerniglia said. Spokane is usually frozen in January, but it's been running nearly 8 degrees above average for the month, he said.

If the weather pattern continues, Mass said, "It's possible we could end up with the warmest January in Seattle's history."

Seattle had a high of 60 degrees Wednesday, 14 degrees above the normal maximum for the date, followed by an overnight low of 45. Portland reached 58 degrees, 12 degrees above normal, with a low of 43.

Spokane was up to 46 - just 2 degrees shy of the date's record - and a low of 33, 11 degrees above normal.

"They've actually been, you know, pretty toasty," Mass said.

Still, January hasn't exactly been shorts and T-shirts weather. For the most part, it's been wet, windy and cloudy since New Year's. Seattle has had twice the normal precipitation for this time in January, with more rain forecast into the weekend.

In other words, Mass and Cerniglia say, a typical El Nino.

El Nino, a periodic warming along the equatorial Pacific, generally produces heavier-than-normal precipitation in California. This year, Southern California has been drenched, with storms this week flooding streets and increasing the danger of mudslides.

For the Northwest, it usually means warmer temperatures, overall drier conditions and less snow in the mountains - exactly what the region has experienced. The effects of El Ninos normally show up around the first of the year.

Global warming has nothing to do with it, Mass said. The weather pattern over North America this month brought a warm, wet southerly air stream into the Northwest, while the central U.S. and the East got a blast of cold, he said.

After a hard freeze here in December, "the warm weather came and a lot of plants I think were feeling, 'Well, winter's over, time to wake up,"' said David Zuckerman, grounds supervisor at the University of Washington's Arboretum in Seattle.

But he said the early plant growth isn't that far out of the ordinary.

"We had that freeze, then all that rain, I think people are just ready to see things," he said.

Brent Roozen, a tulip grower at Washington Bulb Co. Inc. in Mount Vernon, said that while green stalks of daffodils have appeared, a couple of weeks of cold weather "will just slow things way back down."

Daffodils typically bloom here in March. Roozen said his company, the largest grower of daffodils, tulips and irises in the country, isn't that worried.

"If the weather keeps up like this, the bloom might be in late February," he said. But you can't control the weather, so "we don't worry that much about it," he added.