Weather may be rough again this winter
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:20 PM
"On Wednesday, winds whipped the island and a sopping rain soaked the air.On Thursday, the sky was blue with puffy white clouds.On Friday, it was overcast with a hint that rain was coming.On Saturday, sun.With weather like this, islanders are starting to wonder what kind of winter lies in wait. Though long-range weather prediction is always a risky venture, local weather experts are saying this winter will likely be wetter, windier, colder and snowier than normal. As a result, they advise residents to be prepared for possible power outages, landslides, windchill and flooding.The predictions come from the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which held a regional weather workshop in Seattle in mid-October. Island County Emergency Services director T.J. Harmon came away from the workshop with one general opinion.It sounds like it will be a real rough winter, she said this week. Were going to be living in interesting times.That means it will probably be at least as wet as last year. Thats no small feat the 1998-1999 winter was the second wettest in the Pacific Northwest for the last century. The problem this year, said Harmon, is that added precipitation may have nowhere to go.When we think about it being the same as last year, we have to remember that the soils are already saturated. Were looking at a lot more runoff, she said.That could put island homes along bluffs and in low-lying areas in jeopardy, particularly in places where erosion or high-water tables are already a problem.The reason for the somewhat dire predictions is that we are in the grips of a La Niña event. La Niña is a naturally-occurring cooling of Pacific Ocean waters which changes the pattern of the jet stream and the kind of weather systems that come our way. In some years, Pacific Northwest weather is determined by warm, tropical air currents known as the Pineapple Express. This year, however, La Niña is causing high pressure ridges to form to the north. That pulls colder weather into the region in what is called the Siberian Express.La Niña usually only affects one winter but this year will be the second La Niña winter in a row. When that happens, forecasters say, the second winter is usually colder with increased snowfall both in the mountains and at low levels. Harmon said NOAA is calling for the possibility of three-foot snowfalls this winter.Mount Baker still had a snowpack from last year when snow began falling again this fall. Heavy mountain snows could be great for skiers, but may present a problem next spring.If these snowfalls melt off quickly, we should expect flooding, Harmon said.High winds, which pummeled the island last year, could be back, but Harmon said wind is difficult to predict. If it does come, she said, it is likely to be colder. She said people need to be aware that even a few degrees difference in outside temperature can be more hazardous when wind is added.On the good side, La Niña usually means lower tides which means fewer storm surges attacking the islands beaches. In an effort to get ready for a bad winter, Harmon said she is organizing a group of four-wheel-drive operators to assist with emergency transportation. She has also been getting Whidbey into NOAAs special weather radio system. Currently, the agency broadcasts continuous weather information for the area from the Olympic Peninsula.To receive the broadcasts though, people must have a special radio. Puget Sound Energy has paid for radios to be placed at all fire district offices. Weather radios are also in place at Whidbey General Hospital and school transportation offices. Harmon said many local businesses are also purchasing radios. They cost about $80 each, she said.For local residents, Harmon said now is a good time to stock up on emergency supplies such as food, water, matches, pet food, flashlights and batteries. She said families should practice for power outages by turning everything off one night. In addition, Harmon also suggests bluff-property owners look at ways to stabilize their bluffs and keep runoff to a minimum. Everyone is suggested to plan alternate routes to and from their homes and to get the phone numbers of neighbors, especially absentee neighbors who may need to be contacted in an emergency. The Emergency Services office in Coupeville has several brochures on preparedness and also conducts classes, Harmon said. She said even if the severe weather fails to materialize this winter, it is still wise to be ready.Weather sciences are fairly new. Theyre getting better but its still a gamble, said Harmon. Your best defense is to prepare."