Record-breaking winter

Colorful sunflowers are framed by drifts of snow near The Dalles Middle School this winter. The historic record of continuous days of snow on the ground was smashed by this year’s storms, but by just how much is hard to pinpoint.

The old record of continuous days of snow on the ground, 29 days, set in 1979, was easily smashed this winter. By just how much, however, is hard to pinpoint.

The record stretch of snow on the ground this winter had a definite beginning date — Dec. 8, 2016 — but figuring out when it officially ended is a bit trickier.

That’s because the snow doesn’t just disappear as uniformly and quickly as it appeared. Shady areas clung to their snow far longer than sunny ones, and even now there are still mounds of gravel-covered snow.

But one local weather watcher, Skip Tschanz, noted in his outdoor column in the Sunday Chronicle that he marked 75 continuous days of snow on the ground at his house in The Dalles before the last of it melted off on Feb. 20.

Indeed, by then, the snow was gone from most areas, although more than a week later, the occasional patches of shaded areas were still clinging to their snow even in the lower elevations of The Dalles.

Jim Smith, observation program leader at the National Weather Service’s Pendleton office, said it is subjective to determine when snow is finally gone.

“Sometimes you have to use common sense,” he said.

There may be one area that has snow, “but you look around and there’s virtually no snow.” Once that is the case, it’s time to stop the clock on the continuous days of snow on the ground record.

The matter is normally of little consequence, since a typical winter sees several snowstorms that fully melt off before the next one arrives.

But this winter, when the snow not only stuck around, but kept piling up, people began to take note of just how long a stretch it had become.

And a 75-day record sounds like a good number to use. Another record was set — and is still being worked on — at the local warming shelter, which, as of Tuesday, Feb. 28, had been open for 86 total nights, beating the old record of 83 nights set two years ago.

It had been continuously open for a record 73 days, opening Dec. 4 and staying open through Feb. 14. Feb. 15 was its first day it was closed all winter, but it was soon back open.

The overall record for days open will likely continue to grow, as the season extends through March 18.

Ed Elliott, chairman of the Warming Place committee, said Wednesday afternoon that while the shelter was closed Wednesday night, “We’ll probably be open again either tomorrow night or the next night.”

He noted, “It’s still getting fairly cool at night.”

The shelter has had about half its normal volunteer pool, or about 57 people, down from previous levels of 120 volunteers.

On the snow measurement side, for years now, the local fire service – first The Dalles Fire Department, and then when it became Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue — has served as a volunteer climate data collector for the National Weather Service.

Fire crews have just passed down information to each other on how to gather snow data, and have not had training from the weather service.

To improve consistency and accuracy, they will be getting training from the weather service, in the form of a video on doing snow measurements, Smith said.

One of the last local snow storms locally was not recorded, but the volunteer task of recording the weather can fall by the wayside when fire crews are busy responding to emergencies caused by the very snow storms they didn’t record.

No training date has been set yet.

While measuring high and low temperatures and rainfall are straightforward, the snow measurements are less so.

It’s challenging enough that in some instances, the weather service has had “cases where people just throw up their hands and don’t give us data and we’ve lost the data for the town. It happens,” Smith said.

“We don’t pay; it’s a cooperative effort. It’s a really great program but sometimes it’s difficult to find folks that are reliable that report every day,” he said. “We have farmers and housewives and radio stations, retirement homes, water treatment plants, fire stations, agricultural experiment stations. We had a school. We have all kinds. It’s a pretty good effort, it’s one of the few things like it.”

MCFR Chief Bob Palmer said the fire department was selected to do the weather reporting specifically because it was staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

While one snow storm wasn’t tallied, Palmer said, “Typically they’re pretty diligent about doing it, we try to be diligent and keep the records accurate.”

Palmer said when he joined the fire service here, he was “trained by the guys that were doing it before, so there was really no formalized education by the National Weather Service, it was just ‘This is how we do it.’ But we’ve been doing it for years and we’ve been trying to do it as consistently as possible.”

He said, “If we’re going to do it for them, we have to do it accurately. We certainly want to make it consistent.”

According to the training video, measuring snowfall for a 24-hour period involves using a whiteboard, so there is no absorption of heat such as would occur with a dark-colored board, or using a white picnic table.

The 24-hour accumulation on the whiteboard is measured, and then the board is cleared off for the next 24-hour period.

The whiteboard should be placed in an undisturbed area that’s free from drifting, away from fences and trees, and away from buildings, but also easily accessible, the video states.

The measurement can’t be taken on pavement, because a dark surface absorbs more solar radiation and melts the snow faster, Smith said.

The training video notes that under extreme weather conditions, perfect measurements are never possible.

According to the video, the data is used to “understand the climatology of snow and in terms of climate change we can understand the variability of snow through time.”

Accurate data is used to compare one location to another for a particular storm, for a winter, and for long term differences in average snow fall. It is also used to track year to year and decade to decade changes.

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