A warm front plays a prank on predictors, professional and otherwise

By JAYSON JACOBY, Baker City Herald January 09, 2009 04:39 pm

Baker Valley battled the invaders with rare courage, stubbornly resisting even as its allies fell, one after another, before the mild onslaught.

But the juggernaut of slush was irresistible.

Surrounded and vanquished, its situation hopeless, the valley at last laid down its thermometers and surrendered to the meteorological inevitability.

Which is to say it warmed up around here Wednesday morning.


Warm fronts bluster into our mountain valley pretty regularly during winter, and predicting their snow-softening progress requires little in the way of scientific prowess.

This I appreciate, as my knowledge of science is, well, limited. (Which is akin to saying that Baker County is limited in its allotment of tide pools.)

Except sometimes the jet stream plays a prank.

The trick the atmosphere pulled off earlier this week was clever indeed, making fools not only of amateur prognosticators like me, but also the professionals from the National Weather Service.

(I’m an amateur in both senses of the word — my skills are scant, and I offer them, at no charge, to anyone who’ll listen. Mainly this is my wife, Lisa. Although I’m certain she would void my amateur status and pay me for my predictions, so long as I kept them to myself.)

At first the experts (and me, hitching on to their wisdom) figured the temperature in Baker City would rise above freezing by Monday afternoon.

Then they reconsidered — persuaded, no doubt, by the snow which continued to fall and the temperature which refused to rise — and delayed the thaw until Tuesday.

Yet even on that day Baker City’s temperature continued to languish in the 20s.

Except when it was in the teens.

I have much empathy for the federal forecasters in this matter.

It’s not as if they’re sifting through tea leaves or tossing around Tarot cards. In most cases their original forecast for Baker City early this week would have been spot on.

Weather, of course, is a famously fickle force which cares not a whit for what went on in the past. We shouldn’t, in any case, be surprised when a storm declines to behave as the Weather Service’s computer models say it ought to.

Still and all, I don’t remember a winter storm before this week’s when Baker City’s weather so doggedly refused to conform not only to forecasts, but to what was actually happening nearby.

The mild air that interrupts our cold snaps usually rides the south wind. That makes Burns and John Day bellwethers of sorts for what we can expect in our more northerly location.

Just as the Weather Service predicted, Burns began to thaw Monday morning. The temperature there rose from 28 at 9 a.m. to 38 two hours later.

The warm front, moving at its customary pace, that being about what a well-tuned Model T can muster, got to John Day around noon Monday, where it boosted the temperature to 40 by 3 p.m.

Based on those trends, I expected the icicles to start dripping in Baker City by early evening at the latest.

But at 5 p.m. the temperature at the airport, which is where the official readings are taken, was 20.

This seemed to be unusual, but not excessively so. Warm fronts do on occasion stall someplace in the Blue Mountains.

I don’t know why. Maybe they pull over for a hamburger and a huckleberry shake at Austin Junction. Although I doubt you’d get far in meteorology class with that answer.

But as it turned out, the balmy air didn’t pause before it reached Baker Valley — it just went around, like a stream flowing past a fir snag lodged in the bottom.

I started getting suspicious Tuesday afternoon when I noticed that Blue Canyon, less than 10 miles south of the city limits as the magpie flies, was basking in 38-degree air.

Yet at the same time La Grande, which among its other attributes lies north of Baker City, was also rapidly warming — to 36 by 12:30 p.m. and to a positively springlike 48 at 6:30 p.m.

Even Meacham, which is renowned for its frigidity — and is farther north still —was up to 42 degrees by 4 o’clock Tuesday afternoon.

Baker City, meanwhile, could do no better than 28, and that only briefly.

By 6:20 p.m. Tuesday the temperature had slunk back to 19 — almost 20 degrees chillier than any other city in Oregon save Ontario.

By Wednesday morning the situation had become very nearly surreal.

At 4 a.m. the temperature at the airport was 25.

At that very moment at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, less than two miles away and clearly visible from the airport, the temperature was 40.

Basically, Baker Valley was an icy island surrounded by the January thaw.

This reminded me, after a fashion, of a favorite anecdote of World War I historians, one which, though perhaps apocryphal, seems to me at least plausible given the violent excesses of that engagement.

The gist of this story is that during Allied offensives German officers ordered certain machine-gunners bound by locked chains to their water-cooled Maxims. These unfortunate Germans were thus forbidden to flee the enemy, and left to plead for their lives with the comrades of the soldiers their guns had slain mere minutes earlier.

Baker Valley’s surrender was considerably more benign, or at least not bullet-ridden.

The temperature zoomed Wednesday morning from 29 at 9 o’clock to 46 at noon, this pleasant trend accompanied by a soft rain and the long-awaited southerly zephyr.

The explanation for the temperature anomaly — 15 degrees between the airport and the Interpretive Center — is simple.

Cold air is heavier than warm, so the former tends to sink into valleys. The airport is very near the lowest point of Baker Valley, the Interpretive Center on a knoll about 600 feet higher.

Once ensconced in lowlands, chilled air can be difficult to dislodge, rather like the last scoop in a container of ice cream that can be the very devil to get at with a spoon.

In meteorological matters it’s not a spoon but a brisk wind which is the tool best suited for scouring cold air out of valleys.

In most cases Baker Valley is no more an impediment to that wind than is the rest of Eastern Oregon.

But once in a while, as I was reminded this week, our cold valley does not yield meekly, but goes hard.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.