Warm front denies us the pleasure of the big snow

By Jayson Jacoby February 21, 2014 09:51 am

My almost-3-year-old son, Max, scampered across the slushy yard, whining that he had lost his plastic garden trowel in the pond. This plaintive claim struck me as curious because so far as I could remember we don’t have a pond.

Certainly we didn’t dig a pond or buy a pond or indeed even desire a pond.

But we got one anyway.

And it didn’t cost us anything except a few pairs of soggy boots.

(And Max’s missing trowel, which turned up not in the pond but hidden beneath a pail.)

Our pond — what a professional landscaper would call a “water feature” and charge hundreds of bucks to install — was, fortunately, just a temporary addition to the place.

We weren’t the only local residents who had at least a portion of their properties briefly inundated during last week’s thaw.

This sloppy transition from winter to spring illustrates one of the few traits of Baker County’s climate which I find disagreeable.

In most cases the very meteorological conditions that conspire to bring us a deluge of snow also sow the seeds, as it were, of the balmy aftermath.

Weather forecasters call it the warm front, and an apt name it is.

Although the mechanics of the thing are rather more complex (everything about the weather is more complex), the basic description of a warm front is that it marks the boundary between air masses that are of notably different temperatures.

The air ahead of a warm front might be 25 degrees, while behind the front the temperature is 40.

The opposite, of course, is true of cold fronts.

The other main difference between warm and cold fronts is that warm fronts, in general, slouch along instead of sprinting, as cold fronts are wont to do.

This sluggishness is largely responsible for warm fronts being, as a rule, the more prodigious snow-producers.

The warm front that draped itself, rather like a belt, across Oregon’s midsection on Feb. 7 stayed there for most of the next two days.

The warm front was moving north, albeit at a tortoise-like pace, and for most of that period it remained south of Baker County.

And so we got the warm front’s ample precipitation but, for more than a day, we were spared its comparatively mild air.

The results — well, probably you had to shovel the results out of your driveway and off your sidewalks and scrape it off your car besides if, like me, you don’t own a garage.

Cold fronts, by contrast, tend to bring higher rates of precipitation. But because they’re so much speedier, the rain or snow rarely lasts for more than a few hours, limiting the accumulation.

Warm fronts are nothing if not persistent, though.

Their movement is slow but inevitable. Eventually the front will get here, and when it does the transition to a southerly chinook wind can be abrupt.

This annoys me like few other weather phenomena.

Just as the snow depth reaches its apex the great melting begins, leaving us scarcely enough time to revel in the unique beauty of a familiar landscape draped with a thick mantle of sparkling white.

Several times I’ve gone to bed while the snow is coming down hard and the temperature in the 20s, only to be awakened in the night by the south wind whistling in the eaves. I stumble in the dark to the kitchen, knowing the digital thermometer will tell the dismal, above-freezing truth. By dawn there’s a steady drip from the roof and passing cars splash fans of slush 10 feet on either side.

Last week’s thaw was atypical only in that the ground had frozen so deeply during the generally cold and dry December and January that the snowmelt wasn’t able to soak in quickly.

Rather than the usual sea of slush we were left, many of us, with ponds much like the one Max was happy to splash in until he thought he had lost his toy in it.

This was at least interesting.

Still and all, I much prefer those rarer winter storms when a heavy fall of snow is chased not by temperate air blowing in off the distant Pacific, but by dry, chilly air sweeping south from the frigid Canadian prairies.

Like most people I tire eventually of a Baker County winter, and pine for the warm sunshine of spring.

But we don’t get the big snow all that often, and when we do I’d rather it stick around for at least a few days.

I have no great love of slush.

And if I want a pond I can dig one myself.

Unless Max has made off with the shovel.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.