Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

For a year when snow nearly buried cars in Baker City and depleted reservoirs refilled and streams flowed strong through summer, 2017 was awfully dry.

Although the year’s arid record probably deserves an asterisk.

When you tally the precipitation at the Baker City Airport for the 365 days you get a nice round figure — 7 inches.

That ranks 2017 as the third-driest year at the airport, where records date to 1943. Technically it’s a tie with 1949.

But about that asterisk.

The problem is January.

Probably you remember that month. Possibly your hands still bear callouses from a snow shovel.

In any case you likely would dispute the contention that January was drier than average around here.

Yet according to the National Weather Service, the arbiter for such matters, January precipitation at the airport was just 0.68 of an inch, below the long-term average of 0.87.

But Weather Service officials acknowledge that they’re not exactly confident in that piece of data.

Last winter Timothy Barker, the science and operations officer at the Weather Service office in Boise, which oversees a region including Baker City, conceded that the automated weather-recording sensors at the airport aren’t completely reliable.

The potential flaw in this case is the rain gauge.

Of course most of what fell at the airport in January was not rain but snow. The Weather Service, as you might expect, is quite aware of the prevalence of frozen precipitation during that month, and so the rain gauge is heated so as to melt snow and thus convert it to a liquid volume.

Except the device is prone to a particular pratfall, Barker said.

When the snowfall is relatively light, the gauge can evaporate some of the liquid before it trickles into the measuring bucket.

Warner said the effect can result in precipitation totals that are 20 percent or more below the actual amount.

Which is to say that January’s total almost certainly is too low, and that 2017 wasn’t quite so arid as its final total suggests.

This discrepancy not only calls into question where 2017 ranks on the list of driest calendar years, but also the significance of the past two years.

2016 was even drier. Its total of 6.44 inches is the second-lowest since 1943, trailing only the 5.63 inches measured in 2002.

Using 7 inches as the official total for 2017, that makes 2016-17, with 13.44 inches of precipitation, the second-driest two-year stretch at the airport.

The record-holder remains the period 2001-02, when just 13.30 inches were measured.

Prior to the winter of 2001-02, the Federal Aviation Administration paid people to record weather records, including precipitation, at the airport.

The Weather Service installed the automated sensors in 2001.