Experts expect a warmer winter

Forecasters say El Niño pattern will drive up regional temperatures

Posted: Sunday, November 05, 2006

Even as temperatures dip into the 20s and teens this week, forecasters are predicting a warmer than average winter this year.

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Forecasters have seen signs of El Niño, a strong weather pattern caused when warm-water currents move off the coast of South America. The shift changes air pressure and weather across the world.

"We're going to have an El Niño year, that means for Southeast Alaska, it's usually a warmer year," said Aaron Jacobs, a general forecaster with the National Weather Service office in Juneau. Jacobs said that despite the warmer weather, temperatures will still drop below freezing this winter in Juneau.

Much of Juneau's weather can be credited to - or blamed on - two weather patterns. Those patterns, the continental air mass and the maritime air mass, converge directly above the city.

"The way our weather works is, it's in a battle between the continental air mass and the maritime air mass," Jacobs said. "Right now, on the other side of the mountains, it's in the single digits. When you get this big of temperature difference, you get large pressure differences. When you have the pressure differences, you get stronger wind."

Those winds are known locally as Taku winds.

Currently, the inner air mass is stronger, causing cold air to come rushing over the mountains into Juneau and Southeast Alaska. As El Niño picks up steam, it will have enough force to push back the cold-air mass. That means slightly warmer weather and proportionally more rain than snow.

This winter's weather pattern will be similar to the area's summer weather pattern, in which the air flows from the cooler ocean to the warm interior. In a normal winter weather pattern, air flows predominantly from the continent to the ocean, resulting in clear, cold days. In fall and spring, the weather experiences "large swings," Jacobs said, as the pressure systems shift back and forth.

Surprisingly, owners of local businesses said that warm winter weather doesn't really affect their sales. Bill Wilcox, assistant manager at Les Schwab Tire Center, said the initial cold snap of the season drives his business. A warmer winter won't hurt him. Right now, the tire center is installing snow tires on roughly 75 vehicles a day.

"As soon as it got cold, we started getting busy," Wilcox said, adding, "As soon as we get snow, people will flock in here."

John Barnett, owner of Capitol Arms, a Juneau gun store, said his business is the same whether it's a warm or cold winter.

"It really doesn't have anything to do with itm" he said. "Hunters hunt."

• Will Morris may be contacted at

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