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Originally published Thursday, October 3, 2013 at 8:03 PM

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Weather Service sees ‘Pineapple Express’ winter for area

A National Weather Service workshop aimed at preparing for the coming winter, which could be marked by a higher number of “Pineapple Express” type rainstorms, was washed out by the federal government shutdown.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The federal shutdown can’t stop winter from coming, but it could make us less prepared for a season that — according to current indications — could bring more than its share of drenching Northwest rainstorms.

“We dodged a bullet last winter, but I don’t think we can count on dodging that bullet again,” said Ted Buehner, warning coordinator for the National Weather Service in Seattle.

The outlook for the Puget Sound area’s winter was to be discussed this week at an annual Seattle workshop with more than 200 representatives of government agencies, utilities, large employers, transit agencies, tribes, insurance companies and the news media.

But the session was canceled because of the government shutdown. Buehner said Weather Service employees have been directed not to travel to, host or attend any meetings or conferences.

Only the agency’s core weather-forecasting functions are continuing through the shutdown.

“It’s disappointing,” said Buehner, who has organized the workshops since the mid-1990s. “We’re trying to serve and better prepare our community, and this (the shutdown) throws somewhat of a roadblock into that effort.”

The website for the Weather Service’s parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, carries a message saying the website is out of service due to the shutdown, and that “critical weather information” can be found on an agency site, weather.gov.

Western Washington forecasts can be found on www.wrh.noaa.gov/sew.

Cliff Mass, University of Washington meteorologist and weather blogger, complained this week about another effect of budget cuts, deferred maintenance of weather buoys that relay information about weather systems.

The buoys in the ocean, Mass said, are “critical for the protection of life and property.”

A NOAA website says the agency intends to resume maintenance of the buoys next year “pending adequate funding.”

The biggest clue to the coming winter weather lies in the tropical central and eastern Pacific, where surface-water temperatures are close to normal readings.

That creates what’s called a “neutral” condition — meaning neither El Niño, the term used when the waters are warm, or La Niña, marked by colder waters.

In the Northwest, El Niño winters are often warmer and drier; La Niña winters are typically colder and wetter.

“Neutral” winters in the Puget Sound area are hard to predict, Buehner said, because the jet stream, directing moisture to the U.S. West Coast, tends to move over a wide area.

“It’s like holding a hose about four feet back from the end. It tends to wiggle,” he said.

Those winters, Buehner said, are often associated with storms that arrive in Western Washington carrying an “atmospheric river,” a narrow band of intensely wet air sometimes called a “Pineapple Express.”

The three-month outlook from the Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center calls for above-average temperatures and average precipitation in the Puget Sound area.

Washington state typically gets its heaviest snow in La Niña winters, but Buehner said neutral winters sometimes bring a larger number of snowy days, with less overall snowfall.

Those snow days did not materialize last winter, also a neutral season. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport had measurable snow just a single day, Dec. 18, with six-tenths of an inch of snow.

That wasn’t a record, though. Buehner said of the 56 years in which snowfall has been recorded at Sea-Tac, eight of those winters had no measurable snow.

Roughly half of Sea-Tac winters, he said, have had 8 or more inches of snow.

Karen Rich, program manager for a Seattle/King County public-private partnership called “Take Winter by Storm,” had been scheduled to speak at the canceled winter workshop.

The federal government’s paralysis, Rich said, increases the need for local governments, schools, businesses, community groups and the news media to spread the word about preparing for winter storms.

The recent wrenching shift in local weather, from a spectacular summer to the wettest September on record, shows there is no time to waste in that effort, Rich said.

Winter-preparedness tips in 10 languages are offered on the organization’s website site, www.takewinterbystorm.org

Jack Broom: jbroom@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2222

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