As a gardener living in Western Washington, winters are a busy time of year and if you don’t mind a little rain, it’s the perfect time to get out there and finish some of those garden chores. It is a good time to mulch, prune, clean-up the debris from storms and, because the weeds never stop growing, you’ll want to stay on top of that as well! I really enjoy gardening this time of year. I just gear up and get out into the elements.
Most of the time, we think of weather as being a local occurrence. It’s understandable because that is how we experience it; weather is what’s happening outside right now. In reality, our weather is a part of a global system. What happens in another part of the world has a direct impact on what goes on in our neck of the woods. It can sometimes even help to predict what you can expect regionally.
Those Crazy Kids!
There are a two different weather patterns that develop every few years in the Pacific Ocean and their names are El Niño, the little boy and La Niña, the little girl. They are opposite phases of the ENSO cycle (El Niño-Southern Oscillation) and can completely change our winter weather conditions. Starting in the summer months, I try to get an idea of how these patterns are developing so that I can have an idea of what kind of work conditions I can expect in the winter months to come.
In a normal year, the trade winds blow west along the equator, pushing the warm surface water near South America west toward Indonesia. As this warm water moves west, cold water is pushed up to the surface, bringing up with it nutrients from the depths of the ocean. It’s a good time to be a fish.
Not Your Usual Garden-Variety Weather
There are some years that these normal conditions aren’t present in the Pacific and its impact is global. The ENSO cycles cause untypical seasonal conditions, like drought and flooding in areas you wouldn’t normally expect it. The possibility of an Enso cycle can sometimes be predicted by summer storms in other parts of the world. Some prime examples of this are when a high number of hurricanes develop over the Atlantic and more lightning strikes occur in the Gulf of Mexico.
What in the World?
There is still a lot that scientists are figuring out about the ENSO cycle. Here is my extremely simplified explanation of it! These two opposing phases are both the result of the warming of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America and the trade winds that blow near the equator.
In an El Niño year, the water in the Eastern Pacific warms up, but the trade winds are weak or even reverse their direction. This causes the warm waters to remain in place or even flow east, completely changing precipitation and storm patterns on both sides of the Pacific.
The opposite is seen in a La Niña year. The trade winds will push the warm water west, like in a normal year, but they are much stronger than usual and cause the water near the equatorial coast of South America to be colder than usual.
You may be asking yourself how can ocean water temperatures impact the weather on land? The answer is that warm ocean water evaporates and forms clouds. These clouds get carried away by the trade winds until they encounter conditions which force them to release their moisture as rain or snow. So, in short, wherever the warm water is, that is where the clouds will form and it’s the trade winds that decide what path the clouds will take over the ocean and land. See? Simple….
Little Sister, Don’t You…
The 2020 hurricane season was record breaking with 30 named storms. That many hurricanes pretty much ensured that we’d have La Niña conditions this winter. Here in the Pacific Northwest, that means stronger storms and even more rain than usual. I tried to prepare myself.
In a normal year, that forecast for rain may never materialize or if it does, it’s trace amounts that don’t keep me from being able to work. Port Townsend doesn’t really get that much rain. I think it’s under 20 inches a year? Some people are surprised that I don’t check the weather forecast, but it can mess up my whole work week if I try to schedule around it. Believe me, I’ve tried and it messed everything up! So instead, I just wake up every morning and look out from my windows at the sky to see what’s going on. Then I go to work.
This year is different. The rain has poured, sometimes for days on end. Moss is growing on everything that doesn’t move and the ground feels cold and heavy. I looked up how long La Niña conditions last and it sounds like the ENSO cycles normally wraps up toward the end of January but, the La Niña phase can last through the spring or sometimes even for a couple of years! If I think back, I can remember years that were like that here in Port Townsend: a wet winter, a stormy spring and a gray cloudy summer. Hmm. The damp is maybe, just maybe, starting to get to me.
Isn’t that enough?
Anyone who knows me, knows that I hate to talk about the weather forecast. I hesitate to write this because, most people seem to relish talking about how it’s going to rain all week, hit record temperatures or “Didn’t you hear that we’re suppose to get snow on Tuesday?” but, since I’ve spent nearly every day for almost 30 years working in all of this “bad” weather, it’s something that is better for me to ignore most days. It’s just part of the territory when you garden for a living. Okay, I promise that is all I will say about that.
A Break for a Day
Thankfully, there have been some nice clear days throughout all of this. I was so happy when one showed up on a weekend. It was a Sunday and David was watching football. I couldn’t get up the enthusiasm to work in my own garden but, felt antsy and wanted to be outside. I decided to take a walk to nowhere in particular. Why not? It was sunny and I had time to kill.
The day was beautiful. Not only was it sunny and clear but, there was not even a whisper of wind. About half way through my walk, I decided to take a detour and walk through Kah Tai Lagoon. While I walked down the path, I was amazed by the shadows cast by the trees and my legs! I made it about half way through when the thought occurred to me that I should be taking pictures to share with you. As I was happily snapping away, I realized someone was coming down the path toward me.
My first thought was, “I hope they don’t mind that I’m taking their picture.” and then, “Maybe I should stop taking their picture?” So I did.
As the person drew nearer, I realized it was Jeremy, my youngest son! He had some errands to run and had decided to go through the lagoon too. We use to go to that park a lot when he was little to feed the ducks and the combination of seeing him and that memory was enough to fill up my mother-heart and shake some of the damp away. I had him pose for a shadow picture with me and then we parted ways.
Here’s a slide show of my walk through Kah Tai. I hope you enjoy the sunshine. See if you can spot Jeremy coming down the path and making the day a true highlight of this wet, dark winter.