Cascade snowstorms good news — unless you’re driving

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The series of winter storms that dumped enough snow since Friday to delight skiers and frustrate mountain-pass drivers also brought the mountain snowpack much closer to normal for this time of year, after a relatively dry January.

But even with multiple more feet of snow expected in the mountains through Thursday, the amount of precipitation remains lower than average for the season, meteorologists said.

More than 3 feet of snow have fallen since Friday at Snoqualmie Pass, where Interstate 90 was periodically closed in both directions for avalanche control throughout the day and evening Tuesday. Another storm front is expected to bring 20 to 30 inches of snow across the Cascades through Thursday, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Josh Smith.

The mountain snowpack, which at the end of January was about 50 percent of normal for that time of year, has increased to about 80 percent, Smith said.

“We are a lot closer than we were at the end of January,” he said. “We really made up a lot of that deficit. The lost snow we didn’t have in January, we made up for in February.”

The snowpack measurement tells utility managers how much power they can expect hydroelectric dams to generate, tells farmers how much irrigation water they can expect to pour on crops, tells fisheries managers whether migrating salmon will have sufficient stream flows. Snowpack information also is used in avalanche forecasts and by river-rafters planning their season.

Cascade ski areas on Tuesday afternoon reported between 8 and 35 inches of new snow over the previous 48 hours — a welcome surprise, said Tiana Enger, marketing director at Crystal Mountain, where 66 inches had fallen since Friday.

“We wish we could have had some of this in December and January, but Mother Nature was being a little stingy at that time and now she is being gracious,” Enger said from the ski area at the northeast edge of Mount Rainier National Park.

Welcome as the new snow has been, it has exacerbated the danger of avalanches in the mountains and made driving over passes treacherous, if not impossible.

The Northwest Avalanche Center advised skiers to avoid all backcountry avalanche terrain in the Cascades, the Olympics and the Mount Hood area, because of “very dangerous avalanche conditions.”

And Interstate 90 from North Bend to Ellensburg closed multiple times through­out the day and evening Tuesday because of snowy conditions and for avalanche-control work, the Washington State Department of Transportation said. I-90 reopened at 10 o’clock Tuesday night, but there was no guarantee it would remain open. Highway 2 at Stevens Pass reopened just before 10 p.m. after a closure because of spinouts on compact snow and ice, WSDOT said.

In Seattle, the rainfall so far in February has already surpassed the 3.7 inches that fell in January, Smith said.

By Friday, the weather should return to a more normal pattern, Smith said, with a few showers in the Seattle area and less snow falling in the mountains.

“We are expecting a return to less-stormy conditions,” Smith said. “For the most part, we’ll be back to benign weather for the winter.”

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