When the Chinook Blows

On Saturday January 3 I woke up to find 6″ of global warming snow all over. An hour of hand labor or so later, it was no longer on the paved bits of my majestic domain. [Quit laughing, you in the back. I’m a fiction writer, remember?]  The wind had not started yet, thanks be, but off-and-on flurries continued most of the day. Come Sunday the temperature had dropped as the low pressure system sucked arctic air down the plains. The low gray clouds of the previous day disappeared, and took any remaining heat with them. It was a beautiful full moon on the snow, and colder than a well-digger’s hip pocket out in the dark and wind. And then the chinook arrived. The Chinook, an American Indian word meaning “snow eater,” originally referred to the wind that blows down the face of the Rocky Mountains in Montana and Alberta. Compression and frictional heating warm the air and it melts the snow faster than you can say boo. The temperature may rise twenty degrees in an hour. Similar phenomena occur down on the southern High Plains as well, although in this case instead of downsloping winds from the mountains (although Clayton, NM got those), the rest of us got strong southwest winds, pulled up from southern New Mexico and northern Mexico.

The overnight temperature stayed in the twenties, a hint that Monday would be warmer. Indeed, by 9:30 AM, the sun felt warm, the wind cut a little less, and the drip off the south part of the roof became a steady trickle. The wind smelled damp and muddy, but also clean and free of dust. Geese and ducks swarmed overhead, seeking out the playas and artificial lakes (most of which still had ice and snow on them). The snow began melting, and the land shifted from white to pale brown as more and more of the winter-dormant grasses appeared. The little tan flags of side-oats grama waved in the wind, while wheat grasses bowed, hissing as the chinook ran invisible fingers through their stems.

Snow vanished from dark paved areas by magic. Then trickles of water from the piles of plowed up white began snaking across parking lots and streets, until by noon the town looked like a giant wetland. A few determined (foolish) souls crept along, trying to keep their cars clean. Others charged boldly through slush where smarter drivers hesitated to tread, and at least one ended up in a ditch, once more demonstrating that Newton will win no matter how many wheel drive you have.

The satellite pictures from sunrise and sunset told the tale. The broad swath of white draped across the Panhandle shrank. The wind continued, albeit a little quieter, overnight and when I got up Tuesday it was still 30F. An hour after sunrise the ice glaze turned into water glaze, at least in the sun and close to the sunny side. Half of my yardlet is bare. I suspect by sundown most of the paved areas and roofs will be bare. But tomorrow another cold front is forecast to blow through, with a high of 20F.

Welcome to the High Plains.

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