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Winter could be wet or dry, and maybe warm

The temperatures were mild this past winter, but during the two winters before that we had weeklong cold snaps that froze pipes and even my holding tank. What do the weather gurus predict for this coming year? I doubt climate change means we've seen the last of the deep-freezes. Do I need to finish that insulation project?

— Steve M., Central Point

Steve, there might be better odds in long-range predictions of the weather than you'd get at the craps table, but not by much. But since we're risking only your pipes and not our money, we'll give it a crack.

One safe bet seems to be that we are in an El Niño weather period, characterized by warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. Government forecasters say there is a greater than 80 percent chance the El Niño will continue through the winter.

So what does that mean for your pipes? Well, for the Northwest, the typical El Niño means drier and warmer winters. A strong El Niño can often bring heavy rains and prodigious mountain snows to California. While there are no guarantees that will happen this time, California officials are anticipating at least some relief from the drought.

The uncertainty for good ol' Southern Oregon is that we are at the extreme southern end of the Northwest. Some forecasters say the likelihood of heavy snows extends to the Mount Shasta region. Since Mt. Shasta sits only about 65 miles to the south of Medford, it's possible the extra precipitation could head our way.

Forecasts for the Northwest, conversely, call for 30 to 40 percent drier conditions than normal. And we are technically in the Northwest, so we could be dry. The Western Region Climate Center describes the El Niño effects in Southern Oregon and Northern California as "ambiguous," and says, "No strong association in either direction (toward wet or dry) can be discerned."

But back to your pipes, Steve. While the precipitation levels may be in doubt, there seems to be general agreement that the El Niño should result in warmer than normal temperatures along the West Coast. That would suggest your pipes will be safe — but as we saw in this past warm year, the occasional cold snap can still sneak in. So we're going to cover our rear ends (to keep them warm, of course) and say when it comes to your pipes, you're on your own.

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