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Valley feels chill of rare snow.

Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard

The dusting of snow the Eugene-Springfield area awoke to Monday morning was both rare and special in the eyes of snowflake aficionados.

"Real special," you're probably saying if you were one of the thousands of people in the morning commute with knuckles as white as the sugarlike drifts on their car hoods.

And if you're one of roughly 75 Eugene-Springfield area drivers who police say slid their vehicles into ditches, medians or other vehicles, the comeliness of snowflakes may be a stretch to appreciate.

But the snow that fell Monday formed in a cloud no warmer than 5 degrees Fahrenheit, Caltech physics department Chairman Kenneth Libbrecht said Monday.

Instead of the gloppy, wet "graupel-type" flakes that usually tumble out of Western Oregon skies, these were delicately filigreed crystals of the kind you probably imagined as a kid, then crafted with scissors and typing paper in hand.

In official snow taxonomy, they're called "stellar crystals," one of 10 types of snowflakes that scientists have so far identified. And it may be years before they reach the Willamette Valley floor again.

"When you see them fall, it's really quite beautiful," Libbrecht said. "You look up at your windshield and see a bunch of little stars."

Today's forecast is for an accumulation of 2 to 5 inches of snow, type unspecified, by early afternoon - followed by a warming trend and rain by late afternoon, or so say predictions from the National Weather Service's Portland office.

The word among ski devotees is that stellar crystal snowflakes create especially hazardous driving conditions.

As the flakes drift from the sky, their frondlike arms interlock and form a smooth surface on the ground, said Jarl Berg, who has learned about snow from his father and grandfather in their 49-year-old Eugene business - Berg's Ski Shop. "These things melt very easily together and turn into the icy layer a lot of people were driving on this morning," Berg said.

Libbrecht said there's no science to back the contention of extra slipperiness, but local police officers working accidents Monday said the theory sounded right to them.

Interstate 5 between Coburg and the Lane Community College exit in south Eugene was a sheet of ice until almost noon, said Oregon State Police Lt. Mike Bloom.

Moisture from the Willamette River, which rides along the highway, often slicks the six north- and southbound lanes when the weather cools, "while the rest of the freeway north and south usually will be dry," he said.

Driver Said Fatah, traveling north on the freeway near Eugene at 10:17 a.m. Monday, was caught unaware, Bloom said. His Windstar van hit the ice, spun 180 degrees, slid off the freeway backward and into a tree - about 100 feet from the shoulder.

The force impaled the van with the tree, police said. Four of Fatah's five passengers escaped injury - "miraculously," police said. One, 23-year-old Isse Isse, was taken to Sacred Heart Medical Center in serious condition.

Two dozen other vehicles slid into the median or hit concrete dividers along the metropolitan stretch of freeway Monday, but without serious injury, Bloom said.

Eugene police closed major city streets throughout the day, while sanding crews scrambled to keep them passable. That included Willamette Street, Chambers Street and Amazon Parkway.

Today, drivers should continue to avoid Willamette Street from 39th Avenue to 50th Avenue, police spokeswoman Pam Olshanski said. On Monday, the hill was littered with stuck or smashed cars.

Police were miffed with drivers all over the region. Eugene police from the graveyard shift stayed over to help with the morning commute. The Oregon State Police sent all troopers to freeway duty.

Just because the speed limit is posted 55 mph doesn't mean it's always OK to go that fast, Bloom said. Sport utility vehicle drivers are especially overconfident, he said.

"The vast majority of the vehicles we see going off roadway are sport utility vehicles," he said. "People think that because they're four-wheel drive, they can drive faster than everybody else. What they forget is the braking potential of that vehicle is no different than that two-wheel job that they just passed."

Drivers would be rewarded if they slowed down and took time to appreciate the snowflakes, Libbrecht said. Three years ago, he built a combination microscope/camera specifically for capturing them on film.

He posts the results on his Web site, and Voyageur Press published a collection in the October 2003 book, "The Snowflake: Winter's Secret Beauty."

Libbrecht spent his Christmas holiday in Ontario, Canada, hunting snowflakes. He set up his microscope/camera, captured flakes on a bit of cardboard and - using a fine paint brush - he deposited them on the slide. If it's colder than 10 degrees, "You get pretty nice crystals and they tend to stay around a while, too," he said. Well, minutes, he admitted.

But people who live in coastal states hardly ever get to see the real beauties, he said. Stellar crystals are far more common - like hard-core skiers - in inland states such as Idaho, Utah or Colorado known for their powder.

"For skiers this is the best snow in the world because it's very dry, and very light, so as you're breaking through it, there's hardly any resistance," said Berg, the third-generation ski shop owner. "Thick and wet and a lot of water content, that's what we normally have."

SNOW LOG

Power update: Lane Electric reported 300 to 400 families without service Monday afternoon. Crews were still finding damaged poles and power lines from last week's storms. They're continuing to work 18-hour shifts to fix the problem. Lane Electric customers are asked to call 484-1151 to report continuing problems. All but a handful of EWEB customers had power Monday. For new problems, call 484-2300.

Chance of flooding? Oregon climatologist George Taylor warns that today's freezing precipitation is but prelude to a heavy `pineapple express' with rain and potential flooding over the next four or five days in Oregon and Washington. Lane County streams are less likely to flood, a hydrologist said. But there's some potential.

Boating danger: Although U.S. waters see fewer boating accidents in winter months, accidents then are more likely to be fatal, a U.S. Coast Guard report released Monday showed. In February 2002, for instance, more than one quarter of accidents nationally resulted in death. In colder weather, the onset of hypothermia is more rapid.

Red Cross Meals on Wheels: Volunteers drove icy streets to deliver one meal and a frozen spare to each of 250 homebound seniors in Eugene/Springfield on Monday. The seniors have eaten through three dried and canned "blizzard packs" since Dec. 29, when the snowy weather hampered the usual weekday deliveries.

Snow identification: Learn all about it at snowcrystals.com, the "online guide to snowflakes, snow crystals and other ice phenomena" created by a Caltech physics professor.

Forecast details: See the National Weather Service weather map at www.wrh.noaa.gov/

Recreation: In the morning, Eugene community centers and pools will follow the school districts' inclement weather schedules. For information about the afternoon hours, call the individual pool or center.

CAPTION(S):

A stellar crystal snowflake, one of 10 types of snowflakes that scientists have identified, may not be seen in the Willamette Valley again for years.
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Title Annotation:Weather; For a scientist, Monday's dusting was a thing of beauty, but it has its treacherous side, too
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 6, 2004
Words:1212
Previous Article:COMMUNITY SPORTS PAGE.
Next Article:Bethel kids miss out on snow day.


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