As California enters its fourth year of extreme drought, it might be easy to forget that the state’s neighbors to the north may be facing a similar concern.
Typically, the states of the Pacific Northwest — Oregon, Washington and even Alaska — rely on winter snowpack to provide a steady source of water throughout the warmer months. However, this year’s snowpack melted away far ahead of schedule.
The result? A so-called “snow drought” whose consequences could be dire for the region’s economy.
According to the Seattle Times, this past winter’s exceedingly warm temperatures have been the primary cause of this devastating loss of snowpack. From December through February, Pacific Northwest temperatures averaged 5.6 degrees Fahrenheit higher than winter temperatures from 1970 through 1999.
As a result, Washington’s snowpack was a meager 9% of its normal size by May. In Oregon, the Detroit Lake is now 60 feet below its average for this time of year, while fish die by the hundreds in the Willamette River due to heat stress. The National Weather Service reported that Alaska received only 25.1 inches of snow this winter, compared with its normal 74.5 inches.
“Without that snow, the soils are dryer and the water isn’t filtering down into the streams,” Julie Koeberle, a hydrologist with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, told the Oregonian.
While winter storms result in an astounding $2.3 billion in insured losses throughout the country every year, this snow is what drives agriculture throughout the region all year long. In Washington state’s Yakima basin, for example, snowpack is responsible for feeding a river that sustains $2 billion in crops each year. Already, farmers in this area are counting their losses.
“This corn is trying to come up, but it should be twice as high,” said Yakima County farmer Andre Curfman as he walked through a ragged field of undernourished crops. “It will recover some, but won’t reach its full potential. This is getting ugly fast.”
Scientists largely attribute the snow drought to global climate change, spurred on by the rapid expansion of fossil fuels. According to recent research from the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, warm winters like this year’s could become commonplace by 2050 if fossil fuel use remains constant. However, if the world works to slow its use of fossil fuels, this could be pushed back to 2080.
“I talk about this year as a dress rehearsal for the future,” Guillaume Mauger, a UW climate researcher, explained. “If you look at precipitation, it was just like any other year. But the temperature was far above what we’ve seen in the 20th century — and that’s exactly what we expect of climate change.”