Northwest climate: Drought and extreme weather events to 'become more and more frequent'

A drought in 2015 all but emptied popular Detroit Lake (photo by David Reinert via OSU)

EUGENE, Ore. - The year 2014 said goodbye with flooding that December in Mapleton.

"No damage," resident Jamie Foster said at the time, "just a couple feet of water in the basement and a lot of stuff to move."

Landslides closed Highway 101 north of Florence.

Then the New Year arrived ... and by the spring of 2015, the drought that would take hold through the summer and fall was making itself known.

"This last year was the worst year I've seen in my 17 years here, and it's probably been the worst in 25 years," Michael Mattick, water master for much of Lane and Linn counties, said at the time.

"By most accounts, 2015 was a very bad climatic year in the Pacific Northwest, with early flooding followed by severe and prolonged summer and fall drought," Oregon State University said Monday in a press release. "The results included irrigation shortages and crop losses, fish die-offs, large wildfires, record cases of infectious diseases and reduced recreation."

And we can expect more of the same in the future.

"A new federal report on the impacts of climate change release on Friday – that includes a chapter focusing on the Pacific Northwest – warns that more years like 2015 may lie ahead for the region and they may be even worse," according to OSU.

President Trump on Monday responded to the report released Friday, saying "I don't believe it."

But Oregon scientists involved in assembling the report are concerned.

“Unless we rapidly reduce the amount of carbon we’re putting into the atmosphere on a global basis, we will increasingly experience extreme weather events – and the Northwest will not be exempt,” said Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University and a co-author on the Pacific Northwest chapter. “The impacts in 2015 were profound and affected natural resources, public health and local economies. I wish I could say that year was an anomaly, but it is likely that those conditions will become more and more frequent.”

The report is the fourth National Climate Assessment under the U.S. Global Change Research program.

It's the first report since 2014.

According to OSU:

The Northwest chapter included authors from Oregon, Washington and Idaho representing universities, state and federal agencies, Native American tribes, and private industry. They organized the chapter by looking at the impacts of climate change on natural resource economy, the natural world and cultural heritage, infrastructure, health, and frontline communities.

“Although we are looking at same great challenges in the future – especially if we have repeated years like 2015 – there are things resources managers, businesses and citizens can do to increase their resilience to climate change,” said chapter lead Christine “Kris” May of Silvestrum Climate Associates.

So just how bad was 2015?

It was the warmest year on record for the Northwest. The annual average temperature was 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 30-year average.

And winter was even worse, with temperatures averaging 6.2 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.

It was the all-time worst on record.

But it won't be the last, according to the report.

“The warm 2015 winter temperatures are illustrative of conditions that may be considered ‘normal’ by mid-century,” according to the report.

The warm winter led to record low snowpacks: Oregon was 89 percent below average, Washington was at 70 percent.

Among the other impacts of 2015, according to OSU:

  • Estimated agricultural losses were between $633 million and $773 million in Washington alone, with heavy losses in blueberries, red raspberries and the dairy industry;
  • The combination of low snowpack and extreme precipitation deficit in spring and summer led to the most severe wildfire season in Northwest history, with more than 1.6 million acres burning in Oregon and Washington;
  • Ski areas struggled to remain open, especially at lower elevations. Hoodoo Ski Area in the Oregon Cascades closed for the season in mid-January, experiencing its shortest season in 77 years of operation;
  • The lack of snow affected summer recreation as well. Visitation to Detroit Lake in Oregon decreased by 26 percent to due to historically low water – that was as much as 70 feet below capacity in July, rendering most boat ramps unusable. Low stream levels and warm water resulted in fish die-offs in the Columbia and Snake River basins.

And if you like to ski, that warm winter isn't good news.

Mote said the region has warmed nearly two degrees Fahrenheit since 1900 – with a corresponding reduction in mountain snowpack.

“The skiing industry is being hit hard by climate change because what used to fall as snow around the 5,000-foot level increasing is falling as rain,” said Mote, who was a lead author on two Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. “The difference between a low snowfall year and a high snowfall year in the Northwest equates to 2,100 fewer employees and a $173 million reduction just in ski resort revenues.”

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