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News / Northwest

WA likely to stay warm, dry; then this winter, El Niño could settle in

By Conrad Swanson, The Seattle Times
Published: July 19, 2023, 2:00pm

SEATTLE — Warm and dry.

That’s been the forecast since May, when record temperatures brought what felt like an early start to the Pacific Northwest summer.

Preparing for more of the same, state and local officials are restricting some water use across the state and keeping an eye on wildlands primed for fire.

The trend might even extend beyond the summer months, too, as El Niño is expected to arrive, pushing warm, tropical air into the region. Those conditions could prolong the marine heat wave now hitting the West Coast. It could also mean more rain than snow over the winter months.

A heat wave has embroiled much of the United States this summer, setting more temperature records as the country also copes with unprecedented smoke wafting south from wildfires in Canada. Global temperatures made for the hottest June in recorded history, which also marked the third month in a row that global ocean surface temperatures hit record highs, said Ellen Bartow-Gillies, a climate scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Record-high temperatures, fueled by climate change, are becoming increasingly common, Bartow-Gillies said. All five of Earth’s hottest Junes have happened in the past eight years.

“The heat’s not going away anytime soon,” she said.

In Washington, most waterways are expected to see less than three-quarters of their typical water flows, officials with the state Department of Ecology said earlier this month as they declared a drought advisory. While the winter left an above-average snowpack, the state’s warmest May on record (tied with 1958) melted through the reserves faster than usual.

More than half the state is in a “moderate” drought, and more than 11% — largely areas in King, Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom and San Juan counties — is considered to be in “severe” drought, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported Thursday.

Hundreds of water users on the Olympic Peninsula face water restrictions for the second year in a row, and state officials are limiting the amount of water others can draw from rivers, creeks and wells east of the Cascades.

Joe Quintasket said he’s noticed the effect of repeated warm and dry summers on his annual quest for berries. Around this time of year he heads toward Mount Baker to look for blueberries and huckleberries. Typically he likes to collect at least a gallon for fresh snacks, to sprinkle on vanilla ice cream, bake into pies or turn into syrups.

This year, though, Quintasket, an environmental conservationist for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, said he couldn’t find any. Just a few little green “nubs.”

Disappointed, Quintasket said he and the rest of the berry search party turned around. They felt fortunate to find several small bushes on their way out of the area with some ripe berries.

“Just a few to snack on,” Quintasket said. “A half-dozen.”

Quintasket said he’s noticing a similar change at the tribe’s 13 Moons Garden, which grows edible and medicinal plants native to the area. Not only do gardeners need to conserve more water in recent years and keep more stringent budgets for the resource, he said, but also the plants need to be watered more often.

However warm and dry this summer will be, it likely won’t have the major heat waves that Washington saw in 2021, said Dennis Hartmann, an atmospheric science professor at the University of Washington.

That summer a massive and severe heat dome blanketed the Northwest, scorching crops and killing animals and in Washington. Alana Quintasket, vice chair of the Swinomish tribe and Joe Quintasket’s daughter, remembers the heat dome well. It paired with the lowest tide of the year, creating a “perfect storm” that ultimately cooked millions of shellfish alive.

The Swinomish cultivate clams, oysters, sea urchins and sea cucumbers for food and cultural significance, and as a business enterprise, Alana Quintasket said. The creatures are an important part of life for the tribe and the broader ecosystem.

“It’s not ‘if’ but ‘when.’ When that heat dome strikes again. When we face those higher temperatures again,” she said. “It’s really scary and something I think about every day.”

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Even without massive heat waves, she said gradually warming marine temperatures make for less healthy and also less plentiful shellfish.

Currently a marine heat wave more than three times the area of Alaska sits off the West Coast, said Andrew Leising, a research oceanographer with NOAA. In mid-July, those warm marine temperatures began to collide with the Washington and Oregon coasts and at their peak — over the next few weeks — they might rise up to 8 degrees Fahrenheit above their normal levels, he said.

Normally, warm marine temperatures dissipate around December, Leising said, but that’s right around when El Niño’s effect on the region is expected to ramp up, so coastal waters could stay warmer for longer.

“If you’re a critter, they don’t know what this is,” Leising said. “They’re just like ‘My God, it’s like warm warm warm warm warm all the time.’ “

The conditions over the summer can also cut into certain crop yields.

Marla Albitz, who owns and runs Topstall Farm, an agritourism business southeast of Roy, Pierce County, said that for the third year in a row the grass on her property is brown and dry. There’s nothing viable left to feed her seven llamas and four alpacas, so instead she must buy hay.

The early hay yield on Chad Kruger’s ranch near Wenatchee was also significantly down. It’s a common story so far for forage crops, but time in the season remains, he said.

“We’re still in the middle of the year,” said Kruger, director of Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources. “We have a long time to go before we really know how the year ended.”

Washington’s agriculture industry includes about 350 different commodities across a wide swathe of ecosystems, Kruger said, so there’s no general way to assume how the summer weather might affect growing seasons.

Many of the state’s rivers and streams still provide more than enough water for crop irrigation, Kruger said.

“Even with climate change worst-case scenarios, it’s a very stable water supply,” he said.

Drought conditions do, however, add to wildfire risk, drying out grassy fuels. Experts anticipate the Pacific Northwest’s wildfire season could be the worst in the country, and fires have already sparked in Olympic National Park and the Columbia Basin.

Heading into the wet season with low soil moisture and a precipitation deficit could compound those effects further in the long run, said Nick Bond, Washington state climatologist. Depending on how strong it is, El Niño could mean a warmer winter, bringing more rain than snow, cutting into the state’s snowpack and starting next year off on a drier-than-normal note.

But climatologists likely won’t know how strongly El Niño will affect the region until much later in the year, Bond said.

“November or December,” Bond said. “By then we should have a pretty good idea of how bad this bad boy is gonna be.”