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Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

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WA’s snowpack languishes with little hope for the months ahead


SEATTLE — If you’ve caught a glimpse of the Olympic Mountains on a clear day recently, you’ve probably noticed a distinct lack of snow across the peaks.

That’s the story across all of Washington: some snow, but not nearly enough.

Snowpack across the entire state sits below normal levels, in some places less than half what an average winter might bring.

“It’s worse than I expected,” state climatologist Nick Bond said.

The lack of snow is, in part, due to climate change caused by humans burning fossil fuels. The warming atmosphere increasingly means precipitation that once fell as snow will instead fall as rain. But it’s also due to El Niño conditions pushing warm, tropical air into the Pacific Northwest.

Washington’s snowpack so far this winter

Despite a series of atmospheric rivers and wintry storms, Washington’s snowpack remains far below normal, deepening concerns for drought in the months ahead and confirming predictions the El Niño conditions would make for a warm, dry winter.

Snowpack on the Olympic Peninsula is 30% of normal levels, according to the latest data from the National Water and Climate Center. Levels throughout the Puget Sound region hover between 61% to 49% of normal.

The relatively dry winter conditions come after a warm and dry summer, and the effects can compound in the months ahead.

Steve King, a service coordination hydrologist with the Northwest River Forecast Center, said water supply forecasts for April through September anticipate below-normal streamflows west of the Cascades, in the Columbia Basin and in Eastern Washington. Although, precisely how far below normal the state’s water supply will end up remains to be seen, he said.

The end result can mean dry soils and foliage, drought, and wildfire concerns as well as risk to salmon and other aspects of the environment.

State officials declared a drought emergency across a dozen Washington counties last summer, sparking both mandatory and voluntary water restrictions west of the Cascades. Seattle City Light also announced a rate hike after the utility’s hydropower production took a hit.

Winter isn’t over yet, Bond noted, and there’s still time for more snow. With a little luck, the rains might continue even if the snowpack doesn’t pick up.

“Hope against an early start to summer,” Bond said.

Conditions this winter aren’t as bad as the record-low snowpack levels seen in 2015, Bond said, but they’re certainly worse than last winter.

Around this time in 2023, several locations across the state boasted above-normal snowpack. The Olympic Peninsula had more than twice the amount of snow accumulation as it does now.

But even in a relatively average winter, increasingly common heat waves in the spring can melt the snowpack more quickly than normal, plunging the state into a water deficit as it reaches the dry season. Such was the case last year.

Snowpack is important because it acts as a giant frozen water bank, melting gradually and flowing into the state’s reservoirs when there’s room to spare. Without it, much of the rainwater that falls flows into Puget Sound rather than being captured by our reservoirs. The region’s snowpack has shrunk by a third since 1955, and it could dwindle up to 70% more by the mid-2080s, depending on how fast global emissions continue to heat the atmosphere.