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March 2, 2024

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Cascade Mountains’ snowpack: This week’s weather won’t reverse snow drought in Pacific Northwest

Warming trend at higher elevations adds to diminished snowpack

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
3 Photos
Mount Hood, seen from the Port of Camas-Washougal on Tuesday morning, shows a fresh coat of white after the weekend&rsquo;s winter storm. The Western United States experienced record low snow in early January.
Mount Hood, seen from the Port of Camas-Washougal on Tuesday morning, shows a fresh coat of white after the weekend’s winter storm. The Western United States experienced record low snow in early January. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

This week’s snowfall likely won’t be enough to pull the Pacific Northwest out of its snow drought.

Snowpacks were at a record low across the Western U.S. in early January, the National Integrated Drought Information System reported last week.

Snowy mountaintops serve as water storage for the region. Melting snow provides drinking water to millions of Washingtonians, irrigates crops and sustains healthy freshwater habitats, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center.

The Cascade Mountains’ snowpack is 40 percent to 60 percent of normal. Record lows also extend to California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming, with the northern Rocky Mountains facing the brunt of the snow drought.

Columbian Conversations: Wildfires in SW Washington

Wildfire season. Smoke season. It’s now a part of our lives in Southwest Washington. Smoke drifts in from beyond our borders — and now wildfires are igniting in our backyards. As summer approaches we are all asking: Will our air fill with smoke?

The Columbian Conversation, hosted by Associate Editor Will Campbell, will uncover what’s happening and what we can do about it. The event will feature Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, a firefighter who has struggled to contain a blaze on the front lines, an expert on the science of ecosystems after a fire rips through a forest and an emergency services manager on how people should respond to this new and growing threat.

Panelists Include:

Hilary S. Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands

John Nohr, Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue fire chief

Michael McNorvell, Underwood Conservation District

Scott Johnson, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency

Marc Titus, Washington State Department of Natural Resources

When: 4:30p.m. Feb. 1

Where: The Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver

Register:columbian.ticketbud.com

“It is kind of striking that the pattern here is so widespread,” said Luke Gilbert Reyes, a doctoral student at Washington State University Vancouver who studies snowpack.

Multiple atmospheric rivers dumped snow atop mountains in early December. However, temperatures increased and light flakes turned to heavy rain, resulting in little mountaintop snow accumulation across the West. A dry wave lingered for the rest of the month, worsening the snow drought.

If winter precipitation is constant and temperatures remain cool through March, the snowpack might rebound, Reyes said. However, the current El Niño winter — abnormally warm and dry — will ultimately lead to below-average snow accumulation, he said.

Yet this seasonal weather pattern isn’t the only contributing factor hindering snow levels.

The Pacific Northwest’s mountain snow, typically kept frozen in high elevations, has experienced warming trends since the mid-1990s, according to a study published in December co-authored by Reyes.

On a global level, river basins are experiencing a steady shrinkage in snowpack, according to a study published this month in the scientific journal Nature. Researchers found that climate change is the leading culprit.

The report outlines a 40-year downward trend in 70 of the 169 observed river basins in the Northern Hemisphere. A dozen of the basins experienced an upward trend, while the others experienced no change.

The Columbia River basin is expected to see a sharp decline in spring runoff, according to the study.

“Our results emphasize that human-forced snow losses and their water consequences are attributable and will accelerate and homogenize with near term warming, posing risks to water resources in the absence of substantial climate mitigation,” according to the article.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer