Storms dumping more snow at lower levels
By Ann McCreary
Despite dumping plentiful snow on valley floors, recent storms haven’t boosted the snowpack in local mountains as much as people might expect.
“Even though we’re getting really good valley snow, it’s disproportionate to what we’re getting in the mountains,” said Scott Pattee, water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“The storm systems are dumping lower elevation snow but not much more in the mountains,” Pattee said.
As a result, snowpack readings in the North Cascades haven’t changed much since the beginning of the month.
In fact, the reading at the Harts Pass SNOTEL snowpack monitoring site showed a decrease in snowpack since early January. Harts Pass snowpack was at 113 percent of normal early this week, compared to 129 percent of normal on Jan. 3.
The snowpack that accumulates during the winter provides essential water to sustain agriculture, recreation, fish and wildlife during the rest of the year. Most of the snowpack builds up during December and January.
The prolonged spell of frigid weather in much of Washington earlier this month didn’t help the snowpack scenario.
“We basically didn’t get any moisture. We should be accumulating mountain snowpack every day of the month in January — not literally, but by the numbers. We went through a long period with nothing,” Pattee said.
In addition, the storm track has carried winter storms to the southern part of Washington and down into Oregon and California, he said.
“We’ve missed a lot of those storms,” Pattee said. “Mount St. Helens is at 150 percent of normal. Oregon’s snowpack is way better than ours this year.”
However, Washington isn’t facing the dire circumstances of two years ago, when there was a record low mountain snowpack. The North Cascades mountains overall are at about 95 percent of normal snowpack level. Statewide, mountain snowpack was 114 percent of normal early this week, he said.
Many watersheds are measuring close to normal for this time of year. The Upper Columbia Basin, which extends from the Methow River to the Colville River, was relatively unchanged from the beginning of the month, and measured at about 98 percent of normal for mountain snowpack, Pattee said.
Snowpack in the Central Columbia Basin, including watersheds from the Chelan River to the Wenatchee River, measured 91 percent of normal, down slightly from earlier in the month.
The lowest snowpack in the state is the Spokane basin, with about 77 percent of normal snowpack this week, Pattee said. He said he also had concerns about the Upper Yakima basin, which had 79 percent of normal snowpack.
The lower Yakima basin, however, benefited from the southern track of the storms and is at 90 percent of normal, Pattee said.
“At 90 to 95 percent of normal, we’re pretty much out of the woods” in terms of water supplies, he said.
Washington got a good start to its water year, which runs from October through September.
“After a hot dry summer, Washington ended the last water year and began this water year with much above normal rainfall,” Pattee said. When it cooled down enough to begin snowing, that precipitation provided a good jumpstart, especially in the North Cascades.
Early winter forecasts for stream flows are never as reliable as they are later in the season, Pattee said. The most recent stream flow analysis for the Methow River predicts flows to be at 99 percent of normal for the April-September period.
Those stream flow predictions will depend on how the rest of the winter weather plays out, and how quickly the snowpack melts. Last winter’s ample snowpack disappeared in record time due to unusually warm spring temperatures.
The short-term forecast is for “another dry spell for the rest of the month,” Pattee said.
However, the National Weather Service three-month outlook is for equal chances of above or below normal temperatures and above normal precipitation, which could mean additional mountain snow accumulation, much needed in several basins, he said.
2016 was warmest year on record
Last year was the Earth’s warmest year on record, and the third consecutive year that new global annual temperature records have been set, climate scientists announced last week.
In Washington state, 2016 temperatures were tied with 1998 as the fifth-warmest on record, according to the Washington State Climatologist’s office.
“As I suspected, 2015 is still the record-holder in terms of the warmest year for Washington state,” said Karin Bumbaco, assistant state climatologist.
“The average temperature in 2015 was 50.0 degrees Fahrenheit that year, which is 3.1 degrees F warmer than the 1981-2010 average,” Bumbaco said.
“2016 was 1.7 degrees F above normal with a temperature of 48.6 degrees F averaged across the state. Normal is defined as the average temperature for the 1981-2010 period,” Bumbaco said.
The Earth’s record high temperature across land and ocean surfaces last year was 1.69 degrees F above the 20th century average, scientists from The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported last week.
That surpasses the previous record high temperature set in 2015 by .07 F, NOAA scientists said. This is the third consecutive year an annual temperature record has been set, and the fifth time since 2000 that a record has been set, NOAA said.
It is also the 40th consecutive year (since 1977) that the annual temperature has been above the 20th century average, NOAA records show. The five warmest years have all occurred since 2010, the agency said.
Scientists said the global temperatures in 2016 were influenced by a weather pattern known as El Nino at the beginning of the year, and by more permanent global warming caused by greenhouse gases.