Kathie Dello is the Deputy Director of Oregon’s state climate office.
Last year, Oregon and Washington experienced their warmest year on record. Here’s what we know about 2015’s anything-but-normal climate.
The big climatic event for the Northwest in 2015 was the severe drought. Many of our region’s typically snow-covered mountains were reduced to bare ground. This meant that precipitation fell largely as rain, not as snow, leading to water scarcity. This was followed by devastating wildfires igniting large parts of our region.
At the root of these events was an abnormally warm calendar year. We’re not just talking about the heat waves that stifled much of the region last summer, but the region’s temperature averages all year long.
In fact, 2015 was so warm that two long-held temperature records were broken in both Oregon and Washington, making 2015 the warmest year ever recorded for both states, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The 2015 records bested previous marks set in 1934. (If you’re curious, Oregon and Washington essentially locked down the warmest year title by October. Anchored by the warm winter and hot summer, even a cooler-than-average November and December couldn’t offset the warmth from the previous 10 months.)
That 2015 broke the Northwest’s regional records isn’t surprising. Last year was the warmest year on record globally as well, and headlines blaring the words “Warmest Year on Record” are almost commonplace these days. (See also the previous warmest years: 2005 and 2013 — a near tie — and 2010 and 2014. In fact, 10 of the hottest years on record globally have occurred since 1998, though 2015 now reigns supreme.)
While temperature stole the show in 2015, we can’t ignore precipitation. Oregon, Washington, and Idaho all saw “near normal” precipitation (meaning slightly below normal) in 2015, according to NOAA. But really, it was a contrasting case of too much in the winter and too little in the summer. By the end of October, the region was on pace for one of its driest years on record, but a wet December helped 2015 come out near normal.
In late November, the region saw a shift when an active jet stream delivered a series of deluging winter storms across the region. This relentless precipitation caused flooding and landslides, particularly in western Oregon and Washington. But there’s a silver lining — most of these storms were cold enough to produce abundant snow in the mountains, a big departure from the start of 2015’s calendar year. And so it would seem that after multiple years of drought in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, the snowpack in 2016 is now off to a great start. But there could be a catch.
El Niño events like this year’s tend to mean warmer than normal temperatures early on in the calendar year, so as far as drought goes, 2016 is not out of the woods yet. Still, there’s some hope our region’s thirsty reservoirs may fill with this ample snowpack this winter.
Regardless of what other climate events happen in 2016, it will be difficult to be worse than 2015’s wild ride through drought, flood, landslides, and wildfires, even if 2016 finds ways to break records of its own.