The current Washington drought could help the West learn to adapt to one of the most profound effects that climate change is projected to bring to the region. Scientists warn that climate change could deliver “megadroughts” to the West, the likes of which haven’t been experienced in more than a millenium. “I’m seeing this year as a dress rehearsalMore
Rainless in Seattle no more. After a dire year of drought, Seattle and much of the rest of the Pacific Northwest will see heavy rain, snow and wind batter the region through Saturday, followed by a little break in the action before another system arrives to start the week. The blast of moisture should provide some relief for a region that’s been dealing with a dire drought for the past year.
The source of the precipitation is the western Pacific and comes courtesy of an atmospheric river streaming moisture into Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. The flow of moist air will bring up to a foot of rain in some parts of the region, particularly in the foothills of the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. Higher elevation mountains will also see eye-popping snow totals, particularly in Washington where Mt. Rainier could see more than 6 feet of snow. But in Oregon and at lower elevations, a number of ski areas at lower elevations are contending with rain.
“The Oregon Cascades are so sensitive to temperature,” Kathie Dello, the deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service, said. “They're relatively low elevation and just a few degrees in the wrong direction and it can all fall as rain.”
She said that was the case two weeks ago when a warm storm system dumped a foot of rain at Timberline Lodge, located on the lower flanks of northern Oregon's Mt. Hood (and site of The Shining).
But don’t let that ruin your stoke if you’re looking to carve some turns before carving your Thanksgiving bird. After a break in the weekend action, a second system is poised to hit the region next week. Cooler temperatures mean that liquid precipitation will turn frozen. Up to 3 feet of snow could fall, providing a crucial early season base for many ski areas.
The only downside for the precipitation is that it could be too much of a good thing. The northern Cascades and Olympics are under flood watches and warnings through Sunday due to the prospect of heavy precipitation on dry soils. The high winds associated with the storm also mean rough surf and beach erosion are distinct possibilities along the coast this weekend as well.
That said, the precipitation will bring at least some relief after a dismal winter last year caused the entire region to dip into at least some level of drought. The biggest issue was warm temperatures, which caused rain to fall in areas that would normally see snow. Heat has also been a persistent theme in the Northwest this year with both Oregon and Washington (along with six other Western states) on track to have their warmest year on record.
El Niño, which tends to tip the odds toward a warmer winter for the region, increases the odds of precipitation falling as rain. On the precipitation front, strong El Niños nominally tip the odds toward wetter than normal conditions. Some years, notably the 1982-83 super El Niño, corresponded with a very wet winter for the region while other years such as the 1991-92 strong El Niño, saw the region get below-normal precipitation.
The latest three-month outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration favors slightly above-normal odds for higher temperatures for the whole region and lower precipitation in parts of the region.
“We're hoping to get out of drought but not expecting,” Dello said. “Everything is pointing to a not-great year, but it’s not going to be bad as last year — though that would be hard for it to be.”