WHEN A RAINFOREST IS ON FIRE, it’s obvious something extraordinary is happening.
We are referring to the recent Paradise Fire in coastal Washington’s Olympic National Park. This fire is just one example of drought impacts Northwesterners have watched unfold over the past several months. Streamflows, low across the entire region, are another. Stream temperatures, too warm for native fish, another still. Take your pick.
Don’t let the recent rains fool you. The Northwest is still in a drought. Right now, roughly 70 percent of Oregon remains in “extreme” drought (major crop losses and widespread water shortages and restrictions), according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The remaining 30 percent is in “severe” drought (a less-extreme category of drought entailing likely crop losses, water shortages and restrictions). Elsewhere in the region, things are also looking bad. Nearly 70 percent of Washington State is also in extreme drought, with the rest of the state in severe drought. Roughly 30 percent of Idaho is in extreme drought, with just under 20 percent in severe drought.
The Drought Puzzle
So how did we get to the point where a rainforest in one of the wettest parts of the contiguous United States is able to catch fire?
The first piece of our drought puzzle has to do with snow. Last winter was warm and dry. What little precipitation there was fell as rain, not as snow. Let’s call this the “snow drought.” The second piece is the warm and dry spring that followed. Though the entire region wasn’t bone dry (for instance, eastern Oregon got quite a bit of rain in May), it was dry enough to layer its own impact on the snow drought. The third piece is where we are now, the very hot, dry summer we’re experiencing. Add the three pieces together, and you’ve got a recipe for a rainforest to burn and our rain-fed coastal watersheds to be in drought. Our region’s cities are also starting to see the impacts of drought.
A summer like this one — with blazing temperatures and little rain — adds additional demand stress to the system. Simply put, on hot days, we use more water. Urban water utilities know this. In late July, for example, Seattle Public Utilities asked its customers to conserve by watering early in the morning and late at night and checking for leaks, among other measures.
Seattleites aren’t the only ones being asked to be mindful of their water use. Oregon Governor Kate Brown is asking all Oregonians to pitch in and employ personal water conservation measures. Recognizing that under climate change, droughts will keep happening even after this one ends, Brown is requiring all state agencies to reduce their water use by 15 percent by 2020. It’s this kind of planning that can help ensure our resilience to drought in our future. We will need to be resilient.
A Hotter Future
We know that the conditions we’re seeing this year — a snow drought followed by a warm and dry spring topped off with a hot, dry summer — are a lot like the conditions climate models are suggesting for our future. To illustrate this, let’s look at just one measure for the Northwest: temperature. This year’s temperatures are closer to climate projections for the middle of the century (around 2050) than to the projections for this decade. In other words, our future is now.
Keep in mind this is just a useful analogy. There’s nothing to suggest that we are “ahead of schedule” on the climate-changed future we’re inevitably moving towards. We know that in any given decade, or group of decades, there can be outlier years when things are either hotter or colder than their fellows. However, it is a useful analogy.
By the middle of this century, the Northwest is expected to be about 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, on average, than it is today, according to projections from a joint climate modeling effort by three climate research organizations, including the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University. So far, that’s pretty much summer 2015 in a nutshell.
Let’s look at just one month. June 2015 was the second warmest June on record for the contiguous U.S., according to numbers compiled and crunched by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Leading the record-breaking pack was the Northwest. Oregon, Washington and Idaho saw their warmest June temperatures to date, making 2015 already the warmest year on record for the three Northwest states.
And it’s not just June’s notorious heat waves that are skewing the numbers. Yes, late June heat waves saw parts of Oregon and Washington break 100 degrees Fahrenheit, noteworthy for being so early in the summer. But what’s truly eye-opening is that weather stations across the region registered abnormally warm temperatures for the entire month, not just on individual heat wave-producing days. In other words, things were hot and got hotter still. And it’s not just June that’s detouring from the norm. This entire summer is much warmer than normal.
Drought is a slow-moving hazard. But while the impacts are real, and sometimes devastating, this year can be used as a learning experience. This is a real opportunity to address drought resiliency in our region and look our future square in the eye. This drought will end, but there will be others that follow.
Kathie Dello is Deputy Director of the Oregon Climate Service; Nathan Gilles is a communicator for the Pacific Northwest Climate Impacts Research Consortium at the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute