February 18, 2015

The Winter of 2070

There is a fascinating aspect of our present anomalously warm/snow-free winter.

It is very similar in many ways to what will be experienced in an average winter about a half-century in the future --more so than any recent year I can think of.

Hurricane Ridge (5200ft) on Monday Afternoon

As you all know, this winter has been much warmer than normal.  Here is the difference of the average temperature of the last 90 days from climatology (1980-2009).  Roughly 4F warmer than normal over the Northwest.

The UW Climate Impacts Group has published a report outlying their prediction of the future Northwest climate.  Here is a figure from that report showing predicted temperature change (relative to 1960-1989) with time.  They show the warming from various scenarios or RCPs (Representative Concentration Pathways).  RCP 8.5 (solid red line) is the most aggressive.   For reasons that I won't go into, many of my climate colleagues believe it it too aggressive and the RCP 4.5  (blue line) will prove closer to what will happen.  A number of climate model simulations were made, with the solid lines being the average of many runs (the range of these simulation is shown by the lighter lines).

Reading off the graph, it looks to me that a 4F warming from the end of the 20th century would occur around 2070.  If we choose the more aggressive RCP 8.5 scenario the answer would be a bit earlier (say 2050).

What about precipitation during the past 90 days?   This figure shows that the precipitation this year has been close to normal over most of the Northwest.  This is similar to what the climate models are suggesting for later in the century.

The snow pack is now running about 30-40% of normal, less in some places, more in others (see figure).  Similar to what a number of regional climate models are suggesting for around 2070.

So forget about checking out time machines or reading dry scientific reports on the future climate of our region.   You are living it right now, experiencing the conditions that will be typical 60 years in the future. 

We will have enough water 60 years from now for the urban populations, but skiing will be lousy at the lower elevations.  Snoqualmie Summit will be memory as a skiing venue.   And quite honestly, the winter temperatures will be more pleasant around here.   But the lack of snow, will bring serious consequences:   it will be bad for fish and there are serious problems for the Yakima agricultural area. This summer will be an interesting test of how our region deals with a very low snowpack that will be common late in the 21st century.    Keep in mind that winter is not over yet and the models are suggesting a major weather regime change late in the month, towards a wetter and colder pattern.

You don't need this...you are already in the future.

The Pacific Northwest Weather Workshop

Interested in attending the big local weather workshop of the region?  The Pacific Northwest Weather Workshop will be held in Seattle at the NOAA facility on February 27-28th.   Everyone is invited and the majority of talks are accessible to laypeople.  To attend you have to register or they won't let you in the gate.  There will be a major session on the Oso landslide.  There is a registration fee that covers refreshments and food, and special student pricing.  If interested, check out this website.

KPLU Climate Talk (SOLD OUT, but there is a waiting list)

If you want to hear me talk about the regional implications of global climate change in some detail, please come to my UW Kane Hall talk on March 11th.Sponsored by local public radio station KPLU, tickets for this event can be secured at this web site.


  1. It will be interesting to see what the Spring wildflower meadows look like at Hurricane Ridge.

    How will they do without the slow water infusion

    How will birds and bugs which feed on them do. If they bloom and leave too early, what happens to the animals dependent on the flowers?

    And the fire season, how will our forests do with a prolonged dry season

  2. Quite honestly, I hope you're wrong. :P For starters, I disagree that "the winter temperatures will be more pleasant around here", because the fact is that they have been decidedly unpleasant. During our recent summer heat waves, I've waited... and waited some more, for that first night when it reaches a solid 40F for three hours; on those nights, I wake up feeling so refreshed, as if some stench had been finally cleaned from my system. During the winter, I can breathe at night, have increased energy throughout the day, can see without wearing welder's goggles, and so on.

    Not this year! (I'd say 'Not this winter', but we went from October to May so I don't think this counts as winter.)

    I have come to expect two days in late January or earlier February that are very warm and sunny. It's seemed to happen almost every year for the past fifteen years. Those are days one can honestly enjoy, because they're short, and then we can return to the comfort of grey skies and cool weather and evenings.

    Not this year!

    I love the fact that I have gone snowshoeing here in May, and that along the I90 corridor. I've had to thoroughly read the avalanche forecasts to plan my various journeys outdoors. I've had to use and exercise my skills, not just my body, to maintain my health and safety. This is, indeed, pleasant hiking, as opposed to a "lazy stroll in the woods".

    Not this year!

    I find it stunning that Seattle is reporting near-normal levels of precipitation and snow pack for its water supply (http://www.seattle.gov/light/ctracks.html). I can't imagine how we'll have enough water this summer, but I guess we'll see.

    In any case, I shall go find a corner over here in which to sit. Give me snow! Give me hail! Give me whitecapped mountains! And please, please, let there be a Lake Agassiz hiding somewhere that will shock us all by dumping and dropping global temperatures by 5C so we don't have to feel like we're living inside a tanning booth all the time. :)

    (In case anyone missed it, some elements of this comment were intentionally sardonic.)

  3. Cliff,
    A critical piece of data we are missing that will be very important going forward with years like this is upper elevation snowpack data. By all accounts and observations I've read the high elevations snowpack (>7,000 N, 8,000 central) is doing quite well this year because the precipitation has been normal and all those pineapple expresses were snow above those elevations. However, we have zero hard data to support those observations.

    From a water-resources (and limited recreation) standpoint there is a big difference between a winter that is dry and warm and one (like this) that is wet and warm. Sure they're both bad, but at least this winter the accumulation zones for the glaciers of Baker, Rainier, and the North Cascades are getting resupplied.

    I understand that there is significant engineering and technical difficulty in establishing a SNOTEL station at, say, Camp Muir or Colfax Col, but these are hurdles we need to overcome if the Blue Line is our future.

  4. You're saying the winter happening now is natural variability and has nothing to do with global warming, but that it's exactly like what will happen under global warming.

  5. Agree with B. Blackmore. Don't agree w/ you, Cliff, that winter temps will be more comfortable. We consistently run above average temps but that's not good enough for some people. Yuck.
    Much prefer a real winter. This "winter" is a taste of our future? But I thought it was just seasonal variation?

  6. Brian Blackmore, I completely and totally agree with you! Finally, someone else who wants a REAL winter.

  7. Traveller,
    What I am saying is natural variability has given us a year that give us a taste of what normal will be like in 60 years...cliff

    PS: for those of you who like cold winters....I can respect that. I bike and run every day and warmer is better for me.. Icy biking is unpleasant,..may not be true of everyone.

  8. @Cliff Mass Like the others, I hate this weather. It is unnatural and my allergies are already a mess. Cheap gas bills, though :)

    As for @Jonn E's suggestion that high elevation snowfall is normal, I don't doubt it. However, notwithstanding a few peaks like Rainier, Baker, Glacier Peak and so forth, by and large the North and Central Cascades are not very high. I suspect that the percentage of surface area above 7k or 8k ft elevation is actually quite low. This is in contrast to the Sierra Nevada or Rockies, which have vast amounts of high elevation plateaus and so forth. If this is those future, those of us in NW Washington will need to find a way to tap in to the Columbia River, and soon.

  9. I am excited to get more into year round food growing, but not so thrilled with the thought of how warmer winters will affect our health. More pollen, mold, fleas, pests, varmints & cooties of all kinds....

  10. The water content chart of Utah is interesting. Note the huge variations in the northeast of the state. I was just there skiing, and trust me, there's precious little natural snow.

    But... there's plenty of man-made. That would show higher water content, but it would be meaningless because this is water that came (immediately) from sources other than the sky.

  11. You seem to be saying that this year is anomalous, yet a preview of what you expect from AGW climate effects 60 years hence, correct? And in your previous posts you make the case that the 'blob' and the 'ridiculously resilient ridge' are anomalous and unconnected to AGW, correct? So would it be fair to conclude that you believe the blob will dissipate, the ridge will break down, and our more familiar climate regime will soon reassert itself as we revert to the mean?

  12. sidulin,
    exactly...I suspect that next winter will be far more normal..cliff

  13. I'm with those who disagree that warmer, milder winters are "more pleasant". I run outside virtually every day, year round; navigating the seasons is part of the fun! The thought of such bland weather makes me glum. It's like being eternally stuck in the doldrums. Blerg.

  14. I've never understood the 'crisp cold' loving people. Maybe it's because I live in a house with poor insulation, but I eagerly await the end of the cold every winter. A cold winter means increased heat bill. It means often suffering bone-chilling air when I wear clothes that aren't quite warm enough. It generally means not being able to enjoy being outside, period. I don't want to have to be doing aerobic exercise just to feel good.

    Granted, a warm winter is not as nice as a normal spring, where there is a special scent in the air and things are blooming. If there is a time for cold that must happen it might as well be in winter. But I feel just as refreshed as I do on any other day of the year - it's not like it's warm and humid enough to feel groggy. This is not Florida. The sea air here is still cool and refreshing even on a summer day. I just don't get it.

  15. My problem with the winters here (at low elevations) is the temps rarely stay below freezing for long, and with the marine air you're left with a damp -- not "crisp" -- cold.

    I'd much rather have a dryer, colder winter...or no winter at all.


  16. Brendan - I'll help you understand:
    Lots of us prefer the cooler seasons. Easy to be active in cool (even cold) weather. Not easy when it's 80 plus. Summer brings allergies, bugs, heat. All bad.
    Summer 2014: 45 days above 80 (almost 2x the average), a bunch over 85, some over 90. Same thing summer 2013. Under high pressure w/ east winds. The air is not "cool and refreshing". It's hot and uncomfortable.
    2014 warmest year in Seattle recorded history.
    Winter 2013/2014 and 2014/2015. No snow for 3 years. No days that stayed below freezing. Most days get above 50. FLORIDA gets colder than Seattle. Hardly any snow in the mts. Lots of events and races cancelled.
    Long stretch of months above average temps.
    Numerous heat records shattered.
    Glaciers in fast retreat.
    Yet people still complain about the cold? Seriously?

    As a nordic skier and runner I'll take winter any day. Unfortunely now I have to drive really far (or fly) to find it.

  17. What a bunch of whiners; "it's too hot, it's too cold!" (I've got a bunch of mountaineering, expeditionary, winter clothing hanging in the closet that I'll never wear again!)

    I doubt seriously that this is an anomalous year. The ppt at Sherman Pass has been declining gradually since 1972. When was the last time Seattle saw 10F? Nutria are a nuisance or worse because freezing weather no longer kills the new borns. Forest fires are increaseng in frequency and intensity.

    We're at what appears to be the inflection point in exponentially increasing climate change. Wesmply haven't noticed the early parts of the curve.

    There's a definite possibility that 2050 is the tipping point where there'll be no mitigation possible. Increasing temperatures in the Arctic are melting permafrost releasing increasing quantities of methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. Frozen methane clatherates in the oceans are in danger of melting releasing even more methane.

    For some not so light reading, read "Is a Climate Disaster Inevitable?" by Adam Frank in the 18 January New York Times. Some worry that the "sixth extinction" is already upon us due to lose of biodiversity. It's more likely the result of the Industrial Revolution.

  18. Indicates West Cost needs to build reservoirs or north-south canal linking WA-OR-CA Waorca!

  19. I'm loving this warm winter. Here in Fairbanks Alaska it's been -40 only 8 days this year. My heating bill is WAY lower. It seems that the warm weather on the west coast directly affects Alaska's weather too.

  20. Regarding canals on the West Coast.... GOD NO. Californians do not take water resources seriously. The fact that they have been in a drought for many years and have never put true water conservation efforts in place is pathetic. Texas, for all the crap it gets from people on the West Coast, actively manages and enforces water restrictions to manage the resource. I would not want the citizens of WA state to be penalized by the selfishness and foolishness of CA water policies.

  21. I don't mind cold but I dislike lowland snow as I don't like having to drive/walk in it. I do want it in the mountains though; it makes sense to me that we need it.

    I've been to Hurricane Ridge in JUNE when it's had a lot more snow than it does now. That's the first truly shocking photo I've seen this winter. Well, other than my friend's house near Boston, where the non-drifted snow is up to the roofline.

    I do laugh about people whining about how "hot" it is right now. I grew up in North Carolina without air conditioning. THAT is hot and humid.

    I think the climate change genie is already out of the bottle; there's no getting it back in there, and we must be very careful what we wish for. At a time when we need science's best minds more than ever, we have an insane religious faction trying to remove scientific education from schools. That's terrifying.

  22. Most of us old timers will recall that this isn't the first winter season for rock skiing and that was way before it was blamed on climate change and before that, the dreaded global warming.

    Around Yakima it will be another year of irrigation water shortages and talk will begin again on the need for more water storage. It has been like this every 10 years or so for as long as I can remember. A year or two later, normal precip returns and forget about talk of water storage and rock skiing.

  23. It's worth pointing out that even if this is what a "typical" 2070 winter looks like there will be variability in the 2070's and atypically cool and warm winters in the 2070's. The "cool" ones will still be warmer than winters now, and the "hot" ones?

    What would a really "hot" and "dry" winter in 2070 look like if this winter is what the "normal" winters will look like then? How dry? How warm?

    Its the extreme periods of weather that really are disruptive for forests, rivers, and ocean ecosystems, right?

  24. Cliff, how far north will I have to move by 2070 to get the calm and melancholy beauty of our gray winter days? I really don't like the shortening winter days as we go north, but the crowds and dry weather around here will be more than I can handle.

  25. When, if ever, was the last time we had a 4 degree F anomaly over the course of a winter. Seems a little presumptuous to say that what is happening now is nothing to be concerned with, just an aberration. But, fifty years from now you're certain that what is now will be then. Is this some kind of Zen riddle? Only to be answered when more time passes and we have more data.

  26. I must take exception to your assertion that "We will have enough water 60 years from now for the urban populations...". Even if there is still plenty of precipitation, if snowpack declines, summer water will be scarcer. I remember a winter much like this the late 1970s...then summer water was scarce, no water served in restaurants, etc. I expect it may be worse this summer, with about a million more people here now.

    If it is 4 degrees warmer, large portions of the south will become uninhabitable. They will move here. How will this be dealt with? A clue in this old axiom: Water Flows Toward Money. Development interests and their patsies, "government," will demand damming of rivers to provide water for the hordes.

    Say goodbye to salmon, livability, probably glaciers and the PNW as we knew it. Welcome to New Los Angeles.

  27. Vince,
    I can't agree...and my comments are based on talking to water managers in the area. They are bringing the reservoir levels up as we speak. And the water usage is much LESS today because of water efficient toilets and shower heads. But the proof will be what happens later this summer!...cliff

  28. OK, Maybe we're OK for this summer. But water is already getting scarcer here and will continue to do so. City of Lacey ran out of water for new building a few years back...they got together with Olympia and Tumwater and condemned the water rights to the defunct Olympia Brewery. I have neighbors with wells that have nearly gone dry in a couple of recent dry summers, those wells never ran out for decades prior. I'm hearing you don't think huge population growth/demand will strain water availability? That's not mathematically possible.

    Happily, I won't be around to see 2070.


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