May 07, 2015

Summer 2015: The Northwest's Global Warming Stress Test

By the end of the summer, we will know whether the Pacific Northwest is ready to deal with global warming.   And if not, what we need to do to prepare.  A virtual climate stress test.

As I have noted in a previous blog, our winter and spring have brought weather conditions that are stunningly close to those expected to be normal by the end of the century.

In short, this winter we were much warmer than normal, with near normal precipitation and far below normal snowpack.

For example, during our core winter months, temperature over our region was roughly 2-6F warmer than normal, and over the past year we were 2-4F above normal.
In contrast, our precipitation over the water year (since October 1) has been near normal (yellow/green colors, see graphic)

And our snowpack has been abysmal, with the Washington Cascades currently at around 20% of normal, the Olympics at 1% of normal, and only the mountains of NE Washington as high as 50%.

According to regional climate simulations run at the University of Washington and the analyses of the UW Climate Impacts Group, these conditions are close to what is expected around 2070.

So the central question is:   is our society ready for 2070 conditions, today in 2015?

We are about to experience a climate change stress test.  How will we manage?

With so little snowpack, will there be enough water for personal use and agriculture?
Will there be major destructive wildfires?
Will salmon and other wildlife be hurt by low summer streamflow?

By the end of the summer we will know....

The latest model forecasts suggest we not only start with 2070 spring conditions, but this summer will be warmer than normal.  For example, the latest NOAA Climate Forecast System model forecasts for June-July-August are for surface air temperatures of 1-2 C (2-4 F) above normal.
Adaptation measures

Our local, state, and Federal officials are pulling out the stops to prepare us for 2070 conditions.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Seattle Public Utility managers very wisely brought the levels of the Tolt and Chester Morse reservoirs way, way UP during the winter rains, thus making up for the lost snowpack in late spring and early summer (the red line is this year's reservoir storage, green is last year, and blue is average).  Even without much snowpack, the city has enough water to get through the summer.  That is resilience.

The biggest water fears are in the Yakima Basin, where there is insufficient storage to get through an entire summer without snow melt.   But there ,the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation did something daring: they decided early in the winter not to worry about potential flood risk and begin filling the reservoirs much earlier than ever before.   A week ago, they essentially had them all at 100%, something never done this early in the season.  

The graphic below shows the total storage of the 5 major Yakima reservoirs (blue line) compared to last year (green) and an average year (red).   They topped off the reservoirs near the max MONTHS before normal.  Daring and smart.  There will still be water shortages on the Yakima, but nothing compared to what would have happened if the Bureau of Reclamation didn't act so proactively.

The Columbia River flows will be low, but not near any records because the snowpack in BC was much higher and the Columbia drains off of colder, higher elevations there.

Governor Inslee's drought declaration should enable some farmers to tap well water and to purchase water from those with senior rights.  More help for adaptation to the 2070 climate.

Will there be excessive wildfires?  My colleagues in the U.S. Forest Service are not sure.  True, warm weather help dry surface "fuels", but will there be much lightning, an important initiator of many of our conflagrations?  Might the high pressure that has brought the warmth and low snowpack decrease the lightning frequency, reducing fires?

Although it may not be politically correct to say this, might  we find that 2070 weather has some positives?  Like a longer hiking season?  Less bugs in the mountains? More pleasant temperatures though most of the year?  Lower winter heating bills?  Less seasonal affective disorder?  Less avalanche injuries?   Forget I said it.

In short, we will soon learn whether our region, taking some aggressive steps to deal with the unusual snowpack and temperatures, is ready to take on the climate of 2070.    Scary perhaps, but a fascinating experiment.    And if we do have major problems, we will have insights into what we need to fix before 2070 is upon us and particularly our children and grandchildren.


  1. It's as much a test of how we'll adapt to the climate of 2070 as a earthquake drill is of the reaction to the real thing: Helpful but not really the same thing.

    By the time we get to the climate of 2070, we will have gone thru the 2050's and 2060's. Which will be DECADES of warmer years with lower snowpack. Forests will have spent many consecutive years drying out. Marine animals will have had many consecutive years of hotter more acidic waters. Soils will have had many consecutive years of drying out, Etc.

    We can get thru the heat of 2015 relying on the snowmelt from certain glaciers that will keep streams flowing even in August. In 2070, some of these glaciers may be gone, stopping the flow of these streams.

    Since this years heat is mostly in your opinion the result of (mostly) natural variability, we can assume that in the 2070's we will have years that are not only hot due to climate change, but doubly warm with added natural variability.

    2015 will tell us some things about our ability to manage a changed climate, but its not really the same at all as living with those conditions over decades of protracted crisis. Especially when parts of the country will be undergoing far worse condidtions.

  2. "Using snowmaking equipment at Mission Ridge Ski & Board Resort, the Squilchuck-Miller Water Users Corporation south of Wenatchee has created a 4-million-gallon frozen 'reservoir' on the ski facility’s slopes."

    Fascinating article highlighing smart adaptation by local government agencies to this year's weather, and likely our someday-normal climate.

  3. And great cycling weather.

    What's a tree hugger to do?!

  4. I've done firefighting the last couple summers here on the eastern side of the Mts with the USFS. Being out in the field this week, I'd estimate fuels and certain areas are easily 40 to 60 days further along than any other year.

    Every season has the potential to be active in the area. Its always dry and our forests are ripe to burn. But what will attribute to an above average season is an earlier start, maybe a later end, and just more territory available. A lot of years forests near the crest aren't a concern for the majority of the summer.

    My prediction is overall acreage in the western U.S. will be below average but yet again the PNW being the hotspot. So fire resources should be more available to attack fires.

    The intermountain west has seen a considerable amount of thunderstorms and moisture lately. This is a good sign as they have an earlier fire season. The CFSv2 maps you display show an active monsoon season maybe correlated with a strong EL Nino so the west looks wet this summer.

    Here in WA, there is no reason to assume that convection couldn't be as active as last summer. We had a lot of storms. You frequently blogged about it. A hot summer prediction usually means unstable. Its hot due to lessen marine pushes which are very cool and stable. And wouldn't a warm blob of Pacific water naturally raise dewpoint temperatures and moisture availability. Locals say El Nino bring wetter summers to the area too but who knows.

  5. Bill Reiswig,
    I understand what you are saying, but I don't think you are correct. The forests will NOT have many consecutive years to dry out. Precipitation will be GREATER global warming. Hotter waters are less is the cold water that have caused all the problems. Glaciers supply very little water for most of our watersheds (like the Yakima). For these and other reasons, I think this year is a very relevant test..cliff

  6. Predicting the climate of 2070 - in 55 years - is based upon trends that may lead us to make educated guesses. It is still guessing. There can be major discontinuities that lead to unpredictable changes - like major feedbacks from the warming that has already occurred. Permafrost thawing and methane release is one such possibility. We might have the climate of 2070 in 2030 and the climate of 2150 in 2070.

    But I don't think even you would suggest that we might have the climate of 1945 in the future. The climate of 2070 could very well be much hotter than you anticipate, but I don't think even you would suggest that it might be much cooler.

  7. Glacier melt supplies a lot of water to the Skagit system including Ross Lake, both a reservoir and our power source. All of the eastern slope of the Cascades drain more than a hundred glaciers into the Columbia, especially through Lake Chelan.

    In an until-now-normal year, snow melt supplies most of the water during spring and early summer, then glacier melt fills the rivers and creeks in late summer and early fall until the rains come back in force.

  8. @Bill and Cliff

    Cliff, you're forgetting that even though precipitation increases, evaporative demand outpaces it leading to progressive drying over almost the entire globe, including the PNW (see Qiang Fu or Jack Scheff's recent work). Therefore I think Bill's comment in that regard is correct.

    And I might also note that this year is just the mean year by 2070 and so we haven't gotten close to what an extreme year by that time would be like.

  9. Nathan,
    I understand about evaporative issues...that is why I noted that this summer is predicted to be much warmer than normal...thus, the evaporative loss should be similar to the expected future. Thus, Bill would not be correct. Regarding snowpack, this year, if anything, is MORE severe than expected in 2070, based on high-resolution regional climate models. And we expect annual precipitation to be greater under global warming--this year was at or a bit below normal. The bottom best as one could do...this year is an excellent candidate as an analog. But not perfect..cliff

  10. King Canute,
    I don't think you are right about that. Uncertainty goes both COULD be cooler than expected. In fact, that is exactly what has happened during the past decades...the warmer has been substantially less than our climate models were predicting...cliff

  11. You seem to have a lot of confidence in model projections...but have they been shown to be reliable?

  12. This is completely anecdotal, but it seems that even though we've received average rainfall it has occurred in gully-washer fashion; a couple big storms per month vs the daily slog. Our pastures and garden beds seem much dryer than normal for this time of year. Is there a reading for soil moisture?

  13. Traveler,
    There are a number of studies of the effects of glacier melt from global warming here in the Northwest. (e.g. )
    Most suggest a very modest impact, perhaps 10% during dry, warm years..cliff

  14. This is a stress test of the future average, and it's interesting to think about for sure. I'm interested to imagine future anomalies too, which may be as far from average as this summer's conditions are from the past average, maybe more so. It's in the anomalies that our children would experience the unprecedented and unexpected events that neither history nor instinct will be much help. It's in anomalous events that the black swan lives, and how our kids will suffer disaster. Anomalies should be experienced in severity and as Bill gets at, antecedent conditions, and combinations of both. This idea may be dangerous to gloss over.

    It's also interesting to imagine the future at less hospitable locations and how people will need to escape trouble that would reasonably be expected to hit here, then there in serial fashion, around the world. How might the anomalous events elsewhere affect the relatively hospitable northwest of the future?

    Last, I'm interested to avoid that future for my kids, to the extent it can be. How might we do that?

  15. Thank you Cliff for a thought provoking blog. I’m inclined to agree more with Bill Reiswig. Climate change has a cumulative impact on the natural system.

    I prefer a long view of climate change. The oceans contain about 300 million cubic miles of seawater. It will take more than a few decades to warm up the world’s oceans.

    As I understand it, during the Quaternary glaciation atmospheric CO2 varied between 180 and 280 ppm (Antarctic ice cores). Present CO2 concentration is about 400 ppm and increasing about 2 ppm per year.

    I believe the first milestone for global climate change will be a summer-time ice free Arctic Ocean. An ice free Arctic will absorb more insolation.

    It’s unclear to me how global warming will impact Earth’s albedo. Will there be more or less cloudiness or about the same. Warmer air can hold more water but it also increases evaporation.

    I don’t have much experience with Chaos theory but what I have read is that when change occurs to a stable system there can be unpredictable events until a new equilibrium is reached.

    My concern is what will Earth look like in 1,000 and 10,000 years. Are we bringing a pre-mature end to the Quaternary glaciation.

  16. I believe the first milestone for global climate change will be a summer-time ice free Arctic Ocean. An ice free Arctic will absorb more insolation.

    Ahem. Antarctic sea ice is at record levels, while Arctic sea ice is returning to normal. The dire predictions of an ice-free Arctic were false, just like so many other dire global warming predictions turned out false.

    Total, global sea ice is now above normal. The Professional Worrying Class -- which needs to scare us to keep the research grants coming -- ignores the total picture whenever it suits them.

  17. Placeholder

    Cliff likes to clear up misinformation people put in their posts and I will help him out with this. You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.

    Arctic ice is not "returning to normal". 2004 to 2013 saw the ten lowest January extents in the satellite record. Summer ice retreat in 2014 was the sixth lowest extent in the satellite record. 2014 summer minimum extent was 1.12 million km2 (23%) below the 1981-2010 average minimum

    The Antarctic between 1992 and 2013 lost an average of 83 gigatons of land ice every year. That melt of land ice is one of the reasons sea ice in the Antarctic (which melts almost completely ever year) is increasing.

    And, ahem, 13 of the 15 hottest years on record have all occurred since 2000.

  18. From NSIDC: Arctic sea ice extent for April 2015 averaged 14.0 million square kilometers (5.4 million square miles), the second lowest April ice extent in the satellite record.

    As Placeholder suggests antarctic sea ice has been slowly increasing for several decades. Greenland seems to be melting in the long run.

  19. John Franklin, ahem, the climate models used by the IPCC to scare everyone about global warming have been invalidated by the pause in global temperature increases that's now in its 19th year. Defend your AGW religion all you want, but the game is over -- at least for people who follow the scientific method.

  20. The IPPC reports collate the current scientific research from the best and the brightest, and most credible climate scientist in the world. If the IPPC reports seem scary there's good reason for it, and it is unwise in the extreme to ignore what the IPCC is reporting to policy makers, the public, and other scientists. These are people who know the subject best, who study it in the greatest depth.

  21. The IPCC is a joke. It's not connected to anything scientific. The statistical underpinnings for its most recent report were ripped to shreds quite a while ago by a statistician who's been published in peer reviewed journals.

    I was a believer in the AGW hypothesis until about a year and a half ago, when the outrageous contradictions and alarmist rhetoric, combined with literal calls for opponents to be censored and even imprisoned got my attention. As soon as you look into the details, the AGW story pretty much falls apart.

    Something else: The minute I hear or read someone characterizing AGW as "settled science," or the equivalent, to me this is a mark of someone who is entirely unacquainted with a) the scientific method, and b) the many cases in which apparent scientific consensus has been reversed.

  22. You are a fool, Placeholder... or rather, you have been fooled. The science is indeed settled. You can pound sand if you don't like it but it's been figured out and our challenge now is to do something about it.

    Refer to the long list of climate statements published by scientific organizations of the best, brightest and most relevant to the subject from NASA

    You play a dangerous game but your opponents or enemies or however you view them, aren't playing... it's all business now, very serious business.

  23. Anyone who says the "science is settled" on ANY hypothesis or theory is the fool. You need an actual education in science, as opposed to the chanting of slogans. You see, "science" is only shorthand for a way of thinking that starts with observations, then goes to facts, then to laws, then to hypotheses, then to theories.

    The only part of it that's not forever up for grabs is observations. Facts and laws are rarely, if ever, overturned, but hypotheses fall all the time. So do theories. That's how the scientific method works.

    Recent history is replete with cases, some less known than others, in which hypotheses and theories, including those with "conensus" support, have been ovrerturned as the result of observations that conflicted with hypotheses and theories. That's how actual science works. You are in the grip of a combination of politics, group-think, academic careerism, and a quasi-religion of a kind seen throughout history. Preachers of doom have always been with us, and you are no different.

    The observations have invalidated all of the climate models used to formulate the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis. This is why even the IPCC is back-pedaling as fast as it can on AGW. The message now seems to be "Oops, but just hold on while we 'adjust' the data." You are buying into it, but fortunately the general public is not.

  24. We're not talking abstract philosophy of science and exotic theories on what it is and what is, is. Climate science knows beyond a reasonable doubt the the planet is warming up and that the warming up is caused by burning fossil fuels, cutting forests and other human activities that have changed nature's carbon cycle. This is not theoretical but based on evidence.

    Knowing what we know, we are moving to end fossil fuel use now. It's going to be phased out. You can scream and lie all you want but we have a home to defend and kids to protect.

  25. Oh, and we are not "moving to end fossil fuel use now." Again, you can always tell a Seattle "environmentalist," but you can't tell a Seattle "environmentalist" anything. When your favorite hip-talkin' prez was inaugurated in 2009, we generated 90% of our electricity from fossil fuels and nukes. Today, it's 87%. But hey, this is Seattle! We don't have to actually do anything; all we need is to make believe! It's not about facts or reality. It is all about the pose.

  26. I'm a father, Placeholder. We're going to do what we need to do. You can argue until you turn blue but the crush is on, best move out of the way.

  27. When you've got no science and no facts, there's always fatherhood and Seattle "progressive" righteousness!

  28. Dear Placeholder,
    There is a place in the world for critics. They serve a useful purpose. They force scientists to redouble their efforts and recheck their calculations. But there comes a time when critics, even with good intentions, should cease. I don't know if we are there yet, but getting close.

    It took the Vatican 350 years to admit that Galileo was right.

    The Earth is not the center of the Universe. It should not have taken the Vatican so long to admit they were wrong.

    Most people believed the Earth was flat or rested on the back of a giant tortoise until Columbus proved them wrong although he mistakenly believed he landed in India. You don't have to be 100% correct to be right.

    Speaking of India, they are enduring an extreme heat wave this May.

    Not so long ago, Europeans believed witches could spoil milk, mice spontaneously arose from piles of waste and blood letting was accepted medicine. Today, we laugh at such beliefs.

    Even Louis Pasteur had his critics.

    Time and again good science has been proven to be correct.

    History and atmospheric physics are against your assertions regarding climate change.


  29. Mark, thanks for the condescension. Scientific consensus has been reversed many times in the recent past. Some examples:

    - Formation of the Washington scablands. Do a lookup on J. Harlen Bretz. He hypothesized that the scablands were caused by gigantic floods emanating from a prehistoric lake located above Missoula, Montana. He was widely ridiculed by the consensus of geological science until aerial and satellite data proved him right.

    - Tectonic plate theory. First proposed at the beginning of the 20th century, not broadly accepted until the late 1960s.

    - Dietary fat. Only within the last two years has the reigning orthodoxy calling for avoidance of saturated fat been substantially overturned.

    - Rogue waves. Not until the first decade of the 21st century did "oceanographic science" accept what mariners had been saying throughout recorded history about the size and frequency of gigantic waves. Oceanographers ignored copious data and insisted that waves higher than about 65 feet occurred once in thousands of years. No more; the oceanographic consensus was overturned by satellite data.

    Satellite data has already invalidated the climate modeling on which the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis rests. But AGW is supported by a political consensus of modern-day science denialists. It is no small irony to see them rally around the current Catholic pope for support!

    Condescend all you want. The data are in, and AGW is wrong.

  30. Thank you for framing the conversation in this way. I've shared some of your points in a recent blog post on WSU's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources blog: Thought you might find it interesting.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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