December 29, 2023

Is the Low Snowpack this Year a Sign of Global Warming?

The poor coverage of snowpack trends in the Seattle Times and other newspapers was very evident today on the front page of our local newspaper (see below). 


A story "Winter has arrived, snow not so much" filled the right side of the front page.  A reprint of a NY Times article by Mike Baker, this story suggests that the lack of snow was the result of global warming/climate change (see below).

Amazingly, this article neglects the key reason why our snowpack is not doing too well:  this is a very strong El Nino year.  

This incurious article does not review the trend of mountain snowpack over the past several decades: a crucial test of whether climate change could be blamed.

Just poor journalism.   But let's do the proper analysis in this blog, and you can decide for yourself.

El Nino

We are in a very strong El Nino and such events are highly correlated with warm winter temperatures and poor snowpack over the region.  Sea surface temperatures have been about 2C above normal over the past two months (see below).                                               

According to NOAA/NWS, El Nino years are associated with warmer than normal October-November-Decembers (see below for a local climate division)


And snowfall is less than normal over our region for El Nino autumn periods (see below, brown colors)

The warmth and low snowpack over the Northwest during El Nino years are produced by enhanced low pressure over the eastern Pacific and high pressure to the northeast of our region.    The observed pattern for November 1-December 27th this year at 500 hPa (about 18,000 ft) is just like that.


El Nino is clearly a major driver of our anomalous warmth and low snowpack, something not mentioned in the article.

But there is another check on the Seattle Times/NY Times climate-change origin of the low snowpack.

If climate change was the origin, there would be a progressive loss of snowpack over the region as the planet warmed. 

This is something we can check.   Below is a plot of the water content in the NW snowpack on April 1 for the past few decades (1984-2023), courtesy of past Washington State Climatologist, Mark Albright.  The linear trendline is also on there (black/brown line).

Lots of ups and downs, but no trend.   Thus, climate change is not causing a significant long-term decline in our snowpack.   


An independent check on these numbers is to determine when the mountain snowpack has melted out.  Clearly, with less snowpack, the snow would melt out sooner.    Below is the date of the melt-out at Steven Pass (around 4000 ft).

If anything it has gotten later.


Now don't get me wrong.  The planet is slowly warming.   Human emissions are a part of that.  And this will contribute to reduced snowpack over the long term.  But currently, the impacts of global warming on Northwest snowpack are quite small.

Suggestions that our greatly reduced snowpack this year is due to climate change are clearly false.

It is a shame that the national newspaper on record (the NY Times) and our local paper (the Seattle Times) can't investigate the situation sufficiently to get the story right.

Their readers are being poorly informed.

____________________________

Before I forget, Happy New Year to all.   If anyone missed my ATMS 101 class and would like to take a similar class by an excellent colleague of mind (Professor Greg Hakim), you can take it online or in person during the upcoming quarter.    And if you are over 60 you can take it for little cost using the UW Access program

38 comments:

  1. Your point about El Nino makes sense. However, I have a question about your long-term data.

    Your graph shows no significant trend in April 1 snowpack over 221 sites in the PNW from 1984-2023 (your text says 1964 but the graph says 1984). However, the EPA (https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-snowpack) shows a significant decrease in April 1 snowpack over 700 sites throughout the west from 1955-2022. The EPA says "From 1955 to 2022, April snowpack declined at 93 percent of the sites measured. The average change across all sites amounts to about a 23 percent decline. ... Decreases have been especially prominent in Washington, Oregon, northern California, and the northern Rockies."

    (I clicked through to the details for the EPA report and it is based on the trend (using linear regression) from 1955-2022.)

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    1. The EPA time series is problematic because it started during a cold, snowy period (early to mid-1950s) associated with the cold phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.. If the plot had started in the 1930s it would have gotten the opposite result. I show a plot during the period of maximum global warming and one with nearly uniform observations. Much more rigorous.

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    2. Your blog says "1964-2022" but the data you shared begins in 1984. Either way, how did you choose the start date? Why not choose the earliest start date that you can find? It does not seem "much more rigorous" to compare a relative recent, warmer time period to itself.
      Also, the EPA data are based on linear regression, i.e. trend. Unless the early 50's were EXTREMELY cool, it seems unlikely that it would affect the trend by a whole lot. Can you provide a bit more information on why your briefer, narrower analysis should be considered more reliable?

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    3. Jerry..should be 84....fixed. thanks for catching that. And yes, 1950s were very cold and snowy....makes a big difference..cliff

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    4. You're right Cliff, the 1950's were very cold in the NW. But that was mostly in the first half of the decade (especially 1951, which was extremely cold). The EPA data begin in 1955, and second half of the decade was average-to-warm, at least in WA. 1957 and 1958 were in fact warm years, each with only one day below freezing in Seattle. Moreover, the regression analysis should smooth out such anomalies. So it does not seem valid to dismiss the EPA findings on the basis you're providing.

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    5. Jerry...you are not correct about the temperature...cool temperatures extended through the decade. Check out https://a.atmos.washington.edu/~cliff/Screen%20Shot%202023-12-31%20at%2010.05.39%20PM.png

      The regression analysis is very sensitive to the temperatures at the beginning and ending and will not "smooth out" the cold anomaly in the beginning..clif

      ..cliff

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  2. Hi Cliff! Obviously, there's a big difference between glacial mass and snowpack but can you contribute both a "decrease" in snowfall and "increase" in temperature to the loss of glaciers in the PNW? I'd imagine there are other factors but those two seem to be a big driver of either glacier gain or loss, so I'm wondering how that's explained. Thanks!

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    1. Seems like warming temperatures will drive both, decreased snowfall (vs. rain) and decreased mass of alpine ice.

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    2. Jerry... it will also result in more precipitation, including more snow at higher elevations.

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    3. So that makes me think "if climate change was the origin, there would be a progressive loss of snowpack over the region as the planet warmed", that glacial loss is a true indicator of climate change, or warming and less snow. But how does that explain more snow at higher elevations? Maybe we're seeing an increase in ice mass at higher elevations? I'm wondering if you've already written about this....and you did. https://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2015/09/seattle-times-glacier-disaster.html but it still makes me think there is an anthropogenic aspect that is being ignored. Oh well. Thanks for the great blog.

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    4. jesse....glacial melt would be more sensitive to climate change because summer temperatures are warming faster than annual temperature. Higher elevations that remain cold enough for snow will get MORE snow under global warming since moisture should increase....cliff

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    5. Observational data (as opposed to projections) have shown that alpine glacial retreat has already begun during the industrial age, in the Northwest and around the world.
      "Glaciologists researching the North Cascades found that all 47 monitored glaciers are receding while four glaciers—Spider Glacier, Lewis Glacier, Milk Lake Glacier and Mt. David Glacier—are almost completely gone."
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retreat_of_glaciers_since_1850

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    6. Jerry...exactly...the retreat started BEFORE mankind could have been the cause, which suggests that a good portion of the loss of glaciers is natural. To be more specific, we were in the little ice age until the end of the 19th century and then the earth started to warm...and we were not the cause...cliff

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    7. A Don Easterbrook book on Mt Baker shows the history of glacier recent retreat but also the advances during the mid 20th century up to the 1970's. He also show ancient forest remnants in the moraine that date back to the early Little Ice Age.

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  3. hmmm...I've only had one cup of coffee this morning, so this may be on me. But I think those last two charts in this post are the same and may have intended to be different???

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  4. Looks like your second graph needs to be updated to the melt out date for Stevens.

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    1. You are correct.... I had the wrong link...fixed. I was the one that needed the coffee...

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  5. As usual you calmly explain what we see with our own eyes. Any skier born and raised in the NW, (going on 7 decades), rolls their eyes at this. "Oh, it's going to be one of THOSE years, oh well, see ya next year...)... and the like.

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  6. when IS the snow coming to the region? any predictions or guesses?

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  7. Having skied for many years, I recall a number of "bad" ski seasons. Some were in the 70's. 2005/2006 seemed really bad too. I also remember when Green Lake used to freeze, but that was in the 60's when there were a few years that just seemed colder. Mt Pilchuck was a ski area that did OK in the 60's but closed in the early 80's due to lack of snow during a couple seasons. On another note, I recall being at Cannon Beach in December 1985 when it was almost 65 degrees. Just saying, there is a lot of variation in our weather over the years.

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    1. i remember being at rockaway beach in december when it was 64 degrees...2 weeks ago

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  8. Could you compare this El Nino year with our last strong El Nino year in 2015/2016 and speak to what other factors may be at play contributing to this lack of winter?

    2015/2016 was an uber El Nino but ended up being a pretty average snow year with bountiful snow in the mountains throughout BC; it was a little warmer than average but no where near as warm and dry as this winter so far.

    I've lived in BC since the early 90's and cannot recall a winter like this, even compared to 2009/2010 or 2014/2015. If climate change is not a contributing factor, then why the dramatic difference between this strong El Nino vs the last strong El Nino? ... The last five years in BC we've experienced severe drought, record floods, record wildfires, and record temperatures... it is hard to believe that climate change is not contributing to that, as the frequency and intensity of these extreme events does seem to be increasing.

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  9. Both the Seattle Times and the New York Times are pedaling the climate doomsday hoax. The ice packs in the Arctic and Antarctic are also showing no downward trend. Al Gore's ice-free Arctic Ocean prediction of 2006 failed. The Arctic is still ice bound with no ice free passages. During the Holocene Optimum Period (ca 10,000bp), the Arctic was ice free during the summer. The Greenland glaciers are growing, not melting.

    The goal of these doomsday predictions is to end our high-energy civilization in the favor of poverty, cold and immobile population. Our civilization stops without oil. No clothes, no groceries, no grocery deliveries, no heating nor electric power, no cars and trucks.

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  10. Seattle Times is notorious for republishing national media junk, in particular with regard to woke messaging. It has lost its integrity and should be out of business. I hope there is some independent, objective and non-partisan journalism to emerge instead of it in the future.

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  11. 'Probably whistling in the wind given many who follow here, but I can't help but wonder increasingly as the years go by: "Snowpack? Somebody at the New York Times (or the Seattle Times) is hand-wringing about it? Why? In what respect? New York (most of the east) doesn't rely on snowpack, and never has. Frankly, most of the nation doesn't rely on snow melt to meet their water wants and needs. "Rain matters"...precipitation matters most everywhere (to the south, Europe, Asia, Australia - everywhere). What's the actual, tangible reliance on snow most places, most particularly here in the Pacific Northwest)??" Yes, skiers and snowboarders are disappointed during periods like this. But most long term predictions are for higher water levels in every respect as a result of gradual planetary warming. Sea levels rising? Maybe, how much and where, who knows. As for more summer precipitation - the prediction(s) here are for more 'wet' water, not less over time. (The come-back is often, "Oh, we're talking about "timing" -- the 'when and where' of summer rain(s)." ...to which I can't help but think ...what a waste of ink.)

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    1. Much of the data you're asking for is, in fact, available. For example, sea level rise is easy to measure. It has risen, pretty much exactly as predicted by climate change models.
      https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-sea-level

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    2. It's a complete waste of ink. People just feel the need for some drama in their lives and Global Warming Gloom and Doom provides some.

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    3. Jerry...that is not true. There has been no acceleration of SL rise as many of the models predicted..cliff

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    4. "Now don't get me wrong. The planet is slowly warming. Human emissions are a part of that. And this will contribute to reduced snowpack over the long term. But currently, the impacts of global warming on Northwest snowpack are quite small."

      I am curious how you define "slowly". Compared with the rate of change during previous warming and cooling periods? Compared with what would devastate humanity in the next decade? Compared with what humanity can easily adjust to? Compared with the effect of a collision with a planet-sized body? Compared with an arbitrary faster rate?

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    5. Bruce.... the planet has warmed about 1.2C over the past seventy years....roughly 2F. No devastation of mankind. Just a slow warming, slow enough that mankind can easily adjust if necessary...cliff

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    6. Thank you for clarifying that.

      Correct, the warming over the past 70 years has not devastated mankind. We apparently disagree on how much more warming humans can "easily adjust" to in the next 70 years. Another 1C? 2C? 3C? That is an issue well beyond the question of Northwest snowpack, and it's helpful to understand where you stand.

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  12. The Seattle Times is slanted towards the most extreme and dire "reporting " due to brainwashed reporters that have been taught gloom and doom since high school. I just love watching them be wrong.

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  13. One thing that's interesting is the ENSO neutral box plot. It appears that the upper and lower temperature anomaly values are at least as, if not more, extreme than those for ENSO+ and ENSO-. It seems that when the climatological dice are "fair dice" and not weighted toward any particular outcome, the range of outcomes becomes larger in an absolute sense, as the distance between the ends of the "whiskers" on the ENSO neutral box plot are obviously further apart than those of either of the others, but also that outcomes occur which are as or more extreme than those expected to be maximally amplified by either of the non-neutral ENSO phases.

    Of course, the statistics presented is an aggregation of data from an unknown number of locations in an indefinite geographic area which is oh-so conveniently labeled on the graph as "Climate Div. #075". Obviously that refers to an area that has definite boundaries the locations of which are a mystery.

    It would be more interesting if some of the data that was used to create the graphs for "Climate Div. #075" (whatever that is) was disaggregated and used to create similar graphs for a selection of familiar locations within good ol' Climate Div. #075 from which the aggregated data was drawn.

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  14. Everything is a "Sign of Global Warming", even cooler than normal weather. Oh my, where did I put my talisman..?

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  15. The mean monthly temperature at KBLI during December 2023 was the 2nd warmest on record after that of December 1950. Also, the mean daily maximum temperature for the month during December 2023 was the highest recorded for any December.

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  16. At SeaTac, the December average temperature was 2.2 degrees warmer than the warmest December ever recorded.

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    1. Rich..this is not true. Below are numbers. 0.2F warmer, NOT 2.2 F.
      1 2023 45.5 0the
      2 2014 45.3 0
      3 1969 45.2 0
      4 1958 44.9 0
      5 1950 44.8 0
      6 1976 44.7 0
      7 2019 44.5

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  17. El Nino versus La Nina. Will global warming EVER effect an El Nino/La Nina event and will we have more El Nino's in the future over the long term?

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

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