February 05, 2024

Is Northwest Snow History? Scientific Errors in A Major Seattle Times Climate Story

 I am getting tired of writing blogs on this issue.

Another Seattle Times front-page story pushing a false narrative on climate change came out on Sunday.  A story that is full of scientific errors.   An advocacy piece that poorly informs its readers.

This article, part of a ClimateLab series, claims that global warming is causing our regional precipitation to increasingly fall as rain, rather than snow.    And that this year is a sample of the future of our region.

This article is guilty of acts of omission.  Of citing questionable sources.  And of wrong and inaccurate statements.

Let me tell you about a few.

El Nino's Impacts

This report talks about low snowpack this year but does not make clear that El Nino is the key cause, not climate change.     This winter has been influenced by a strong El Nino, which typically caused less snowfall over the Northwest and lots of rain over California after the new year.

Both are happening, as expected.

Snowpack Hype

The article states that since 1955 the region's snowpack has declined by one-third.

This is very deceptive.   The mid-1950s was an unusually cold/snowy period.  Cold and snowy due to natural variability (such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation).

Let's look at the change in Northwest snowpack over the past 40 years.... a period when global warming has been greatest (see below).  Below is the snow water content (called SWE)  over the region on April 1, right before the melt season.

Virtually no change over the past four decades.

Not what the Seattle Times is suggesting.

The article then states that:

the snow that does reach the ground is melting earlier in the year as our dry season trends longer and hotter. 

This is simply not true.   For example, consider the melt-out date at Steven's Pass (4000 ft) over the past four decades (see below).

The Seattle Times got it completely wrong.  The melt-out dates are trending LATER, not earlier!

Here are the average melt-out dates at Stevens by decade, if you don't like to read graphs:

  1980s:  30 May
  1990s:   1 June
  2000s:   2 June
  2010s:   4 June
  2020s:   6 June

Later melt out, not earlier.

Paradise Ranger Station at 5000 ft is very similar--no trend towards early melt-out

1980s  10 July   10
1990s  15 July   10    
2000s  10 July   10
2010s  13 July   10
2020s  15 July     4

What about reservoir levels?   

You would think that lower-level reservoirs would be showing a trend toward dropping water levels, but the Seattle Times OWN GRAPH for Chester Morse Lake shows no downward trend over the past 20 years (see below).  No climate signal is evident.

Courtesy of the Seattle Times

A Snow-Free Future?

This article really goes into scary, apocalyptic mode when it describes the future, suggesting that as much as SEVENTY PERCENT of the snowpack could be gone by the mid-2080s. 

My research group has completed detailed regional climate simulations using reasonable increases in greenhouse gases (RCP 4.5) and found a decline in snowpack about half of what the Seattle Times is quoting.   

A challenge, but 75% is a lot better than 30%.  

Finally, this Seattle Times article does not consider some important mitigating factors for the future.

For example, precipitation should increase modesty during this century due to global warming, providing more water to store behind dams and in reservoirs.    And great improvements in long-range weather prediction allow reservoirs to remain much higher since better predictions provide more warning of storms and thus time to lower reservoir levels if needed.

This Seattle Times article was financed by a collection of activist foundations and the University of Washington.    It shows the dangers of advocacy journalism.  


  1. Is the Seattle Times know for being fake woke like this?

    1. This isn't even woke, as "woke" means that you're aware of what's going on around you (accurately). This is rather kind of hysterical (in the "OMGGGGG" way, not the funny way). I consider myself pretty liberal and I look at stories like these (I haven't read this one) and then think back to 30 years ago and reading the same things. I see similar things on Vox and while I like their writing, lots of stories that wouldn't otherwise have a climate-change focus get little blurbs about it tossed into them.

      I mean, I guess if you keep predicting doom, SOMEDAY you'll be correct...but it's not at all accurate.

      Climate change, as Prof. Mass states, is certainly real...but it's gradual and incremental, so any apocalyptic statements about how all the snow is gonna be gone in 10 years or whatever are just stupid. I mean, the winter after we moved to Portland was one of the coldest on record (2014). I was standing at the light-rail station in 10F temps - not comfy. Was an ice age coming? No, that's dumb.

      If we consider that 2.5C (about 3.5-4F) over pre-industrial levels (like 1870) is *catastrophic*, that means that global averages should increase ~0.3F every *decade* (4F / 15 decades).

      Need everyone to R-E-L-A-X.

    2. I disagree with ST's reporting on climate change too. But you think this is "woke?" You may want to check your own sources of information and consider what might be happening to you. We're all being manipulated from all angles, and it sounds like you might be caught up in something similar to the climate change panic.
      I say this sincerely, with no negativity intended.

  2. You mention RCP 4.5, what did the ST use (article behind a paywall) - was it RCP 8.5? Did they even mention the source?

    1. Brandon... the study was based on RCP8.5, which is not reasonable....far too strong warming. Far greater emissions than reasonable...cliff

  3. Hey Cliff - what's your take on forecast informed reservoir operations (FIRO) as a mitigation strategy in WA?

  4. Global Warming is a religion, and many of the truest believers live in Western Washington. The Seattle Times desperately needs them to buy papers and click on articles to stay afloat. (Didn't they, years ago, support buying the Berlin Wall and rebuilding it to keep Californians out of Washington?) As long as they can stay in business being Chicken Little, they'll do so. Glad there's blogs like this to show the world isn't quite as simple as a headline.

    1. If global warming is a religion, then science is a religion. Unlike classic religions, however, it is backed up by data.

    2. A phenomenon can be supported by facts but still trigger the 'religious' module of the human brain - ie, sacred objects; virtue signaling; taking certain facts or conclusions as a matter of faith, etc. It's 'settled science' that degree of religiosity is heritable (see twin studies). When you take someone that is predisposed to be religious and put them in a Blue bubble you often see those religious propensities transposed onto other belief systems. The modern day Victorian church ladies now yell 'racist' instead of 'sinner' and post 'We Believe' signs instead of crucifixes. Same personality type, different cultural context.

    3. David you have provided a great comment. Is anyone following the Steyn/Mann trial?

    4. Caroline....I have been following it in detail...and plan to blog about it...cliff

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  6. Cliff, you've got your work cut out for you in the future. The ST now has a whole climate action team. Plenty of activist journalism background, no mention that any of them ever saw the inside of a college science classroom.

  7. I appreciate these posts. I am using them plus the original story as a way to help family members learn to think critically, and to evaluate sources.

    I would love to see the Terms and Conditions, deliverables and expectations between the funders and the Times.

  8. The good news is that it's not just people such as Cliff getting tired of endlessly punching down on these clowns, the broader populace is beyond done with their hysterical screeching and clutching - of - pearls theatrics. This is why the screaming from the usual suspects has become ever more louder and ridiculous - they know we're not listening anymore, and they can't stand it. The so - called "elites" have finally proven to have no clothes, and have shown everyone their backsides in the process.

    1. The real issue is that climate activists are in firm control of the state's and the nation's energy policy, and there is every indication these activists will be in firm control of America's energy policy indefinitely into the future. The upshot here is that whether we like it or not, we must all learn to get by with a third to a half less energy than we presently consume today. (Yes, I'm a pessimist on that score.)

    2. Betah, I respectfully disagree with your premise. The Elites are realizing that they're not in charge of the world's affairs anymore, the widespread farmer's protests across Europe are just the tip of the iceberg. The border protests that are coming from both sides of the political spectrum now in the US are another manifestation that the American public has finally reached their tolerance level of this illegal rule by fiat decree.

  9. While 'advocacy journalism' has been around to some degree forever (see: Hearst newspapers and the lead-up to the Spanish-American War), I am becoming really annoyed how the ST just does more and more of it. 'Climate Lab' joins 'Project Homeless', 'Education Lab', and others is presenting highly slanted advocacy pieces as objective news.

    Advocacy articles belong in the op-ed section, not on the Front Page!

  10. Cliff,
    I appreciate your perspective and balance
    and would be interested to know what you think about this article from NPR?

  11. Not so sure about the long term but for this season, its safe to say our region is probably in springtime now. Little to no chance of lowland snow and mountain snowfall is going to be feeble. El Nino delivered as promised.

  12. Yes... But your colleague, Nick Bond, did say this morning on NPR that he's worried about the low snowpack this year.

  13. The source of the "climate change" cause is Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. He should know better. He missed the CA/westcoast "Great Flood of 1862".

  14. I would be interested to see how the Snoqualmie and Stampede melt out date is trending. I was only able to find the previous 30 year data on the WRCC. Do you have a similar breakdown for a lower elevation site more prone to liquid precipitation during winter 🙂
    There is no doubt that the low snowpack we are dealing with this year is the result of El Nino far more than climate change.

  15. A comment on this blog triggered some great memories from the Winter of 1955-56 in Seattle. As a 10yo kid, I experienced a solid week of below freezing temps, during and after a strong snowfall in late December, into January...Lots of sledding, hot chocolate after spending the days freezing my buns off, enjoying every moment!..My family still has a few photos taken at that time. I can vouch for the mentioning, that Seattle was colder, more snow,etc, during the mid-late 1950s...I was a lucky kid, I guess...when the snow began to melt, washing gently away, I can remember watching that very predictable process, and feeling very sad. But that particular episode is a comforting memory now...my 96yo mother and I still talk about that special time!

    1. curbozer boomer, I always enjoy reading your comments with memories of growing up here. So fortunate you can share those conversations with your mother. I know my comment isn't weather related but I wanted you to know your memories warm my PNW born and raised heart. Cliff your blog serves many purposes. Thank you.

    2. A very thoughtful comment...but it figures, as you too are from the PNW, and people born and raised here are usually very thoughtful and supportive...except for Ted Bundy!...lol.

  16. Typo Alert! Near the bottom you state:

    For example, precipitation should increase modesty....

    Quite true - in general warm, sunny weather tends to decrease modesty.

  17. Is there a reason that you don't just look at one of the better long-term indicators of both snowfall and temperature for a mountain range, its glaciers? Throughout the Cascades, the glaciers have been in retreat for at least a few hundred years. There is a small moraine in the forest where the road to Paradise crosses the Nisqually that if I remember right is from the 18th century. But it's all retreat since.

    The work UW did during IGY on the South Cascade Glacier, or the Blue in the Olympics, or just about anywhere from the Sierras to BC show massive retreat. Since a glacier doesn't care about all the cherry picking of data, whether by the Seattle Times or Professor Mass, it seems that mean annual temperature, winter temps, El Nino, snowfall, meltout dates and just about everything else can be shown with a long term indicator that takes it all into account...the ice.

    As a former resident of the 7th floor of ATG, just thought I'd put in a word for the glaciers.

    1. John...as you know glaciers help integrate forcing over time and is different than snowpack. For example, glaciers are sensitive to summer temperatures, while snowpack is not. NW glaciers have been melting back, on and off, since the end of the little ice ago (late 1800s)....and thus indicated that they are controlled by both natural and human-forcing..cliff


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

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