From the fall of 2012 until the spring of 2016, much of the Northwest was mired in severe drought. Ski areas closed. Agriculture was hit hard. And wildfires ripped across the landscape. But during this past winter sections of the Northwest got especially soggy, with both Seattle and Portland registering their wettest winters on record.

The extra precipitation—during one of the largest and most unpredictable El Niños on record—led to flooding and helped dampen the drought in some parts of our region. Still, much of the Northwest continues to face considerable water deficits, the result of four years of accumulated losses. What’s more, it’s now clear that the recent drought could be a harbinger of climate to come.

As the Northwest warms under climate change, research strongly suggests our region will experience major shifts in its hydrology, potentially leading to more drought years like 2012 through 2016. This fact has not gone unnoticed. From the region’s two largest municipal water suppliers to small, nonprofit ski resorts, from farmers to fish conservationists, many in our region are planning now for the changes ahead.

Drought and Snowpack: Part One

While most of us think of a drought as being really dry, Associate Director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI) Kathie Dello says that’s not always true.

A trained meteorologist and climatologist who runs the Oregon Climate Service, Dello
explains, “The drought in the Northwest has primarily been not about the amount of precipitation we received, but the type of precipitation we received. Warm temperatures meant we got rain when we wanted snow.”

Screen Shot 2017-08-21 at 1.05.01 PMMountain snowpack, says Dello, acts as a kind of water savings account. Melting slowly through the dry summer months, snow provides water for hydropower, fish, farms, and soil moisture when it’s needed most. But for much of the drought, snow was scarce, even while precipitation sat just below average. The recent drought, in other words, was driven primarily by warmer temperatures. This was especially true in 2015 when both Oregon and Washington experienced their warmest years on record. And they weren’t alone. Globally, ten of the warmest years on record have occurred since 1998, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This warming reflects what scientific evidence suggests we will see in the near future.

“The 2015 drought has been called a lot of things. A dress rehearsal for our future, a shot across the bow from climate change, or a snow drought,” says Dello.

This shot across the bow is being taken seriously both regionally and federally. Besides very public drought declarations in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, a lot of work has gone on behind the scenes. Consider Dello’s efforts.

Since the drought began in 2012, Dello has worked closely with stakeholders and the state of Oregon’s drought coordination project. She is active in the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), an interagency effort created by US lawmakers in 2006 and led by NOAA.

The goal of NIDIS is to help coordinate drought research across the US. Among other projects, NIDIS helps fund the US Drought Monitor, which provides weekly updates on drought conditions. Recently, NIDIS also launched the Drought Early Warning System (DEWS), an extended network designed to help federal, state, and local officials prepare for and manage future droughts. Dello, who receives funding from NIDIS for her efforts, says the level of coordination has been encouraging.

“It’s great to see this much interest and dedication directed at tackling the drought problem. It makes me hopeful,” she says.

In Oregon and Washington, state and regional planners used the 2015 “dress rehearsal” as an opportunity to confront drought risks. Publically recognizing the effect climate change is expected to have on her state’s water resources, Oregon Governor Kate Brown has required all state agencies to reduce their water use by fifteen percent by 2020.

Drought and Snowpack: Part Two

Snowpack is essential to water supply and ecosystems in the Northwest. The recent drought’s devastating consequences for snowpack has sent climate researchers to the mountaintops. One group tackling the problem is the University of Washington’s Mountain Hydrology Research group, formed in 2006 by UW Professor Jessica Lundquist.

“The 2015 drought hit us terribly: we didn’t have the snow in the bank,” says Lundquist.

“Snow can be tricky,” says Lundquist. Her group has taken a multi-faceted approach to studying snowpack, utilizing remote sensing, various computer models, and in-the-field measurements that take advantage of citizen science. It’s this last method that occupies one major effort of her group.

Funded by the Northwest Climate Science Center and including researchers from Oregon State University, the University of Idaho (UI), and Utah State University, Lundquist’s project, Forests and Snow Storage in the Northwest, is collecting snow data from fourteen sites high in the mountains.

“We are interested in how forests affect snow storage. The challenge is there aren’t many observations of snow in forests. The measurements tend to be from open spaces,” says Susan Dickerson-Lange, who heads up the citizen science side of the project.

“As any skier or snowshoer will tell you, snow accumulates differently in forests than in meadows. On a very basic level,” says Dickerson-Lange, “forests tend to hold snow longer than open meadows, but that’s not always the case. Climate, elevation, sun exposure, and tree size all play a role, making it tough to predict where snow will accumulate.” According to Dickerson-Lange, that unpredictability also makes it difficult to project changes to local hydrology.

Screen Shot 2017-08-21 at 1.05.44 PMThis is one reason her group has turned to citizen-based science to fill the data gap. Joining students from UI, recreationists—cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers—helped collect the team’s observational data. Dickerson-Lange and her colleagues are now analyzing the four years of data they’ve collected, turning it into a kind of guidebook for resource managers that will help them navigate the complexity of forest/snow interactions.

Adapting to the Drought: Part One

The Mountain Hydrology Research members aren’t the only ones looking beyond the science community to help understand the drought. Last summer, the drought was the subject of a joint project by two NOAA-based research organizations, Oregon Sea Grant (OSG), a NOAA group that funds marine resource efforts, and the Pacific Northwest Climate Impacts Research Consortium (CIRC), a member of NOAA’s climate adaptation effort the Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program.

Starting in July 2015, John Stevenson, an extension specialist funded jointly by CIRC and OSG, and a small team interviewed Oregonians dealing with the drought.

“Our goal was to document those areas of Oregon most severely impacted by the drought. But we also saw the 2015 drought really as an opportunity to sneak a peek at our future and the kinds of climate changes people will have to adapt to,” says Stevenson.

In southern Oregon, snow scarcity devastated ski resorts. During the winter of 2013/2014, the Mt. Ashland Ski Area, a nonprofit ski resort in southern Oregon, never opened due to lack of snow. Seeking help, the resort hired Hiram Towle, previously a ski manager in Maine, where ski resorts rely on smaller amounts of snow than in the West.

“We got creative in how we used the snow that we got,” Towle told Stevenson.

At Mt. Ashland, Towle employed a series of innovative strategies, including snow-Screen Shot 2017-08-21 at 1.05.33 PMharvesting (e.g., scooping snow from unused areas) and thinning vegetation. For the 2014/2015 season, Mt. Ashland stayed open. Looking to the future, Towle says his organization plans to diversify to include zip lines, concerts, and other activities not dependent on snow.

Elsewhere in Oregon, Stevenson and his team spoke with farmers using water more efficiently by fallowing their lands, switching to higher value crops, and converting from open irrigation ditches—a method prone to losing water through evaporation—to buried pipe and drip irrigation systems.

Stevenson and his crew also sought out adaptation efforts directed at a key Northwest industry: fishing. Salmon and many other fish have limited thermal niches—ranges of temperatures—they can tolerate. In drought years, water in the summer and spring months is often too low and too warm for them. Frank Burris, an OSG watershed educator, showed the team how lowering the water temperature by a mere six to seven degrees Fahrenheit and extending stream flow improved the health of juvenile salmon.

“We found that people were working really hard to make their farms and other businesses more efficient. People are out there doing good work. And we often don’t appreciate the progress people are making,” says Stevenson.

Stevenson and team’s efforts can be found in Documenting the Drought, a series of short films produced by OSG. Stevenson, a trained social scientist, is currently putting his interviews through a formal analysis.

Adapting to the Drought: Part Two

Outside the region’s rural areas, the Northwest has millions of thirsty urbanites, and the drought, especially in 2015, had many concerned. Good thing the region’s two largest public water utilities have been planning for drought.

Both the Portland Water Bureau (PWB) and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) are part of the Piloting Utility Modeling Applications (PUMA) project, an effort by large water providers to adapt to climate change. PUMA, whose other participants include water utilities for New York City and Tampa Bay, is a sub-project of the larger coalition Water Utility Climate Alliance (WUCA), an effort comprised of ten of the nation’s largest water providers.

To help PUMA members become more resilient to climate change, the utilities reached out to various climate research organizations. In the Northwest, the PWB and SPU found CIRC.

“This project was really about bringing together researchers and utilities collaboratively in what we’re calling the co-production of knowledge, to develop what we’re calling actionable science,” says Kavita Heyn, Climate Science and Sustainability Coordinator at the Portland Water Bureau.

Heyn’s employer supplies water for some 950,000 Portland-area residents, and that number is growing. Concerned about the future of its water supply, PWB joined WUCA and PUMA. As part of her duties, Heyn, a native Portlander, oversaw the implementation of PUMA at PWB.

PWB’s first step was to computer model their watershed. While the utility had in-house modeling capabilities, according to Heyn, their internal models needed to include climate projections in order to plan far into this century. CIRC researchers John Abatzoglou and Katherine Hegewisch, both at UI, as well as Bart Nijssen at UW, aided this effort, with Abatzoglou and Hegewisch providing climate data and Nijssen running hydrologic computer models to help simulate changes to the utility’s watershed.

Together, the engineers at PWB and researchers at CIRC worked to integrate the results of their climate and hydrologic models with PWB’s in-house engineering model. (A similar process was employed by CIRC researchers and SPU engineers to model SPU’s watershed.)

“Our goal was to help both providers build their own internal capacities,” says CIRC researcher Meghan Dalton, who led the climate analysis effort for SPU.

Both PWB and SPU are currently working to integrate the PUMA work into their long-term water management initiatives. Edward Campbell, Resource Protection and Planning Director for PWB, says his bureau is in the process of hiring additional staff to use the tools CIRC helped set up.

For a full description of PUMA, see the WUCA publication Actionable Science in Practice.

Drought in Real Time

PUMA and the other efforts outlined here illustrate how information projecting long-term trends can greatly improve planning and adaption. But for adaption to be truly effective, short term information and planning are also needed. We’ve seen this in projects such as the US Drought Monitor, which compiles hydrology data from across the nation into weekly updates. (For instance, data from Bart Nijssen’s UW Northwest Drought Monitor feeds into the US Drought Monitor.) As part of its second round of funding, CIRC is creating a series of user-friendly computer tools it calls the Northwest Climate Toolbox. One tool in CIRC’s toolbox is the Climate Engine.

Led by Abatzoglou and his team at UI, Climate Engine is a far-reaching effort that includes involvement from the Desert Research Institute and Google, and comes in response to the White House Climate Data Initiative. Climate Engine works by feeding global climate data into Google Earth, allowing anyone with a browser to track changes across the globe in weather, drought, and vegetation in near real time.

“There is so much information and data on drought out there. One goal of Climate Engine is to increase the accessibility of this information to assist with drought monitoring and decision making,” says Abatzoglou.

Currently, Climate Engine works as a monitoring tool, but Abatzoglou says he hopes to hone it into a forecasting tool that can be used to help farmers and others plan ahead. This work is currently being developed with the Regional Approaches to Climate Change–Pacific Northwest Agriculture project (REACCH) and includes REACCH’s Climate/Weather Tools project.

“What you see with these types of tools is a real step forward in responding to drought,” says OCCRI’s Kathie Dello. “We expect to see more droughts under future climate change. We need to plan ahead. We need to adapt.”

This story was originally published in Northwest Climate Magazine. Northwest Climate Magazine is a joint effort between CIRC, the Northwest Climate Science Center, and the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative.

To download a PDF version of this story, click here

Nathan Gilles is the managing editor of The Climate Circulator, and oversees CIRC’s social media accounts and website. When he’s not writing for CIRC, Nathan works as a freelance science writer. Other Posts by this Author. 

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