Is this Climate Change?

By Roy L Hales

Screen-shot-2014-03-18-at-3.43.47-PM1The first seven months of this year were the warmest on record, and last month was the hottest known July. California’s drought has become a West Coast phenomenon, spreading as far north as Alaska. Wildfires are being reported in areas like Washington’s Olympic National Park, where there have been not been fires in living memory. “Rainy” British Columbia’s abnormally dry conditions are expected to continue through this fall and into winter. Trees are stressed and fish populations are failing. Is this Climate Change?

Is this Climate Change?

July 2015 Blended Land and Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies in degrees Celsius - NOAA
July 2015 Blended Land and Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies in degrees Celsius – NOAA

A new paper  published by the journal Geophysical Research Letters suggests conditions in California are 15% to 20% worse because of Climate Change.

Ironically, California’s environmental agency is the only one I was not able to reach in a quick poll of state and provincial agencies.

The usual answer I received went something like this, “That’s a difficult question to answer. These are conditions similar to what we would expect to see with Climate Change.”   Some suggested this was a freak year and, in their opinion,  weather patterns like this will not become typical for another two or three decades.

With one exception, who has yet to get back to me, nobody wanted to answer on the record.

However some pointed me towards the websites they believe are reliable.

Temperature Change in Alaska

Courtesy Alaska Climate Research Centre
Courtesy Alaska Climate Research Centre

A new report on the Alaska Climate Research Centre website states “warmer than normal temperatures that have existed throughout most of the winter and spring continued into July 2015,” but does not mention Climate Change.

In the explanation accompanying the chart to the right, it says that though Alaska has experienced a “fairly steady observed increase of CO2,” these temperature changes have not been linear.  The warmer temperatures since 1976 correspond “to a phase shift of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation from a negative phase to a positive phase. Synoptic conditions with the positive phase tend to consist of increased southerly flow and warm air advection into Alaska during the winter, resulting in positive temperature anomalies.”

British Columbia’s Drought

According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada,  payouts from weather and water related disasters have “doubled every five years since 1983.” They  name Climate Change as a cause in a report that explains, ” … warmer temperatures tend to produce more violent weather patterns.”

The most populated areas of Southern British Columbia – Greater Vancouver, the Lower Fraser Valley and Victoria – are experiencing “extremely dry” conditions. There is not enough water to meet all the population’s needs. This is expected to continue well into the fall, with temperatures 1 – 2 degrees higher than normal on the coast, and 3 – 4 degrees above normal inland.

This would appear to mirror the conclusion made in BC Hydro’s study, Potential Impacts of Climate Change, that the province will go through a temperature increase of 1.4 to 3.7oC, by 2050.

“In the southeast, warming will be greatest in summer, while in the northeast, warming will be greatest in winter. In the Campbell River watershed and other parts of south coastal B.C., the warming will be more evenly distributed throughout the year.”

However far from a continued drought, this study predicts that wetter weather patterns will accompany Climate Change.

Most Severe in California

US Drought Monitor for Augusy 18
US Drought Monitor for August 18, 2015

The West Coast drought is still most severe in California. A report from the Department of Water Resources says that in some parts of the San Joaquin Valley the ground is sinking two inches a month because of  increased pumping.

There is no immediate relief in sight, even with an El Niño winter expected. The state’s climatologist warned, “Historical weather data shows us that at best, there is a 50/50 chance of having a wetter winter. Unfortunately, due to shifting climate patterns, we cannot even be that sure.”

Table 3.1: Driest Three Consecutive Water Years, Based on Statewide Precipitation - from California's Most Significant Droughts (California Department of Water Resources)
Table 3.1: Driest Three Consecutive Water Years, Based on Statewide Precipitation – from California’s Most Significant Droughts (California Department of Water Resources)

California has a history of reoccurring droughts which stretches back for centuries.

The executive summary from California’s Most Significant Droughts begins, “The water years of 2012-14 stand as California’s driest three consecutive years in terms of statewide precipitation, and as of this writing in February 2015 the drought is continuing on…”

Almost 2/3 of the respondents in a recent poll said they believed Climate Change  caused the drought.

The scientific community does not appear to be convinced. A recent study suggests that Global warming has made conditions worse, but California would be going through a drought anyway.

Oregon’s Lowest Snowpack in 35 Years

Oregon Basin Outlook Report
Oregon Basin Outlook Report

Oregon’s drought is being blamed upon a lack of snow in the mountains. Levels have not been this low for at least 35 years.

As you can see in the chart at the left, the situation has been steadily worsening for the last five years.

However the visual pattern actually looks like three waves: 1981-92, 1993-2005 and 2006 until this past winter.  The lowest five lowest snowpacks appear to be the low points in the troughs of these waves:

  1. 1981 (followed by a deep snowpack)
  2. 1992 (end of the first wave, followed by a deep snowpack)
  3. 2005 (end of the second wave, followed by a deep snowpack)
  4. 2014 (which was followed by …)
  5. 2015

The five deepest snowpacks are distributed through-out the waves.  Three of the heaviest (1982, 1985 & 1989) occurred in that first wave, which ended in 1992. The deepest snowpack of all was in 1999, midway through the second wave. This present wave had a peak in 2008.

Both of the previous waves were followed by winters with relatively heavy snowfalls.

The probability is  that this wave will also be followed by years with good winters. The question, of course, is when will we reach the bottom of this trough? Is it already over? Or will there be an even lower snowpack in 2016?

An Anomaly In Washington

Courtesy Climate at a Glance
Courtesy Climate at a Glance

In Washington, Cliff Mass writes, “The snowpack on April 1, 2015 was the lowest on record. But it is an outlier and there is little apparent downward trend over the past three decades. This is not the kind of variation you would expect if global warming was the culprit.”

“What about temperature? Here is a plot form the NOAA “Climate at a Glance” website showing May-July temps over Washington State. 2015 is the warmest, although 1958 was close. But there is really very little upward trend.”

Not The New Normal?

Mass believes this is not the “new normal,” but rather a “very anomalous configuration of the upper level flow, with a huge, persistent ridge over the West Coast and a trough over the east. The eastern U.S. has been far COLDER than normal.” This is not a weather pattern predicted by Climate Change models, though higher temperatures and extreme weather events are.

His prediction that next year will probably be less extreme, even though it is an El Nino year, agrees with the data from Alaska and Oregon.

This does not discount the idea that Climate Change is taking place, or even disprove the idea that Climate Change is ultimately responsible for the events of this summer. It does make it less likely that the present drought will continue for years.

The shift in weather patterns appears to be much more complex that what many expected.

We will probably go through several extreme weather events until, some day in the future, a scientist will look point back to the year it all began.

Top Photo Credit: Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, Spokane Co., WA, This was perhaps the driest the refuge biologist had ever seen the slough. We were able to walk right out to the islands in the middle without so much as getting our feet wet! (Taken in 2014) by Jason Hollingervia Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

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