An El Niño climate pattern points to a relatively warm and dry fall and winter for the Northwest — and possibly the continuation of the state’s drought.
One of the strongest “El Niño” climate conditions on record points toward a relatively warm, dry fall and winter in the Puget Sound area, and could prolong and magnify drought conditions across Washington state, officials say.
“This historic drought is not over,” state Department of Ecology director Maia Bellon told reporters on a conference call Thursday, adding that more than two thirds of the state is now in “extreme drought” status.
“When we thought it (the drought) couldn’t get any worse,” it did, Bellon said, noting that reservoirs, aquifers, and snowpack have been at historically low levels.
Some farmers have been unable to get the water they needed, and others have had to do with less, producing smaller apples and berries than usual. Meanwhile, Bellon said, even the town of Forks on the Olympic Peninsula — one of the rainiest places in the country, has enacted water-use restrictions.
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“Right now, nature seems upside down,” she said.
Department of Ecology spokesperson Dan Partridge said a preliminary estimate of a state crop loss of $1.2 billion will be revised as further data comes in, a process that could take months.
A second consecutive low-water year could be more destructive, he said, because water levels going into the fall are much lower than this time last year.
All but one of Washington’s 39 counties — the lone exception being San Juan County — have been federally declared disaster areas, meaning that farmers can apply for low-interest emergency loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Resource managers have been forced to weigh the competing needs of people, fish, crops and industry. Residents on both sides of the Cascades have been urged to reduce water use.
The chief indicator of upcoming weather is a strong El Niño, a climate pattern marked by warm waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator. The phenomenon has typically been associated with moderate Northwest winters.
This year’s El Niño is the third-strongest in records that date back to the 1950s, with Pacific temperatures the highest in more than 17 years, according to Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.
For the Northwest, that points to the likelihood of above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation from October through February.
Drought-stricken California may see some good news in the outlook, because strong El Niños often produce rain in Southern California. One wet winter could help Californians, Halpert said, but wouldn’t erase the effects of the state’s four-year drought.
Washington’s drought wasn’t caused chiefly by a lack of precipitation. Instead, it resulted from mountain temperatures that were so high through the winter and spring that much precipitation fell as rain, rather than snow. A hefty snowpack is crucial to having a water supply that lasts through summer.
In Seattle, the amount of rainfall since last Oct. 1 — considered the start of the “water year” — is 36.74 inches, nearly identical to the normal 36.99 for that period.
The ski industry, following one of its shortest ski seasons ever last year, is hoping for better. John Gifford, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association, said even in a strong El Niño year, the mountains can get about 75 to 80 percent of their normal snowpack.
That would be a significant improvement, he said, to the 30 to 50 percent they got last year.
The strongest El Niño on record was in the winter of 1997-98, when northern states saw unusually warm and dry conditions while southern states, from California to the Atlantic, were hit by a succession of storms.
The anticipated dry autumn Seattle days have already begun. After a sunny Wednesday and Thursday, the Weather Service forecast calls for a single rainy day on Friday before turning back to sunshine each day into middle of next week.