Forget the Freeze, Get Ready for a Blisteringly Dry Summer

January’s global temperatures were near record highs: That means snowless ski runs in the West this winter and water shortages come spring.

Snowpack in drought-stricken western U.S. is at a fraction of its normal winter levels. (Photo: Max Whittaker/Reuters)

Feb 19, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

January was the second warmest in recorded history, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced on Thursday.

Only 2007 saw higher temperatures at the same time of the year.

January’s average global temperatures were almost 1.4 degrees higher than the 20th century average.

Sea surface temperatures off both the West and East coasts of the United States were unusually warm—a result of climate change, NOAA climate scientist Jake Crouch told reporters on a conference call. The warmer waters off the Northeast may be adding energy to Boston’s snowstorms, he said, which so far this winter have dropped just over 96 inches of powder (about 90 of them since Jan. 19) on the city.

With roughly four weeks of winter remaining, Boston is on the verge of breaking its snowfall record of 107.6 inches, set during the winter of 1995–1996. The eastern U.S. is entering a profound freeze for the next several days as cold Arctic air swoops in and shatters cold records from Chicago to Miami.

Meanwhile, the drought in the western U.S. continued unabated, even expanding slightly, and worsened in the Central Rockies and Hawaii. Records for warmest days nationwide outpaced record cold days in January by almost four to one.

California saw its sixth-warmest temperatures ever, with no rain falling in San Francisco for the first time in recorded weather history. The western drought shows no signs of letting up through late spring, according to NOAA, and the chance of an El Niño effect forming to bring on rain is slight.

Alaska and the Pacific Northwest were unusually warm as well. While Oregon and Washington are getting about as much precipitation as usual, officials said, temperatures west of the Cascades are so high that precipitation is falling as rain instead of snow.

“Winter seems to have completely forgotten about us out here,” Kathie Dello, the deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service, told reporters. “Boston has received more snow than Crater Lake.”

That might appeal to cold-weary Northeasterners. But it has meant multimillion-dollar losses for the ski industry, Dello said, and puts the region in a bad position for the summer dry season.

Because snow usually begins piling up in the region’s higher elevations in October, there’s not much time left to salvage either the winter sports season or the summer water supply.

“Here in the Pacific Northwest we count on a very robust snowpack to get through the summers, when we don’t get a lot of precipitation,” Dello said. Without that frozen freshwater supply laid in, already low reservoirs will be tapped more heavily for drinking water, agricultural irrigation, and keeping streams deep and cool for endangered salmon and other fish.

Some areas rely wholly on rivers and streams fed by melting snowpack for their freshwater, however.

“If you think of this winter like a football game, we’re in the fourth quarter and down by nine touchdown,” Dello said. “So we look to the summer with a concern about drought as well as wildfires.”