Winter is coming, again. ❄️
And while a second wave of winter weather may bring up to 8 inches of snow to Seattle, obviously higher elevation areas like our mountains will also be getting a snow dump. The Olympic Mountains could see up to 12 inches.
So what does this mean for our snowpack this year?
Washington State Department of Natural Resources Meteorologist Josh Clark provides fire weather forecast and fire precaution levels for firefighters, forest landowners, and the forest industry. During the colder months, his work includes looking at snowpack.
Clark says that it’s too early to answer that question in full, but here’s what we do know: right now, snowpack for our mountains is below normal.
The baseline for “normal” snowpack is pulled from the most recent climatology, a study of weather conditions over a period of time. The most recent climatology for snowpack in Washington is taken from 1981 to 2010.
We compare current snowpack to that time period through a measurement called snow water equivalent (SWE). This useful snowpack measurement assesses the water content should a snow layer melt instantaneously.
At the end of January, statewide snowpack was at 83 percent of normal.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service graphic below shows SWE values this week after our most recent snow event with areas still below normal for snowpack.
Graphic shows SWE values for our mountains as of Feb. 6, 2019
Washington had one of the slowest starts for snowpack in 30 years this season, with a stormy December bringing back the snow to near-normal levels.
We can’t really anticipate with certainty whether snowpack will get closer to “normal” for 2019 as snow events are forecasted for the region. Though, Department of Ecology reports with warmer than average conditions expected to persist into the spring, it’s unlikely, but not impossible, that the overall snowpack will achieve normal levels by April.
What can we learn from the snowpack in 2018?
Clark usually starts his analysis on snowpack and its impact on our state begins in April, when we have more data. By mid-summer 2018, he was able to report on the season’s snowpack.
“In 2018, below average snowpack was present across the Central and Southern Cascades with above average snowpack extending along the Canadian border from the North Cascades to Stevens County,” he wrote.
“From February to April, cooler average temperatures allowed from more precipitation to fall as snow in mountainous regions, leading to widespread above average snowpack and a statewide average that was 125 percent of normal on May 1, 2018.”
Snow in DNR-managed Tahoma State Forest, spring 2018.
“But by June 1, most areas were trending below normal, especially in the Cascades, where May temperatures had been 5 to 10 degrees warmer than average and precipitation was only 30 to 70 percent of normal. Snowpack continued to melt through low-to- mid elevation zones during June and by July, snow was only recorded in the North Cascades, Mount Rainier area, and portions of the Southern Cascades.”
Did near-normal snowpack help us during wildfire season last year?
With last year’s near normal snowpack levels, the state was still dry. And the wet winter lead to grass and brush growing bigger in the lowlands. Our firefighters responded to more than 1,676 wildfires, the second busiest season on record.
Photos were taken from Olympic Forest’s 2018 Maple Fire in Western Washington, where fires have been historically low.
More than 90 percent of those wildfires were human caused.
Also, while snowpack can keep moisture in our forests, it can also lead to natural disasters in some communities – like the flooding that reached emergency levels in Okanogan last year.
So while our team tracks snowpack and its impact, we encourage you to start thinking about emergency preparedness, and even wildfire prevention. With snow on the ground, it may seem early for this reminder, but our wildfire season started last year in April. Wildfire is now an issue for the entire state: we can all do our part by practicing a little prevention. 🔥