It’s summer. But in the Northwest, spring never showed

As spring gets weirder, warmer and less stable, water supplies, ecosystems and agriculture are getting out of whack.

In the middle of April, spring in the still wintery and wet Pacific Northwest seemed a long way off. Just two weeks later, though, Spokane hit a daily record 85 degrees Fahrenheit, setting off a month of historic heat. During a heat wave starting May 12, Portland’s metro area beat records for consecutive May days over 80 — nine — and 90 — four. Coastal communities set records in the 90s, too. Later in the month, Eastern Oregon and Washington toppled even more records, with some places peaking just shy of 100. Smoke drifted down from wildfires in Canada. Vegetable gardens bolted. It hardly rained at all.

May, to Northwesterners, bore all the hallmarks of summer.


Spring is notoriously fickle, but this year, the season’s transition “happened faster than it almost always does,” said Nick Bond, Washington’s state climatologist. “It was a little bit of a whipsaw around here.” Such instability — particularly during the shoulder seasons — is expected to rise because of climate change. Spring temperatures in the Northwest haven’t been warming as quickly as those in other seasons, but Bond said it’s catching up.

After the strange start to 2023, he said, the community, including climate scientists, “now appreciates, a little bit more than before, that spring matters.”

Without it, water supplies, ecosystems, agriculture and more get out of whack. “We got a little bit more complete and nuanced view of how all this works,” Bond said.

Here’s what we learned from this year’s skipped spring:

Fire and drought risk grow

In April, the Northwest’s snowpack looked about average. Then, it “did a disappearing act,” Bond’s office reported on June 8. Starting in early May, snow melted at record rates. Waterways flooded. West of the Cascades, the snowpack vanished two weeks earlier than usual. That has big implications for the whole region, said Dan McEvoy, a climatologist at the Western Regional Climate Center whose research includes spring heat waves. “One place that will show up is in earlier fire danger,” he said. By mid-June, more than a dozen wildfires had already burned hundreds of acres in Oregon and Washington. Another worry is drought. The National Weather Service reported that the area considered to be in drought grew in May. All of western Washington and northwest Oregon are expected to follow later this year. “That hinges on summer temperatures,” McEvoy said, but all signs point to a hot, dry summer too.

Human bodies aren’t ready

In a normal seasonal cycle, by the time temperatures peak in the summer, people’s bodies — and behavior — have had months to acclimate. Health risks rise only when the temperature is higher than the local “normal.” This means that in the Northwest in May, heat in the low 90s can be dangerous, even if it wouldn’t be in August. The mid-May heat wave resulted in at least 160 heat-related emergency room visits in Oregon and Washington over four days, a rate almost 40 times higher than normal. The heat caught many off guard — even Adelle Monteblanco, a public health professor and extreme heat researcher at Portland’s Pacific University. Excited to test her new thermal camera, she went for a walk. “I had my hat and my water bottle, and my badge of toughness, because I had lived in the South for six years, so 90 degrees ain't that bad,” she said. “I lasted 10 minutes. I had to turn around. It was so hot that it was making it really tough to breathe.”


A Taylor's checkerspot butterfly in Willamette Valley, Oregon. The species is especially sensitive to effects of climate change like increased frequency of temperature extremes. Populations are also affected by reduced snowpack and earlier snowmelt which creates highly exposed conditions for larvae.
Michael Durham/Minden Pictures


The birds and the bees struggle

Birds and insects are just getting started in spring. They’re emerging from winter dormancy, migrating, nesting — all of which makes them especially vulnerable to sudden swings and overall shifts.

When heat hits during the nesting season — March through early July — young birds “are often immobile or can't fly long distances. They can literally bake,” said Joe Liebezeit, interim conservation director at Portland Audubon. He couldn’t say whether that happened this May — his organization’s rescue center was closed due to winter storm damage, and he said the smallest, most vulnerable species often go unnoticed. But the record-breaking heat wave in June 2020 caused what his colleagues called a “hawkpocalypse” of more than 160 dehydrated and injured young hawks brought there and other centers. As early heat waves become more common, he expects more birds will suffer. Research shows that birds’ bodies and behaviors are already changing to keep up with climate change: Some species’ bodies are shrinking, others are nesting earlier and some are migrating sooner. But for many, those adaptations aren’t coming fast enough, said Liebezeit.

Research indicates that bugs are even less able to adapt to extreme heat. If it hits during the wrong part of their lifecycle, they can go sterile or die. This May, the timing wasn’t so bad, said Scott Hoffman Black, director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. The cool April meant most pollinators hadn’t emerged yet. “But then, man, they came out in droves,” he said. Now, he’s worried what this summer might bring. Early heat and drought may mean bugs have fewer resources later in the year, which means less food for some bird species, too.

Farmers may benefit — if they can afford it

Farmers, on the other hand, may benefit from early warming. Or some crops might, at least, and some farmers, if they’re able to take advantage of the lengthening season, said Mark Pavek, a potato agronomist at Washington State University. Some Northwest potato growers are adapting to warmer springs by getting potatoes in the ground sooner, he said, but that isn’t always easy — or cheap. “About 60% of our seed potatoes come from Montana, and there’s a couple of passes on the highway between here and there,” he said. “If it’s too cold, they can’t transport the potatoes unless it’s in a semi that has insulation and heaters.” That adds expense. So can having more workers, earlier in the year, to plant.

This May, in regions like the Columbia Basin where potatoes had already started to emerge, “they really just took off growing fast,” Pavek said. However, he added, early growth also means farmers must water and fertilize their plants sooner. And overall warming trends are causing more and new pests to thrive, adding even further complications and costs. And big, early-season investments can be risky: Extreme heat later in the year can damage the potatoes. “Even the pros and experts are sometimes not sure what to be doing,” Pavek said. As conditions get harder to predict and react to, “sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw.”

Francisco Dopa Sotelo, an employee of Wongs Potatoes, picks rocks and other debris from a conveyor belt on a potato harvester near Merrill, Oregon, in 2002. Some Northwest potato growers are adapting to warmer springs by getting potatoes in the ground sooner, for a longer growing season.
Gary Thain/AP Photo

Sarah Trent is an editorial intern for High Country News based in southwest Washington. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.