Western weather: feast or famine

 

In February, Washington's Mount Baker Ski Area was forced to turn skiers away for two days - a storm had buried even the chairlifts in snow. Boasting 90 feet of snow, the mountain is very close to setting a world record for yearly snowfall. Neighboring Mount Rainier isn't far behind with 77 feet.

Getting much of the credit for all this eccentric weather was La Nina, the phenomenon that creates cooler than normal waters in the Pacific Ocean and shifts the global jet stream pattern to the north. The result: While much of the West was hung out to dry last winter, the Northwest and Northern Rockies had more than enough snow.

Snow-friendly storm clouds didn't stop at the Cascade Range. In the Kootenai River watershed of northwest Montana, the snowpack was 139 percent of average on April 6, and the mountains of Idaho and Oregon were also stacked with record snows.

At lower elevations, winter storms translated into buckets of rain. Between Nov. 1 and Feb. 28, even famously wet Seattle had a record: 91 days of rain. The gray clouds reportedly darkened the moods of many people. Calls about weather-related depression increased substantially from last year, reports Dr. David Avery at the University of Washington Medical Center. Oregon hydrologist Mike VanTress describes the heavy rains as "a monotonous pounding."

With one eye on swollen rivers and another on deep mountain snowpacks, many fear floods this spring.

"The time to buy sandbags is now," Paul Spengler, an emergency coordinator for Lewis and Clark County, told Montana's Great Falls Tribune on March 28. The Capital Press, based in Salem, Ore., reported that Idaho officials were worried about flooding across the state.

But scientists say that deep snows don't guarantee catastrophic spring flooding. Northwestern snowpacks are largely at high elevations, and they melt slowly due to cooler mountaintop temperatures. "Historically, there is not a single case of major flooding that coincided with peak mountain snowpacks," says Doug McDonnal of the National Weather Service. "To get major flooding in western Washington, we'd need 50 inches of snowmelt in two or three days and that just doesn't happen."

Although experts say there could be minor flooding throughout the Northwest, it's not expected to match the spring floods of 1996. "We're not expecting anything too exciting," says Roy Kaiser of the National Resources Conservation Service in Montana.

Hung out to dry

Flooding is the last thing on people's minds in the southern regions of the West, where throughout Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and into Nevada, snowpacks were far below average. In March, Colorado's average snowpack was its lowest since 1981, and Arizona and New Mexico received little snow to speak of, leaving regions like the Gila National Forest with less than 2 percent of normal winter precipitation.

The low snowpacks have rangers, ranchers and farmers knee-deep in worry. Ranger Steve Libby of New Mexico's Gila National Forest expects "low nest success' among endangered species such as the Mexican spotted owl and the peregrine falcon, because drought conditions make it hard for the mothers to find food for themselves, let alone for their newborns. Some ranchers in Arizona have been forced to sell cattle early in the season because already feed is getting scarce.

Buford Rice of the Colorado Farm Bureau says that with the low snowpack, there are no reserves for reservoirs; by July, farmers could face water rationing. "There isn't a lot these farmers can do to avoid this kind of shortage," says Rice.

Drought could also spawn big-time fires. In late March, scientists said conditions were prime for the worst wildfire year of the century.

"We should be doing rain dances around here," says Max Willes, a volunteer on Utah's Dixie National Forest. This lack of moisture is a flip from last year's wet El Niûo, which left a healthy undergrowth of shrubs and grasses in Southwestern forests. La Niûa's heat has converted all that growth into "dead fuels," and they are ready to burn.

Tom Swetnam, a tree-ring scientist at the University of Arizona, says big regional fire years are often triggered by drought years that follow one to three wet years - an apt description of this spring.

"It's just like a tinderbox around here," says Steve Libby in New Mexico. "All it takes is some sort of ignition."

Rebecca Clarren is an HCN intern.

You can contact...

* National Center for Atmospheric Research, 1850 Table Mesa Drive, Boulder, CO 80307 (303/497-1000), www.ncar.ucar.edu;

* National Resources Conservation Service, P.O. Box 2890, Washington, DC 20013; www.nrcs.usda.gov/;

* National Weather Service: www.nws.noaa.gov/oh/hic/nho/updates.html

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