« Return to this article

Know the West

The wild, wild weather


Blame it on climate change or the vagaries of nature, but whatever the cause, weather in the West has been extreme — and wacky. The Southwest has become a tinderbox, while Northwesterners are sopping wet.


Average yearly moisture: 37.02 in.*
Moisture June ‘05-May ‘06: 41.53 in.

Nine consecutive days of downpour hit western Washington this January, triggering mudslides, flooding homes and closing highways. Bremerton, a town near Seattle, notched up 16.2 inches of rain during one three-week period, a quantity that normally falls over the course of 2 months. The relentless precipitation caused $7 million in damage and led the governor to declare a state of emergency.


Average moisture: 26.78 inches Moisture June ‘05-May ‘06: 31.64 in. Winds of 117 miles per hour — the strongest recorded in the state since 1995 — swept through northeastern Oregon in mid-May, upending 12 circle irrigation systems and destroying 10,000 poplars on a tree farm near Boardman. The storms followed two days of record-breaking highs, which have since cooled down to normal summer temperatures.


Average moisture: 22.33 inches
Moisture June ‘05-May ‘06: 28.44 in.


Average moisture: 8.76 inches
Moisture June ‘05-May ‘06: 10.32 in.


Average moisture: 15.85 inches
Moisture June ‘05-May ‘06: 14.04 in.

Ski resorts in the northern half of the state celebrated the return of good snow, as storm after storm brought some of the highest snow levels of the past decade. Southern Colorado could only look on with envy, as snowfall was scant and far below average. Springtime brought bad news for water managers all over the state, however. Unusually high temperatures, no significant snowfall in May, and snowmelt-inducing dust events quickly shriveled snowpack to below-average levels statewide (HCN, 5/29/06: Dust and Snow). By June, the remaining snow level was about five times lower than normal in the southern part of the state, only slightly higher than in 2002, one of the worst years on record for wildfires.


Average moisture: 12.71 inches
Moisture June ‘05- May ‘06: 7.54 inches

Look up the word "drought" in the dictionary, and there might be a picture of Phoenix, Ariz., on June 6, when a "haboob" — a huge dust storm — engulfed portions of that sprawling city. Phoenicians have been parched this year: No precipitation fell for a record 143 days between October 2005 and March 2006, prompting some residents to flock to beauty salons in search of miracle potions to ease dry skin. This drought, coupled with four years of below-average precipitation across much of the state, has increased the risk of wildfire; more than 4,000 acres burned in February near Payson. The U.S. Department of Agriculture declared 14 out of 15 counties drought disaster areas.


Average moisture: 29.14 inches
Moisture June ‘05-May ‘06: 17.91 in.
An early heat wave blasted Montana’s Glacier National Park, setting a record high of 89 degrees on May 16. Rapid snowmelt produced water at the rate of one inch a day, which helped trigger a huge avalanche that churned 4,000 vertical feet down the slopes of Heaven’s Peak.


Average moisture: 18.8 inches
Moisture June ‘05-May ‘06: 22.05 in.

Climate reports from Idaho this year referred repeatedly to the state’s weather as a "yo-yo." Unseasonably high temperatures in May melted a big winter snowpack, which ranged from 110 to 180 percent of normal in central and southern Idaho and broke a four-year streak of below-average snowfall. Then it got cold again, and another foot of snow fell in some places. In early June, 90-degree temperatures returned, which melted more snow, prompting flood warnings in some areas and creating the best whitewater conditions in years.


Average moisture: 13.07 inches
Moisture June ‘05-May ‘06: 12.35 in.


Average moisture: 13.45 inches
Moisture June ‘05-May ‘06: 9.28 in.

After a dry and dusty winter, southern New Mexico chile farmers welcomed the lack of weeds and insects, and planted crops early. But by mid-May, hot, windy weather dried up almost five miles of the Middle Rio Grande, bumming out farmers and killing 38 endangered Rio Grande silvery minnows. About half the state is under drought advisory, with some areas already experiencing "severe drought emergency." And on June 5, Albuquerque hit 98 and Roswell 105 degrees — record highs for both cities. But maybe there’s hope: The New Mexico Council of Churches asked all congregations to pray on Sunday, June 11, for an end to the drought. As we went to press, the prayers had not yet been answered.