Warm season leaves ski areas in meltdown

Snow came late to Pacific Northwest ski slopes this year. Thanks to lack of snow, many ski areas that usually open around Thanksgiving didn’t crank up their chair lifts until late December, or even the first week of January.

Then, just as the ski business was beginning to ramp up, spring-like conditions melted much of the snow – and the profits.

But the damage to the ski season is only part of the problem. Even more ominous is the relationship of the low snow pack to the specter of summer drought.

"The latest official designation shows the Pacific Northwest as abnormally dry. Which is frankly quite an understatement," said Jack Bohl, meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Portland office.

According to data from the National Weather Service, January 2005 ranked as one of the top ten warmest, driest months and 2004 as the second warmest year on record. During the last half of January, warm air masses blanketed the Cascades, creating temperatures in the 60s and liquefying the precious snow pack. Two days in January were notable for all-time high temperatures, including a startling reading of 66 degrees on Jan. 18.

January also marked the third consecutive month with below-normal precipitation, with rainfall between November and January amounting to less than half what would normally be expected.

Without precipitation there is no snow. As of Jan. 19, the water content of high-elevation snowpack was less than one-half of normal across much of Washington and northern Oregon.

"At this time it would take sustained record snowfall to get back to a snowpack that was even near average," said John Lea of the Natural Resources Conservation Service

Several Mt. Hood ski resorts shut down operations when their slopes turned dirt brown instead of snowy white. The closures are disastrous for the ski areas, which make most of their profits between December and February, and count on a cold, snowy winter for financial success.

"You need to have a solid base of snow established by the end of February, so that when it warms up or rains, the snow doesn’t all wash away," said Bohl.

Throughout the Pacific Northwest, the continued low snow pack, a long-range outlook for below-normal precipitation and reduced stream flow forecasts place the Pacific Northwest at risk for a serious summer drought.

"The outlook is for continued lower than normal precipitation," said Bohl. "It’s not hopeless, but the outlook isn’t good."

Drought is a climate cycle that occurs periodically under natural conditions, and that may be induced when weather aberrations come up against human demands. Rising population and increased power needs create unstable water use, which increases the likelihood of drought.

According to Bohl, our summer water supply comes not only from snowmelt, but also from spring rainfall, which fills reservoirs. These reservoirs are emptied periodically during the winter for flood control, and depend on spring rains for refilling.

"If our spring rainfall is short, not only will we be short from winter snowfall but also from spring rainfall," said Bohl.

What does drought mean to Oregonians? Low river levels can affect the production of hydroelectricity, creating power shortages. Drought interferes with irrigation, causes lake and stream levels to drop and affects the health of fish and wildlife, as well as impacting water-based recreation.

Water shortages also hit people in their own homes and neighborhoods. During Oregon’s last serious drought in 1994, car washing was forbidden and watering of lawns and gardens was strictly regulated. Violators received stiff fines.

On Feb. 3, the snowpack at Timberline Lodge and Mt. Hood Meadows stood at 34 percent and 23 percent of normal, respectively. Multorpor-Ski Bowl, Summit and Cooper Spur ski areas were closed indefinitely and Mt. Hood Meadows was closed through at least Feb. 4. Timberline Lodge was open, operating four of six chairlifts on a low snow base.

For those who love winter snow sports, Bohl suggests that you save your money and give it a try next year.

Without precipitation, it’s going to be a long, dry summer.