Today, another article on our region’s snow gone AWOL, this one in the Seattle Times. According to Philip Mote, a climate scientist at the University of Washington who is interviewed in the article, most basins in the Cascades are carrying just 20 to 30 percent of their average snowpack, the worst in 28 years. (Precipitation is down by only 20 to 30 percent, but warm winter temperatures have melted the snow.)

In the Northwest, a season of minimal snow can have serious ecological and economic consequences. So far, the media has paid a lot of attention to the ski industry, which is suffering through a truly awful year. But unless the snow situation reverses dramatically in the late-season, we’ll soon be hearing a lot about salmon, farmers, and electricity too.

A bad year for snowpack is unfortunate, but not cause for alarm. Not, that is, unless the best scientific predictions point to a future of greatly diminished snowpacks and streamflows as a result of global climate change. And they do.

But is this year’s lousy ski season really the consequence of global warming? Or is it just a natural weather pattern like El Nino, the Pineapple Express, or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation?

  • First, let me state this unequivocally: no one can ever say that weather, no matter how bizarre or alarming, is definitely caused by climate change. It is—in principle—impossible to determine that a single weather event is evidence of global warming (or evidence against it, for that matter). This winter’s abysmal snowpack in the Cascades does not "prove" climate change is happening, just as normal weather conditions do not "prove" that the climate is stable.

    Weather cannot prove that climate change is real, but the science can. And the overwhelming consensus among scientists is that the planet is getting warmer and human activities are a primary cause. (If you’re a global warming skeptic, see my postscript.)

    But, as I implied earlier, scientific understanding of climate change is not confined to documenting changes in the earth’s atmosphere and oceans. Scientists are now able to make predictions about future climate trends with increasing accuracy and regional specificity. And researchers expect that if present trends continue, in 50 years Cascade snowpack will be about half of what it is now in a typical year. In fact, some climatologists believe that human-induced global warming may actually alter the frequency and intensity of weather patterns such as the Pineapple Express that’s melting our snow this winter.

    So there are at least two ways of understanding our nonexistent ski season: 1) It fits scientific climate predictions and anecdotally suggests that global warming is coming home to roost; 2) Whether or not it has anything to do with climate change, it is precisely the type of condition that scientists predict, and it is therefore an instructive sneak preview of future climatic conditions.

    But what can we do? Is there any way we can halt something as massive and global as climate change? Well, the obstacles are daunting and the odds are long. But we need not despair. In a later post (tomorrow, I hope) I’ll explore some of the ways that Northwest leaders are forging innovative solutions to our climate predicament.

    Postscript: As I mentioned, the scientific consensus that human-induced climate change is real is simply overwhelming, despite the oddly persistent myth that there’s a legitimate scientific debate over the issue. (There’s plenty of debate about the details of climate change—how much, how soon, where, and why—but very little about the basics: the earth is getting warmer and human activites are a main cause.) Global warming skeptics can take up the issue with the US Environmental Protection Agency, the National Academy of Science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (comprised of 2,500 of the world’s leading climate scientists), the US State Department, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Department of Agriculture, British Petroleum, and the United Nations, as well as university researchers, international government agencies, and corporations far too numerous to mention here.