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Temperature, Not Precipitation, Has Greater Impact On Northwest Snowpack

Scientists have new cautionary predictions based on the low Northwest snowpack levels of the last two winters.

In 2014 and 2015, Oregon’s western Cascades had a low snowpack. Overall, it wasn’t because of low precipitation. It was because temperatures were higher.

Eric Sproles, a hydrologist at Oregon State University, said the 2014 snowpack was low and 2015 was even lower.

“We didn’t have snow. A lot of the reservoirs almost went empty, we had algae blooms, the lower elevation ski areas didn’t open,” Spoles said. “The bad news is that that will happen about once a decade, we’re going to have a snow pack like that.”

Sproles said results from his study, published in the Journal Cryosphere, show the Northwest snowpack is extremely sensitive to temperatures that warm even by two degrees Celsius.

But he said it’s not all “doom and gloom,” because the study offers land managers a way to predict and plan for drier conditions.

According to scientists, the situation is similar in California's northern Sierras as well as the mountains of Chile.

"We use snowpack as a reservoir [for water],” Sproles said. ”Mountain snowpack holds about four to five times as much water as the actual [man-made] reservoirs, at least in the McKenzie [River basin.]”

A study published in the journal 'Cryosphere' made use of snow site data in Oregon's McKenzie River basin and the Willamette River basin.
/ Cryosphere
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Cryosphere
A study published in the journal 'Cryosphere' made use of snow site data in Oregon's McKenzie River basin and the Willamette River basin.

Copyright 2017 Northwest News Network

Emily Schwing
Emily Schwing comes to the Inland Northwest by way of Alaska, where she covered social and environmental issues with an Arctic spin as well as natural resource development, wildlife management and Alaska Native issues for nearly a decade. Her work has been heard on National Public Radio’s programs like “Morning Edition” and “All things Considered.” She has also filed for Public Radio International’s “The World,” American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” and various programs produced by the BBC and the CBC. She has also filed stories for Scientific American, Al Jazeera America and Arctic Deeply.