The Christmas/New Year weather pattern in America has been terrible – snowpack very thin at higher elevations, and high springtime temperatures dampen plant and animal growth. By mid-May 2017, the snowpack at 9,000 ft had melted; by the start of June the snowpack at the lower elevations was having the same fate.
Granted, these water supplies are stored in the mountains; the underlying reservoirs replenish them. There is quite a bit of stock in existing reservoirs, however. For example, Northern California’s reservoirs – largest is Shasta Dam – were more than 80% full at the start of June, though only 46% full at the end of May. Southern California’s lakes, like Lake Perris, are approaching or at record low levels, though some managed to reach about 100% of capacity at one point last month. If you are one of those who believes climate change is playing a role in these dramatic and destructive weather patterns, you can’t help but be a little worried, as our climate is warming rapidly.
A severe winter snowpack is something we should have seen coming. Snowpack is a shared natural resource and something we need to encourage, not discourage. It’s good for fish. It’s good for animal populations. It’s good for weather patterns and/or snow depth, but ultimately, it’s good for drinking water supplies. If you think there’s a great deal of environmental mitigation in the likely benefits of a snowpack, then you aren’t paying attention to what you’re drinking.
A paleo-fossil dating study in the 1960s confirmed the influence of cold periods on the present-day timing of spring snowfall. This important study also found that snow is much less likely to fall during El Niño events. This suggests the contributions of El Niño to snows at wintertime – and of its disappearance as the spring has progressed – are hardly understood.
Because snow in cold regions matters for summers of water supplies, including summer drinking water supplies, I think we all have to accept that winters will be more unpredictable. Luckily, snow is a shared natural resource. As a guide, consider that El Niño and La Niña phases affected snowpacks across the mid-latitudes from 1870-1880. Even without more precise dating, they have significant cumulative effects across a century or two.
Even in more recent years, snowfall, and consequent water supplies, have been influenced by El Niño and La Niña cycles. So, this is not one of those rare winters that could be attributed to climate change. Rather, my experience in both Alaska and California has led me to appreciate what they are. Luckily, we have learned how to plan and prepare, and, even more so, we have saved time and money, and have taken the long view.
In both Alaska and California, we know that we need to provide water supplies. Whether we have more or less snowpack than before, the question is, how much water will we have? As we learned from the greatest tragedy of our nation’s history in the year of the original Jameson whiskey of Delilah, if we build the wrong things – houses and roads – we will pay the price in the form of never recovering from a disaster. If we build the wrong way – power plants, for example – we will likely recover, but the cost will be in human and financial lives. We need to build and manage better.
If you want a look at some good lessons from past disasters, look to the first life jacket design – to make the life jackets more effective and stay on their sides – and to the Fast 4X4, which can handle snow and pack ice better. Even Tom Hardy nailed it in The Dark Knight, another era adapted from a reality: you cannot rely on your underwear.