Snowfall on the West Coast is ‘once in a generation’

Portland, Oregon received nearly a foot of snow in one day in what turned out to be the second snowiest day in recorded history. Mountainous areas in California saw almost unprecedented snowfall — more than 40 feet (12 m) since the start of the season. The airfield in Flagstaff, Arizona has had 12 feet (3.5 m) of fall this season, second only to the winter of 1948-49. Even the suburbs of Phoenix awoke Thursday to a dusting of snow that blanketed cacti and lush golf courses.

What’s up with all that snow?

“This rain and snow went against the trend and it’s highly unexpected,” said Ryan Maue, a meteorologist and former NOAA chief scientist. “It’s like once-in-a-generation.”

Meteorologists say the explanation for the robust winter season is not so simple, nor is it a direct result of the current La Niña climate pattern, where the cooling of the central Pacific’s surface waters influences the weather.

“The short answer is no, La Niña alone is not the main cause of this weather,” said Daniel McEvoy, a researcher at the Western Regional Climate Center.

Bianca Feldkircher, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said a persistent blocking pattern over the Pacific plus cold air moving south from the Arctic has created the conditions for widespread snowfall along the West Coast.

“Not only did you get significant snowfall in areas that already have snow, you also saw snowfall at lower elevations in Southern California, which is super rare,” Feldkircher said.

For example, the March 1 forecast warned of snowfall for parts of Phoenix, which Feldkircher says is “super unusual” for this time of year. And last week, Portland saw abnormally high snowfall rates, recording nearly 11 inches (28 centimeters) — the second snowiest day in city history.

With regard to human-induced climate change, meteorologists say it’s challenging to pinpoint what role it plays in the West Coast’s peculiar winter season.

But as global temperatures rise, more and more extreme weather is expected. “Heat produces moisture, moisture creates storms, and heat and moisture combine to create even more severe storms,” ​​Feldkircher said.

Forecasting technology is getting better and better. So much better, that it will soon be able to predict even extreme events with greater accuracy. “I don’t think climate will cause problems with our weather forecasting capabilities for the foreseeable future,” Maue said.

While many regions struggled with the challenging winter conditions, some are welcoming much-needed humidity.

The recent precipitation is a boon to some relief from the drought that continues in the Southwest.

California tends to go from rags to riches, abundance to poverty when it comes to rain, Maue said. “That’s why, from a policy standpoint, you need to be able to have water regulations, reservoirs and water supplies that can be used during multi-year droughts.”


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