Record bookkeepers in the Pacific Northwest need a break before they develop a writer’s cramp.
The past 12 months have proven that 2021 just doesn’t seem to care about climatological averages, let alone all-time records, for the Pacific Northwest region. Those living along the West Coast, particularly in Oregon, Washington state or the Canadian province of British Columbia, have almost certainly learned that by now.
The unconventional calendar year has been extreme from the start. Exacerbated drought set the stage for massive wildfires and helped create the conditions under which record-shattering heat waves occurred. After months of hazardous air quality levels and the hidden dangers of heat waves, the change of season has offered no reprieve.
In place of the droughts, wildfires and heat waves have come storm parades, atmospheric rivers and the Pineapple Express. Floods have wreaked havoc both on rivers and in burn scars, in major cities and small towns both south and north of the U.S.-Canada border.
Take the city of Abbotsford, for example. The Canadian city, located just north of the U.S. border in British Columbia, recorded its hottest day ever and its wettest day ever just 140 days apart.
From days of triple-digit heat in July to days of double-digit rainfall in October, the region has felt the effects of what may aptly be described as the most extreme weather year on record.
“It has certainly been a year of extremes across the Pacific Northwest, including British Columbia,” AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Brett Anderson said.
And it may not be a one-year wonder, AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Jon Porter warned.
“This type of ‘weather whiplash’ may become more common as the climate warms,” he said.
When the extreme becomes the expected
The house of 2021 climate catastrophes was built on the foundation laid in 2020 and years prior. Drought that had long worried hydrologists and meteorologists worsened in the summer of 2020, creating a ripple effect that set the stage for a uniquely dangerous wildfire season.
With the enhanced drought came more intense blazes. From July to September, the National Interagency Fire Center kept its fire preparedness level at Level 5, its highest status, for 69 straight days – the longest stretch in U.S. history.
On top of the millions of acres of burned land, the fires also spewed hazardous smoke throughout the country, dropping air quality numbers to dangerously low levels.
“We’re living in and literally breathing Earth changes through wildfires,” Susan Prichard, a University of Washington forecast ecologist, told High Country News earlier this month.
When the drought wasn’t fueling lung-burning wildfires, it sent the mercury in thermometers skyrocketing in other areas of the region.
In late June, the city of Lytton broke Canada’s all-time high-temperature record when the mercury reached 121.3 degrees Fahrenheit. In the U.S., cities such as Seattle and Portland, Oregon, endured multiple historic heat waves that shattered state records and claimed several lives.
Then, before residents could catch their smoke-filled breath, the rain started pouring.
In both late October and mid-November, record-breaking rain fell along the West Coast, both above and below the border. In October, a monstrous bomb cyclone was responsible for demolishing rain records in San Francisco and Sacramento, while the ensuing storm parade left hundreds of thousands without power in California, Washington and British Columbia.
Then, just weeks later, another atmospheric river in the region turned deadly, as a “Pineapple Express” storm dropped over 10 inches of rain in a 48-hour period, swelled rivers to record high levels and left hundreds of thousands in the dark once again.
How did we get here?
Drought, La Niña and a warmed atmosphere that ‘flipped a switch’…
“In both the extreme drought and record-setting heat waves, as well as the heavy rainfall, which recently led to devastating flooding, we see another hallmark of natural cycle impacts being observed around the world and just how extreme the events can get from a magnitude perspective,” Porter said.
Porter added that had it not been for the extra amplification that occurred from a warming atmosphere and the extreme drought conditions, Lytton’s temperature record would have been unlikely.
That volatility in weather conditions, a “weather whiplash,” as Porter worded it, may become more and more common as the climate continues warming, he said.
“The juxtaposition of the severe drought and heat waves from this summer to just a few months later devastating flooding with excessive rainfall falling ‘too fast, too furious’ is particularly striking as it seems like the atmosphere quickly ‘flipped a switch’ – but it isn’t the first time we’ve seen extreme drought come to a rapid end by a major rainfall and subsequent damaging flooding,” he said. “For example, a multi-year drought in much of Texas came to a rapid end in 2015 with serious flash flooding.”
According to Anderson, it may be tough to pin the extremes on just one culprit. Citing multiple studies, he said there is a clear correlation between the continued warming of the planet and an increase in extreme weather events due to the warmer air in the atmosphere being capable of holding more water.
Porter concurred, adding that a warmer atmosphere “enables greater atmospheric moisture levels and helps amplify rainfall events.”
“British Columbia, unfortunately, experienced this amplification effect on multiple severe weather events, which increased impacts to people and the economy,” he said.
In the U.S., a large portion of the country has already seen that jump in extreme weather events over the past 20 to 30 years, Anderson added.
“Warmer-than-normal Pacific waters are likely providing more energy for these storms as they approach the coast,” he said. “We are also under La Niña conditions, which tends to favor a stronger jet stream that is more orientated toward the Pacific Northwest and western Canada, which is directing more powerful storms into the region, setting the stage for storms that produce more precipitation and wind.”
And don’t forget about the Cascadia earthquake that could destroy the entire coast within minutes:
For everybody living in those areas… Better get prepared for the next round of violent weather, because it is on its way! [Accuweather]
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