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Record Drought Impacting the Pacific Northwest

The Western US is currently experiencing some of the most severe drought conditions on record. You can see it in the brown grass across the Leschi neighborhood, the explosive wildfires currently scorching Northern California, the bone-dry reservoirs across Southern Oregon and much of California, and the desiccated branches of deciduous and coniferous trees throughout the Pacific Northwest. This past spring was one of the driest on record for much of the Pacific Northwest, and this summer has been one of the hottest & driest summers on record and was punctuated by a heat wave in late June that was far stronger than any Pacific Northwest heat wave in recorded history.

This latest drought is just the most recent episode of a decade that has been defined by droughts across the Western US. Late 2011–14 was the driest period in California’s recorded history, and the drought persisted until early 2017, when a series of strong atmospheric rivers moved and brought extreme flooding to portions of the state. California’s drought spread north into the Pacific Northwest, and 2015 experienced historical drought conditions due to the combination of very little mountain snowpack during the 2014–2015 winter and extreme heat during the 2015 summer. I was a camp counselor up at Hidden Valley Camp in near Granite Falls, WA during the summer of 2015 and remember how hot and dusty that summer was. There was so much dust, my tent group and I were inspired to do a skit re-enacting the “Dust Bowl” (I was the cranky farmer, of course).

This most recent drought formed in summer 2020 due to hot/dry weather over the Pacific Northwest and a well-below-average monsoon season for the Desert Southwest. La Nina conditions during the 2020–21 winter resulted in well-below-average precipitation and worsening drought for California and the Desert Southwest, and many locations in the Pacific Northwest and California saw their driest spring on record. Coupled with the continued hot and dry conditions we’ve seen this summer, many places across the Western US are now experiencing some of their most severe drought conditions in modern history.

The Western US is no stranger to drought. Using tree rings as a proxy for rainfall/vegetation growth, climate scientists have found