Posted by Jeff Id on July 21, 2009
Recently a graph of snow pack data from the NorthWest United States was brought to my attention. There has been much ado about the loss of this fresh water source due to nothing other than global warming. Here’s a quote from a Real Climate article authored by Dr. Eric Steig Link HERE.
The Seattle city mayor, Greg Nickels (a well known advocate for city-based CO2 reduction initiatives) wrote in an Op-Ed piece in the Seattle Times
The average snowpack in the Cascades has declined 50 percent since 1950 and will be cut in half again in 30 years if we don’t start addressing the problems of climate change now. That snow not only provides our drinking water, it powers the hydroelectric dams that keep our lights on.
The reply from Dr. Steig
The number “50 percent decline” apparently comes from a statement in an Oregon State University report in 2004 signed by many Northwest Scientists. This is not actually the best estimate for average snowpack decline, according to published work by Phil Mote, of Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. Mote reviewed the Oregon report back in 2004 and pointed out that the 50% figure was erroneous. Mote’s 2003 paper in Geophysical Research Letters, highlighted in Science a few years ago, cited losses “as great as 60%” in some locations. Subsequent work (Mote et al., 2005) attempted to quantify change in total snowpack for the Cascades, and arrived at 15-30% for the period 1950-1997. . This remains the best estimate, even when including the time period up to the present. Furthermore, this number represents measurements at many different elevations. If high elevation stations are excluded, the declines are generally larger, as would be expected if the chief culprit is increasing temperature, rather than declining snowfall.
The issue has grown ever larger due to disagreements between scientists over the actual trends. Oregon State climatologist George Taylor was forced to resign and Washington State climatologist Mark Albright was actually fired for making a ‘stink’ about certain statements in contradiction with the data. Phil Mote who was embroiled in the controversy and was recently appointed to Oregon State’s top climate position has been towing the global warming line.
It was George Taylor the previoius Oregon State Climatologist who first questioned the 50% decline.As is too often the case in climate science, the actual data is very noisy by nature yet tells quite a different story. Below are a few plots of individual stations measuring snow pack.shows the period of record through 2006. “]
These plots are of specific stations, however they demonstrate that at least for the above locations the 1950-1997 trend is a cherry pick, nothing more. If you’re interested in the detail, I found the last link quite informative. Before moving on, here is a comment from Joe #21 in the Real Climate article linked above which shows the over politicized nature of snow pack rather clearly.
One item that you didn’t mention in your summary of the UW dispute is that (at least according to the Seattle Times article) Phil Mote apparently tried to squelch debate by insisting on reviewing all e-mails issued by Albright on the snowpack issue. When Albright refused, Mote banned him from associating with the state climatologist’s office.
Squelching disagreement is all too common in climatology. Anytime there appears to be too much consensus, there is likely an unnatural cause.
Here’s what else Dr. Steig had to say regarding Mark Albright’s reaction to the 50% decline in snow pack:
Both the local and national media were thus quick to jump on the “story” when another UW staff member, Mark Albright, sought to correct the 50% number in a series of emails to the Mayor’s office, among other places. Unfortunately, Albright didn’t simply provide the corrected information, but set up a web site entitled “The Myth of the Vanishing Cascade Mountain Snowpack”, with the very clear message that snowpack has not declined at all. Beyond the appearance of a controversy, this makes for a good newspaper story because it appears to cast doubt on Mote’s credibility.
Eric Steig’s questioning of Mark Albright’s credibility rather than demonstrating the data has an effect on my opinion of Dr. Steig. Perhaps he has superior knowledge to other experts who we would expect are quite qualified to have opinions on the actual data but you’ll note the RC article above presents no actual data however there are links to a few papers. Instead, Dr. Steig gives three reasons for his improved understanding over Mark Albright and George Taylor starting with this admittedly Jeff-like statement.
So has Pacific Northwest snowpack declined? Emphatically yes. I say “emphatically yes” for three reasons.
First, because Albright illustrates the supposed lack of a trend by comparing specific periods (e.g. 1940-1949 vs. 1997-2006), in which snowpack has increased in some locations. This is not very informative, because both the spatial and temporal variability is large, and any question of decline can only be correctly addressed using all the data together, and over a statistically significant time period (30 years or more would be preferred).
The first Steig example demonstrating snow pack decrease is because Mark Albright’s actual data wasn’t convincing??? Of course this doesn’t add weight to the snow IS decreasing argument either way so we need to read on. I bolded the 30 year minimum limit comment because it’s a humorously repetitive and very nearly arbitrary refrain in climatology. Eric Steig did follow it up with a link to an amazingly un-detailed report of snow ice decrease by Phil Mote mentioned above, however while filled with opinion and conclusion, there is absolutely no real information I can find in it — summary statement.
The second point Dr. Steig makes is a bit of a kluge as well.
Second, “yes”, because lost in the media focus on controversy over the exact number is the fact that even a 15% decline would be huge.
Using a starting point of 1950 gives you about 30%. Either way, these are big numbers, and represent anything but a trivial change for water resource planners, backcountry skiers, and fisherman (not to mention fish).
So Dr. Steig determined a 30% decline in snow pack by some numbers he’s not referenced. The decline sounds substantial but we don’t have the source again for this information as no specifics were given.
Well the third reason wasn’t any better.
Third, “emphatically” because the snowpack will very likely continue to decline in the future. In his summary statement, Hartmann notes that “temperatures in the … Cascades will increase in the future as a result of global warming … and it is expected that this, by itself, should result in further decreases of snow … particularly at lower elevations.”
So we have all together the reasons for snow decline being obvious, 1- Albright didn’t prove anything, 2 – Media or an apparently arbitrary 30% decrease in snow pack number or 3 – we know that in the future the earth will warm so it must be true. Pretty weak reasons to question Mark Albrights credibility in my opinion. The tone of the debate (which does exist) in climate science is ugly.
So recently a graph of a QC’d version of the snow pack is in review at the Journal of Climate, has been made public by Mark Albright. The data for the graph is HERE and HERE with general documentation of the sources HERE and HERE. Here is the plot Dr. Eric Steig’s requested of 30 years of snow pack data trends in Washington and Oregon.
So, now that the 30 year trend has been updated, I expect Dr. Steig would like to revise and extend his remarks. After all if a 15 percent decline is huge (which from the data doesn’t seem reasonable), what about a 15 percent increase!
Either way that’s not the end of it because the politicians are of course involved. Here’s a link to a letter written on June 22, 2009 by the not terribly conservative Governor Christine Gregoire of Washingtion in support of the obviously flawed notion of cap and trade legislation. The letter was apparently sent to the House of Representatives. In it she claims the following:
Last month, a study released by the University of Washington shows we’ve already lost 20% of our snow pack over the last 30 years. What does that mean for Washington?
– Millions of our citizens rely on snowmelt for drinking water.
– Our multi-billion-dollar agriculture industry needs the water stored in snow pack to irrigate crops that feed our families and our economy.
– That same water feeds the rivers and streams that nurture the salmon we rely on for food and commerce.
– Less water means problems for our clean hydropower system, which provides more than 60% of our region’s electricity.
Link to the governors letter with some responses included HERE.
Currently all the detail behind the above 30 year trend is unavailable as it is embroiled in a battle to be published by the Journal of Climatology. If it doesn’t make it through, we’ll have to think of another way to make it public knowledge. ;)