What drought? Meteorologist Cliff Mass vs. nearly everyone

By Drew Atkins
Crosscut archive image.

Drought skeptic Cliff Mass.

By Drew Atkins

“The drought is unlike any we’ve ever experienced.”

“Over 90 percent of Washington is abnormally dry, over half is in moderate drought, and nearly 25 percent is in severe drought.”

So this talk about the Northwest being in a drought, super or not, is really problematic.

One of these statements is not like the others. The first comes from Maia Bellon, Washington Department of Ecology Director. The second statement is from the National Drought Monitor, a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Drought Mitigation Center. The last is from Cliff Mass, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, and one of the state's foremost commentators on weather and climate issues.

The term “weather celebrity” conjures up a bygone era, pre-Internet, when a local TV weatherperson told you to remember your umbrella, and you perhaps recognized them out on the town. If Washington has a modern day torchbearer to this proud tradition, however, it’s Mass.

Mass has built a reputation as one of the state’s most prominent weather analysts. He speaks at public events regularly (including Crosscut’s Civic Cocktail event this Wednesday), is a contributor on public radio and writes a well-read blog. Simply put, the man can communicate compellingly about weather, and that’s a rare and valuable skill.

What sometimes goes unrecognized is Mass’ contrarian edge. Reading his blog and speaking with him by phone, he is adamant that many politicians, activists and scientists are exaggerating the effects of climate change to fit an agenda. The media — always on the hunt for a sensationalist story — willfully serves as stenographer to pure hype. From his perch in environmentalist haven Seattle, he argues that climate movement heroes such as writer Bill McKibben of 350.org and former NASA scientist James Hansen are basically full of it.

“It is somewhat embarrassing for me to admit this, but part of the problem is that a small minority of my [scientist] colleagues, people who should know better, are feeding the extreme-weather/climate hype in the mistaken belief that by doing so they can encourage people to do the right thing — lessen their carbon footprint,” wrote Mass in a blog post, which derided attempts to connect the recent frequency of extreme weather events — superstorms, deep droughts, historically bad winters, etc. — to manmade climate change. “Even if there are changes in the frequency of extremes, that does not necessarily mean human influences are behind them.”

Mass’ latest example of weather hype is Washington's alleged drought. He doesn't believe it exists.

The $1.2 billion crop loss that the Washington Department of Agriculture is predicting this year? A crock that the media should research and expose. Predictions by the state Public Lands Commissioner and National Interagency Fire Center that current conditions could create a terrible year for wildfires? Overblown. Governor Jay Inslee’s dire pronouncements regarding a statewide drought emergency? Just part of a history of exaggeration on environmental issues.

My conversation with Mass on this subject began when he bashed an article I wrote for this outlet. The piece dealt with snowpack levels on Washington’s mountains, which are at their lowest level on record. As snowpack melts, it provides a crucial water source during the warm months, particularly for farmers on the state’s east side. I spoke with experts from the Washington Department of Ecology and the federal Natural Resource Conversation Service to understand the effects of low snowpack, and how Washington should prepare for future droughts. I also pulled data on previous snowpack levels, which show it’s too early to call this a trend.

<a href='http://crosscut.com/2015/05/superdrought-2015-three-things-washington-must-consider/'><img alt='Dashboard 1 ' src='http://public.tableau.com/static/images/Wa/WashingtonSnowpackLevelsvs_Average_0/Dashboard1/1_rss.png' style='border: none' /></a>

Mass cited my article and others as "misinformation," with arguments discounting every source I’d interviewed and all my research on the subject. So I reached out to hear his side.

“Not long ago, politicians were saying snowpack would completely disappear,” Mass explained via phone. “That didn’t turn out to be much of a trend. There was a whole business of exaggerating the disappearing snowpack trend, linking that with global warming. Then there was the coastal ocean acidification issue. ...The current governor has draped himself in all that stuff."

“There’s a political agenda with all this stuff,” he added. “I don’t have to tell you what it is. You know what it is. Now it’s drought time again.”

Crosscut archive image.
An NOAA map Mass uses to show drought conditions in Washington are overblown.

In dismissing current drought conditions, Mass points to precipitation levels. They’re pretty normal statewide. Snowpack, however, is the focus of concern presently. No one is claiming rainfall is down. I ask if the rainfall focus isn’t just reframing things, and playing word police with the word “drought.” He agrees the term "snow drought" would be more agreeable to him.

“For me, for most people, the word ‘drought’ means a lack of precipitation,” Mass says. “So precipitation is normal, but you’re calling it a drought? Because it’s water instead of snow?"

What about the fact that roughly 75 percent of Washington is experiencing moderate to severe drought conditions, as classified by the National Drought Monitor? Mass calls that organization “completely subjective” in how it determines those conditions.

Reservoir levels are alright, the Columbia River is flowing fine and soil moisture is currently near normal, Mass argues. Sure, snowpack is low. But he doesn’t think this will be a problem for farmers, saying the “water situation in Yakima is going to prove far better than people are worried about.” On his blog, he admits “snow drought will be problematic for fish on some rivers (e.g., draining the Olympics), but there is little we can do for them.  Nature is cruel sometimes.”

Needless to say, not everyone agrees with this assessment. Department of Ecology spokesman Dan Partridge is taken aback by Mass' statements. “I would think he would recognize the extreme hardship that a snowpack drought poses,” Partridge said. “I find it difficult to believe that he would dismiss the potential problems that will occur statewide. Yes, Columbia River flows are adequate. Problems aren’t anticipated for irrigators that rely on the Columbia River. But in Yakima Basin, our most productive agriculture region in the state, we know water supplies are a big issue.”

“We are not exaggerating the severity of this drought," Partridge said. "Snowpack is at record low, and with early runoff, it’s virtually gone. And it’s not even the beginning of June.”

Mark Svoboda, co-founder of the National Drought Monitor, said he finds Mass’ argument somewhat understandable, but incorrect. “The thing with drought is everyone’s gonna have a different definition of it,” said Svoboda. “That said, he’s definitely in the minority. We consult 350 experts around the country on how we determine drought conditions. …We’ve got 350 people, including several from Washington, screaming that this is a drought. And I happen to be in that camp. You have to look at hydrologic systems in the West, and you can’t discount snow. He’s got to look at that.”

So what to make of Mass’ disdain for drought pronouncements? The key is this statement: “This year is extremely fascinating, and of extreme importance, because these are the conditions we’ll feel at the end of the century," he said via phone. "This is an experiment for how it’ll be then, though this is worse than that. This is not something we’ll expect until the year 2100.”

That’s 85 years from now. When criticizing the media's coverage of droughts and snowpack (as he has for years), Mass particularly dislikes insinuations of an ongoing trend. And as Scott Pattee of the Natural Resource Conservation Service said in my original article, “California is in year four of its drought. Oregon is in year two. I’ve never seen Washington have a drought that lasts for more than one year. But the forecast for next year is an El Niño pattern, which means a lot of warm weather. This may be our first multi-year drought period in a very long time.”

While he speaks out against what he sees as exaggeration from climate activists,  Mass is no denier. Rather, he believes the significant effects of manmade climate change won’t be truly felt for a long time. In his eyes, the climate change movement threatens its credibility by claiming those effects are happening now. Regular readers of his blog know he’s made a real cause of this.

Mass is a smart guy who backs his arguments up with data, and has documented the state's snowpack loss in more detail than most. In his view, the current drought – if we can call it that – is an anomaly that will blow over. Don't get too worked up yet, he cautions. Dystopian conditions aren’t on their way to the West Coast. That’s for future generations.

As is always the case, time will tell if this weatherman is right.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at drew.atkins@crosscut.com.