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.

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


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.