Check it out: Learning for the Future from a Snapshot in Time

By Sonia A. Hall, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University

Report cover with name and a photo of a vegetable field with slanting sunlight and trees in the background
The 2021 Pacific Northwest Water Year Assessment, an example of what we can learn one year that helps us prepare for the long term. Source: cover of the report, available at https://www.drought.gov/documents/2021-pacific-northwest-water-year-impacts-assessment

I just received the 2021 Pacific Northwest Water Year Impacts Assessment. If you want to delve into the details of how temperatures and precipitation evolved throughout the water year (which runs from October 1 through September 30), check out section 3. If you want to understand what the unusual combination of conditions we experienced meant for the agriculture, forestry, drinking water, fisheries, and recreation sectors, check out section 4. If you want to learn about institutional responses to these conditions, then check out section 5. You can even explore how well the seasonal forecasting used by many in the region did at predicting what actually happened (section 6).

This report really got me thinking about the question: what can we learn from the assessment of this one year (granted, it was an unusual year) that can help us prepare for what’s to come as the climate continues to warm? The report has a great section up front called Lessons Learned (section 2). Whether you go through the other sections in detail or not, I recommend reading this section. It made me think about how important it continues to be to better understand the fine-scale details of what we can expect in the future. For example, it is so important to consider the timing of high temperatures and low precipitation when translating the expected increases in drought frequency and severity into expected impacts on crops or water availability. Think about the timing of the 2021 heat wave, and what that meant for berries and potatoes. That’s different than what might have happened if it occurred later in the year, when melting snow is insufficient to keep streams cool, and when other crops—like apples—are more vulnerable to sunburn. And yet this year, the early heat wave struck dryland wheat production especially hard, an example discussed in this report, including the fact that most of the states’ drought responses don’t do much for dryland production.

So, although this assessment is an in-depth look at a single year, the way the information is organized and presented highlights how experiences from the 2021 water year can help us think about future climate’s impacts and how to best prepare. Definitely worth checking it out.

Reference: 

Bumbaco, K.A., M.H. Rogers, L.W. O’Neill, D.J. Hoekema, C.L. Raymond. 2022. 2021 Pacific Northwest  Water Year Impacts Assessment. A collaboration between the Office of the Washington State Climatologist, Climate Impacts Group, Oregon State Climatologist, Idaho Department of Water Resources, and NOAA National Integrated Drought Information System. Online Access