Last February's snow and ice storm was the most destructive extreme winter event in four decades. Many roads were blocked by falling trees and 40% of PGE customers were without power at its peak. Weather forecasters predict the northwest region of the state could see even more storms this winter.
But the fatal June heat wave that followed four moths later was a much greater natural disaster. It killed at least 96 people in Oregon — most of them in Multnomah County. And it followed a summer where drought-fueled wildfires fouled the air and destroyed homes and businesses in the western part of the state.
Because of that, the Oregon Chapter of the American Meteorological Society is discussing adding a summer forecast to its annual Winter Weather Forecast Conference. The 29th edition was streamed online on Oct. 23 and viewed by more than 3,000 people. During his presentation, KPTV Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen said Oregonians are becoming increasingly more concerned about what summers will bring.
"There's a lot of interest in a summer forecast," Nelsen said while presenting his opening wrap up of last year's weather highlights
During his talk, Nelsen noted that average snowfalls in Portland have been dropping since the 1880s, falling from a high of 19.5 inches to just 3.8 inches in the 2010s.
Although the February storm dropped more than 10 inches of snow on Portland, Nelsen said the rest of the winter was actually relatively mild. The storm only lasted four days, from Feb. 10 to 14. The downed power lines and other damage caused mostly by the freezing rain that fell at the end made the winter seem worse than it actually was.
But, Nelsen pointed out, there were four potentially life-threatening heat waves last summer. The first and most severe ran from June 25 to June 29, averaging 102 and topping out at a record-shattering 116. The second was from July 28 to 30, averaging 95 degrees and hitting a high of 98. The third was from Aug. 2 to 4, averaging 92 and topping out at 96. And the final one was from Aug. 10 to 15, averaging 97 and hitting a high of 103.
All of the heat-related deaths officially reported to date are associated with the first heat wave. But Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines said the record-breaking heat probably contributed to even more deaths. The Oregon State Medical Examiner focused on those who died of hyperthermia, which occurs when the body becomes dangerously overheated, usually in response to prolonged hot weather. Vines said it is well known that other kinds of deaths increase with the heat.
"Hyperthermia is just one of the ways that heat affects health," she said. "For example, deaths from drownings and from violence also increase during heat. It's also possible that underlying conditions were exacerbated by heat but that heat was not found to be the cause of death. Generally, deaths among individuals under the care of physicians are not investigated by medical examiner staff."
Vines added that Oregon Health Authority data suggests there were 86 excess deaths in the county during the week of the June heat wave. That is more than the 59 confirmed by the Multnomah County medical examiner.
Nelsen noted that, while the first heat wave was historic, average summer temperatures have been increasing in the state and region for 100 years and are expected to continue to do so. Chapter president and KOIN 6 meteorologist Steve Pierce said discussions are underway about a summer forecast, but they are much harder to project months in advance.
Although several other forecasters mentioned the heat waves, the majority of their presentations focused the traditional winter forecasts. All agreed the region is experiencing the second year of La Nina conditions, which produce colder, wetter and longer winters. Although this increases the possibility of damaging storms in urban areas, it also means the likelihood of more snow in the mountains, which is a good thing. A deeper snow pack is needed to reduce the harmful impacts of the historic droughts that have gripped much of the west.
A couple of presenters went so far as to predict the coming snow pack could be between 120% and 140% of average. They were Kyle Dittmer, the hydrologist/meteorologist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and Charlie Phillips, the meteorologist for Puget Sound Energy. But they and the others also cautioned that La Nina conditions are difficult to predict and can vary widely from year to year.
Rebecca Mussel, chief meteorologist with the Portland office of the National Weather Service, stressed the need for families and businesses to be prepared for whatever winter will bring.
"We cannot stop extreme weather events from happening, but we can come together to build more resilient communities," Muessle said.
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