‘Extreme drought’ hits Washington for first time in a decade

Red areas of this map of Washington state were classified as being in extreme drought last week, the second-worst of five drought categories. The remainder of the state, in yellow, was in severe drought, which is the middle category. The drought worsened substantially statewide between the beginning of August and last week.

More than two-fifths of Washington is suffering an “extreme drought,” the first time the state has reached those conditions in a decade, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported.

In Western Washington, extreme drought — the second worst classification of soil conditions — affects about the northern half of Pacific County, while the rest of the county is in severe drought, the middle classification. Nearly the entire Olympic Peninsula is in extreme drought, along with most of Mason County on the southern end of Puget Sound.

Other areas of extreme drought in Washington encompass the Cascades and counties along the Idaho-Washington state line. Meanwhile, a slice of Western Oregon running north and south through seven coastal counties is also in extreme drought for the first time, along with the Cascades in north Oregon and the entire arid southeast of the state.

Washington’s drought conditions worsened substantially in just a week, with the percentage in extreme drought rising from 31.74 percent on Aug. 4 to 42.51 percent on Aug. 11. Portions of the state not in extreme drought are in severe drought. Only 15.49 percent of the state was in severe drought three months ago.

Low streams, parched soils and the risk of wildfires tightened the drought’s grip on the West, according to the drought monitor, a partnership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Washington State Assistant Climatologist Karin Bumbaco said warm soils and the poor shape of pastureland contributed to the downgrading of conditions. She said she believes the percentage of the state in extreme drought will grow. The U.S. Drought Monitor updates conditions weekly.

A warm mass of water — nicknamed “The Blob” by State Climatologist Nick Bond — remains anchored off the coast, heating up the air moving inland and raising temperatures.

There is no evidence The Blob is related to the build up of greenhouse gases and doesn’t appear to have much influence over precipitation, Bumbaco said.

There is no firm explanation for below average rainfall in the state, though the dry spell may partly be a self-reinforcing weather patttern, she said.

In 2005, Washington’s last statewide drought before this year, 14 percent of state reached extreme drought status in mid-September and stayed for approximately three months.

In 2001, until this year generally recognized as the state’s worst drought since 1977, nearly 6 percent of Washington was in an extreme drought between September and November.

The U.S. Climate Prediction Center forecasts that all of Washington has a strong chance of above average temperatures and below average rainfall through at least mid-October. The rest of the West has a better chance for normal temperatures and precipitation, according to the prediction center.

The Blob and a strong El Nino in the Pacific Ocean shortens the odds that Washington will have a warm 2015-16 winter, Bumbaco said.

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