My family went for a stroll on a recent Sunday morning and I must have told my son, Max, who’s 7 and believes his galoshes possess special powers, at least 15 times to stop splashing in the puddles of slush that littered our route.
It was the sort of sodden day which is exceedingly rare in Baker City.
We live not in a rain shadow but in a pair of rain shadows.
The Pacific Ocean incubates many juicy storms (it’s a lot of water, after all), and the hurricane-force winds of the jet stream frequently shunt these weather fronts directly into Oregon. But the Cascade Mountains, which force the air to rise, cool and thus precipitate, siphon a great deal of the moisture from these storms before they’ve made it even a third of the way across the state.
(There is of course a much more detailed explanation for this phenomenon, known as “orographic lifting,” but I presume this would require much use of mathematical equations, all of which frighten and confuse me.)
And the storms that retain much of their soggy energy when they reach Baker County expend the bulk of it when they confront the formidable wall of the Elkhorns.
Baker City, then, gets what amounts to the dregs in the bottom of a glass after a pair of thirsty people have passed it around.
The airport’s annual precipitation average of about 10 inches is less than one-third of what falls in the Willamette Valley.
Baker City is even arid compared with places that hardly have the reputation of a rainforest. Pendleton’s yearly average exceeds ours by about 2 ﬁ inches, and La Grande seems positively saturated with its average of about 17 inches.
There are two notable exceptions to Baker City’s general absence of dampness.
One is the thundershower, most common in the spring and summer. These storms typically form east of the Cascades so they’re not affected by that range’s rain shadow. The isolated nature of thunderstorms, and their tendency to meander rather than follow a more predictable path as with Pacific storms, also means they sometimes skirt the Elkhorns and dump their often prodigious amounts of rain directly on Baker City.
The other circumstance — the one that so delighted Max and so tested the resilience of his rubber boots — is a midwinter thaw that follows both snowfall and a period of subfreezing temperatures.
The combination of rapid melting and frozen ground is ideal for making puddles — although puddle seems to me a misleadingly diminutive word in this case. Some of the bodies of water that lured Max during our walk ought to have a name, a boat ramp and a trout-stocking schedule.
As we squelched our way around town I was thinking of a news story I had read the day before, and written by a company colleague, Stephen Hamway from The Bulletin in Bend.
Hamway’s topic was a new study which concludes, in effect, that the warming climate hasn’t shrunk mountain snowpacks in Oregon and the West as much in the past 35 years as the authors believe is likely to happen in the next 35 years.
The study, co-authored by Nick Siler, an assistant professor at Oregon State University, posits that natural fluctuations in climate patterns have insulated the region from the effects of warmer average temperatures — an increase of about 1 degree Celsius at snow-measuring sites since the early 1980s. The most notable effect, naturally, would be skimpier snowpacks, as balmier temperatures mean storms that previously brought snow instead deliver rain.
But Siler told Hamway that his research suggests that the warmer temperatures, and likely soon, will begin to eat away at snowpacks on a regular basis.
“I’m fairly confident that the assist that we’ve had from nature for the last 35 years is very unlikely to continue for the next 35 years,” Siler said.
This is a troubling prospect.
The importance of mountain snow for Baker County — and indeed, for much of the state — can hardly be overstated.
It’s melted snow, not rain, that keeps streams and springs flowing and refills the reservoirs that are so vital to the local economy, both by irrigating crops and attracting anglers and boaters.
Baker City is fortunate in one sense in that the Elkhorns, the same range that casts its considerable rain (and snow) shadow over the city and much of the rest of northern Baker County, in doing so wrings much moisture from Pacific clouds that haven’t been sapped completely by the Cascades.
The Elkhorn snowpack is the source of the city’s drinking water, among other rather vital uses.
Even a relatively modest drop in average mountain snowpacks over an extended period — say 20 percent over a decade or so — could cause significant problems for our region.
This possibility, as I pondered Hamway’s story, cast a pall over the optimism I felt during our walk.
Notwithstanding the minor annoyance of trying to prevent Max from submerging some part of himself not clad in impermeable fabric, I relish those rare days when water lies heavy on the land and meltwater makes a tuneful trickle wherever curb and street meet.
There is no sound quite so fresh as the music of flowing water, and the glistening ground, so often dusty and desiccated, seems refreshed.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.