A month ago, Larry Katz was one warm day or a rainstorm away from a disaster. As trail manager for the Virginia Meissner Sno-park near Bend, Katz was struggling to keep the park open with just 3 to 6 inches of snow.
“A couple of warm days could have closed us down,” said Katz, who has maintained trails at the park for 10 years.
Snow earlier this month brought some relief for Katz and cross-country skiers in Central Oregon. But recent days have warmed up again, and rain on Tuesday might have had Bend residents wondering what season happened upon them.
The high in Bend on Wednesday is forecast to be 46 , and the low 36, according to the National Weather Service, which is similar to the warming trend in December. The snow level in the region is at 5,500 feet, which is the same elevation as the Wanoga and Meissner sno-parks. Temperatures are expected to rise this week to a high of 58 on Friday and 61 on Saturday, the weather service said.
“I would say there is less snow in town than there used to be,” said Katz, a Bend resident for nearly 24 years. “A few years ago we had heavy snow that was collapsing roofs, but I think that was more like how it was in the ’80s and ’90s. We still do get big snow events, but its not consistent.”
Climate change may be to blame for the fickle weather, scientists say.
Most analyses published within the last two decades show an increase in temperature in Central Oregon over the last half of the 20th century and a decrease in snow-water equivalent, according to Larry O’Neill, an assistant professor at the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University.
O’Neill reports that Central Oregon has experienced a 25% increase in precipitation averaged for all Central Oregon monitoring stations during the last half of the 20th century. However, warmer temperatures result in a declining snowpack and a shorter spring melt season and smaller peak streamflows, he said.
“Looking forward, the climate model projections suggest that this trend will continue — modestly increasing total precipitation but decreasing spring snowpack driven by warmer temperatures,” said O’Neill in an email.
While snowpack in and around Bend may be low, higher elevations received significant snowfall this week.
Mt. Bachelor reported 7 inches of new snow from Monday to Tuesday. The lodge area at Bachelor has a 79-inch snow base. A grooming report for the Meissner Nordic area Tuesday morning suggested heavy snow for two hours before sunrise.
Snowpack in the Upper Deschutes and Crooked River area is currently 90% of normal compared to 42% of normal on Jan. 1. Water year precipitation, which is measured from Oct. 1, is currently 75% of normal.
Water year precipitation is below normal due to dry and unseasonably warm conditions that impacted the region in November and early December, according to Scott Oviatt, snow survey supervisory hydrologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“With typical snowpack peaks occurring between March 15th and April 1st, there is still time to maintain or build snowpack level,” said Oviatt. “Cooler temperatures and continued storm impacts will be the key for determining early season runoff conditions, and ultimately spring and early summer surface water supplies.”
But don’t put away your coats. While temperatures are expected to rise to the high 50s on Friday and Saturday, a cold front is expected to bring temperatures back to the 30s on Sunday and Monday before rising again later next week to the low 40s, according to a weather service forecast.
That can mean exposed roots and wood at the lower elevation sno-parks such as Virginia Meissner or Wanoga.
Katz said he is working with the U.S. Forest Service to prepare for a future with lower snowfalls, including a request to remove more logs and debris that can hinder skiing when the snowbase is thin.
We need to be “prepared for low snow years, which I think is in our future,” Katz said. “We’ve had some great snowfalls, but we tend to get less each year.”
Pine Mountain Sports salesperson Henry Abel said his shop is fortunate that it deals in both ski equipment and bikes and can get business in dry or snowy conditions.
“I do feel for some of the shops that are ski only or bike only,” said Abel, who has been living in Bend since 2002. “We work under the philosophy that it may not snow this winter, so when it does snow we are happy.”