Surprise snow: the details
On Monday night, snow fell on Portland — more snow than has ever fallen on the city in April, according to the National Weather Service. Exactly how much fell depended on location, but many folks shared social media updates noting two to three inches of snow, with up to five inches in some areas. NWS predicts Portland may see snow flurries through Thursday.
We once again saw minimal response from local government to a weather-related emergency: despite substantial risks to folks without shelter, Multnomah County did not open warming shelters. The weather did not meet their standing requirements for opening emergency shelters:
- Temperatures are forecast at 25 degrees or below
- Forecasters predict an inch or more of snow
- Overnight temperatures drop below 32 degrees, with an inch of driving rain.
Weather forecasters predicted we’d receive less than one inch of snow. Multnomah County’s policy doesn’t take snow accumulation or other factors into account. Multiple elected officials have called for a reevaluation of that policy (including at least one with oversight on such issues).
Much of the snow melted over the course of the day. From an emergency management perspective, rapid snow melt presents a few problems. People without access to places to dry off and warm up are at risk for hypothermia.
Portland residents also saw substantial power outages yesterday. Pacific Power reported outages initially affecting 15,000 of its customers and Portland General Electric said about 77,000 of its customers lost power. Portland General Electric’s outage map suggests around 11,000 people in the metro area are still without power at the time of writing.
The snow also resulted in trees falling. Multiple roads remain closed, especially in the West Hills neighborhood, as the Portland Bureau of Transportation works to clear streets. PBOT shares updated information on closures through its Winter Weather Center. Portland’s Department of Urban Forestry is also working through a higher volume of tree-related problems than usual.
If the harms that go along with this sort of snowfall could be addressed — say, if everyone in the Portland metro area had access to housing no matter their financial position — the snow could be seen as somewhat beneficial. Oregon is, after all, in the middle of a drought. Snowpack on local mountains have melted abnormally quickly in the past three month and major reservoirs are low. A few inches of snow won’t reserve the drought, but it could help stretch water resources in coming months. Oregon’s climate is likely becoming much drier as part of climate change, though, and one surprise snow storm won’t help.
Surprise snow: the bigger picture
This unseasonal snow comes just a week after the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Sixth Assessment Report. The report documents efforts to mitigate climate change, as well examines climate change’s effects so far. The report also highlights that people who are marginalized experience the impacts of climate change at much higher levels than those with privilege. The conclusion is dire: we’re likely going to overshoot the 1.5 degree warming goal just by continuing to use existing systems. We’d need to global greenhouse gas emissions to peak in 2025 and drop by almost half by 2030. The report suggests that with our current approaches, the planet will be 4.3 to 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer by 2100. We likely have the technology and tactics to cut global emissions in half by 2030 — but we don’t have the political will.
We have declared climate emergencies on every level of local government, but that isn’t translating to significant action, though it is technically more than what governments have done in other states. Governor Kate Brown’s 2020 executive order setting concrete targets for lowering statewide greenhouse gas emissions will reduce state emissions by less than 30% by 2050, which is just too little and too late to avoid massive warming. Many of the strategies the state government is pushing, like advocating for electric vehicles, maintain consumption and spending over actually addressing climate change. Other strategies aren’t being implemented due to resistance from industry groups, such as modernizing logging practices and convincing the timber industry to avoid certain forests.
Here in Oregon, we’re already seeing extreme weather events — yesterday’s snow storm and last summer’s heat wave are just two examples. And just like on the global level, we know what needs to happen.
- More than 40% of our local emissions come from transportation. We need to expand public transit dramatically (rather than cutting coverage), decrease our use of individual vehicles, and stop expanding automobile infrastructure like freeways. As an added bonus, we’d likely reduce traffic deaths dramatically.
- Wood smoke pollution remains a major air pollutant in Portland, with roughly 3% of Multnomah County households dependent on wood burning for heat. Upgrading local housing (both rented and owned) with modern heating and cooling systems would reduce air pollution, as well as reduce emissions associated with energy production.
- Our lack of green spaces contributes to the impact of extreme weather events. It also amplifies the impact of pollution on the area. Changing the management of existing public lands would allow them to absorb up to 25% more carbon dioxide in just the next two years. Increasing green spaces is a key necessity in the Portland area — not just by creating more parks and planting trees, but also creating more agricultural spaces within the county. Removing asphalt and concrete surfaces will also enable the creation of more green spaces, but that will first require addressing local transportation issues.
- We need to create true accountability around pollution and related harms. Our local governments are ineffective at ending pollution, often relying on the courts to penalize polluters years after the fact. Despite knowing which industries and companies are the largest polluters, addressing those issues are unlikely when those exact companies and industries are donating large sums to political candidates and elected officials. And when they can’t prevent new rules from being written, those companies turn to the same courts to prevent rules from being implemented.
We could slow climate change locally and globally — perhaps even reverse it — if we are prepared to hold governments and industries accountable. Many of us wouldn’t find our lives changing dramatically if we implemented these changes. We would likely be healthier, have more equitable access to resources, and even have more parks to enjoy, in that future. But, instead, we seem dedicated to business as usual on every level.