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B.C.’s snow-pack 44% below normal on heels of worst drought in recent memory

Low snow pack level could ‘significantly affect ongoing drought concerns’ in summer 2024
This partial map of B.C. shows the snow pack for provincial water basis. The redder the region, the lower the snow pack as of Jan. 1. (Screencap)

It is too early to tell whether 2024 will be a worse year than 2023 when it comes to drought conditions in B.C.

But early signs are not encouraging after the provincial government released the first Snow Survey and Water Supply Bulletin for 2024.

Jonathan Boyd, river forecast hydrologist with the River Forecast Centre, said last year’s drought with its accompanying record wildfire season was “probably” B.C.’s worst drought in recent memory. While not enough evidence is available yet, “certainly, it’s not looking in our favour right now,” he said, when asked whether 2024 will be worse.

Boyd made that comment against the backdrop of figures that show the provincial snow pack as “extremely low”, 44 per cent below normal as of Jan. 1, 2024. Twelve months ago, the overall provincial snow pack was 18 per cent below normal.

Looking at specific areas of the province, only the Stikine watershed in northwestern B.C. recorded near-normal snow pack levels as of Jan. 1. Notwithstanding three water basins without available data, the rest of the watersheds recorded below-normal levels, including the Peace River region, which saw of the worst wildfires of 2023.

The most impacted regions include Vancouver Island, the Thompson-Okanagan and large swaths of B.C. including the Lower Mainland within the watershed of the Fraser River, the Chilcotin, and parts of the Cariboo. Levels are also down in watersheds bordering Alberta.

The current figures reflect what the bulletin calls “well above normal” temperatures for the period from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 and “well below” levels of precipitation for most of the province. This combination led to 15 snow stations measuring all-time lows.

“The low snow pack could significantly affect ongoing drought concerns into summer 2024,” it reads.

Perhaps key here is the word ‘ongoing’ which is to say that last year’s drought conditions might not have really ended.

Boyd said the River Forecast Centre does not typically monitor drought conditions province-wide over the winter months. But some Interior regions such as the Thompson-Okanagan experienced dry conditions, he added, noting that the Environment Canada weather station in Kamloops experienced the driest year on record.

RELATED: Drought conditions in B.C. a ‘sleeping giant of a natural disaster’

“This means that we are still in a pretty dry pattern for the Interior and of course it shows in the low snow pack,” Boyd said.

One reason for the uncertainty about what 2024 might be like lies in the fact that the snow can “still change significantly based” on upcoming weather patterns.

Boyd said the last few days have already seen changes in favour of more precipitation.

“So we have a little bit of a recovery,” he said. “But we actually really need significantly above-normal snow pack accumulation for January, February and March to get us back to a normal situation.

“It can happen. Last year, January was quite dry, but then February was quite snowy.”

While March of last year was dry, April was snowy again, Boyd added. By May 1, 2023, the snow pack had reached 91 per cent of normal.

“It’s pretty common to have bounces like that,” he said.

This said, the pending arrival of an Arctic cold front doesn’t help, because it comes with little to no snow, Boyd said. Associated winds could actually worse the situation by blowing snow already on the ground around, he added.

Looking at future water supplies for human consumption and other uses, Boyd said the figures can be concerning for areas that rely on the snow-pack with the proviso that everything depends on location and existing infrastructure.

“It’s great that we have this report early in the season to get the heads-up that there could some challenges ahead and to keep an eye on things and to plan for the potential drought that could happen based on the weather conditions,” he said.


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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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