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State climatologist warns of "flash droughts" as heat wave fries Oregon

Brian Bull
Sunset over the Spencer Butte landscape.

With many parts of Oregon seeing temps in the upper 90s and beyond this week, the state climatologist says there’ll be definite intensifying of existing drought conditions.

It’s the first major sustained hot spell of the year, with the sun bearing down on areas already suffering historically dry and arid conditions.

Larry O’Neill is an associate professor at Oregon State University and the state climatologist. He told KLCC that when these kinds of heatwaves hit in the middle to near end of summer, there can be formations known as “flash droughts.”

“And what a flash drought is, it’s basically a rapid drying of any remaining moisture in the soil and plants, and just the landscape in general,” explained O’Neill. “And so those conditions can lead to a quick intensification of drought conditions. And so we’re monitoring that very closely right now.”

O’Neill says areas most susceptible to flash droughts are the foothills of the Cascades, and then areas of Douglas County, namely Roseburg down into Medford.

U.S. Drought Monitor
U.S. Drought Monitor
A drought map for Oregon shows much of the state in exceptional, extreme, or severe drought this year.

The roughly week-long heatwave hitting parts of Oregon could also be one for the record books.

O’Neill says it’s not so much the intensity of the temperatures, as it is the duration that makes these – quote - “very interesting times.”

“The fact that it’s forecast to occur over 5 or 6 days and then gradually taper off…if that forecast holds, this’ll be one of the longest heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest in our historical record…that amount of drying of the landscape over a weeklong period,” said O’Neill.

“So this may be the second consecutive year where we have a historically significant heatwave in the Pacific Northwest, the likes of which we haven’t seen before.”

The heatwave will also worsen drought conditions and increase the risk of human-caused wildfires. People are advised to hydrate and limit the use of fire or machinery that could produce sparks or heat.

Copyright @2022, KLCC.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (19 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.