Rain Forest: the most cooling words in the world. Can’t you just feel the rain, dripping through the cool, deep shade of trees draped in moss? Aaahhh. I’m speaking of our Pacific Northwest rain forests, the great temperate forests that once stretched from Alaska to southern Oregon. Now, what is left of those ancient mossy kingdoms form the rich lungs of the Olympic National Park, breathing moisture through the valleys of the Queets, Quinault, Bogachiel and Hoh Rivers. They are where we go when we crave not just green but a thousand shades of green; not just trees but hundreds of giants, each one of them hundreds of years old.
My husband and I were there this weekend, backpacking along the Hoh River. As always, we packed fleece and rain gear. You never know, in the rain forest. But this was no ordinary Fourth of July trip to the Olympic Peninsula. This was the Fourth that came right after the warmest June in our weather history.
It’s hard to describe to someone from, say, Arizona, what exactly is so strange about all this. Why it is incredible to camp on a gravel bar on the Hoh River without a rainfly over your tent, your sleeping bag unzipped and thrown open, the dry, clear summer twilight still faintly pink at ten o’clock, the full moon about to rise. Not only will there be no cold breeze or rain on this night in the temperate rainforest, there will barely be any darkness at all. It’s wonderful, it’s beautiful. And it’s unsettling. Normally, the first few days of July around here are still June, weather-wise, meaning quite likely rainy gray and cool. Normally, we dress warmly for Independence Day picnics and fireworks. But this year, the question we’re all asking ourselves is: is this the new normal? Hot, dry Fourth of July weather in the Rain Forest, where it rains 12 to 14 feet every year?
“Seattle on the Mediterranean,” was the headline on a New York Times essay by contributor Tim Egan, published last week. Egan points out that it’s been hotter here than Athens, Rome or Los Angeles on several days over the past month. He also cites University of Washington climate scientist Cliff Mass’ explanation of why Mass believes this heat wave is not attributable to global warming but is instead a, quote, “amplication of the upper level wave pattern.” It has to do with the jet stream being stuck in a persistent, warming ridge and trough. I think. Mass also explains high pressure over the eastern Pacific Ocean is warming the water, which warms the air flowing our way. Mass is no climate denier. His point is that when the weather is this spikey, this suddenly strange, it’s not about something that is happening incrementally and globally.
But Egan nails why it’s hard to just sit back and enjoy our Mediterranean summer. As he puts it, quote: “The current heat is a precursor, an early peek at a scary tomorrow.” We actually don’t want this to be the new normal. It’s hard to enjoy a quirky heat wave when we have much to legitimately fear about global warming.
And when we go to the rain forest, the last thing we expect is heat. Or the haze of the 1200-acre Paradise forest fire, the largest in the park’s history, blowing up from the Queets valley. A volunteer told us it will probably burn until snow starts falling. And weather-watchers are predicting another warm winter here. Strange times. Unsettling times. Though I’ll never forget our balmy night on the edge of the icy Hoh.