2.9 feet of snow melts from Mount Rainier during heat wave, measurement shows

According to the most recent measurements by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, 35 inches of snow melted in a span of the last “four or five days,” according to Water Supply Specialist Scott Pattee.

“We keep snow generally well into June and even into July, depending on the year. Before this heat wave hit, there was about 53 inches of snow physically on the ground that we were measuring. As of today, we have 18 inches left,” Pattee said.

Pattee also said there were 56 inches of snow-water content, which decreased to 36 inches at the time of the most recent measurement. He said that measurement is the best example of how much additional water could be flowing into waterways like the Puyallup River or Nisqually River.

“You have faster, swifter water. It’s going to be very cold water,” Pattee said. “As we’ve already seen in the news and such, (there are) people that have been lost to this because they don’t realize how much colder that water is.”

When Lt. Jeff Pugh with the Central Pierce Fire District learned about the increased water, he said he immediately thought of the effect it would have on the Puyallup River and the people who enjoy recreational activities there.

“To me, it’s an indication of increased volume of calls and critical calls,” Pugh said. “The river’s colder, faster and more hazardous. So (what does) that equate to (for) the average inner tuber and the person going out for sun? That’s dangerous.”

Pugh, who is also part of the district’s Special Operations Unit, said the increased water levels change the structural integrity of the waterways. That means even the most experienced first responders may be unfamiliar with a part of the river, even if they’ve been there multiple times before.

“Whether we know every inch of that river or not, it changes it. It changes by the hour. You create more strainers, more hazards in the water,” Pugh said.

Once data is collected and compared, Pattee believes Mount Rainier’s major melt will break records. He also believes there will only be short-term issues that arise from the increased water flow, which pertain to increased water levels and dryness in areas where more water — and even snow — once was.

“In my 30 years here in Washington doing this job, I don’t recall ever seeing this rapid of a melt when we have a lot of snow,” Pattee said. “I’ve seen this amount of snow when we’ve had low pack years. … But when we have this much snow? No. I think this is definitely unprecedented. We’re going to set a lot of records. We just have to see how it plays out and go back to the data to compile that information.”