Winter Leaves California’s Sierra Nevada High and Dry

By Tom Yulsman | March 28, 2013 7:42 pm

Most of California is captured in this March 23 image from NASA’s Terra Satellite. The Sierra Nevada range is to the right. Snowpack there is half of normal. (Image: NASA EOSDIS Worldview)

A month ago, the snowpack in California’s Sierra Nevada range was looking really thin. This week, officials announced that it’s in even worse shape — just as the state goes into the warm season.

And for much of the rest of the West, it’s not looking too much better.

Manual measurements of the snowpack in the Sierra today were expected to confirm that snowpack there is at just 54 percent of average, according to the California Department of Water Resources. In late February, it stood at 66 percent.

Click for an animation of how California’s snowpack has evolved since late October.

Snowpack in the range typically peaks around April 1st. It’s always possible that the state could get walloped by a few freak storms. But don’t count on it. The climate outlook for the next month in California (and much of the West as well) is for below average precipitation. So in all likelihood, winter is leaving the source of about one third of California’s water high and very dry.

There is a modicum of good news, however: There was so much rain and snow in November and December that reservoirs filled. With the exception of one, they’re in pretty good shape.

Here’s what the situation looks like in the West overall:

The water content of snow in the West’s major river basins is depicted here. (Source: Western Regional Climate Center)

As the map indicates, the Pacific Northwest has done okay. But much of the rest of the region has not, with New Mexico hit particularly hard.

Despite some recent storms, nature has not been kind, including in the last 30 days. As this map shows, there have been a few wet spots here and there, but overall precipitation has been very scanty (to put it mildly):

The red tones tell the tale: It has been very dry in most of the West over the past 30 days. (Map: Western Regional Climate Center)

Given this picture, it should come as no surprise that the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor map released on Tuesday was also looking pretty red — meaning dry — across almost half the country.

It’s going to be an interesting summer…

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Climate, Drought, select, Top Posts, Weather


ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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