California almost out of time for El Niño drought relief

By Tom Yulsman | February 28, 2016 3:32 pm

The state has benefited from El Niño this winter, but not nearly enough

An animation of images acquired by NASA's Terra satellite shows the evolution of snowpack in the Sierra Nevada range of California in late February for each of the four years since 2013. Color-coded snow-cover data comes from the satellite's MODIS instrument, with red showing the highest percentage of snow cover and blue the lowest. (Imagery: NASA. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

An animation of images acquired by NASA’s Terra satellite shows the evolution of snowpack in California’s Sierra Nevada range in late February for each of the four years since 2013. Color-coded snow-cover data comes from the satellite’s MODIS instrument, with red showing the highest percentage of snow cover and blue the lowest. (Imagery: NASA. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

| See update below. Synopsis: Since I published this post, forecasts have been firming up and suggesting a shift toward wetter conditions in March. Will it be enough? Please keep reading, and check out the update at the end… 

The window is closing on California’s opportunity to have El Niño put a significant dent in the state’s epic drought — which one study has shown to be the most severe in 1,200 years.

Snowpack in California’s Sierra Nevada range, a significant source of the state’s water, is definitely doing better than it did in 2014 and 2015, as the animation above shows. But with statewide snowpack standing at just 88 percent of normal for this time of year — the heart of the snow season — it really needs to do a whole lot better. (In the southern part of the Sierra, snowpack is at just 78 percent of normal.)

The problem is that nearly three quarters of the Sierra’s precipitation falls from autumn through February. And, well, just have a look at the calendar…

Great hopes were riding on the soon-to-dissipate El Niño, which earlier in the year tied with the event of 1997/1998 as strongest on record. Ordinarily, a strong El Niño tends to rev up the subtropical jet stream, which in turn sweeps storm systems ashore in California during winter. But here’s what that subtropical jet looks like for the next five days:

California drought

The five-day forecast starting Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, for the average jet stream wind speed. (Source: Climate Reanalyzer)

See that bright tongue entering from the left? That’s the jet. And as you can see, the highest wind speeds peter out before they get to California.

That has been the pattern as of late. What’s going on? One factor is a fairly persistent ridge of high pressure parked over the eastern Pacific and California. Here’s what the five-day forecast for that ridge look like:

California drought

The five-day forecast for atmospheric pressure at mean sea level, starting on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016. (Source: Climate Reanalyzer)

See that orange blobby thing extending from the Pacific into California and neighboring states? That’s the ridge. And for the next five days, at least, it will be helping to hold Pacific storm systems at bay.

The Climate Prediction Center’s one-month outlook shows at best a 40 percent chance for higher than normal precipitation in California.

Maybe things will start to change starting next weekend. Weather models are predicting a weakening of the ridge, with maybe a significant storm system coming ashore on Sunday.


One thing is for sure, though: If things don’t start to change very soon, California is in for another year of serious drought. Just what it did not need.

| Update 3/1/16: Since I wrote this post on Sunday, some change seems to be coming. But will it be enough?

The forecast for the next six days shows significantly more atmospheric moisture coming ashore from the Pacific in Northern California starting on Friday night than previously expected. This would be ahead of a storm forecast for late Saturday night through Sunday. Weather models are now predicting a classic “pineapple express” scenario, with a firehose of atmospheric moisture stretching from Hawaii and aiming at California.

One storm like this would be just a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed for significant drought relief. But the models are also now showing a shift in the overall weather pattern, with the high pressure ridge I wrote about earlier breaking down, and higher odds for an extended period of wetter than average conditions. Here’s what the precipitation outlook for March 8th through the 14th looks like:

Precipitation Outlook

The sea of green is good news for the West, and California in particular. That darkest green patch over much of California indicates that there is a greater than 60 percent chance of above average precipitation during the period.

Even so, the headline I wrote last Sunday for this story still pertains. Despite El Niño, most of the state has received below average precipitation so far during the wet season. And that means drought conditions have barely changed since last year. Moreover, there are only a few more weeks left in California’s traditional wet season.

Of course, the impacts of this El Niño on California have not gone according to script. So who knows? Maybe precipitation will kick into overdrive during March, and also linger into April and beyond. Let’s hope so. (But please — no damaging floods and mudslides!)

End of update. |

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Climate, Drought, ENSO, select, Top Posts, Weather
  • OWilson

    In other news:

    Death Valley Blooming!

    “Death Valley is supposed to be the one of the hottest, driest, most desolate places on Earth. It is not a place you’d expect to find fields of vibrant wildflowers.

    Yet an “unusually dense display” of wildflowers currently blankets the desert – described by many people as a “super bloom” – treating visitors to a rare and unusual sight in the California park.

    A smattering of wildflowers year-round isn’t actually much of a surprise in Death Valley, but the current display is by far the best it has seen in a decade, according to park officials”…/la-me-ln-death-valley-wildflower-super-bloom-2016

  • Leslie Graham

    Welcome to climate change.
    The jet stream has changed due to the loss of 70% of Arctic sea ice volume in the last 35 years.
    I think a lot of Californians still don’t get it. There is no going back to the old climate. You might (or might not) get a few more good wet years as part of natural variation but long term the south west is going to turn into a desert.
    Just as climate scientists have been warming you was going to happen round about now for the last 30 years.
    The only practical response is an organised retreat north and north east.
    The smart ones have already left.

    • Common Sense

      The climate in California has not changed. We have had much longer dry spells in the past.

    • Common Sense

      “The only practical response is an organized retreat north and north east.”

      What are yo talking about? Nothing is happening.

  • OWilson

    In other news:
    Karen Ross, Secretary, California Department Food and Agriculture:

    “I am happy to release the 2014 California Agricultural Statistics Review.

    Even though the 2014 crop year coincides with the third consecutive year of unprecedented drought, the innovation and resilience of California’s agricultural community continues to ensure the State’s agricultural

    Despite the tremendous challenges in 2014, the farmgate value of the state’s 76,400 farms and ranches was a record $54 billion.
    Of the $54 billion, over $21 billion was attributed to California’s agricultural exports”
    Oh. and the price of oceanfront, and farm real estate is likewise setting record prices.
    Guess there are no “smart folks” left in California :)
    They can’t all be in D.C., surely? :)

    • Tom Yulsman

      Yes Mr. Wilson, I saw that. In fact, I am writing about it for Scientific American — literally as we speak.

      Do you know how California’s agricultural sector produced record revenues in 2014? In a word, the answer is “groundwater.”

      From the aquifers beneath the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins alone, California slurped groundwater at a rate of more more than 2.6 trillion gallons per year between 2011 and 2014, most of it going to agriculture. By 2015, 75 percent of California’s water supply was coming from underground.

      In some places, this has caused the water table to drop up to 100 feet lower than previously, resulting in dramatic land subsidence. (Which ironically threatens part of the California Aqueduct).

      So the current situation is not even remotely close to being sustainable. But my story in Scientific American, which should be out in a week or so, is not about doom and gloom. It is about solutions.

      The point is that California has been amazingly adaptable. But a lot more will be required in coming years. Denying the true scope — and causes — of the problem isn’t going to help.

      • OWilson

        I’m betting on California!

        (Sorry to be so optimistic) :)

  • Common Sense

    In reality the reservoirs, and the snow pack are way up from last year.

  • Common Sense

    What is so wrong with 88% of average rainfall? Do you mean to imply that every year should be average? I suppose if it were 110% of average you would claim that this was unusual as well. In reality the rainfall amounts in California are highly variable. We have snowfall totals going back to the 1800’s for Donner Summit. They show quite clearly that there is nothing unusual about the last five years of rainfall in California. If you are going to write about these topics for a Science magazine, can you please do the readers a favor and get your facts straight.

  • Common Sense

    If only one study indicates that we are in the worst drought in 1200 years, then why would you cite that study?

  • Common Sense

    Time almost up for alarmists trying to link normal weather events to global warming…..



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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