Plastered! Images from space show just how much snow has accumulated in large parts of the U.S. West

By Tom Yulsman | February 23, 2019 6:38 pm
plastered

Satellite images show how much more snowpack has accumulated in the Sierra Nevada mountains this year compared with last year. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman

What a difference a year makes.

After a shocking dearth of snow last year, the Sierra Nevada mountains of California and Nevada truly have been getting plastered, helping to build up the snowpack that millions of people depend on for water.

Other parts of the western United States have also benefited from a bounty of precipitation that has eased drought conditions. But does this herald a change in long-term fortunes in the region? Read on to the end for insights about that.

First, though, let’s focus on the headline-making parade of storms that have marched in from the Pacific. To fully grasp their impact, there’s no better perspective than the synoptic one available from space. With that in mind, I created the before-and-after animation of satellite images above.

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California’s snowpack as of Feb. 21, 2019. (Source: State of California Department of Water Resources)

It consists of images acquired by NASA’s Terra satellite, one on Feb. 21 of last year, and the other captured yesterday — Feb. 22, 2019. The Sierra Nevada range runs vertically, and at a bit of a diagonal, across the middle of the images.

The animation speaks for itself. But some hard numbers are also worth considering: At this point in February last year, California’s statewide snowpack stood at an almost frightening 25 percent of normal. By comparison, it’s now at a hefty 144 percent. In fact, the state’s snowpack is already ahead of average for the end of the snow season — and there’s still more than a month to go.

Many mountainous areas of the interior West are also blanketed in a bounty of snow. In the animation above, look to the north and east of the Sierra Nevada for evidence of that.

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Snowpack conditions in the western United States on Feb. 21, 2019, as determined by the SNOTEL system maintained by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The map above portrays the mostly happy situation in numbers as well as color-coding. The map is dominated by green, teal, blue and purple colors, indicative of snowpack that ranges from about average to way above average.

The map below portrays how precipitation has departed from normal during the period beginning on Oct. 1 of last year, when the winter snow season (also called the “water year”) began, up until February 22:

 

Plastered

The green, blue and purple colors tell the tell: Most (but not all) of the region has been blessed with normal to above-average precipitation.

The recent moisture has nearly erased drought conditions in California. And it has even managed to ease them in the extremely hard-hit southwestern United States. You can see that in this animation comparing drought conditions on Oct. 2, 2018 to Feb. 19 of this year:

Plastered

 

Of course, we don’t know yet how things will shake out by spring. Wintry deluges could peter out, giving way to stuborrnly persistent warmth and dryness that would partially or even totally erase the precipitation gains made so far this winter, at least for some parts of the West.

California’s winter of 2016 shows that we should take that possibility seriously. State snowpack in February of that year stood at a healthy 120 percent of average. Yet by the end of the water year on April 1, snowpack had shriveled to 85 percent.

We should also keep in mind that over the long term, climate change has been altering the water calculus in the West. Research has shown that winter snowpack today actually results in less water running off into streams and rivers than it did during the last century.

This is not primarily because of reduced precipitation. Rather, it’s due to a long-term warming trend caused largely by human activities. Warmer temperatures cause more moisture to evaporate from soils. This makes them thirstier, so that they grab and hold onto more water as snow melts, rather than letting it flow into aquifers and streams. Warm, sunny conditions also accelerate sublimation of snow — meaning the frozen water stored in snow’s ice crystals transitions directly into water vapor without first melting.

Other long-term climatic factors are at work too, complicating water management in the West, according to Douglas Kenney, Director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado’s Law School. In many places, “the snow melts weeks before it used to,” he says. In Oregon, that melt-out can occur two months earlier. “That changes everything.” Some streams just dry up during the summer.

Climate change, he says, “is the single biggest water management challenge today.”

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Kenney is a colleague of mine at the University of Colorado, where I direct the Center for Environmental Journalism.)

We should be grateful for the recent bounty of snow in large parts of the Western United States. But we also need to bear in mind the changing climatic calculus and find ways of making do with less water over the long run.

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  • TLongmire

    How about a similar article for the befuggered east👍

  • Occasional-Cortex

    Adapt. They need to update their water management. China, India and Developing economies aren’t going to be producing less greenhouse gas any time soon.

    • Tom Yulsman

      We are already adapting in the West. But it is easy to say, and much harder to do effectively. Moreover, it glosses over real pain felt by flesh and blood people who have lived on the land for generations.

      The overall problem is that demand for water is higher than what falls from the sky and winds up in rivers — and that is not likely to change. This is complicated by western water law, which encourages consumption, not the other way around. It’s also complicated by the Colorado River Compact itself, which allocated the flow of the Colorado River between upper and lower basin states (plus Mexico) in terms of absolute quantities of water, rather than percentages. Each is allocated 7.5 million acre feet under the compact, regardless of how much water actually is flowing in the river. And significantly less is flowing now than when the compact was negotiated. A percentage of the flow to each would have made things vastly easier.

      Lastly, as Doug Kenney (whom I quote in the story) likes to say, “We’re not all in this together.” There will be winners and losers. Big cities have the political clout not to run out of water. Farmers don’t. So farming towns are already drying up and blowing away as their water has been purchased by cities. That’s a form of adaptation. Just not a very happy one.

      • Occasional-Cortex

        Well, the Maya had the same dilemma. They didn’t adapt. Sad to say, but Nature doesn’t care about humans’ problems.

        It’s not an easy problem to unravel, nothing about climate – the most complex quantum geophysical system on the planet – is. Toss political and economic power into the mix and it becomes even more complex.

        But you’re dealing with some physical realities – increasing population and resource demand, decreasing water supply from climate change effects mostly caused by countries beyond the horizon and our influence.

        The political aspect of the problem has the greatest leverage on the local physical effects. You can’t do much about China and India with your vote, but can have the most direct impact by voting for the best city, county and state officials who understand the supply vs. need dilemma. How you deal with powerful city interests vs. rural areas goes back to the water wars of the 19th century. But it’s a problem of resource allocation that has to be figured out regionally because the ghost towns out there already warn of what happens when resources fail to support demand.

  • jimgrot

    I see no science in the article to support the “long-term warming trend caused largely by human activities” purportedly factual statement that the author religiously threw into the mix. I like the factual map data though.

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ImaGeo

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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