January 17, 2014

Extreme Drought in California

California is now experiencing an extraordinary, historic drought.  2013 was the driest year on record for many California cities, and as the graphic here shows the precipitation averaged over the entire state was the driest for a record going back to 1895.   Oregon was also quite dry (4th most arid on record).  In contrast, wet conditions were observed over much of the central and eastern U.S.
The precipitation totals for all of 2013 were amazing (all in inches).  A few examples

Downtown LA 3.60
Santa Barbara 3.95
Paso Robles 1.92
Santa Cruz 4.78

All are all-time records.  I could give you a dozen more.  The total precipitation for the last three months (see graphic) shows much of California has gotten less than 1.5 inches with large areas not even getting an inch.

Snow pack in the Sierra Nevada is now at alarming levels ranging from 8% of normal in the north to 22% of normal to the south.  
 A plot of the snow water content in the snow pack for the north, central, and southern portions of the state not only show it is very low, but running lower than the worst snow pack year on record 1976-1977:

California has massive reservoir capacity and the state did get a lot of precipitation in late 2012, but the lack of rain has brought most of the reservoirs to far below capacity, particularly the critical large ones in the northern part of the State (see below). 

The big question is whether there will be any precipitation soon over California.  The models are pretty emphatic about this:  nothing during next week.  Here is the probability of getting at least 5 mm (.2 inches) of precipitation during any 24 hr period over the remainder of the month based on one of the best ensemble (many model runs) numerical weather prediction systems (NAEFS, the North American Ensemble Forecasting System).  Very low probability of getting even that modest amount.  It is even very dry over us in the NW.

The February prediction from the Climate Prediction Center (see below) is for a continuation of dry conditions over California.
The only saving grace for California is that that snow pack over Colorado and environs is above normal and thus the Colorado River, a significant water source for CA should be in decent shape.  And the huge capacity of the California's reservoirs might allow them to squeak by this year.

But this lack of  precipitation is bringing major records and is getting very serious.   This pattern of dry conditions over the the entire western U.S/southern BC. is different from the pattern suggested by many climate models for the end of the century:  very dry over southern and central CA, but wetter over the Northwest and British Columbia.

Forecast note:  the inversion over the western interior will strengthen today, but weaken greatly Saturday as clouds from a weak front approaches.   Cold and foggy over lowlands but warm along the coast (60s) and over the Cascade foothills. No rain at all in the near future, with the exception of perhaps a few sprinkles on the coast on Saturday.  No new snow.

Finally, a big thank you to all of you that supported my colleague's  (Becky Alexander) research project to study ozone production associated with gas fracking.   She is in the field now!


  1. do you think it possible that the authorities might outlaw all outdoor fires in the wilderness of California in the coming year?

    Already a careless outdoor fire has produced a wildfire, I hate to see what happens as the season progresses.

  2. are there any notable droughts in other parts of the world?
    it would be interesting to know where else the new extreme weather is wreaking havoc..

    ps I am not a robot but i am having more and more trouble passing your reading/spelling test

  3. And Eugene in 2013 had LESS THAN HALF of their average annual precipitation. Pretty incredible.

  4. An excellent illustration from NBC San Diego this morning, http://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/california/Satellite-Map-Shows-California-Serious-Drought-Problem-240666561.html

  5. Glad to see the rest of her funding came through - we'll be watching her closely. Very important work.

  6. The current wildfire near LA was started by an illegal fire. The three young men responsible have been arrested.

  7. We're not in great shape here, either, if you consider what's needed for rainforests and salmon to thrive. I moved here in the early 80's and it's noticeable how much less it rains. Some years ago I noticed one summer that there was almost no snow to be seen in the Olympics (the Puget Sound view).

    I try to be mindful of Cliff's admonition to not confuse weather with climate, but we're definitely drying out here, I'd say. The pattern of precipitation seems to be changing, too - it comes all in big dumps, instead of the steady, slow, daily drone.

  8. I worry for California. They grow everything there. Lot of folks like to trash that state. But, hey, why trash the state that produces one heckuva lot of one's food. Last that I heard, they don't grow many vegetables in Minnesota in the winter...

    California has it all...now, they just need some precipitation...;

  9. Cliff, can you comment on the claim that Arctic methane releases are rising sharply since last fall? If this is true, it's very concerning, and your skeptical eye would be appreciated to know whether there's anything to this.

  10. Drought status officially declared. - http://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2014/01/17/california-drought-emergency/4581761/

  11. Unknown who said, I try to be mindful of Cliff's admonition to not confuse weather with climate. Try harder. You're hurting the cause when you panic out of context. Not only did Cliff say the state did get a lot of precipitation in late 2012, but CD6 had the wettest year on record in 2010. (I chose CD6 simply because it's the south coast, the area I was from.)

    It's important to look at those charts. Growing up, we constantly had droughts, and history is really short (like 100 years), so every week a new record was set. But, at least for CD6, 1917 was the driest year on record.

    It's fun to play with. http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag/

  12. This makes me feel bad. Think of those poor residents. Imagine if you could install a giant fan to push the clouds from here to there!

  13. Cliff,
    I just read that today was the 45th consecutive day of no significant rainfall in Sacramento making it the longest dry streak, during this time of year on record.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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