Is California's Drought Finally Ending?

Konrad Fiedler/AFP/Getty Images
Konrad Fiedler/AFP/Getty Images

One of the most devastating weather disasters in the past decade wasn’t a tornado tearing through the Plains or a hurricane swirling ashore, but rather the slow-motion dehydration of the most populous state in the United States. California has spent the past five years mired in its worst drought in centuries, which devastated crops and water supplies across the state. While the adverse effects of the drought will take much longer to wear off, the state recently got some good news about its improving liquid fortunes.

The latest issue of the United States Drought Monitor (USDM) shows that just over half of California is still in a drought. More than half of an enormous state steeped in drought sounds pretty bad, but conditions have actually improved tremendously over the past couple of months.

The United States Drought Monitor for California on January 31, 2017. Image Credit: Dennis Mersereau

At the end of January 2016, 95 percent of California was in some level of drought, and 40 percent of that area was in that scale-topping "exceptional drought" category. Today, one-fifth of the state is still in a severe drought, and a tiny portion—just under 2 percent—is in an extreme drought. No part of California is experiencing an exceptional drought anymore, the most urgent level on the five-point scale used to determine drought status.

The USDM is a weekly analysis drawn by scientists who look at precipitation, groundwater, and soil data to determine how dry the ground is across the entire country. The lowest categories—abnormally dry and moderate drought—are usually transient and can come and go with unusual dry spells. But in the case of California’s water troubles, extreme and exceptional drought conditions have become commonplace over the past few years.

The worst drought in the modern history of California began at the beginning of 2012 and steadily worsened over the next five years. The intensely dry weather came to a head in 2014, leading some scientists to declare the presence of a “megadrought”—a lack of rain in the western United States so extreme and long-lasting that such conditions haven’t occurred in this region since the 12th century. But then conditions improved somewhat during the winters of 2015 and 2016, culminating with this winter’s drought-busting deluge.

The progression of California’s drought as seen through the USDM’s weekly drought analyses. Image Credit: Dennis Mersereau

 
The solution to drought is always a prolonged period of steady, soaking rainfall and, in the case of mountainous regions, decent storms with accumulating snow. Weather patterns began to shift early this winter into a configuration that let ample moisture flow over drought-stricken areas of the West Coast. A steady flow of tropical moisture, a phenomenon known as an “atmospheric river,” helped storm systems wring out as much precipitation as possible over areas that needed it the most.

The recent period of much-looked-for rain in California started in earnest around the middle of December 2016 and continued through the end of January. After just above average precipitation in December in San Francisco, the Bay Area saw nearly twice its normal January rainfall by the end of January. It’s a similar story across the rest of California.

Precipitation between November 3, 2016 and February 1, 2017, as compared to normal. Image Credit: Dennis Mersereau

There’s even better news in the mountains, where springtime runoff contributes significantly to reservoirs and groundwater in lower-lying areas of the state. The storms that brought rain to the rest of California brought even greater amounts of snow to the mountains. Some mountainous towns have snow depths taller than most houses. A ski resort near Lake Tahoe saw so much snow in one January snowstorm that their chair lifts were buried.

But the latest forecast from the Climate Prediction Center calls for a general trend of below-average rainfall during the month of February and equal chances for below- or above-average precipitation through the early spring months. It’s worth noting that another long period of dry weather could erase the gains California has seen over the past month or two. More often than not, drought begets drought, and it can be a tough cycle to break once it begins. Still, the recent rainfall is a welcome sign nonetheless, and one that will hopefully continue in rainy seasons to come.

What is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

A Simple Trick for Defrosting Your Windshield in Less Than 60 Seconds

iStock
iStock

As beautiful as a winter snowfall can be, the white stuff is certainly not without its irritations—especially if you have to get into your car and go somewhere. As if shoveling a path to the driver’s door wasn’t enough, then you’ve got a frozen windshield with which to contend. Everyone has his or her own tricks for warming up a car in record time—including appropriately-named meteorologist Ken Weathers, who works at WATE in Knoxville, Tennessee.

A while back, Weathers shared a homemade trick for defrosting your windshield in less than 60 seconds: spray the glass with a simple solution of one part water and two parts rubbing alcohol. “The reason why this works,” according to Weathers, “is [that] rubbing alcohol has a freezing point of 128 degrees below freezing.”

Watch the spray in action below.

[h/t: Travel + Leisure]

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