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Is California's Drought Finally Ending?

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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.

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Weather Watch
3 Ways We Can (Kind of) Control the Weather, and 5 Ways We Can't

Humans have the incredible ability to control the world around us. We can move mountains and land robots on other planets. We can keep each other alive longer than ever before and even bring entire species back from the brink of extinction. But despite all of our leaps forward, we're still unable to control the weather, a tremendous force that affects every human being on this planet. Still, humans have come up with some pretty crafty ways of influencing the weather—in small doses.

1. WE CAN MAKE IT RAIN … SOMEWHAT.

The desire to control weather has been a mainstay of imagination since, well, the beginning of imagination. The fortunes of entire societies can hinge on flood or drought. We have strong motivation to want to create a rainstorm in one spot or moderate snowfall in another. But the greatest success we've ever had is a technique that can (maybe) encourage a tiny bit of rain to form over a tiny area.

Cloud seeding is a process through which fine particles like silver iodide are released into a cloud in order to encourage the formation of rain or snow. These particulates serve as a nucleus around which water vapor can condense and turn into a raindrop or a snowflake. This is most commonly done with small airplanes, but it can also be accomplished by launching tiny rockets or flares from the ground.

In theory, the practice of cloud seeding could have innumerable uses around the world, including crop maintenance, providing drinking water, and even possibly weakening severe thunderstorms or hurricanes. There's only one problem: It doesn't work all that well.

The effectiveness of cloud seeding is a hot topic of debate among scientists, but most studies have either found negligible impacts on precipitation, or the researchers were unable to determine the exact impact of cloud seeding. Cloud seeding is a great concept if you want to help one cloud produce a little extra rain or snow just to say you can do it, but it's not the way to go if you're desperate and want to trigger a deluge. This process requires the pre-existing presence of clouds, so even if the technology improves in the future, it's not a viable solution for drought-stricken areas that haven't seen meaningful clouds in weeks.

2. WE CAN DEFINITELY ATTRACT LIGHTNING USING ROCKETS.

Lightning safety is one of the things you learn from a very young age. "When thunder roars, go indoors," as the motto goes. We learn to stay away from open areas and water during thunderstorms. But what if you wanted to attract lightning? It's surprisingly easy to do if you have the right equipment and really, really want to encounter some of nature's fury.

Scientists who want to study lightning can bring it right to their doorstep by using specially designed rockets attached to conductive wires that lead to the ground below. When a thunderstorm blows over the observation station, operators can launch these rockets up into the clouds to trigger a lightning strike that follows the wire right down to the ground where the rocket was launched. Voila, instant lightning. Just add rocket fuel.

3. WE CAN CREATE CLOUDS AND HEAT—EVEN WHEN WE DON'T MEAN TO.

Most of the ways in which we control—or, more accurately, influence—the weather is through indirect human actions—often unintentional. "Whoops, the nuclear power plant just caused a snowstorm" isn't as crazy as it sounds. Steam stacks can and do produce clouds and updrafts with enough intensity to create rain or snow immediately downwind. The very presence of cities can generate microclimates with warmer temperatures and heavier rain. And there's also climate change, the process in which our accumulated actions over a long period of time are influencing the very climate itself.

BUT WE CAN'T DO THE FIVE FOLLOWING THINGS.

Despite our limited ability to influence a few aspects of weather over small areas, there are some rather colorful conspiracy theories about whether or not governments and organizations are telling the whole truth about how much we can accomplish with today's technology. There are folks who insist that the trails of condensed water vapor, or "contrails," left behind jet aircraft are really chemicals being sprayed for sinister purposes. (They're not.) There are theories that a high-frequency, high-power array of antennas deep in the Alaskan wilderness can control every weather disaster in the world. (It doesn't.) There are even folks who insist that Doppler weather radar carries enough energy to "zap" storms into existence on demand. (Dr. Evil wishes.)

There are also some bizarre and unworkable theories that are offered in good faith. A meteorologist a few years ago opined on whether building an excessively tall wall across middle America could disrupt weather patterns that could lead to tornado activity. And every year the National Hurricane Center is peppered with questions about whether or not detonating nuclear bombs in a hurricane would disrupt the storm's structure. Unfortunately, while pseudoscience offers up great theories to test in the movies, when it comes to weather, we're still not in control.

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Weather Watch
NASA Figures Out Why When It Rains, It (Sometimes) Drizzles
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What’s the difference between drizzle and rain? It has to do with updrafts, according to new research by NASA scientists into the previously unexplained phenomenon of why drizzle occurs where it does.

The answer, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, could help improve how weather and climate models treat rainfall, making predictions more accurate.

Previously, climate researchers thought that drizzle could be explained by the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. The microscopic particles are present in greater quantities over land than over the ocean, and by that logic, there should be more drizzle over land than over the ocean. But that's not the case, as Hanii Takahashi and her colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found. Instead, whether or not rain becomes full droplets or stays as a fine drizzle depends on updrafts—a warm current of air that rises from the ground.

Stronger updrafts keep drizzle droplets (which are four times smaller than a raindrop) floating inside a cloud longer, allowing them to grow into full-sized rain drops that fall to the ground in the splatters we all know and love. In weaker updrafts, though, the precipitation falls before the drops form, as that light drizzle. That explains why it drizzles more over the ocean than over land—because updrafts are weaker over the ocean. A low-lying cloud over the ocean is more likely to produce drizzle than a low-lying cloud over land, which will probably produce rain.

This could have an impact on climate modeling as well as short-term weather forecasts. Current models make it difficult to model future surface temperatures of the Earth while still maintaining accurate projections about the amount of precipitation. Right now, most models that project realistic surface temperatures predict an unrealistic amount of drizzle in the future, according to a NASA statement. This finding could bring those predictions back down to a more realistic level.

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