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.

7 Wintery Facts About Ice, Freezing Rain, and Sleet

Razvan Socol via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0
Razvan Socol via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Whether you’re trying to fly across the country or you just want to buy groceries, a winter storm can have a significant impact on your life. But how can you tell if the ice, sleet, or freezing rain will prompt a winter weather advisory or a snow day from work? Here are a few facts about winter storm weather to help you prepare.

1. Freezing rain and sleet are a winter storm's silent hazards.

Ice in the form of freezing rain and sleet is just as big of a threat as snow, and often result in a winter weather advisory being issued for the affected region. Ice is arguably more dangerous than the fluffy white stuff. Snow is generally manageable: You can shovel it and plow it, and while others are doing the work, you can enjoy a snow day with a cup of hot cocoa. You can’t do that with ice.

For the most part, frozen water becomes solidly affixed to any exposed and untreated surface. There comes a point when ice is entirely unmanageable. Even a giant vehicle with four-wheel drive is useless when it can’t grip the surface it’s sliding on. Ice—mostly from freezing rain—is not only dangerous because of the associated travel hazards, but also because of the damage it can cause.

2. A winter storm with Freezing rain is dangerous.

Freezing rain is rain that freezes when it comes in contact with an exposed surface like a tree or a sidewalk. A small amount of freezing rain can leave a thin glaze of ice on just about any surface, creating a situation where surfaces that look wet are really icy instead. A steadier freezing rain will allow a crust of solid ice to form on trees and power lines, weighing them down to the point of breaking. Extreme ice accretions—over an inch—can cause significant damage and disrupt life for weeks at a time.

3. Freezing rain is actually melted snowflakes.

Freezing rain forms when there’s an inversion layer present during a winter storm. An inversion layer occurs when a layer of warm air gets sandwiched between two colder air masses. Snowflakes fall through the warm layer and completely melt before reentering the subfreezing air near the surface. This newly formed raindrop can’t freeze back into ice because it doesn’t have a nucleus around which to freeze, so the raindrop becomes supercooled, meaning it remains in liquid state even as its temperature drops below freezing. Once the supercooled raindrop reaches the ground, the water instantly freezes into ice.

4. All that ice from freezing rain is extremely heavy.

If you’ve ever had to carry a case of bottled water up a flight of stairs, you know that even a little bit of water is extremely heavy. Imagine even more weight on a much more fragile surface, and that’s what you get during an ice storm. Damage to trees can begin with just a quarter-inch of ice, with more damage to bigger and sturdier trees as the crust of ice grows thicker. The Weather Channel points out that just a half-inch of ice accretion on a standard power line can add 500 pounds of extra weight to the line and the poles supporting it. Extreme ice storms can cause as much damage as an intense tornado, as even a couple of inches of ice adds enough weight to crumple the tall steel transmission towers that carry high-voltage power lines—and those take a while to repair.

5. Sleet is freezing rain's annoying cousin. 

A close relative to freezing rain is sleet. Sleet, also known as ice pellets, forms through the same process as freezing rain. Snowflakes destined to become sleet also fall through a warm layer of air, but one that isn’t deep enough to melt the snowflake completely. Once the partially melted snowflake enters subfreezing air, there are still a couple of ice crystals left in the raindrop that allow the raindrop to freeze into a little ball of ice before reaching the ground. The result is an ice pellet about the size of half a grain of rice that makes a distinctive tinking noise as it bounces off cars, vegetation, and roofs.

6. Sleet is like snow that freezes solid. 

Sleet looks like snow and it accumulates like snow. It’s easy to mistake sleet for snow if you’re not a hardcore weather geek, but with enough accumulation, even the casual observer will know something is different pretty quickly. Sleet has a nasty habit of freezing into solid ice within a few hours of falling, especially if the Sun comes out or if temperatures briefly rise above freezing once the precipitation stops. Once this hardening occurs, it can be next to impossible to remove it from sidewalks, driveways, and roads until there’s a major thaw. In the southeastern United States, sleet is particularly common (and problematic), since the region is prone to warm air intruding on its winter storms and many municipalities don’t have enough snow equipment to clear the roads before that sleet freezes solid.

7. When a winter storm warning is issued, join the grocery lines.

Everyone makes fun of the throngs of panicked shoppers before a snowstorm, but stocking up on groceries before a winter storm is a pretty good idea for even the biggest cynic. If freezing rain knocks out power for an extended period of time, stores and restaurants will be forced to close until power is restored and they get fresh shipments of food. If that happens, you’re pretty much on your own for food and drink until conditions improve. Before a storm arrives, make sure you get plenty of food and beverages that you don’t have to cook or keep fresh.

Lake Michigan Has Frozen Over, and It's an Incredible Sight

Scott Olson, Getty Images
Scott Olson, Getty Images

A polar vortex has brought deadly temperatures to the Midwest this week, and the weather is having a dramatic effect on one of the region's most famous features. As the Detroit Free Press reports, parts of Lake Michigan have frozen over, and the ice coverage continues to grow.

The Lake Michigan ice extent has increased rapidly throughout January, starting around 1 percent on the first of the month and expanding to close to 40 percent by the end of the month. Yesterday was the coldest January 30 in Chicago history, with temperatures at O'Hare Airport dropping to -23°F. Even though it's frozen, steam can be seen rising off Lake Michigan—something that happens when the air above the lake is significantly colder than the surface. You can watch a stream of this happening from a live cam below.

Lake Michigan's ice coverage is impressive, as these pictures show, but it's still far from breaking a record. Though Lake Michigan has never frozen over completely, it came close during the winter of 1993 to 1994 when ice reached 95 percent coverage.

Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana aren't the only places that have been hit hard by the cold this winter. At the United States/Canada border, Niagara Falls froze to a stop in some spots, a phenomenon that also produced some stunning photographs.


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[h/t Detroit Free Press]

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