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.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

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Expeditions Gather Climate Change Clues on Mount Everest in Two New Documentaries

Team members climb up a slope during the expedition to find Sandy Irvine's remains on Mount Everest.
Team members climb up a slope during the expedition to find Sandy Irvine's remains on Mount Everest.
Matt Irving/National Geographic

Two one-hour documentaries premiering tonight reveal what Mount Everest is really like—and what scientists can learn from studying it.

Both docs are produced by and airing on National Geographic. In Lost on Everest, premiering at 9 p.m. EDT, climber Mark Synnott and Nat Geo photographer Renan Ozturk lead a team of seasoned mountaineers on a mission to discover what happened to Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, who vanished with fellow explorer George Mallory during the first Everest climb in June 1924. While Mallory’s body was located by a BBC-sponsored operation in 1999, Irvine’s exact fate has remained a mystery for nearly a century since his disappearance. As Synnott and his companions search for evidence, they encounter their own harrowing set of obstacles, from hurricane-force winds to medical emergencies.

Climbers on Mount Everest
Climbers ascend the Khumbu Icefall, a notoriously dangerous section of the summit route.
Mark Fisher/National Geographic Society

But Mount Everest isn’t only a challenge for adventure-seekers and intrepid investigators—it also holds thousands of years’ worth of information about how climate change has altered the environment, which can help scientists predict its future effects. In Expedition Everest, airing at 10 p.m. EDT, actor Tate Donovan narrates the journey of an international group of scientists and climbers with an ambitious set of data-collecting objectives.

One task is to use drones, laser scanners, and cameras to capture footage of every inch of the ascent, so researchers can create a 360-degree portrait of the mountain and track how glacial melt alters the landscape in the coming years. Since the Himalayas contain the water supply for roughly one-fourth of the world’s population, the increase in glacial melt—which has already doubled since 2000—could threaten the futures of billions of people living in the region.

Scientists drill ice cores on Mount Everest
Mariusz Potocki and members of the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition team collect the highest-ever ice core at 8020 meters (26,312 feet) near the South Col of Everest.
Dirk Collins/National Geographic Society

Even more immediate is the risk of flash floods, which are difficult to predict without a constant feed of weather data from high altitudes. Another goal of the expedition is to install weather stations at five locations along the climbing route, which will monitor temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind speed, and other factors that help alert meteorologists to an impending flood.

Some researchers have joined the expedition to drill deep into the ice at an altitude above 8000 meters (26,000 feet)—Mount Everest's "death zone"—and collect ice cores. These long tubes of ice reveal how the atmosphere has changed over thousands of years. Others are collecting similar cores of sediment at the bottom of a lake, as well as examining how plant and animal life has adapted to the warming temperatures and rising water levels.

Overall, Expedition Everest illustrates how the Himalayas function as an early indicator of what climate change will do to other places.

As climate scientist Anton Seimon explains in the documentary, “We’re getting a window into what the rest of the world is starting to experience—and likely to experience in growing proportions.”

You can watch the double feature tonight, June 30, at 9 p.m. EDT on National Geographic.