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.

Storm Leaves Homes Along Lake Erie Covered in Up To Three Feet of Ice

Houses along Lake Erie's shoreline were pummeled with sheets of icy water during a storm last week.
Houses along Lake Erie's shoreline were pummeled with sheets of icy water during a storm last week.
John Normile/Getty Images

This past weekend, lakeside residents of Hamburg, New York, awoke to find their neighborhood transformed into a full-scale replica of Frozen’s ice-covered kingdom, Arendelle.

According to CNN, gale force winds produced giant waves that sprayed the houses along Lake Erie with sheets of water for two days straight, covering them in layers of ice up to three feet thick.

“It looks fake, it looks surreal,” Hamburg resident Ed Mis told CNN. “It’s dark on the inside of my house. It can be a little eerie, a little frightening.”

While the homeowners are anxious for the ice to melt, they’re also concerned about what could happen when it does.

“We’re worried about the integrity, of structure failure when it starts to melt, because of the weight on the roof,” Mis said.

He added that this is the worst ice coating he’s seen since he moved to the area eight years ago—but it’s not because they’ve had a particularly harsh winter. In fact, just the opposite is true. According to The Detroit News, warm winter temperatures have caused ice cover on the Great Lakes to drop from 67 percent in 2019 to less than 20 percent this year.

“Lake Erie typically has significant ice cover by this time of the year, and that protects the shoreline from these battering storms,” The Weather Channel’s winter weather expert Tom Niziol explained in a video.

The phenomenon has created another unforeseen issue for Hamburg’s coast, too: Tourism. The local police department posted a message on Facebook on Sunday, March 1, asking people to keep off both the “extremely unsafe and unstable” ice and people's private property.

[h/t CNN]

What is Lake-Effect Snow?

Tainar/iStock via Getty Images
Tainar/iStock via Getty Images

As you probably guessed, you need a lake to experience lake-effect snow. The primary factor in creating lake-effect snow is a temperature difference between the lake and the air above it. Because water has a high specific heat, it warms and cools much more slowly than the air around it. All summer, the sun heats the lake, which stays warm deep into autumn. When air temperatures dip, we get the necessary temperature difference for lake-effect snow.

As the cool air passes over the lake, moisture from the water evaporates and the air directly above the surface heats up. This warm, wet air rises and condenses, quickly forming heavy clouds. The rate of change in temperature as you move up through the air is known as the "lapse rate"; the greater the lapse rate, the more unstable a system is—and the more prone it is to create weather events.

Encountering the shore only exacerbates the situation. Increased friction causes the wind to slow down and clouds to "pile up" while hills and variable topography push air up even more dramatically, causing more cooling and more condensation.

The other major factors that determine the particulars of a lake-effect snowstorm are the orientation of the wind and the specific lake. Winds blowing along the length of a lake create greater "fetch," the area of water over which the wind blows, and thus more extreme storms like the one currently pummeling the Buffalo area. The constraints of the lake itself create stark boundaries between heavy snow and just a few flurries and literal walls of snow that advance onto the shore. The southern and eastern shores of the Great Lakes are considered "snow belts" because, with winds prevailing from the northwest, these areas tend to get hit the hardest.

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