Climate Gone Crazy

Published on January 5th, 2016

Epic California Drought Just One Manifestation of Weather Out of Whack

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then perhaps 200 pictures are worth a book, or at least a blog post. The Los Angeles Times has posted a dramatic “infographic” of more than 200 images of California drought maps from 2011 to 2015 that vividly depict the progression or descent of the Golden State into the worst drought of its recorded history.

20 December 2011 15 December 2015

Here are just two of those images – the very first map, from 20 December 2011, to the most recent, dated 15 December 2015. The drought officially started four years ago on 27 December 2011. Most of California is now afflicted by “extreme and exceptional drought.”

The maps are from the United States Drought Monitor, a joint project of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). As of this writing, the most recent update to the Drought Monitor was released on 31 December 2015.

A few of the notable facts according to the Drought Monitor, as of December 2015, are:

  • Recent storms have dried out as they moved south into the Monterey area.

  • Ground water and reservoir levels remain unchanged, and ground water in Santa Clara Valley is not recovering.

  • In Los Angeles, much like Monterey, all precipitation locations are below normal for the current water year; nearly all of the storm systems have weakened as they approach the area.

  • Reservoirs in San Diego remain unchanged as most of the recent rains soaked into the ground.

  • In Sacramento, recent storms have helped with local precipitation totals, and are finally beginning to generate runoff, but not enough to warrant changes in the drought status.

  • After a week of no rain, the Northern Sierra has fallen to 98% of normal, and the Central Sierra is at 127% of normal.

  • The Sacramento Valley precipitation amounts are still behind normal for the water year.

  • Only limited spots in the Central Sierra are above average.

  • Snow pack looks great this water year so far but is only 110% and 121% of normal for the Northern and Central Sierra, respectively.

  • No changes to the drought status were made in this region.

Overall, concludes the L.A. Times, California “isn't expected to improve in the near future.” Storms from this year’s El Niño winter could yet provide some relief, though a single rainy season, unless it is an extraordinary one, will not suffice to lift California out of its long-running drought. And many have been counting on this year’s El Niño to be the state’s savior.

Among the many casualties of the drought to date are California’s beloved trees and forests. Millions of trees have been lost already due to the drought and two related factors: rising temperatures and bark beetle infestations. By May 2015, the U.S. Forest Service estimated that some 12 million trees had already died in the drought.

According to a December 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, millions of additional trees could perish if the drought persists. One of the researchers referred to a “huge pool of trees that’s teetering on death.” And dead trees, of course, become tinder or fuel for future forest fires, which have already been running rampant in recent years.

Unfortunately, California is not the only place afflicted with a crazy climate and weird weather.

In the final week of 2015, bizarre weather from the North Pole to the South Pole dominated headlines. Across the Arctic, temperatures soared to more than 50 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. The North Pole was actually warmer than Chicago on December 30. As unseasonal storms, tornadoes and flooding in Texas and the Midwest broke records and claimed dozens of lives, other storms smacked the United Kingdom with hurricane-force winds and triggered enormous flooding in South America.

What is abnormal about the Midwest flooding on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries is not the magnitude or water levels of the flood flows, but the timing. As The Washington Post reported:

“Under normal circumstances, this degree of wintertime flooding is not possible because there is not enough moisture in cold winter air to support such rainfall totals.”

Deluges fed by this year’s gigantic El Niño oscillation in the Pacific Ocean also have drenched parts of Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil.

Interstate 44 flooded by the Meramec River,
a tributary of the Mississippi, in Valley Park, Missouri.

Across the country from California to up and down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and throughout the continent, the last month of 2015 proved to be the hottest December ever recorded. In much of the Northeast and up into Ontario and Quebec, Canada, temperatures on Christmas Day actually climbed into the 70s. In the national capital area – Washington, D.C. and environs – forsythias, azaleas and even cherry trees were suddenly blooming.

El Niño and global warming have reinforced one another this winter in what Penn State University meteorology professor Michael Mann has called a “double whammy.”

These extreme weather events culminate a year of record-setting weather globally: July 2015 is now the hottest month ever registered and 2015 as a whole is set to be the warmest year ever observed.

The upshot: the Earth system and its climate are undergoing a massive “perturbation” caused by 7.4 billion human beings and their ever-increasing, aggregate activities. The sheer number of people is one of the main forcing factors. And even as our weather has turned topsy-turvy, California added 350,000 residents this past year, the United States 2.5 million, and the world 83 million. In spite of all our admonitions, and perhaps a pinch of progress in recognizing our plight, the pressure in the cooker continues to climb.

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