California drought

Feb 10, 2014 by Tony Phillips

California is supposed to be the Golden State. Make that golden brown. The entire west coast of the United States is changing color as the deepest drought in more than a century unfolds. According to the US Dept. of Agriculture and NOAA, dry conditions have become extreme across more than 62% of California's land area—and there is little relief in sight.

"Up and down California, from Oregon to Mexico, it's dry as a bone," comments JPL climatologst Bill Patzert. "To make matters worse, the snowpack in the water-storing Sierras is less than 20% of normal for this time of the year."

The drought is so bad, NASA satellites can see it from space. On Jan. 18th, 2014—just one day after California governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency—NASA's Terra satellite snapped a sobering picture of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Where thousands of square miles of white snowpack should have been, there was just bare dirt and rock.

At the Jet Propulsion Lab, a group of researchers led by Tom Painter are preparing to fly a Twin Otter aircraft over the Sierras to investigate the situation. Their "Airborne Snow Observatory" is equipped with a laser radar and a spectrometer to measure the snow's depth and reflectivity. From these data, it is possible to calculate the water content of the Sierras within 5% and future snowmelt rates with similar precision.

"The Airborne Snow Observatory was designed for times like this when we really need to know the state of the snow pack," says Painter. "Our next flight will be over the Tuolumne River Basin." The Tuolumne watershed and its Hetch Hetchy Reservoir are the primary water supply for 2.6 million San Francisco Bay Area residents.

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A new ScienceCast video asks, is this climate change?

The change in scenery is so striking, a group of high school science students in central California have been flying high altitude balloons to photograph it. From the stratosphere, their home town of Bishop looks like a settlement on the planet Mars: image, movie

"The lack of snow is really striking," says 17-year-old Amelia Koske-Phillips, president of the Earth to Sky Calculus science club. "I've never seen a winter as brown as this," adds 16-year old Carson Reid, a member of the launch team.

Bill Patzert blames the drought, in part, on the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or "PDO," a slowly oscillating pattern of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. At the moment, the PDO is in its negative phase—a condition historically linked to extreme high-pressure ridges that block West Coast storms and give the Midwest and East Coast punishing winters.

"I'm often asked if this is part of global warming," says Patzert. "My answer is 'not yet.' What we're experiencing now is a natural variability that we've seen many times in the past. Ultimately, though, climate change could make western droughts much worse."

Explore further: NASA snow mapper yielded optimized summer water operations

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User comments : 5

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The Shootist
1 / 5 (3) Feb 10, 2014
So. Will the "progressive" Watermelons, in control of CA state government, ever allow new, state wide, potable water resources to be developed?

I know, they'd rather steal all the water from the Colorado river and would probably be thrilled with the idea of a pipeline from Lake Superior, but what the nitwits need to do is build desalination plants and the additional electrical generating capacity to power those plants.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2 / 5 (2) Feb 10, 2014
The UAE shows that rich people can have pretty coastlines in deserts. All that vegetation is dangerous anyway until it is burned off. And cutting off the water is an effective way of reducing traffic and also pollution. Am I the only one looking on the bright side of this?
Jeffhans1
4.7 / 5 (3) Feb 10, 2014
According to Sfgate this past weekends storm provided some relief bringing many reservoirs from multiple feet increases in water level. More water has fallen in the past few days than in the entire previous 12 months. The problem is not gone but it has some relief in the short term at least.
dtxx
4.3 / 5 (3) Feb 11, 2014
So. Will the "progressive" Watermelons, in control of CA state government, ever allow new, state wide, potable water resources to be developed?

I know, they'd rather steal all the water from the Colorado river and would probably be thrilled with the idea of a pipeline from Lake Superior, but what the nitwits need to do is build desalination plants and the additional electrical generating capacity to power those plants.


Great, we won't "steal" anymore water. Your state can stop using anything that was developed in Silicon Valley. Since that includes the Internet, go look up Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, I suppose this is the last time we'll chat.

My point is we are a dry state obviously. Resources are not evenly distributed and we need to share to succeed. But if you'd like to say it's unfair we need water, maybe it's unfair you use our resources too. Stop stealing our technology in your piece of shit state.
ScooterG
1 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2014
Ship the wets back across the border - that'll reduce water consumption by half, not to mention reducing ca's carbon footprint.

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