John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
This year, there's virtually no powder on the ground in the drought-stricken state.
This time last year, California was alive with verdant vegetation and ivory snow. The state has since undergone a drastic transformation: The Central Valley is now a basin of brown dust, and in the higher regions there's hardly any powder on the ground.
The persistent drought that is ravaging the West – California in particular experienced its driest year in known history in 2013 – has become so severe its effects are clearly visible from space. The Sierra Nevada mountains are normally loaded with snow; their very name derives from the Spanish for "snowy range." Look at how much snow had fallen halfway through January of last year in the left shot of this satellite montage, then contrast it to the barren badlands in the image at right from Monday:
The U.S. Drought Monitor tracks where the water ain't falling across America. Check out its latest assessment of the West's drought woes:
The lack of frozen precipitation is causing pain for Californians, who rely on the Sierra's melting snowpack for about 65 percent of their water and a significant portion of their hydroelectric energy. Aquifers are drying out, forcing some people in rural areas to truck in water. Governor Jerry Brown announced this week that he would seek a "drought designation" for California to better spread out the precious water, saying at a press conference: "In many ways it’s a mega-drought; it’s been going on for number of years and then we also have the prospect of global climate change and that can affect us as well."
Another thing that could affect the locals: waves of licking flames. It's not the time to be throwing cigarette butts out of car windows, folks: Bone-dry vegetation and fierce winds have created a wicked fire potential across the state. The National Weather Service yesterday had the Bay Area under an "elevated" risk of outbreaks, and it was worse in Los Angeles, where the service forecasted a "locally critical fire-weather threat."
But will things be better by next week? Hardly, to believe this dire prediction from Chris Dolce at Weather Underground:
The prospects for any significant rain or mountain snow in California over the next seven to 10 days look dismal, according to the latest computer model forecast guidance. If this type of pattern were to persist through the final week of the month, many January precipitation records could fall by the wayside.
Images courtesy of NASA / NOAA