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Photo credit: California Department of Water Resources - Florence Low

Is California's Drought Really Over? Scientists Say Not So Fast

The California government may have declared the drought over, but scientists say the land still has a lot of catching up to do. A new study has found that California's hardest hit areas will likely need several decades for their long-term average precipitation to recover back to normal levels.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that from 2011 to 2015, California experienced the driest four-year period in instrumental history, which dates back to 1895. It was the worst dry spell in 450 years with the Southern Central Valley and South Coast regions losing almost two full years of precipitation.

Unfortunately, even in these wet and blooming times for the state, the NOAA study calculated that it will take decades, even centuries, for the precipitation to recover in most areas. But, there might be a very tiny sliver of hope.

"The odds of the state completely recovering from its extreme dryness within two years are estimated at less than one percent," said Eugene R. Wahl, lead author of the study. "But, that may be what's happening right now if very wet conditions continue into spring."

Scientists are taken aback by the rapid recovery in some parts of the state, and believe it could have been jumpstarted by the extreme El Niño from 2015 to 2016. This event alone has already boosted the precipitation levels by 80 percent. But, the record breaking wetness will have to continue through the end of the year to truly ensure a full recovery.

A map showing the likelihood of recovery across the state. National Centers for Environmental Information

Even so, some parts of the state will recover more slowly than others. The Southeast Desert Basin division stands the best chance of recovering within two years, at about four percent. The San Joaquin Drainage and the South Coast Drainage divisions, however, have a zero percent chance of recovery within two years.

"These two regions include the agriculturally important Central Valley and the densely populated greater Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan areas," said Wahl. "So, the social and economic impacts are of particular importance there."

The other four climate regions hover between a .1 percent chance and 1.5 percent chance. So, it seems, one wet season will not be enough to bring the entire state back to life. Still, decades of recovery is better than a megadrought, which scientists still fear could happen with climate change raising temperatures in the region.

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Wildflowers north of Los Padres National Forest in early December 2016 (before the winter rains) and in late March during the wildflower super bloom. Photo credit: Planet Labs

California's Super Bloom So Intense It's Visible From Space

Thanks to above-average rainfall after an epic drought, spectacular flowers are blossoming throughout California, and now you can track it from space.

A few weeks ago, a colorful "super bloom" of sunflowers, sand verbena, dune evening primrose and ocotillos drew crowds of botany enthusiasts to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. These blooms were followed by similar phenomena in Carrizo Plain National Monument, Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge and an area close to Los Padres National Forest.

Check out the images below courtesy of Planet Labs, a company founded by former NASA scientists.

Last month, Planet Labs launched Planet Explorer Beta, where you can track satellite images for about 85 percent of Earth's changing terrain. If all of this looks to you like Google Earth on steroids, there's a good reason for that. The 2014 startup company in February acquired Google's satellite business, Terra Bella, responsible for Google Earth, and now boasts the world's largest fleet of Earth-imaging satellites.

To see how regions have changed as recorded by the satellite images, click on the white scroll bar in the middle, and slide the bar back and forth.

Near Los Padres National Forest


Carrizo Plain National Monument

Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge

The northern California coast is the latest area to bloom. A wildflower forecast for all areas of California through July can be found at Visit California.

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Photo credit: Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association

Incredible Super Bloom Turns Desert Into Enchanting Wonderland

By Breena Kerr

March marked the first time in a drought-parched decade that Anza-Borrego Desert State Park—located in the Colorado Desert about two hours outside San Diego—saw 10 inches of rain. This is according to Norb Ruhmke, acting district superintendent for the Colorado Desert District. In a normal full year, he said, the Anza-Borrego desert gets six inches.

Park guide Sally Theriault added that it was the first time since she moved to Borrego in the early 1980s that she could remember visitors arriving before employees, filling the parking lot by 8 a.m. It was also the first time she could remember highway patrol officers shutting down the S22, the main highway leading into town, because traffic was so bad.

That's because for a few weeks this March, all that rain triggered an unprecedented spring "super bloom" of annual wildflowers, including sunflowers, sand verbena, dune evening primrose and ocotillos. The onslaught of visitors to the park, Theriault said, had the feel of Disneyland, overflowing with tourists in shorts and sneakers, cameras in hand. "There were people arriving in their cars and asking where the rides were."

Anza-Borrego is no theme park. It's an arid, sandy desert with the Borrego Valley at its center. The park is surrounded by the Vallecito Mountains to the south and the Santa Rosa Mountains to the north. The sun is shadeless and punishing and for the majority of the year, shrubs and rocks dominate the landscape.

Many of the visitors who turned out for the super bloom were flower enthusiasts—some came from as far away as Washington State, the East Coast and even Japan, according to Theriault. Many had never been to Anza-Borrego before but had seen reports of the super bloom via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and afterward hopped in their cars to see the phenomenon for themselves. Some out-of-towners, unaccustomed to the wildness of park roads and overly trusting of technology, followed GPS imperatives into sand-filled ditches and required help getting out.

Ruhmke said park officials posted updates on its website about where to find flowers, in hopes that flower pilgrims would spread out across the park. But most came straight to the visitor center, which saw 90,000 visitors in March—between 2,000 and 5,000 every day. In years past, Theriault said, that number has been closer to 30,000 annually; during summer, when the temperatures can spike well beyond 100 degrees, only a couple hundred people tend to visit each day.

"The word seemed to get out faster this year and more people seemed to be coming to the visitor center," Theriault said. "We were really just about at capacity."

According to Theriault, the super bloom did indeed live up to its hype—at least for a couple of colorful weeks. By now, most of the flowers have dried up, but Theriault said it was the biggest bloom she could remember since the spring of 2005.

Ruhmke said that while most people congregated at the visitor center during the bloom, the "most majestic" flowerscapes were in Coyote and Henderson Canyons. "For me to enjoy the desert," he said, "I really have to get away from the crowds." But, he's confident that those who came during the bloom found what they were looking for.

"There's nothing better than when you're driving down to Montezuma Grade and dropping down into the desert floor," he said. "It's beautiful."

Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.

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Scientists Sound the Alarm: CO2 Levels Race Past Point of No Return

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that carbon dioxide levels in 2016 broke records for the second year in a row with an increase of 3 parts per million (ppm).

The measurements are coming from the Mauna Loa Baseline Atmospheric Observatory in Hawaii and were confirmed by NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. The numbers show that the rate of CO2 in the atmosphere is now at 405.1 ppm, the highest it has been in more than 10,000 years. Pieter Tans, lead scientist of NOAA's Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network, said the findings are accurate and disturbing.

"The rate of CO2 growth over the last decade is 100 to 200 times faster than what the Earth experienced during the transition from the last Ice Age," Tans said in a press release. "This is a real shock to the atmosphere."

A shock, indeed. An atmosphere of 400 ppm is dubbed the "carbon threshold," a point of no return. To sum it up, levels this high throw the whole balance of the climate cycle into chaos, making it more difficult to predict climate changes and causing sea level rise, severe tropical storms, drought and flooding.

This graph shows the annual mean carbon dioxide growth rates observed at NOAA's Mauna Loa Baseline Atmospheric Observatory. Further information can be found on the ESRL Global Monitoring Division website.NOAA

Emissions from fossil-fuel consumption have remained at historically high levels since 2011, and according to Tans, these emissions are contributing to the dramatic spike in atmospheric CO2 levels, which, up until the industrial revolution in 1760, averaged about 280 ppm.

Even if humans were to stop burning fossil fuels today, the carbon will continue to be trapped for at least the next few decades. Back in October 2016, when levels finally reached the 400 ppm threshold, Tans said, "It's unlikely we'll ever see CO2 below 400 ppm during our lifetime and probably much longer."

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Rising Temperatures to Blame for Water Loss in Colorado River

By Tim Radford

The Colorado River is dwindling, and climate change is officially to blame. In the first 14 years of this century, the flow declined to only four-fifths of the 20th century average, according to new research. The water lost would have been enough to supply two million people for a whole year.

Altogether, the river supplies water to seven U.S. states and two in Mexico, and 40 million people rely on it for their water. But the entire Colorado River basin has been experiencing sustained drought since 2000. And somewhere between one sixth and one half of this liquid loss can be put down to global warming, scientists said.

They publish their findings in the journal Water Resources Research. "This paper is the first to show the large role that warming temperatures are playing in reducing the flows of the Colorado River," said Jonathan Overpeck, professor of geosciences and of hydrology and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona.

"We're the first to make the case that warming alone could cause Colorado River flow declines of 30 percent by mid-century and over 50 percent by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated."

His co-author Bradley Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University, said, "The future of the Colorado River is far less rosy than other recent assessments have portrayed. A clear message to water managers is that they need to plan for significantly lower river flows."

The two scientists began by looking at the drought years of 2000-2014. The river starts with precipitation in the upper regions of its drainage basin, in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.

They found that in the first decade and a half of this century, average temperatures in the region were 0.9°C higher than the average for the past 105 years. This is, very roughly, the temperature by which the globe has warmed on average over the last century, under a global warming regime driven by greenhouse gases emitted from fossil fuel combustion.

But there is another factor to consider. The U.S. Southwest has a climate history characterized by intermittent megadroughts—periods of much lower rainfall over spans of 20 to 60 years.

Researchers have proposed that the risk of megadroughts is likely to increase in any climate change scenario. What actually will happen is uncertain, but the scientists are betting that as greenhouse gas emissions rise, so will the difficulties of water supply.

"Even if the precipitation does increase, our work indicates that there are likely to be drought periods as long as several decades when precipitation will still fall below normal," said Overpeck.

According to Udall, "Current planning understates the challenge that climate change poses to the water supplies in the American Southwest. My goal is to help water managers incorporate this information into their long-term planning efforts."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

188,000 Flee as 'Wall of Water' Threatens Northern California

As nearly 200,000 Northern California residents flee to higher ground over the threat of the Oroville Dam emergency spillway's failure Sunday night, a report has emerged that state and federal officials were warned 12 years ago that the earthen structure was already at risk of erosion.

The Mercury News reported that back in Oct. 2005, Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the South Yuba Citizens League filed a motion with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) during the Oroville Dam's relicensing process.

The environmental groups said that the dam, which California built and completed in 1968, did not meet modern safety standards and urged FERC to secure the dam's emergency spillway with concrete rather than have it remain as an earthen hillside.

Should extreme rain and flooding occur, the groups warned that the excess water could overwhelm the main concrete spillway and flow into the auxiliary spillway. Too much water could cause heavy erosion and potentially unleash flooding and threaten nearby communities.

"A loss of crest control could not only cause additional damage to project lands and facilities but also cause damages and threaten lives in the protected floodplain downstream," the groups wrote.

However, FERC rejected the groups' request. Furthermore, California's Department of Water Resources and other water agencies that would have paid for the upgrades said the fix was unnecessary.

"It is important to recognize that during a rare event with the emergency spillway flowing at its design capacity, spillway operations would not affect reservoir control or endanger the dam," wrote John Onderdonk, a FERC senior civil engineer in a July 27, 2006 memo to his managers.

"The emergency spillway meets FERC's engineering guidelines for an emergency spillway," he added. "The guidelines specify that during a rare flood event, it is acceptable for the emergency spillway to sustain significant damage."

KQED describes the emergency spillway as "essentially an ungated 1,700-foot-wide notch in the rim of the reservoir ... Below an initial concrete lip, water courses over bare earth all the way to the Feather River below, scouring the incline of earth, rocks and trees."

The secondary spillway has not been needed for use in its 48-year history—until this weekend.

The water level at Lake Oroville, California's second-largest reservoir, rose to record levels of more than a foot above what's considered "full" after Northern California's particularly wet winter. The lake also receives water from the northern Sierra Nevada mountain range, which also saw heavy rainfall, CNN noted.

Although the recent rainfall has brought much-needed relief to California's six years of epic drought, the nation's tallest dam is now nearly full. Water levels at the 770-foot-tall structure were less than seven feet from the top on Friday.

While the Oroville Dam is not currently compromised, both its primary spillway and the emergency spillway have problems due to severe erosion, authorities warned.

The primary spillway has a growing hole that is 250 feet long, 170 feet wide and about 40 to 50 feet deep, according to Bill Croyle, acting director of the Department of Water Resources. Because of the main spillway's damage, water has been pouring into the emergency spillway.

Fortunately, water has stopped pouring over the dam's emergency spillway since Sunday night.

"Oroville lake levels have receded to the point that auxiliary spillway flows have stopped. DWR hopes to push over a million acre feet of water over the main spillway in the next week, clearing the way for much needed flood storage in the lake," California's Department of Water Resources said.

Still, officials are planning for the worst as the situation could yet become dangerous.

"This is not a drill. Repeat this is not a drill," the National Weather Service said Sunday, urging people living near Oroville Dam to evacuate.

A collapse of the secondary spillway could cause a "30-foot wall of water" coming out of Lake Oroville, Cal-Fire incident commander Kevin Lawson said at a Sunday night press conference.

Evacuation orders are unchanged as of Monday morning.

"Once you have damage to a structure like that it's catastrophic," Croyle said. However, he stressed that "the integrity of the dam is not impacted" by the damaged spillway.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has issued an emergency order in response to the situation.

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View of the debris left after a forest fire destroyed the town of Las Corrientes, El Maule, Chile, on Thursday. Photo credit: Elvis Gonzalez / EPA

'Dante's Inferno' in Chile: Temps Reach 113 F

By Jeff Masters

The first all-time national heat record of 2017 was set in spectacular fashion on Thursday in Chile, where at least 12 different stations recorded a temperature in excess of the nation's previous all-time heat record—a 41.6 C (106.9 F) reading at Los Angeles on Feb. 9, 1944.

According to international weather records researcher Maximiliano Herrera, the hottest station on Thursday was Cauquenes, which hit 45.0 C (113 F). The margin by which the old record national heat record was smashed: 3.6 C (6.1 F), was extraordinary and was the second largest such difference Herrera has cataloged (the largest: a 3.8 C margin in New Zealand in 1973, from 38.6 C to 42.4 C).

Herrera cautioned, though, that the extraordinary high temperatures on Thursday in Chile could have been due, in part, to the effects of the severe wildfires burning near the hottest areas and the new record will need to be verified by the weather service of Chile.

Fires (red squares) in Chile spread smoke over the Pacific Ocean, as seen at 10:35 a.m. EST Thursday Jan. 26. This MODIS image is from NASA's Terra satellite.NASA

Here are some of the high temperatures from Jan. 26 in Chile:

Maule Region (near the area affected by wildfires):

Cauquenes, 45.0 C
Coronel de Maule, 41.8 C
Los Despachos, 42.8 C
Santa Sofia, 43.1 C
Sauzal, 41.8 C

Maule Region (outside the area affected by wildfires):

Linares, 41.8 C
Longavi Sur, 42.3 C
Parral, 40.8 C

Bio Bio Region (near the area affected by wildfires):

Bulnes, 42.5 C
Quillon, 44.9 C
Ninhue, 43.0 C

Bio Bio Region (outside the area affected by wildfires):

Portezuelo, 41.2 C
Chillan, 41.4 C (DMC station)
Chillán Quinchamalí, 43.0 C
San Nicolas, 41.1 C
Los Angeles Maria Dolores Airport, 42.2 C

Record Heat and Extreme Drought Lead to Deadly Chile Wildfires

Record heat and extreme drought in Chile are contributing to their worst wildfires in decades. On Thursday, the entire town of Santa Olga was destroyed by fire, with more than 1,000 building consumed including schools, nurseries, shops and a post office.

As reported in The Guardian, Carlos Valenzuela, the mayor of the region, said: "Nobody can imagine what happened in Santa Olga. What we have experienced here is literally like Dante's Inferno." Authorities declared a state of emergency in Chile due to wildfires on Jan. 20 and as of Jan. 26, more than 100 fires were burning throughout O'Higgins and Maule regions.

At least ten people have been killed by the fires, including four firefighters and two policemen. According to insurance broker Aon Benfield, the fires had consumed 578,000 acres of land as of Jan. 26 and damages to the timber industry alone were estimated at $40 million. Hot, dry weather with high temperatures in the 90s are expected to continue for the next week in the Santiago area.

Chile's Ongoing Megadrought Partially Attributed to Human-Caused Climate Change

Central Chile is enduring a decades-long megadrought that began in the late 1970s, with precipitation declines of about 7 percent per decade. According to a 2016 study by Boisier et al., Anthropogenic and natural contributions to the Southeast Pacific precipitation decline and recent megadrought in central Chile, this drought is unprecedented in historical records.

While at least half of the change in precipitation can be blamed on natural causes, primarily due to atmospheric circulation changes from the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, the authors estimated that a quarter of the rainfall deficit affecting this region since 2010 was due to human-caused climate change.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Weather Underground.

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Photo credit: Climate Council

Brutal Heat Waves Crush Eastern Australia

A hot air mass parked over central Australia is delivering the second brutal heat wave this month. January is quickly approaching a record-breaking month Down Under.

These heat waves are being driven by warmer ocean temperatures, in turn heating-up central Australia and spilling across the eastern half of the continent.

"The heat waves were likely driven by warmer sea temperatures combining with the unusual spread of a 'reservoir of hot air' that had been building in central Australia over the past several weeks," said Phil King of the Bureau of Meteorology.

The Tuesday overnight temperature for Sydney, New South Wales (NSW), a city of 4.3 million people, registered 77F. By 6 a.m. the mercury read 88F and later in the afternoon, in the western suburbs, it reached a scorching 109F.

It was the hottest sticky night in five years. Thousands of people appeared at Sydney's Bondi Beach just after sunrise to cool off.

"We're not used to seeing that many people, normally it's crickets [this early in the morning] ... but there's a lot of people in the water, it makes it difficult to see them with the sun glaring in our face," said Bondi lifeguard Andrew Reid.

Along with stifling heat, the levels of smog in Sydney are very high. This prompted the NSW Health agency to issue a warning for people with respiratory conditions like asthma. High temperatures exacerbate toxic ozone created by automobiles.

"When it's really hot and quite still, we can get a built up of some pollutants, and in this case it's ozone," said David Berry, Bureau of Meteorology forecaster. "It's from the burning of fuels and having lots of air-cons on and that sort of thing."

The latest heat wave created an extreme fire emergency elsewhere in NSW and into the Australian Capital Territory near the nation's capital city, Canberra. A fast moving wildfire charred 5,500 acres of eucalypt forests.

While temperatures are beginning to relax in Sydney, the deadly heat wave is moving north into the state of Queensland and its capital city of Brisbane with 2.1 million people.

Last week, a vicious heat wave claimed the life of Matthew Hall, a fit and healthy 30-year-old man, while dirt bike riding along the Sunshine Coast.

"People need to be really aware that heat can affect especially the elderly and young children, but [also] people with previous medical conditions can really suffer a great deal," paramedic Lara King said. "Also young healthy fit people who don't think they have got any concerns need to be really cautious."

Last week, 200 other Queenslanders were treated for heat stroke and dehydration.

Two key findings on heat waves from Australia's Climate Council report Silent Killer highlighted that:

  • Heat waves are a silent killer. Major heatwaves have caused more deaths since 1890 than wildfires, cyclones (hurricanes), earthquakes, floods and severe storms combined.
  • Extreme heat increases the risk of heat illness and can also exacerbate pre-existing illnesses such as heart and kidney conditions. Children, the elderly, the disabled and outdoor workers are among those most at risk.

In addition to fierce heat waves, new research from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science warned that as Earth's temperatures approach 2C, the upper limit of the Paris climate agreement, Australia will see an 11.3-30 percent intensification of rainfall from extreme precipitation events, while some areas will increase in drought.

"There is no chance that rainfall in Australia will remain the same as the climate warms," said Professor Steve Sherwood, an author of the research from University of New South Wales.

Another report, The Heat Matches On, warned that "as Australians continue to suffer from more frequent and worsening extreme heat events, the path to tackling climate change is becoming more urgent: no new coal mines can be built, existing coal mines and coal-fired power stations must be phased out and renewable energy must be scaled up rapidly."

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