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9 States Report Record Low Snowpack Amid Epic Drought

Climate
9 States Report Record Low Snowpack Amid Epic Drought

California gets most of the attention in drought news coverage because so much of the state is in exceptional drought—the highest level—but 72 percent of the Western U.S. is experiencing drought conditions, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor data.

72 percent of the West is experiencing drought conditions and 25 percent is in extreme or exceptional drought. Photo credit: U.S. Drought Monitor

When California's snowpack assessment showed that the state's snowpack levels were 6 percent of normal—the lowest ever recorded—it spurred Gov. Brown's administration to order the first-ever mandatory water restrictions. California's snowpack levels might be the lowest, but the Golden State is not the only one setting records. A new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) finds that nine states reported record low snowpack. The report states:

The largest snowpack deficits are in record territory for many basins, especially in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada where single-digit percent of normal conditions prevail. Very low snowpacks are reported in most of Washington, all of Oregon, Nevada, California, parts of Arizona, much of Idaho, parts of New Mexico, three basins in Wyoming, one basin in Montana and most of Utah.

Only high elevation areas in the Rocky Mountains and Interior Alaska had normal or close to normal snowpack levels. "The only holdouts are higher elevations in the Rockies," said Garen. "Look at the map and you'll see that almost everywhere else is red." Red indicates less than half of the normal snowpack remains. Dark red indicates snowpack levels are less than 25 percent of normal.

Much of the West is in dark red, which indicates snowpack levels are below 25 percent of normal. Photo credit: USDA NCRS

And not only is the snowpack drastically reduced in many states, but it's melting earlier now, too. "Almost all of the West Coast continues to have record low snowpack," said David Garen, a hydrologist for USDA's National Resources Conservation Service. "March was warm and dry in most of the West; as a result, snow is melting earlier than usual."

Historically, April 1 is the peak snowpack. But this year, the peak came earlier because there was very little snow accumulation in March and much of the existing snow had already melted. Streamflow will be reduced even sooner in spring and summer, leaving reservoirs—already well below average in many areas—that much more depleted, the report finds. As of April 1, reservoir levels are below average in at least five western states: Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah," according to Reuters. That doesn't include California, which NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti said has about a year's supply of water in its reservoirs.

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A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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