Quantcast
Climate

California Epic Drought Leads to Lowest Snowpack in 500 Years

The snowpack for the state of California—a critical source of drinking water for the state—hit its lowest level in the last 500 years, according to a study published yesterday in Nature. When the snowpack was measured in April—historically the high point for the season's snowpack—it was just 6 percent of average for the past century.

Now, thanks to this latest study, we know that the snowpack hasn't been this low in at least five centuries. The study used tree-ring data from centuries-old blue oaks to provide historical context for this year's extremely low snowpack. The paper is the first of its kind in describing temperature and precipitation levels in the Sierra Nevada "that extends centuries before researchers started measuring snow levels each year," says The New York Times.

The latest findings reveal the 2015 snowpack was far below normal for the last 500 years. Photo credit: Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, University of Arizona

“The 2015 snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is unprecedented,” Valerie Trouet, one of the authors of the study, told The Times. “We expected it to be bad, but we certainly didn’t expect it to be the worst in the past 500 years.”

Last winter was the hottest on record for California, so the little precipitation the state received often fell as rain and not snow. This has grave implications for the state's water supply because snowmelt provides one-third of the state's drinking water and is also critical for fighting the state's increasing wildfires. California is in the midst of a four-year drought that has produced devastating wildfires like the Valley Fire in Northern California, which is happening right now. This past spring, NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti warned that Californians only have one year of water left in the state's reservoirs.

Over the last few years, winter precipitation has been far below normal, sending the state into a deep drought. Photo credit: Climate Central

“The scope of this is profound,” Thomas Painter, a snow hydrologist with NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, told The Times. “This has been a very bad drought, and being able to understand the context of it is extraordinarily important.”

To determine snowpack levels that far back, researchers combined two data sets of blue oak tree rings. "The first set provided historical precipitation levels from more than 1,500 blue oaks from 33 sites in California’s Central Valley," explains The Times. "The team compared part of that data from the years 1930 to 1980 with actual snowpack measurements and found that both findings matched. Using this correlation, the team combined the precipitation data with a second data set of tree rings that looked at winter temperatures from 1500 to 1980." Based on the 500-year record, researchers estimated the odds of such a low snowpack happening more than once over that time period were less than five percent.

Satellite images show the Sierra snowpack in 2015 compared to 2010. Photo credit: NASA / MODIS

While the April 1 assessment finally goaded state officials into action with Gov. Jerry Brown issuing the state's first-ever mandatory water restrictions, many scientists saw this coming. Peter Gleick, president and co-founder of the water policy-focused Pacific Institute began investigating the impacts of climate change on California's water supply 30 years ago.

“It’s shocking in a historical context because we’ve never seen this bad of a snowpack. It was not shocking in the sense that we sort of knew this was coming, and we just didn’t know when,” Gleick told Climate Central. “This is the new unpleasant reality” for Western water, not just California.

And don't expect the strong El Niño to "solve the drought" as warmer Pacific Ocean waters are expected to bring lots of precipitation to California this winter. Even if the state receives the much-needed rainfall, the storms might not produce a larger snowpack. If temperatures remain above-average as expected, much of that precipitation could fall as rain and not snow even at higher elevations—just as they did this past winter. Furthermore, Kirsten James at Ceres explains that because of climate change and poor water management, El Niño—not even a Monster El Niño—can't save California from its epic drought.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Neglect Over Climate Change Is Putting My Generation of Skiers on Styrofoam Snow

Shocking Polar Bear Photos Show Stark Reality of Climate Change

4 Reasons Why El Nino Won’t Solve California’s Epic Drought

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Surfrider Foundation / Twitter

Offshore Oil Drilling May Be Coming to a Coastline Near You

By Pete Stauffer

It's nearly impossible to convince certain people, most notably leaders of our federal administration, that bold action is needed on climate change, but recent events have certainly made a compelling case.

Three major hurricanes have battered U.S. coasts in recent months, impacting the lives of millions of people and causing billions of dollars in damage. Although no single storm event can be blamed directly on climate change, scientific experts agree that the warming climate and ocean waters contribute to the frequency and scale of hurricanes—putting the residents, natural resources and economic security of coastal communities at elevated risk. This makes the Trump administration's proposal to expand offshore oil drilling off U.S. coasts all the more dubious.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Taken on Oct. 11 in Barrio Maní, Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. Cathy Mazak

'We Are Not OK': A First-Hand Account of Hurricane Maria

By Cathy Mazak

I'm so happy to be able to communicate with you again. As many of you know, I live in western Puerto Rico. In this post I want to tell you a little about my family's experience with Maria, and how you can help Puerto Rico.

On Thursday Sept. 21, when the sun came up, I looked out our front door at a wintery landscape. There was not one leaf on one tree in all the tropical forest that surrounds our property. Instead, the walls of my house were plastered with one-inch-by-one-inch pieces of leaves. It was as if they had been stripped off the trees, chopped in a food processor, and coated onto our house with a pressure washer.

Keep reading... Show less
Shutterstock

12 Global Cities Commit to Create Green and Healthy Streets By 2030

On Monday, the mayors of London, Paris, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Quito, Vancouver, Mexico City, Milan, Seattle, Auckland and Cape Town committed to a series of ambitious targets to make their cities greener, healthier and more prosperous. By signing the C40 Fossil-Fuel-Free Streets Declaration, the pioneering city leaders pledged to procure only zero-emission buses from 2025 and ensure that a major area of their city is zero emission by 2030. The policies are designed to fight air pollution, improve the quality of life for all citizens and help tackle the global threat of climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
LNG tanker. kees torn, CC BY-SA 2.0

GOP Senators, Fueled by Industry Cash, Propose Bill to Expedite Small Scale LNG Exports

By Steve Horn

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) have introduced a bill to fast-track the regulatory process for the export of small-scale liquefied natural gas (LNG).

The bill, titled "Small Scale LNG Access Act," was introduced on Oct. 18 and calls for amending the "Natural Gas Act to expedite approval of exports of small volumes of natural gas." The proposed legislation follows in the footsteps of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) proposed rule which would assume that all U.S. small-scale exports of LNG, with the gas mostly obtained via hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"), is in the "public interest" as defined by the Natural Gas Act.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Scott Pruitt. Gage Skidmore / Flickr

EPA Pulls Scientists From Talk on Climate Change, Highlighting Fears Agency Is 'Muzzling' Staff

Ever since Scott Pruitt took the helm of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he has worked to undo decades of hard-fought climate protections, denied that carbon dioxide is a "primary contributor" to climate change, and even removed mentions of the term "climate change" from agency websites.

Now, the agency has canceled the speaking appearances of three of its scientists to discuss the topic at a conference in Rhode Island on Monday, highlighting "widespread concern that the EPA will silence scientists from speaking publicly on climate change," the New York Times reported Sunday.

Keep reading... Show less
Pixabay

Snow Leopards Still Threatened by Consumer Demand for Skins and Body Parts

Today is International Snow Leopard Day, a global observance commemorating the signing of the Bishkek Declaration on the conservation of snow leopards in 2013.

The snow leopard has been listed on the IUCN Red List as "Endangered" since 1986, although it recently had its threat status downgraded to "Vulnerable."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

Dr. Michael Mann on Extreme Weather: 'We Predicted This Long Ago'

You can't go far in the climate movement without hearing the name of Dr. Michael E. Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University and author of The Hockey Stick and The Climate Wars and, more recently, The Madhouse Effect.

Dr. Mann came to public attention back in 1998 when he and two colleagues published the landmark MBH98 paper documenting average global temperatures across the centuries with a line graph whose steep uptick in recent years earned it the name "the hockey stick." The paper—with its inconvenient truth about the consequences of fossil fuels—made him a target for climate deniers, but Dr. Mann refused to be silenced and has become one of America's leading public voices for a scientific and rational approach to climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
Food
The Dutch Weed Burger is made from three types of algae. The Dutch Weed Burger

How Marine Algae Could Help Feed the World

By William Moomaw and Asaf Tzachor

Our planet faces a growing food crisis. According to the United Nations, more than 800 million people are regularly undernourished. By 2050, an additional 2 to 3 billion new guests will join the planetary dinner table.

Meeting this challenge involves not only providing sufficient calories for every person, but also assuring a balanced diet that includes the protein and nutrients that are essential to good health. In a newly published study, we explain how marine microalgae could be a sustainable solution for solving global macro-hunger.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

Get EcoWatch in your inbox