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 ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Health
Pexels

5 Ingredients for Health: Starting with Food

On Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg, Dr. Robert Graham—board-certified physician and founder of FRESHMed NYC—combines mainstream medical practices with therapies inspired by ancient wisdom: an integrative model of medicine. "My dad was a biochemist, so I grew up in this integrative model. One of the things that really stood out is my mom was distrustful about the conventional Western model. She still thinks she's the only doctor in the house, because food is such a powerful medicine, especially from her culture," said Graham.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Malte Mueller / Getty Images

When Profit Drives Us, Community Suffers

By David Korten

As I was reading the current series of YES! articles on the mental health crisis, I received an email from Darcia Narvaez, professor of psychology at University of Notre Dame. She was sending me articles being prepared for an anthology she is co-editing with the working title Sustainable Vision.The articles present lessons from indigenous culture that underscore why community is the solution to so much of what currently ails humanity.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
The Revelator

Interactive Map: Air Pollution in 2100

By Dipika Kadaba

Having a little trouble breathing lately? That's no surprise. Air pollution is already bad in many parts of the country, and climate change is only going to make it worse. Even though many industries are reducing their emissions, a warming climate could actually offset these reductions by intensifying the rates of chemical reactions and accumulation of pollutants in the environment.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
ddukang / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Is Apple Cider Vinegar Good for You? A Doctor Weighs In

By Gabriel Neal

When my brother and I were kids back in the '80s, we loved going to Long John Silver's.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Animals

Dumpster Debacle Distracts From Serious Spike in Whale Deaths

This week, a video of a failed attempt to put a dead, 4,000-pound whale into a tiny dumpster made the rounds on the internet, garnering chuckles and comparisons to Peter Griffin forklifting and impaling a beached sperm whale on Family Guy.

The juvenile minke whale washed up on Jenness Beach in Rye, New Hampshire on Monday morning, NBC 10 Boston reported. It was found with entanglement wounds, so researchers with the Seacoast Science Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) wanted to move the carcass from the beach to a lab for a necropsy to study its death.

Keep reading... Show less
Adventure
Muir Woods, which costs $10 for entry, will have free entry on Sept. 22. m01229 / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Visit Any National Park for Free This Saturday to Celebrate 25th National Public Lands Day

If you're stuck for plans this weekend, we suggest escaping your city or town for the great outdoors.

This Saturday marks the 25th National Public Lands Day, organized by the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
A glacier flows towards East Antarctica. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / CC BY 2.0

Temperatures Possible This Century Could Melt Parts of East Antarctic Ice Sheet, Raise Sea Levels 10+ Feet

A section of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet that contains three to four meters (approximately 10 to 13 feet) of potential sea level rise could melt if temperatures rise to just two degrees above pre-industrial levels, a study published in Nature Wednesday found.

Researchers at Imperial College London, the University of Queensland, and other institutions in New Zealand, Japan and Spain looked at marine sediments to assess the behavior of the Wilkes Subglacial Basin during warmer periods of the Pleistocene and found evidence of melting when temperatures in Antarctica were at least two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels for periods of 2,500 years or more.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
Oil well in North Dakota. Tim Evanson / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Pipeline Leaks 63,840 Gallons of Produced Water in North Dakota

A pipeline released 63,840 gallons (1,520 barrels) of produced water that contaminated rangeland in Dunn County, North Dakota, the Bismarck Tribune reported, citing officials with the North Dakota Department of Health.

Produced water is a byproduct of oil and gas extraction, and can contain drilling chemicals if fracking was used.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!