The California Drought, As Seen From Space

No snow, no water.

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Brian Resnick
Feb. 4, 2014, 7:21 a.m.

What’s miss­ing in the photo on the right? Snow. And per­haps a bit of green­ery.

NASA and the Na­tion­al Ocean­ic and At­mo­spher­ic Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­leased that photo to il­lus­trate what a year of drought con­di­tions (which have in­tens­i­fied re­cently) have wrought on the land­scape. The amount of snow in Cali­for­nia’s Si­erra re­gion is between 4 per­cent and 22 per­cent of nor­mal. And a change that drastic is eas­ily seen from space.

It’s pos­sibly the worst drought Cali­for­nia has ex­per­i­enced in 500 years. Gov. Jerry Brown has de­clared a state of emer­gency. Some rur­al areas may run out of wa­ter en­tirely in the next four months if con­di­tions don’t im­prove. Cali­for­nia’s State Wa­ter Pro­ject, an agency that re­dis­trib­utes wa­ter from the snowy moun­tains in the north to the drier south, has an­nounced it can­not de­liv­er wa­ter to many com­munit­ies in the com­ing months. Those towns will be on their own for wa­ter re­sources

The Con­tra Costa Times, based in North­ern Cali­for­nia, ex­plains:

In Novem­ber, be­cause of the drought, of­fi­cials at the state De­part­ment of Wa­ter Re­sources an­nounced that sum­mer wa­ter de­liv­er­ies from the pro­ject would be only 5 per­cent of the amount that the farms and cit­ies who buy wa­ter from the pro­ject have un­der con­tract. By com­par­is­on, the pro­ject al­loc­ated 35 per­cent last year and 65 per­cent in 2012.

But even that proved to be too op­tim­ist­ic.

“Simply put, there’s not enough wa­ter in the sys­tem right now for cus­tom­ers to ex­pect any wa­ter this sea­son from the pro­ject,” said Mark Cow­in, the de­part­ment’s dir­ect­or.

Why is this hap­pen­ing? Met­eor­o­lo­gists say it’s be­cause of per­sist­ent high pres­sure over the re­gion (called in weath­er me­dia the “re­si­li­ent ridge“), which is di­vert­ing storms north­ward to­ward Alaska. It’s the same bit of high pres­sure that has caused the “arc­tic vor­tex” to push south­ward on the east­ern half of the United States. (This video provides a great ex­plain­er of how the two are re­lated.)

(NOAA / NASA) NOAA / NASA

(NOAA / NASA)The res­ult is a bone-dry land­scape. In this map, also from NASA, you can clearly see how in­cred­ibly dry the state is. 

And the frus­trat­ing truth is that there’s little the state can do but con­serve and wait. 

“We can’t make it rain, but we can be much bet­ter pre­pared for the ter­rible con­sequences that Cali­for­nia’s drought now threatens, in­clud­ing dra­mat­ic­ally less wa­ter for our farms and com­munit­ies and in­creased fires in both urb­an and rur­al areas,” Brown said in de­clar­ing the state of emer­gency last month.

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