California’s first measure of snowpack for 2018 is coming up well below levels recorded the same time last year. And there are concerns the drier start this winter could send the state back into drought.
The dry times are back.
Drought has returned with a vengeance across much of the U.S., with the worst conditions across southern and western parts of the nation.
As of Thursday, 38.4% of the continental U.S. is in a drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. That is the highest percentage since the 40% recorded in May 2014.
In California, which emerged from a brutal four-year drought last year, 44% of the state is now considered to be in a moderate drought. That’s a dramatic jump from just last week, when the figure was 13%.
Major winter storms have mostly bypassed the West, meaning that much-needed mountain snow has not fallen, said NOAA meteorologist Richard Heim, author of this week’s Drought Monitor. This winter, snow sensors across the Sierra Nevada show the snowpack is just 30% of average for this time of year.
The Sierra provides water to millions of Californians. “It’s not nearly where we’d like to be,” Frank Gehrke, a state official, said after measuring winter snowfall in the Sierra on Thursday.
Extremely warm weather is causing most of the precipitation to fall as rain instead of snow. “This will have major ramifications for western water managers if they don’t get some major winter storms soon,” Heim said.
Whether California heads into another drought cycle will depend largely on how much rain and snow falls during February and March.
Further east, the amount of snow on the ground is also far below average across the Colorado River Basin, where a 17-year run of mostly dry years has left reservoirs at alarmingly low levels.
“Mountain snowpack was abysmally low, reaching record low levels for this time of year in parts of New Mexico and Colorado,” Heim wrote in the monitor this week.
Climate scientists and managers of water agencies describe the situation as a “snow drought,” driven in part by winter temperatures that are well above the long-term average.
The southern Plains has also been bone-dry, where some spots haven’t seen a drop of rain in months. In Amarillo, Texas, for example, no measurable precipitation has fallen for a record 111 days.
“Some areas are having impacts similar to the 2012 drought,” said Heim, who added that agricultural interests are seeing the worst impacts now.
In Oklahoma, pasture conditions were generally poor and deteriorating and 79% of the winter wheat crop was rated in poor to very poor condition, the Drought Monitor said.
Looking ahead, drought is expected to either persist or intensify over the next several months, the Climate Prediction Center said.
“The general trend of increasing drought coverage should continue through the end of April, as most areas of drought are expected to persist, along with development forecast in parts of southern California, central Colorado, and the southern Plains,” the center said.
The lack of rain across the southern tier of the nation is typical during a La Niña winter, which is currently in effect. La Niña is a periodic natural cooling of the central Pacific Ocean that affects weather and climate in the U.S. and around the world.
Overall, some 87 million Americans are living where there’s a drought. That is the highest number since last March, when over 89 million lived in drought conditions.
Another ominous sign: There have been over 3,200 wildfires so far this year, which have charred some 71,000 acres, the National Interagency Fire Center said. Both of those numbers are far above average and among the highest in the past decade.
As of early February, based on the average of the past 10 years, 1,800 fires would have occurred, scorching 39,000 acres.
Contributing: Ian James, The Desert Sun (Palm Springs, Calif.); The Associated Press.
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