California Drought

The warm and dry January 2014 out west has come to an end! We have been writing about the California drought for weeks, and more proof of the worsening situation can be seen looking back on last month.

The National Weather Service forecast office in Sacramento, California posted an interesting bulletin with records and other significant notes from the region in January 2014 and the wet season so far. Some of the records are staggering, including the all-time record high temperature for January of 79°F on January 24, 2014 which shattered the old record of 74°F from January 31, 1976. In addition, Sacramento was dry for 52 consecutive days from December to January, and the old record was only 44 days (the old record also included much of November, which is typically not the height of the wet season like December and January).

Record high temperatures and record dry periods have been observed in other areas of California and the west as well. At this point, a very wet February, March, and April would be the only chance of “catching up” to average precipitation amounts for the season. Looking into the future at long-range weather forecasts, we are not able to invest much confidence in this occurring because the stubborn blocking pattern has been so dominant in steering Pacific storms well north of California. There are not indications that drought improvement is around the corner. However, any Pacific moisture is better than none at all, and we will be grateful for whatever we can get the remainder of the season.

Here is the bulletin from the National Weather Service:

Colby fire expected to be fully contained today: Authorities were on high alert due to severe drought

Firefighters in the Los Angeles area had their hands full after a fire broke out last week in the hills above Glendora, California. The Colby Fire began after 3 men lit an illegal campfire last week, and the blaze was quickly fanned by Santa Ana Winds. Authorities were on high alert due to the severe drought, and currently the fire is expected to be fully contained today.

The incredibly dry chaparral and other vegetation in the region is extremely prone to burning, and drought relief is nowhere in the near-term forecast. Until a Pacific winter storm finally rolls into Southern California, fire danger will remain very high. Most areas have not seen a drop of rain since the beginning or middle of December. Typically, January is one of the wettest months in California, and crucial for replenishing the water supply.

Based on the stubborn ridge of high pressure over the west coast that has dominated the weather pattern this winter, it would be a surprise to see a drastic shift anytime soon. Still, We are crossing our fingers for a very wet Spring in California. Otherwise, water concerns will continue to grow as this dangerous situation continues to develop.



California Drought

“The west coast will see some desperately needed rainfall this week, but it could take several wet years in a row to ultimately bust the drought that has plagued California and other areas of the west. And odd trend at the end of the article shows that 2 of the past 10 Decembers following a dry October and November in San Francisco have been exceptionally wet. We’ll certainly hope for one of those wet Decembers in 2013 for both Northern and Southern California.”

This map shows the percent of average precipitation in California since January 1, 2013. There are a few isolated wet spots in the deserts (likely due to some locally heavy monsoonal thunderstorms during the summer), but the vast majority of the state has seen below 50% of normal precipitation. Much of the central coast has seen below 25% of normal precipitation. This can translate to a deficit of 10-20 inches of rainfall.

California’s Top 15 Weather Events of the 1900’s

I came across this list on the Western Regional Climate Center’s (WRCC) page ( and felt it was worth sharing. The National Weather Service offices in California (not sure exactly which ones) assembled the list based on impacts to people, property, and the economy. I was born in 1988 and alive for 5 of the Top 15 events, but that isn’t necessarily an indication of worsening weather in the state, or higher frequency of disasters. As the decade progressed, awareness and monitoring of extreme weather situations grew in the state of California and around the United States. Meteorological events were better documented and researched (more technology and resources were available) in the late-1900’s than the early and mid-1900’s.

Below is the list. Use the link above to read more about each event on the WRCC page. There are similar lists made for a few other western states as well.

  • 1. 1982-83 El Nino Storms
  • 2. 1975-1977 Drought
  • 3. October 1991 Oakland Tunnel (East Bay Hills) Fire
  • 4. January 1913 Freeze
  • 5. 1997 New Year’s Flood
  • 6. March 1964 Tsunami-Induced Flooding
  • 7. October 1993 Firestorms
  • 8. March 1907 and January 1909 Floods
  • 9. December 1977 Southern San Joaquin Valley Wind/Dust Storm
  • 10. 1969 Winter Storms and Floods
  • 11. December 1990 Freeze
  • 12. December 1955 Winter Storms
  • 13. 1995 Winter Storms
  • 14. November 1961 Bel Air Fire
  • 15. September 1939 Tropical Storm

One observation that immediately comes to mind as I glance at this list is that most of the events revolve directly or indirectly around temperature and/or precipitation extremes. For example, an indirect effect of exceptionally dry conditions would be making vegetation much more susceptible to a catastrophic wildfire. While severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hurricanes receive more attention in the mainstream media, flooding and heat/drought are equally powerful, and are just as (if not more) life-threatening. So if you thought California was immune to “bad,” or dangerous weather… think again.

Hillside homes burning to the ground during the Oakland Firestorm of 1991.

Homes almost completely submerged in the Sacramento area during the Winter 1995 floods.

Stephen Bone