While so much hope is pinned on El Nino relieving California's drought in early 2016, climatologists suggest tempering that optimism a little as what is really needed is snow. "Since it has been dry for so long, people get excited,” says one hydrologist, but, as Bloomberg reports, without snow "the notion of fully recovering from the drought is extremely unlikely,” as if the storms come in as rain, or the mountain snow can’t pile up high enough, a lot of water will be lost.
California is in its fourth year of drought and almost the entire state is abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Improvement is possible. However, the drought will certainly go into a fifth year, according to the forecast from the U.S. Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland. As Bloomberg reports,
The drought relief for California widely expected from El Nino in early 2016 will be far more effective if a chill descends soon -- ideally with a bit of snow.
“If we can get some snow on the ground and some cold nights, it will set up the snowpack and get cool air pooling,” said California State Climatologist Mike Anderson.
Cool air, especially at high altitudes, will help ensure snow falls and stays on the ground in the mountains through the winter, as needed to supply the state’s reservoirs. While that may seem like a non-issue given the height of the mountains and the tradition of heavy snows there, recent years have seen some worrisome trends.
During the winter of 2014-15, the three-month average temperature in the Sierra region topped the freezing mark of 32 degrees Fahrenheit (zero Celsius) for the first time in records dating to 1950, data compiled by Anderson show.
California as a whole posted its warmest February on record and both December and January came in among the top 10, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, North Carolina.
Here is why all of this is important: If El Nino delivers the promised increase in big, wet storms off the Pacific from January to March, California needs a lot of what falls from those systems to be snow.
Snow in the mountains stays there until spring, when it melts, runs off and replenishes the state’s reservoirs. If the storms come in as rain, or the mountain snow can’t pile up high enough, a lot of water will be lost.
So far, the snow in the mountains hasn’t exactly been impressive, and perceptions may have outstripped reality.
“Since it has been dry for so long, people get excited,” said Rob Hartman, hydrologist in charge of the California Nevada River Forecast Center in Sacramento. “We have had some small storms that left a sprinkle of snow in the mountains. We are still waiting for winter to arrive. We are not ahead of schedule by any means.”
But there is some hope...
“The notion of fully recovering from the drought is extremely unlikely,” Hartman said. “But you have to start somewhere.”
That start begins with a little cool air coming in with the next storm. Checking a forecast last week, Anderson said some outlooks were calling for temperatures to reach freezing and below as far down the mountains as 3,000 feet.
“Those are good signs,” he said.