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The California Drought: “A Stark Warning of Things to Come”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This is what California looked like on January 13 in 2013 and 2014. You’ll notice things have changed.

This image compares January 13, 2013 and January 13, 2014 snow cover as seen by the Suomi NPP satellite’s VIIRS instrument. CREDIT: NASA/NOAA

I live here, so this morning I listened as Governor Jerry Brown delivered his annual State of the State address. He described the drought as cause for long-term concern:

We do not know how much our current problem derives from the build-up of heat-trapping gasses, but we can take this drought as a stark warning of things to come. The United Nations Panel on Climate Change says – with 95 percent confidence – that human beings are changing our climate. This means more droughts and more extreme weather events, and, in California, more forest fires and less snow pack.

I’ve written in the past about how climate scientists cannot pin single weather events on climate change. But what we do know for certain is that it causes more extreme extremes. This means we can expect regions with hot temperatures will get hotter, wet places will get wetter, storms will get more intense, and dry areas will get drier–all around the world.

During the current California drought emergency, we have seen heat records broken and critically low reservoirs. As the governor pointed out this morning, this is no longer an anomaly. Instead, it’s a glimpse into the future.

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In

Sheril Kirshenbaum About the Author: Sheril Kirshenbaum is Director of The Energy Poll at The University of Texas at Austin where she works to enhance public understanding of energy issues and improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Follow on Twitter @Sheril_.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. JPGumby 10:36 am 01/23/2014

    Although the Colorado river drainage has been in a drought for a while now, this is not necessarily true of California or the Sierra Nevada.

    Based on snow fall data collected by Mammoth Mountain starting in 1968(admittedly not necessarily representative of the whole), this is the second driest year through January, falling between 1975 and 1976. (1976 had the lowest total snow fall in this record). On the other hand, 2010 had the highest total over the period, and the trendline for the period has a positive slope of about 3 inches of snow per year.

    Which probably means nothing.

    BTW, since California precipitation is primarily driven by moisture coming in directly from the ocean, the “dry becomes dryer” first order prediction doesn’t really seem to apply, although it does for the Colorado basin, which relies more on re-evaporation.


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  2. 2. Spironis 1:00 pm 01/23/2014

    20 million tonnes of Fukushima flotsam covering the area of Texas are reflecting sunlight back out into space, keeping the eastern Pacific cold. Pacific highs are cooler and denser, pushing the jet stream northward and snuffing the Pineapple Express. This is abetted by cold water from a melting Arctic. We expect California to get essentially no rain for about five years running.

    The California Central Valley is desert growing rice in flooded paddies. It is an astoundingly productive agricultural area now to be denied irrigation. This might be good time to stock your garage with canned goods. The Sierra snow pack is a 2014 no show.

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  3. 3. Crasher 4:08 pm 01/28/2014

    Its not just California….here in Australia we are facing massive extremes. And all this with just .8c change in global averages……what will 4c change bring. I shiver to contemplate!!

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  4. 4. doyougetmesweetheart 5:06 am 02/6/2014

    There is no sensible reason for them to allow this drought to persist when the technology is available to alleviate it. Course, how can they instill panic and jack up the prices of the crops if they alleviate it?

    The solution is called “Cloud Seeding”, my friends, and it has been in existence since about 1950! You can bet yer bottom dollar that they have perfected it in 64 years, too.

    In the wine-growing regions of Germany, they have aircraft on reserve at all times to do just cloud-seeding for rain enhancement so their grape crop goes to a successful harvest every year. They have organizations that collectively support the effort, and it works. They see sense in protecting the crops, like we should.

    When Governor Brown is stating that he can’t make it rain, he is either woefully unaware of a solution for it that’s been around for 64 years, or he is aware of the solution and chooses not to use it. Ain’t that a scary and questionable thought? I don’t know which is worse – that the dude is unaware of cloud-seeding, or he is and refrains from using it to solve the problem. Either way, he ain’t lookin too good.

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