California’s great winter weather and water emergency due to Polar Vortex and Climate Change

California Gov. Jerry Brown recently declared California to be in a state of Water Emergency.  Why?  We are having great weather this “winter” with clear skies and warm temperatures – looking out the front window of the house where we live, and it looks summer.  Normally California gets a lot of rain in the winter, the rain being snowfall when it gets to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the snowpack takes all year to melt, giving us plenty of water during the summer even though there isn’t any rain.

Because of the great weather, we’re not getting the rain/snow we need to make it through the summer, and now it’s thought many rural areas of California will simply run out of water before within a few weeks.  According to a Huffington Post report, lots of farmers are thinking to skip planting anything this year, because they won’t be able to afford water to irrigate any crops.  California supplies about 15% of America’s crop sales.

In other words, this isn’t just a problem in California, this problem will affect the whole of the United States.  Food prices will spike this year, because we in California are having great weather this winter.

The Huffington Post report linked above may be over-the-top in presenting this as a scary situation.  But, it’s a problem that has been simmering for a long time, it just took a dry winter to make it an actual problem.

During the 2014 State of the Union Address earlier this week, President Obama gave a shout-out to the water crisis in California as part of the proof that Climate Change is a Fact.

What’s happening is the way The Polar Vortex is affecting California.  Unlike the shivering cold affecting the rest of the U.S. the Vortex is giving California the great weather I see through my front window.

The image to the right is a simplified schematic.  The purple line is the air flow that normally blasts California directly from the ocean, but as you see here the flow is taking a long detour up to the Arctic before plunging down into the great plains.

Normally we’re not supposed to look at any one weather event and say “That is Climate Change” but in this case we might be able to do so.  This is a change in weather patterns, that is very different than the weather pattern California normally has.

Here’s another image (cribbed from the Huffington Post item linked above) that illustrates the problem.  It shows 2009 and 2014 at the same sign on the same mountain, but in 2009 there was so much snow the sign was nearly covered while in 2014 there’s almost no snow.

That lack of snow is our water shortage, right there.

However real this is, there have been year-to-year variations in snowfall.  I don’t have much experience with that specific mountain, but I did formerly go to Mount Shasta every summer.  In some July’s the campground at Panther Meadow’s (7200 foot altitude) still had 8 feet of snowpack, while in other July’s the snowline started at about 9-10,000 feet altitude.  Yes, 8 feet of snow pack in July – it’s pretty wild to be walking on snow that deep in the middle of the summer.

The point of talking about snow on Mt. Shasta over 10 years ago is to illustrate that this sort of snowfall variation is not that uncommon, in California.

What’s uncommon is for the Governor to declare a state of Emergency.  And it’s uncommon to learn that a couple dozen cities in California are going to run out of water in a matter of weeks.

This is now the 3rd or 4th year in a row of low snowfall in California.

Another image, showing snow coverage on Jan 18, 2013 and Jan 18, 2014

Last year, 2013, was the driest year ever recorded in California

The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat ran a piece going over water levels in their local reservoir.  It includes a photo gallery showing just how little water remains in Lake Pillsbury.  Normally lakes like this fill up during the Winter, and then water is released during the summer.

I could note that one thing which may exacerbate this sort of situation is poor management by water districts.  They might, thinking there will be a wet winter, release much of the water from the reservoir thinking it will just fill up during the winter.  But if the winter turns out to be dry, they’re left with an empty reservoir.

Unfortunately, while the Obama Administration has done so much good in environmental matters, they’re also overseeing a huge expansion of fossil fuel exploration, extraction and consumption in the U.S.  On the one hand they’re helping us make great environmental gains, but on the other are destroying those gains by helping the oil companies ravage the environment.

I should be enjoying the great weather we’re having, but every day I shake my head and grumble that this weather is completely wrong.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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