California Experiencing Driest Year on Record, Epic Drought to Persist or Intensify Through Summer, Godzilla El Nino Waits in the Wings

8.83 inches. That’s the total average precipitation accumulation for the state of California so far for the first four months of this year. Out of the entire climate record, this paltry accumulation is less than that received during any similar period of any year since 1895.

Overall, rainfall totals throughout the state remained below 26 percent of typical levels for this time of year. And with California entering its third year of drought, the state would have to receive an average of 53 inches between now and October, more than 10 inches of rainfall each month, to break the current and very extreme ongoing drought.

May 6 drought monitor

(Drought monitor color graphic of California drought as of May 6. Tan = moderate drought. Orange = severe drought. Red = extreme drought. Dark Red = exceptional drought. Image source: Drought Monitor.)

As of late April, the drought had expanded to cover every corner of the state leaving not an inch of this critical agricultural region untouched. Drought continued to intensify, bringing with it water stress, cracked soil, crashing reservoirs and heavy strains to farms, businesses, cities and individuals. By May 6, fully 77 percent of California stifled under severe or extreme drought conditions.

The drought has become so severe that water-strapped cities like Santa Cruz have resorted to the most dire measures, including rationing, to husband dwindling water supplies. Last week, the city, which depends on some of the most vulnerable and thinly-stretched water resources in the state, announced a number of severe fines to water consumers exceeding assigned usage levels. The fines could quickly double, triple, or even quadruple water costs for any non-farm water consumer within the city.

Across the State, various desperate water conservation regimes have been put in place with the Federal Government announcing earlier this year that it would be forced to stop water allocations to farmers in an unprecedented move to stave off further declines in stores.

US Seasonal Drought Outlook

(US Seasonal Drought Outlook. Image source: CPC.)

Unfortunately, the persistent high pressure blocking pattern off the US West Coast, which has hovered in the same region for more than a year, remains in place even as it continues to deflect rain-bearing storms north toward the Washington and Canadian coasts.

This pattern — arising from a set of abnormal atmospheric conditions including added heating through human-caused warming and a Jet Stream that has the tendency to become stuck more and more often as sea ice erodes — results in a high likelihood that drought will remain or intensify for California and much of the US Southwest throughout this summer.

Climate Prediction Center analysis, shown above, projects that the current California drought will persist or worsen for the entire state through at least July 31rst. If relief does come, it will arrive many months from now. For the most likely chance for a change in the weather doesn’t appear until fall and winter of 2014. And this potential brings with it the risk for a radical switch to yet another damaging climate extreme.

Hoping For El Nino is Like Praying to Godzilla

Yesterday’s report from NOAA indicating a near 80 percent chance of El Nino by the end of this year provided some hope for additional rainfall after what is expected to be a very dry and difficult summer. But given current atmospheric conditions, the El Nino event would have to be in the moderate-to-strong range to both overcome what is a demonically persistent blocking pattern and to deliver enough moisture to make up the severe rainfall deficit. Anything less would be too weak to cure the current drought. But something stronger may well kill the patient.

Unfortunately, there remains a substantial risk that the 2014-2015 El Nino event could be a Godzilla of a thing — a monstrous outburst of the extreme ocean heat storage of the past 16 years that Dr. Kevin Trenberth has warned could well come back to haunt us. A record high ocean heat content that is out there, lurking in the Pacific Ocean even now. And it’s the potential that this heat will hit the surface with a severity rivaling or even exceeding the epic 1998 event that should well be cause for a different kind of concern.


(Ocean heat content through 2013. Image source: Reanalysis of Global Ocean Heat Content.)

In such an instance, the onrush of heavy rains would be less a relief and more a switch from extreme drought to extreme flood. During the 1998 event more than 20 California counties were declared disaster areas due to the sudden deluge. But with human warming amping up the hydrological cycle by more than 6% and with such a large and vicious store of ocean heat waiting to be released, a severe El Nino at this stage might look more like an Arkstorm — an event which could dump many feet of rain over a period of weeks.

On the other hand, if the El Nino fizzles into only a minor event and that massive ocean heat store decides to lay in wait for another year or two or three, California is much more likely to remain locked in a continued multi-year dry pattern. So the best California could hope for is to thread an El Nino needle and receive a just-right moderate to strong El Nino. But with the current climate regime favoring extremes, the possibility for such a just-right occurrence is quite a bit lower than either the Godzilla or the fizzle.

In any case, both added heat and dryness are set to intensify over coming years and decades for California. This ongoing ratcheting is the direct result of human-caused climate change. A result that will either be bad or terrible depending on whether or not we decide to rapidly reduce and eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions.


Climate Outlook for Central California

Drought Monitor


Santa Cruz Rations Water

Farmers to Receive No Central Valley Water This Year From Feds

Dangerous Progress Toward Strong El Nino Continues

Reanalysis of Global Ocean Heat Content


Leave a comment


  1. Colorado Bob

     /  May 9, 2014

    El Nino-Induced Droughts May Hike Coffee Prices Further

    The upcoming El Niño threatens to drive coffee prices up further, which are already high due to drought in Brazil and as a fungus plagues coffee crops in Central America.



  2. Colorado Bob

     /  May 9, 2014

    Drought prompts irrigation water cuts in Northern Nevada

    FALLON — The drought is prompting the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District to cut water allotments to Fallon-area farmers.

    The district board plans to vote at a special meeting Tuesday on a plan to drop the water allotment to 45 percent, with a cutoff date of July 15.


  3. Colorado Bob

     /  May 9, 2014

    Little help for a million Californians on wells in historic drought

    (Reuters) – Michael Holmes got by at his rural home near California’s rugged northern coast on a disability pension and water from a decades-old well — until the well dried up.

    Holmes, 65, is among an estimated million Californians who rely on private wells, many now threatened by the state’s historic dry spell and with no direct access to a multi-million dollar state drought relief program.


  4. Colorado Bob

     /  May 9, 2014

    This Weekend Watch Schwarzenegger Fight Wildfires, Or GOP Pol Make On-Air Climate Science Conversion

    James Cameron’s acclaimed docu-series, “Years of Living Dangerously” is essentially the U.S. National Climate Assessment in living color. Now, Showtime is making “Years” available for free this weekend.
    I’ve heard plenty of concerns from folks who watched the first episode online but have been wondering what to do since you don’t subscribe to Showtime. You haven’t been able to see Episode 2, in which Harrison Ford actually gets action from corporations and even the Indonesian government on the illegal deforestation seen in Episode 1. Nor have you seen former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger join a Colorado Hotshots wildfire fighting team and learn about how climate change is making wildfires worse. This is an especially timely story given the record drought and early start to the wildfire season in California this year.
    The good news is that this weekend — May 9-11 — Showtime is making all its programming, including “Years of Living Dangerously,” available for free to 74 million homes that get cable, which is to say most of the country. And most of those homes will be able to watch all of the first four episodes.


  5. rayduray

     /  May 11, 2014


    I originally put this together for the Crock of the Week blog, but it seems germane here to this El Nino discussion….

    OK, so in the real world, what does a big El Nino year mean for the U.S. Southwest? Generally, very good news, water-wise. Not counting the landslides and flash floods, accidental deaths, bridge washouts and other headline grabbers.

    Here’s where to look at the historical record:

    Start here:

    The important measure is “Inflow(CFS)”, essentially the inflow to Lake Powell and the lower Colorado River, currently serving about 30 million people. The Lake is low, by the way and could use some inflow.

    Scroll to the bottom of the page and click “Search DB for more Water Data Facts” | Select “Averages By Year” from the drop-down menu. You should see this:

    And a listing of average yearly river data, including Inflow in CFS. This is the comparable we’re interested in.

    In 2013, the Average Inflow in CFS was 7794.37 cfs
    In 2012, the Average Inflow in CFS was 7048.56 cfs

    Last big El Nino looked like this:

    In 1998, the Average Inflow in CFS was 18271.14 cfs
    In 1997, the Average Inflow in CFS was 23755.15 cfs

    But the really big flows were in the previous decade:

    In 1984 the Average Inflow in CFS was 30333.58 cfs
    In 1983 the Average Inflow in CFS was 28695.53 cfs

    So looking at these pairs as couplets, what we can see is that in 83-4 the inflow into Lake Powell was over 400% great than in the most recent two years (2012-3) on the Colorado. (the 97-8 inflow was 300% greater than the last two years.)

    Looked at this way, a major El Nino event seems to be something to look forward to rather than to dread. 🙂


  6. Well you could decide to look at the potential for one multi-billion dollar weather disaster (major floods) on top of another (major drought) as positive. In my view, the potential water recharge which under current climate states is almost certain to be followed by more drought is just a silver lining to the extreme weather flip.



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