Exceptional Drought Blankets 58 Percent of California; Reservoirs Missing One Year’s Worth of Water

For California, the punishment just won’t stop.

Human warming and a climate change induced blocking pattern have withered California under record drought conditions for the better part of three years now. A vicious trend that worsened again in recent days with yet another jump in drought severity as exceptional drought conditions surged to cover a majority of the state.

Previous week’s values of 36 percent exceptional drought coverage rocketed to 58 percent in just one week. Exceptional drought is the highest drought category for the US Drought Monitor, representing the most extreme conditions in the measure. So most of the state is now sweltering under the nation’s worst drought category with the remainder covered by extreme and severe drought:

California Drought July 29

(US Drought Monitor map of California showing 58 percent of the state covered in exceptional drought [brick red], 23 percent covered in extreme drought [red], and the rest covered in severe drought [orange]. California is now entering its fourth month of 100% drought coverage after more than three years of abnormally dry conditions.)

One hundred percent drought coverage with worsening conditions has been the prevailing pattern ever since May when drought first surged to blanket the entire state. Since that time, conditions have been steadily worsening with agricultural regions drying out, farmers, communities and industries forced to further deplete limited ground water supplies, and with reservoirs dropping despite best efforts by federal and state officials to conserve.

As a result, state supplies are being hammered. For, according to a report released today by the National Drought Mitigation Center, the state is “short more than one year’s worth of reservoir water, or 11.6 million acre-feet, for this time of year.” In other words, if a year’s worth of rain fell over the state tomorrow, it would barely be enough to bring reservoir levels back to normal.

So far, drought effects have been mitigated, mostly through the above-mentioned reliance on ground water supplies. But it remains questionable how long such activities can continue. And despite even these efforts thousands of agricultural workers have been laid off amidst a 2 billion dollar loss for the state’s food industry.

As ground water and reservoir levels continue to drop, officials have grown more anxious to enforce conservation measures. To this point, fines in excess of 500 dollars have been levied for residents hosing sidewalks and driveways, for excessively watering their lawns, or for other water intensive practices. To this end, many municipalities have hired ‘water police’ to patrol neighborhoods and enforce water conservation measures.

Climate Change and A Mangled Jet Stream

Recent scientific studies have made a strong link between the historic California drought and ongoing changes to Earth’s climate resulting from human greenhouse gas emissions. Many of these changes involve heat-driven alterations to Earth’s atmospheric circulation. For as the Earth warms, it does so unevenly. In regions near the pole, and especially above 60 North, temperatures have risen by, on average, about 0.5 degrees Celsius per decade since the 1980s. This heating has pulled the Jet Stream along with prevailing weather patterns northward.

Sierra Nevada No Snow July 25

(A Sierra Nevada mountain range featuring glaciers turned brown and sweltering under temperatures as high as 70 degrees on July 25, 2014. For 2013 to 2014, the Sierra Nevadas have been mostly devoid of the reservoir-restoring snows that California typically relies upon. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

This more rapid heating of the far north has also resulted in a reduction of the north-south temperature differential. In the past, a high difference in temperature from north to south helped drive a prevailing wind pattern called the Jet Stream which kept weather systems moving across the Northern Hemisphere. But as the difference between north and south temperatures dropped, weather systems tended to stall. High amplitude waves tended to form in the Jet Stream and blocking patterns tended to emerge more often.

For California, the upshot has been the increasing prevalence of a ridge and blocking high pressure system deflecting storms away from the California coast. The pattern, which began to take hold three years ago, has been an almost constant feature for the past 16 months. And the result has been one of the worst droughts California has ever seen.

In May, a new scientific study linked the anomalous blocking pattern, the California Drought and human caused climate change stating:

The 2013–2014 California drought was initiated by an anomalous high-amplitude ridge system. The anomalous ridge was investigated using reanalysis data and the Community Earth System Model (CESM). It was found that the ridge emerged from continual sources of Rossby wave energy in the western North Pacific starting in late summer and subsequently intensified into winter. The ridge generated a surge of wave energy downwind and deepened further the trough over the northeast U.S., forming a dipole. The dipole and associated circulation pattern is not linked directly with either El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) or Pacific Decadal Oscillation; instead, it is correlated with a type of ENSO precursor. The connection between the dipole and ENSO precursor has become stronger since the 1970s, and this is attributed to increased greenhouse gas loading as simulated by the CESM. (emphasis added)

This climate change induced blocking pattern has also been associated with numerous warm air invasions of the Northern Hemisphere polar region, the most recent of which occurred yesterday.

Models Show Worsening Drought Conditions Under Human-Caused Climate Change

Unfortunately for California, the US Southwest, and for a growing portion of the country, the most recent drought may be just one in a string of many increasingly worsening events to come. Climate models predict a wholesale drying out of the US Southwest and Central US under an intensifying regime that has already begun to take hold. By mid-century conditions are expected to be quite extreme indeed:

Advance of drought

(NCAR model study of global precipitation under moderate warming throughout the 21st Century. The scale is based on the Palmer Drought Severity index with values of -4 and lower at exceptional drought. Under this model run, most of the US is blanketed by exceptional drought conditions. Overall, drought is expected to originate in the south and central US and then expand north and eastward as human caused warming intensifies.)

For Californians suffering under a three year long drought, such long-range forecasts indicate that the worst may be yet to come. For the short-to-middle-term, the west coast blocking pattern remains in place and shows little sign of movement. For the long-term, unless human greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly reduced, droughts of this intensity grow more and more likely.

But Californians are not alone, as model predictions show most of the US coming under an increasing regime of drought as human-caused warming intensifies throughout the 21st Century. Drought emerging now in the US Southwest is expected to expand north and eastward, eventually taking root and reaching an extreme intensity in the Central US. The front of drought then rides into the US Southeast and Mid-Atlantic as, by mid-to-late century, it surges northward into Canada.

The lesson to take from this is that few in the US are spared a fate of worsening drought spurred by human-caused climate change. And with climate change clearly linked to the California drought, we may be getting a bit of the bitter taste of what’s still to come.

UPDATE: US Drought Monitor now reports that the California Drought is now the worst in state history and that soil moisture levels are nearing zero for much of the state.


California Drought Crisis Reaches Worst Level As it Spreads North

US Drought Monitor

National Drought Mitigation Center

Probable Causes of the Abnormal Ridge Accompanying the 2013-2014 California Drought



Jet Stream So Weak Winds are Running From Pacific to Atlantic Across the North Pole




Leave a comment


  1. The Golden State is turning brown. Born and raised there, I feel for my fellow Californians. They should, however, anticipate that this mega-drought will be lengthy if not permanent. That means its current industrial-scale agricultural practices are probably unsustainable. People must give up their lawns and implement landscaping techniques better suited to changing climatic conditions. And, despite California’s significant progress on developing clean renewable energy alternatives, much more needs to be done at a faster pace. It would also behoove them to ramp-up their desalination efforts.

  2. Scooped and reblogged. Thank you.

  3. More info on the Siberian craters:

    “Air near the bottom of the crater contained unusually high concentrations of methane — up to 9.6% — in tests conducted at the site on 16 July, says Andrei Plekhanov, an archaeologist at the Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard, Russia. Plekhanov, who led an expedition to the crater, says that air normally contains just 0.000179% methane.

    Plekhanov and his team believe that it is linked to the abnormally hot Yamal summers of 2012 and 2013, which were warmer than usual by an average of about 5°C. As temperatures rose, the researchers suggest, permafrost thawed and collapsed, releasing methane that had been trapped in the icy ground.

    Other researchers argue that long-term global warming might be to blame — and that a slow and steady thaw in the region could have been enough to free a burst of methane and create such a big crater.

    Larry Hinzman, a permafrost hydrologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and director of the International Arctic Research Center, says that such craters could become more common in permafrost areas as the region heats up”

    “Leibman stressed that there were no indications that such events were more than the normal process of lake formation in the area and predicted that the hole she inspected would end up being a lake in coming years.

    She also stressed that she sees no signs of current or imminent warming producing a great destabilization of permafrost in the Arctic: “You can’t say in 20 years it will be 2 degrees warmer so permafrost will be thawing. It will make it 2 degrees warmer, but not thawing – at least in the far north.

    “In the south, where you have only patches of permafrost, the response may be a little bit more active,” she said. “But what we see now is permafrost with minus 1 degree temperature [Celsius] now — after a climate warming of 1 and a half degrees — permafrost temperature is minus 0.1 degree, but not above zero.”

    “My personal opinion is it’s some type of sinkhole,” said Vladimir Romanovsky, a geophysicist who studies permafrost at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Sinkholes are pits in the ground formed when water fails to drain away.

    The water likely came from melting permafrost or ice, said Romanovsky, who has spoken with the Russian scientists investigating the site. But whereas most sinkholes suck collapsed material inside, “this one actually erupted outside,” he told Live Science. “It’s not even in the [scientific] literature. It’s pretty new what we’re dealing with,” he added.

    …This part of Siberia contains deep gas fields, and it also contains a lot of small lakes, which formed between 4,000 and 10,000 years ago when the climate was warmer, Romanovsky said. Perhaps these odd holes developed in the same way that sinkholes did, but later expanded.”

    The development of permafrost sinkholes could be one indication of global warming, Romanovsky. “If so, we will probably see this happen more often now.”

    • Thanks for this.

      Just so everyone knows, 9 percent concentration of methane in air is extraordinarily high as well as flammable.

      Smoking gun indeed!

  4. Griffin

     /  August 1, 2014

    It is incredibly sad for me to look at the MODIS shots of Northern CA and see Lake Oroville looking more like a canyon than lake. The dam that forms the lake is the largest earthen dam in the USA. One mile across and 770 ft tall. When I was there in 1997 the water was lapping at the emergency spillway as the reservoir was doing its best to hold back the flooding of a Pineapple Express and spare the valley below from broken levee’s and flooded farmland. It seems a world away now. As does so much of our our innocence in regards to the power of our climate.

    • I see multiple lows forming along the equatorial Pacific. Seasonal, but still a relatively decent signal that *might* nudge El Niño along. Then we have some cooler water just below the surface, part of a negative Kelvin wave. Models keep a gaggle of highs off the west coast. Looking like not such great prospects for rain.

    • Bernard

       /  August 1, 2014

      Had to Google that. Wow.

      Above Lake Oroville

  5. Griffin

     /  August 1, 2014

    Robert, I assume you have seen this but I wasn’t sure so I wanted to post this link. I seem to recall you writing about the effects of wave action upon the ice. This is nothing short of remarkable.

    • It’s good to see this getting broader coverage. There were a number of studies that came out RE large waves forming over open water areas during 2012 and the record losses seen then. We had very large waves measured during the Great Arctic Cyclone in early August of that year. Wrote extensively about it here then and asserted that waves, increased distance for fetch and the increasing potential for summer storms in the Arctic was likely to result in greater late season losses during the years these storms emerged.

      It would probably do to write a comprehensive piece on the expanded findings over the past two years. The weather gang does a good job, though, and I’m glad to see them reporting on it.

      Regarding large areas where open water could propagate large waves… I’m betting the Laptev is seeing some rather significant surf this year in that huge and growing region of open water. Winds have been consistently out of the south there and the ice border to the north has rapidly receded over the past week.

      The Beaufort also appears vulnerable to swells due to very diffuse ice in the region north of Barrow. We have southerly winds coming out of the Bering and Pacific and entering that region. A daisy chain of moderate strength lows as well.

      This is the time of year that strong storms can have a major impact on sea ice. And the atmospheric loading is certainly there. So we’ll need to keep an eye out.

      Thanks for this Griff, I’ve seen these reports circulating but didn’t notice the one from the weather gang.

      • Griffin

         /  August 1, 2014

        I guess we could hope for a the silver lining in the cloud. Maybe somewhere on some nameless point up north there is a young lad who finally see’s his dreams come true. A perfect left peeling off the point as if he has been suddenly transplanted to a place far away for which he never had the money to reach. It is is here now, all he has to do is paddle out and live in the moment, thankful for what the sea has given him. Regardless of the deeper consequences…

        • I hope he enjoys the ice cream headaches while the cold water lasts 😉

          He might well be sitting on the shires of the ESS tonight. It’s 82 F on the Arctic Ocean there now. In the waters 80 mikes offshore it’s a balmy 42 F.

          Large tongue of heat entering that region now.

        • Interesting conditions. We have 25 mph winds with higher gusts pushing ice out the Fram Strait at the moment.

  6. wili

     /  August 1, 2014

    Just to point out, the extra-dry area that develops in the middle of North America in the last series of maps that RS presents above is centered around the Nebraska Sandhills. These are remnants of a vast Sahara-like desert that stretched across much of what is now the high plains…only a few centuries ago. In his excellent book, ‘Six Degrees,’ Mark Lynas points out that this is likely to revert to its previous state with only one degree of warming, which we are nearly at now. I don’t think we’ll need to wait till 2030 to see this transition starting to happen in earnest.

    • Good points, wili. For those who haven’t read it, Six Degrees is a fantastic book.

      • Mark from New England

         /  August 1, 2014

        I’ll second that. Though written 5+ years ago, it’s still current in terms of understanding likely long term impacts.

      • Mark from New England

         /  August 1, 2014

        What’s scary though is his conclusion that a rise of as much as 6 C would basically fry civilization out of existence, with catastrophic impacts to the biosphere. Given that we’re not far from being locked into that degree of warming long-term (Robert, did you say that in about 20 yrs we may cross this point of ESS impact?) – the book is scary, especially now that climate sensitivity is thought to be higher than previously estimated.

        • At 20 years we hit 445 to 460 ppm CO2 and 540 to 560 ppm CO2e. This puts us solidly in the range of 4-7 C warming long term and 2-3.5 C warming this century.

          So the question is, if we reach that point, can we rapidly draw down atmospheric ghg levels?

          My view is that human civilization has problems now at +0.85 C. I don’t think we realize how bad 6 C looks from here. There are many things we take for granted.

          As for climate sensitivity… My bet is there will be a larger scientific epiphany about ESS at 6 C per doubling soon. ECS is an artificial measure that includes an incomplete data set. Hansen was dead on the money about this.

  7. California is my home state and it’s really hitting me in the gut, seeing her dying like this. And yet we’re still talking about lawns.

    • I think they would have stopped lawn watering last year, or the year before. Not really essential.

    • Spike

       /  August 1, 2014

      Remember Steven Chu’s words in early 2009?

      “I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen,” Chu told the newspaper. “We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.
      “I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going,” he added.

      And he was talking about the end of the century. Might have been a tad optimistic.

      • Huge stress to all southwest cities. They face existential crisis.

      • Mark from New England

         /  August 1, 2014

        And how ironic that many of the citizens of these southwestern border states who are so angry about the refugee children from Central America ‘invading’ our country may become climate refugees themselves (or their children at the very least) starting in perhaps 15+ years as the large cities of the SW become uninhabitable for their current populations.

      • Mark from New England

         /  August 1, 2014

        Robert, that day may come! We may have to sneak into Canada via sea kayak.

      • Jacob

         /  August 1, 2014

        At some unknown point in the future, perhaps distant or perhaps not so distant, when it all truly hits the fan, what’s to stop the US from removing/ignoring the current border with Canada?

      • Jacob

         /  August 1, 2014

        “Ah, yeah. Then there’s the abject land grab to consider.”

        Yes sir — and apologies for straying off topic in this and my previous post. Just meant to say that, as blind as I am, I can see the possibility of the rules/standards of the future (as far as how nations/people conduct themselves) being different from the rules/standards we hold ourselves to at present (or perceive ourselves to hold to).

        • No worries if we stray a bit off topic. I tend to consider article comments an open forum for all things climate related. Although comments RE the California drought are certainly appreciated.

          I’d like to see us avoiding the ugly conflicts that can come from large-scale loss of productive land. I often wonder if we are mature enough to avoid it. We certainly haven’t been mature enough to actively mitigate climate change thus far.

      • Spike

         /  August 1, 2014

        Interesting that Jason Box’s interview touches on the topic.

        Box, who hails from Colorado, relocated to Denmark in part to escape the impending impacts of climate change. “Droughts are going to be a problem for the interior states,” he said. “I’m a bit of climate refugee.”

        Also some frank Anglo-Saxon comments about Arctic carbon release!

        • He uses some of my unique satellite image captures. I think he’s a lurker here 😉

          Fantastic work he’s doing. I really enjoyed his Maher interview.

  8. wharf rat

     /  August 1, 2014

    Thanks for all your work

    I’m in Mendocino Co, third from the top on the coast.; sorta on the cusp of the Pacific NW, knock on wood. We had dry lightening in the area early Wed morning. One resulting fire has now grown to 650 acres, 5% contained.

    Somebody in town heard it was within 2 miles of the Nature Conservancy Angelo Coast Reserve, which has the state’s largest virgin Douglas-fir forest community, and, In recognition of the water’s purity, a USGS Benchmark Hydrological Station on Elder Creek, one of 57 benchmark stations in the country. It’s also a field research station for Cal.

    Summer lightening seems to be getting more common. The biggest event was in ’08, with over 3500 fires in the state.
    Our share was 129 fires.

    • Thanks for the context.

      Saw the record lightning strikes for the day in California. Lots of rain storms trying to form but being dried out by the withering air mass now in place.

  9. Apneaman

     /  August 1, 2014

    Americians pouring over the Canadian border……Manifest Destiny 2.0

  1. Exceptional Drought Blankets 58 Percent of California; Reservoirs Missing One Year’s Worth of Water | GarryRogers Nature Conservation
  2. Exceptional Drought Blankets 58 Percent of California; Reservoirs Missing One Year’s Worth of Water | GarryRogers Nature Conservation

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