California’s Great Wilting — Lake Mead Heading Toward Rationing Line, Extreme Fire Hazard as 12.5 Million Trees Stand Dead, Agriculture Under Threat

(Video provided by NASA Goddard)

According to the California Government, State snowpack levels are now at 1 percent of average. That’s not just the lowest ever recorded. That’s about as close to zero as one can get without actually hitting zero.

“I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen. We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.” — Stephen Chu in a public press release six years ago.

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Southwest megadrought. For more than 20 years now, climate models have been indicating rising risk of severe, multi-decade drought for this region of the US as a result of human-caused global warming. For years, we’ve watched the warnings mount. And for years we’ve watched as climates for that region grew drier and drier.

Warming seeped into the region, driving snow packs higher, or off the mountains entirely. Critical stores through dry summer months, these zones of mountain snow and ice serve as aquifers for human beings, shrubs and trees, and local animals alike. Their dwindling alone left the region more vulnerable to drought conditions.

But further-reaching changes — warming in the nearby ocean, and a recession of sea ice in the Arctic — also tilted the odds toward drought. Heating in the near shore waters of the Northeastern Pacific served as a kind of barrier to storm systems running across the wide ocean. Loss of sea ice in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas provided a heat stress to that Arctic region. The net result was conditions that preferentially enabled the development of dry high pressure systems along the North American West Coast. A condition many have come to call — the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge.

As the climate continues to warm, these conditions — local, regional, and global — enforce a kind of tilting toward drier and drier conditions. Conditions that models show may result in worse droughts than even the one we are seeing now. Droughts that last, not for four years, but for ten years, twenty years, thirty years or more. It’s a problem we’re just starting to deal with now. But if you think this is bad, warm the world by another 0.5 C, or 1 C, or 2 C and you probably really don’t want to see what’s in store.

For according to a February article in National Geographic and based on studies published by NASA, Columbia University and Cornell:

The chances of a 35-year or longer “megadrought” striking the Southwest and central Great Plains by 2100 are above 80 percent if the world stays on its current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions.

California Hitting Water Limits

But the current drought, though not yet a ‘megadrought,’ is more than bad enough. Aptly called epic, the powerful and ongoing lock on California moisture has wrung out aquifers, pushed snowpacks to below 1 percent of usual levels for springtime, greatly depleted ground water supplies, and forced an additional 25 percent water rationing across the state.

Stresses to water supplies — not only for California, but for many other states as well — are mounting. Key Aquifers, like Lake Mead in Northern Arizona, are hitting levels where downstream rationing may be required. A shock that would send impacts rippling on through the entire US Southwestern water supply.

California Drought April 20 2014

(Nearly 50 percent of California is now under the most severe drought conditions we have a measure for. A total of more than 37 million people in California alone are impacted by drought at this time. Image source: US Drought Monitor.)

Expert climate spotter Andy in San Diego has been providing situation discussion in this forum on the drought there for weeks. Of particular concern are water levels at Lake Mead — which are fast approaching the line where water rationing to various locations across the Southwest goes into effect as a requirement by law.

Yesterday, Andy noted in discussion here that:

Lake Mead is at 1078.79. [Approximately] 4 ft from the start of cutoffs. It appears Arizona gets [rationed] first at 1075 in some documentation, Nevada in others. Outflows from Mead were … shut off Saturday & Sunday. Starting Saturday, outflows from Lake Powell were cranked up by about 1000 [cubic feet per second]. … At this point, inflows to Powell are being sent downstream to Mead immediately. I see a bit of gambling here hoping for decent inflows to Powell in Late May through early July. Unfortunately, snow pack above Powell is pretty much non existent. Powell is at ~44% full pool. Mead is at ~38%. This will be an interesting summer, it appears that all of the Hail Mary’s have been used for 2015 already. (some edits for clarity)

Since Andy’s update yesterday, Lake Mead levels had fallen further to 1078.55 feet — just 3.5 feet above levels where rationing requirements begin.

12.5 Million Dead Trees Could Fuel Epic Fire Season

As key US aquifers hover over mandatory rationing levels, impacts to wildlife across California are growing more and more extreme. Anyone having watched Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s amazing Cosmos series may have noted dessicated, browned grasses and fields in the background of some shots. The reason for this is that many of Tyson’s narrations were filmed on location in California. And, at the time — in 2014 — California’s epic drought was really starting to bite deep.

How deep had not yet become apparent. But new reports out yesterday began to shed light on what is an amazingly stark situation.

According features in the Washington Post and elsewhere, more than 12.5 million trees perished in California alone last year due to extreme drought conditions. Encompassing more than 1 million acres, it’s a swath of forest the size of Rhode Island — now filled with withered trees. Key plants necessary for a variety of life and land supports including moistening the air, anchoring the soil, and providing homes for communities of creatures.


(USDA photo shows swaths of dead trees in California pine forest. Image source USDA via CBS Local.)

Research indicated that not only did the heat and drought stress the trees. But the warm conditions favored the invasion of tree-devouring beetles. Wood-devouring insects that thrive in the hot, dry conditions put in place by the ongoing drought.

The dead trees are bad enough. But put them smack dab in the worst drought on record for California and they are an extreme fire hazard.

Since late 2013, fire season has never really ended for California. It’s flared and dwindled, but wildfire burning has continued regardless of season due to both extreme heat and drying. Summer months are the worst times, though, and this year’s very extreme conditions has California fire planners very worried.

At issue are all the millions and millions of dead trees. Sitting in the sun, dried and wrung of all moisture, they’re essentially large stacks of kindling. Fuels that could rapidly ignite given even the smallest spark.

A recent program on NPR highlights the hazard:

Cambria, Calif. is under an emergency fire declaration. There’s no actual fire, no smoke, but here’s the situation broken down by Cambria Fire Chief Mark Miller. If a fire started today under the circumstances that exist……In the first 20 minutes, it would be six acres, and there would be two houses involved.

US Agriculture Under Threat

But not only is California now a fire-vulnerable land of browned, snowless mountains, rapidly dwindling water supplies, and dessicated, dying, beetle devoured plant life. It is a place that hosts the heart of US produce production. A vital source of food for the US and for the world that is now under threat.

Central Valley California, according to a new report in Think Progress, is the production hub for more than 90 percent of the United States’ fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s a condition that arose from a combination of slick marketing, a host of unique micro-climates suited to practically every form of vegetable, and a domination of (mostly corn and soy) mono-cropping throughout the productive regions of the Central US. Essentially, mono-cropping in the plains drove the majority of produce farmers to the West Coast.

And, as result, most of the fresh vegetables Americans enjoy are all grown from one basket. A basket that is now baking under a merciless California sun. Everything from lettuce to avocados to tomatoes to almonds to oranges, and so many more, are now at risk.

California Aquaduct

(The majority of California agriculture is irrigation-based — supplied by aqueducts like the one shown above. Aqueducts like this one also add flood risk due to enhanced potential of extreme rainfall events due atmospheric heating combined with land subsidence due to ground water depletion. Image source: Public Herald.)

Fully 80 percent of California’s water supply goes to food growers. It’s a stream of vital water that proceeds from California aquifers to farmers and then directly to your dinner table. A stream that Governor Jerry Brown has refused to cut at any cost. But despite increasingly draconian water rationing to other sectors, farms are still feeling a hit. In 2014, nearly 500,000 acres of cropland lay fallow. A number that could more than double by the end of this year. With so much of California’s water evaporating, with so many wells running dry, even water protected for farm use takes a hit.

In this way, ongoing drought in California is a direct threat to US food security. A fact that hasn’t been missed by food experts like John Ikerd who recommend a widespread re-localization of produce production to add resiliency to the US food supply in the face of growing climate challenges.

But the fact that we may need such a reorganization, together with the fact that the current California drought is an early, easier outlier of what is to come, highlights our vulnerability. Warming of the Earth System is already shocking the US and global food system to such a degree that it is calling into question the future of US produce production.

Strong El Nino is No Cure

Among many, hopes are that a strong El Nino may deliver a drought-breaking flood of moisture by the end of this year. And while there is growing indication that a monster El Nino may be developing in the Pacific, such an event would be no cure for poor climate-changed California. In fact, such an event could produce floods that further impact agriculture — stripping denuded landscapes and flushing vital soil nutrients down streams and into a eutrophying ocean.

The ground there is baked, subsided. The pores in the earth closed up, creating a tablet effect for water ponding. The fires have stripped trees and brush from hillsides, resulting in landslide hazard.

And the kind of rainfall a 2.5 to 3 C anomaly event (that some models are indicating) could generate would be extraordinary (especially when we add in the extra atmospheric moisture loading from overall human heating of 0.9 to 1 C above 1880).

For California, it looks like the option for ending epic drought is epic flood. And, with human caused warming, more drought will almost certainly follow any flood.


Megadroughts Projected For the American West

Lake Mead Water Data

California Department of Water Resources

Megadrought Predicted for the American Southwest

Steaming Equatorial Pacific Sees Winds Blow Toward Monster El Nino


California Drought Could Upend America’s Entire Food System

California Races to Protect its Forests

US Drought Monitor

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat Tip to Spike


Arctic Wildfires In Winter: Norway Experiences Freakish Historic Wildfires In January

Flatanger Fire

(Flatanger Fire during the long winter night in Norway. Image source: NRK)

Major wildfires in California in winter are bad enough… Unfortunately, now we must include the Arctic to the anomalous tally. For since December, three major wildfires have erupted in Arctic Norway, with two of these extraordinary fires blazing through coastal Nordic settlements just this week.

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On Monday, a major wildfire erupted along the western coast of Norway near the city of Flatanger. The fire, fanned by winds ranging from 30-50 miles per hour and by a drought in which almost no precipitation has fallen since Christmas spread rapidly, rushing over the mountainous terrain to put both life and livelihood at risk.

As of Wednesday, the fire had exploded to the largest wildfire recorded in Norway since World War II. It had also consumed 139 homes as it raced down the rocky mountain sides of western Norway.

By late Wednesday, as firefighers struggled to bring the Flatanger fire under control, a second massive fire erupted on the island of Froya about 80 miles to the south and west. The fire exploded with such ferocity that 430 residents were forced to evacuate as flames and smoke rushed down along the hillsides. As of Thursday, the Froya fire still burned out of control, threatening to spur evacuations from other settlements in the path of the blaze.

Froya wildfire

(Aerial Photo of the Froya Wildfire. Image source: News in English)

The Flatanger and Froya fires mirrored another large blaze that erupted in Norway during early December, consuming 40 homes near the town of Laerdal. The Laerdal fire coincided with a period of excessive warmth and drought, with December marking one of Norway’s warmest winter months ever and Oslo experiencing its hottest Christmas since record keeping began in 1937.

Needless to say, it is not at all normal for Norway to experience wildfires of record intensity during winter time. A clear sign that climate change together with a mangled jet stream and extreme polar amplification are well in play to create dangerous and freakish conditions.

“Just a month ago, no one would have said there was a threat of brushfires in Trøndelag at this time of year,” noted Dagfinn Kalheim, director of the Norwegian fire prevention association. Now, they’ve experienced three of their worst fires on record during winter. Unfortunately, in the context of a warming globe and related human-caused changes to the atmosphere, land and sea, locations around the world and especially around the Arctic Circle are under the gun to experience ever-worsening fires.

Drought, Fuel, Wind, Ignition

Western Norway has been in the midst of an ongoing drought since late fall. The drought, spurred by a ridge in the polar Jet Stream has steered storms away from the usually wet Norway and slammed them over and over into the British Isles, France and Spain. The drought left mountain scrub and thawing tundra in the region very dry and vulnerable to fire. This anomalous period also included one of the hottest Decembers in Norway’s reckoning.

In recent years we have seen increased fire vulnerability in far northern regions due to thawing tundra, increasing periods of heat and drought, and, possibly, maritime emissions of flammable gasses. The tundra is full of organic material and, in certain regions, emits methane in high enough concentrations to burn. The Arctic seas have also been emitting high volumes of methane and related flammable gasses, but it has not been determined that these emissions come in high enough concentration to add a potential secondary ignition source. Though a cause has not yet been determined for the historical Flatanger fire, it is likely that a combination of drought, related dry scrub and the yearly advance of thawing tundra in the region contributed to the intensity of the blaze.

Strong winds over the drought-stricken coastal region enabled the fire, which would generally be suppressed by temperatures near freezing, to rapidly spread through the tinder-dry underbrush and sporadic regions of thawed tundra. Fire fighters have been unable to locate an ignition source at this time.

You can watch a video of this anomalous blaze racing down the Flatanger mountainsides here:

(Video source: Se Flammen Fra Luften)

Climate Change Context

Climate change drives both increasing heat, extended periods of drought in previously damp regions, and changes to the environment, especially in the Arctic, that provides more fuel for wildfires. In addition, more numerous Arctic thunderstorms provide an expanding ignition source for these blazes while the Arctic Ocean and adjacent tundra now emit prodigious volumes of methane.

It is also worth noting that both the World Meteorological Organization and UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres have both established an ‘absolute’ link between human caused warming and increasing numbers of wildfires. And the fact that we are seeing the eruptions of major wildfires throughout the Northern Hemisphere during winter, a time when wildfires hardly ever occur, is yet more evidence that the situation is growing ever more extreme.

Unfortunately, the weather forecast for Norway shows continued dry conditions for at least the next two weeks. In addition, a period of warming is expected to bring temperatures 7 degrees (Celsius) or more above seasonal averages over the coming days. With higher temperatures and dry, southerly winds continuing to blow, Norway remains under the gun for extreme winter wildfires.


Most Extensive Wildfire Since World War II

Fire Sweeps Across Peninsula in Northern Norway

Climate Change is Absolutely Linked to Wildfires

News in English

Northern Europe Experiencing one of its Mildest Decembers on Record


Colorado Bob’s Climate Feed

Mangled Jet Stream Sparks Drought, Winter Wildfires in Southern California

Hat tip to SeeMoreRocks


Mangled Jet Stream Sparks Drought, Winter Wildfires in Southern California — Colby Fire Explodes to Nearly 2000 Acres in One Day

Colby Fire Jan 16

(The Colby Fire as seen from satellite. Image source: NASA)

Major wildfires in winter? It may sound odd, but that’s what’s happening in a California suffering under a climate-change spurred drought that is currently its 9th worst on record.

Yesterday, beneath a dry dome of high pressure and spurred by Santa Ana winds, the Colby fire sparked in a populated suburb of Los Angeles amid a deepening California drought. Today, the fires exploded into a nearly 2,000 acre monstrosity. The blaze, fueled by 30 to 50 mph winds was proving difficult to contain as over 500 firefighters rushed to the scene in an effort to keep it from leaping down into nearby population centers. Mandatory evacuations were in place for hundreds of residents as the fire aggressively advanced toward homes and places of work.

Colby fire photo

(Colby Fire threatens local businesses. Image credit: Julie Palagyi)

Red flag warnings are now in place for many LA counties, which are expected to experience continued strong winds, above average temperatures, and single-digit humidity over the next 24 hours. Such conditions are conducive for the further spread of the Colby fire as well as for the sparking of additional blazes throughout the LA region.

Abnormally Warm, Abnormally Dry

Wildfires are rare in California this time of year. During winter, the region typically experiences wetter, rainier  and cooler conditions as storms flow in off the Pacific Ocean. But this year, a powerful blocking pattern has forced warmer, drier air over the region. It is the other side of the same blocking pattern that is flooding the Arctic with above average temperatures while disrupting the polar vortex and resulting in episodes of extreme weather over the eastern and central US.

Jet Stream Pattern 16 Jan

(Jet Stream Pattern for Thursday and Friday. Image source: University of Washington.)

Note the very high amplitude ridge pushing up from California all the way into central Alaska and the corresponding trough digging down into the eastern US and pushing all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. This image is just a snap shot of the same blocking pattern that has persisted since late March of last year, resulting in wet, stormy conditions for the Eastern US and dry, hot, drought and fire conditions for the western US.

Blocking patterns of this kind have occurred in the past. But it is extraordinarily rare for such events to persist for ten months running. It is also the kind of event that climate experts such as Dr. Jennifer Francis warn is currently caused by a massive loss of sea ice cover in the Arctic and will become more common as sea ice continues its warming-induced retreat resulting in further Jet Stream weakening, meandering and retrenchment.

Weather Pattern Part of Trend Produced by Human-Caused Climate Change

This fixed weather pattern led to very severe conditions in California for December that, according to Dr. Jeff Masters at Weather Underground, resulted in a -4.67 reading on the Palmer drought severity index. This makes December of 2013 the 9th worst drought month on record for California (although anecdotal evidence coming in through January indicate that current conditions may be even worse). It is also worth noting that of the top ten worst drought months to occur since 1880 in California, five have now occurred since 1991 — a climate record that shows an increasing number of dry and record dry periods. Such increasingly extreme drying was predicted by numerous climate models for the US southwest as human warming continued to intensify and advance into the 21rst century.

Though such changes were anticipated by scientists, if not by politicians, business leaders, or the media, it was not clear that a strong fire hazard would emerge in even winter months. But this year has seen numerous intense west coast fires during winter time. Such new conditions are quite anomalous. And should the blocking pattern continue to persist, expect extreme heat, drought and fires to ramp up through spring and summer.


Plumes of Smoke Waft Through Colby Skies as Wildfire Rages

Historic Drought Intensifies in California

University of Washington


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