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



Historic US Drought Intensifies At Heart, Erodes at Fringes, Wheat Crop In Danger

A historic drought that began 8 months ago continues. Though this massive drought is slowly receding at the edges, covering 59% of the contiguous US, 1% less than last week, the drought is expanding and intensifying at its heart. More than 6% of the United States is suffering under exceptional drought, the most severe drought level. And more than 19% of the country is suffering under extreme drought conditions or worse.

Unfortunately, the area of extreme drought conditions is parked squarely over the United States breadbasket. Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota are the hardest hit states. As a result the US wheat crop is under increasingly severe risk. Soil moisture levels are plummeting and many areas are experiencing top ten hottest and driest months for this time of year. Surface water reserves were also growing more and more scarce. As as a result, grazing regions for livestock are drying out.

For Texas and Oklahoma, this is the second major drought in as many years. For the US west, the time period from 2000 to now has been the fifth driest period in 500 years, experiencing a succession of droughts and dry spells. Climate models have indicated that droughts would become more frequent over time as human caused climate change worsened. Unfortunately, conditions over the next few decades will only continue to grow worse — far moreso if human fossil fuel emissions are not dramatically cut back. By the time 2050 rolls around, without serious cuts in CO2, the US heartland is all mostly desert. A transition to these extreme conditions would be devastating to US food and national security.

Globally, the world has experienced severe droughts in growing regions of the US, Europe, and Russia. The result is very low worldwide grain stocks. The UN has warned that if any more ‘unforeseen events’ occur, the world will almost certainly slip into a food crisis. Global governments and leaders continue to ignore warnings from climate scientists and food monitors. This situation is unconscionable and, if it worsens, will likely result in crisis, sporadic and growing hunger, and political instability.


Sandy Misses Areas of US Suffering From Drought, Over 60% of Land Still Affected, US Winter Wheat Conditions Worst in 27 Years

Despite receiving record precipitation over a broad swath of territory, more than 60% of the United States is still suffering from a historic and global warming-induced drought. Sandy provided some mitigation for drought conditions in the Eastern and Mid-Western sections of the US. However, drought conditions were largely unchanged over broad swaths of the Western US and Heartland.

As a result, the US is now suffering its worst winter wheat harvest conditions in at least 27 years. Monitoring began in 1985, so it is impossible to know how far back one would have to go to find conditions similar to what is being experienced now. Just 40 percent of the current wheat crop is rated good to excellent. Fully 15 percent is rated poor to very poor.

“The low crop ratings will increase concern about the yield potential of this year’s crop,”Shawn McCambridge, the senior grain analyst for Jefferies Bache LLC in Chicago, said in a telephone interview to Bloomberg. “The weather doesn’t look promising for much improvement and may increase overseas demand for supplies left from last year’s U.S. harvest.”

The US corn crop is down 13 percent from last year. The US soybean crop is also down, showing a 7 percent loss from the year prior. Some of the remaining crops may have been damaged by Sandy as it raged over a large section of the Eastern US earlier this week.

Wheat losses similar to those suffered by US corn and soybean crops pose a risk for pushing the world’s food situation into a state of crisis. Throughout October, the UN has been warning of the potential for a spreading food crisis should any more ‘unforeseen events’ materialize.


Historic US Drought Shows Slight Improvement Overall, Worsens in Some Areas, 69 Percent of Winter Wheat Crop Threatened

According to this week’s Drought Monitor, the ongoing historic drought, made worse by global warming, still grips a large swath of the United States despite cooler temperatures and two rain systems sweeping through the central US.

Overall, US drought coverage fell to 62% of the contiguous US, a 2% fall from last week and a three percent fall from the maximum drought area reached this year. However, large swaths of the US and, in particular, US farmland are still struggling under drought. Though some areas on the eastern fringes of the larger drought zone saw improvement, other areas such as South Dakota and Nebraska saw intensifying dryness.

Reports from farmers this week also showed that the winter wheat crop had been put at risk due to ongoing drought conditions. Usually, cooler temperatures and rains bring a respite to drought conditions during this time of year. However, a fall dryness is allowing drought to maintain its grip over much of the country. Currently, over 69 percent of the areas normally planted for winter wheat are suffering from some level of drought. Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana have been particularly hard hit. Seed germination is well behind schedule in most regions and many farmers are not willing to take the risk of planting in such dry conditions. The result is a major risk to US wheat crops after a difficult corn planting season across the US.

Under current drought conditions, the US is now consuming more food than it produces. This rare event is having widespread impact on world food markets. Overall world food security has been dealt a sever blow since the early 2000s when forward food supplies were higher than 104 days. But six of the past eleven years have seen extreme weather conditions that resulted in the world consuming more food than it produced. As a result, forward food supply has fallen, on average, to 74 days. Recently, the UN noted that the world’s food markets were currently strained to the limit and couldn’t bear any more ‘unexpected events.’ But a major unexpected event continues apace over most of the US.

Climate scientists are showing that such dry conditions will likely grow worse over the coming years if both the US and the world fail to begin to reduce carbon emissions. Sadly, some drought will likely happen in the coming decades even if carbon emissions are rolled back. But the devastation that is likely to occur if carbon emissions continue on their current track is unconscionable. Climate models show that both large swaths of the US and much of Europe become as dry as north Africa. This devastation to major productive regions would be very damaging to the world’s food security and likely result in major regional and global upheavals. Yet this condition, which is starting now and which will grow worse over time, is being largely ignored by the world’s leaders. In particular, the US has one political party that wholesale denies the impacts of global warming. This denial is as destructive to our farmers as it is poisonous to our political climate. If we are to deal rationally with these problems and, likely, if we are to survive as a nation, this self-destructive, brutish and and small-minded denial must end.

We have entered the gates of a crisis and we need all hands to be alert and ready to defend the ship, not knocking holes in the hull.




Historic US Drought Continues to Expand; Long-Term Forecast Shows Potential for Drought to Worsen

The historic US drought that has, for more than a half a year, plagued so much of the nation continues to gobble up more land. Last week, drought covered 64.8% of the US. This week saw an expansion of moderate to exceptional conditions growing to cover 65.5% of the US land mass.

This is the largest land area covered by drought since the Drought Monitor began keeping records.

Though some areas in the east received rains, causing conditions to moderate there, monsoonal flows have shut down for the west, cutting off a supply of needed moisture. The loss of monsoons has resulted in the west slipping back to a hotter and drier than normal pattern, intensifying already dangerous drought conditions there.

Overall, 6.12 percent of the US suffered under exceptional drought, 21.48 percent of the US suffered under extreme or exceptional drought, 42.12 percent of the US suffered under severe or worse conditions, and 65.45% of the US suffered from moderate or worse conditions. For the week, drought area expanded in all categories.

The drought’s severe impacts to US river flows has continued to impair traffic on the Mississippi. Recently, traffic was halted near Granite City and at the Port of Osceola. At Osceola a dredge is currently laboring to re-open an area that has been closed for nearly a month due to low water. Traffic at Granite City backed up after Lock 27 suffered damage even as the low and narrow nearby river struggled to support a backlog of barges waiting for passage.

Impacts to US farmers for this year are mostly finished. However, the persistent drought raises worries for next year. Some farmers are rushing to implement the use of new heat resistant varieties of corn while others are looking to what impacts will result from this year’s losses. A few shortages have popped up on the radar screen for next year. Most notably, it appears that the world will suffer a shortage of bacon come 2013. And though grain and cereal supplies are quite low due to droughts in the US, parts of Europe, and parts of Russia, an overall shortage has yet to materialize.

Two factors are currently driving the ongoing drought in the US. The first is a long-term trend of heating and drying resulting from human caused global warming. The second is the fact that El Nino, long predicted for late 2012 to 2013, is starting to look rather weak. The most recent sea surface temperature anomaly measurements from NOAA show ENSO in a neutral to slightly positive state. This means that El Nino in the eastern Pacific, a powerful driver of weather patterns, is currently very weak. Though the World Meteorological Organization is still calling for El Nino conditions to begin within the next month, others doubt whether this El Nino will eventually form.

A weak or neutral El Nino for 2013 is not likely to provide the impetus to drive out the current US drought. So with the increasing force of global warming and a failure of El Nino to provide more consistent winter storms for the US, it appears more likely that drought will persist. This forecast seems to have been validated by the most recent seasonal drought outlook which calls for expanding drought conditions through December 31rst of 2012. Such a scenario would point toward a potential for worsening US drought conditions in 2013.



Drought Expands to Cover 65 Percent of US, Largest Drought Area in Monitor’s Record, At 77 Billion, Drought 3rd Most Costly Weather Disaster on Record

Drought conditions broadened to expand to cover much of the US this week even as monsoonal moisture lessened the severity of drought in some areas.

According to reports from the US Drought Monitor, drought expanded to cover more than 65% of the US, the largest area ever in the Monitor’s record. A broad, contiguous swath of land from the Tennessee and Mississippi river valleys to the Rio Grand in the south, the Canadian border in the north and the California coast in the south all continue to suffer from conditions of moderate to exceptional drought. In addition, a swath of abnormally dry to severe and extreme conditions concentrating in Georgia and eastern Alabama parched parts of the eastern US.

Though drought areas broadened, monsoonal moisture, usually a respite for this time of year, did cause some slight reductions in Severe to exceptional drought conditions. Overall, the areas covered by severe to exceptional drought dropped by slightly more than half a percent to reach 41.07% for this week.

Much of the US’s breadbasket remained under severe to exceptional drought conditions. Farmers’ fields lay over dessicated soil. Wilted corn ears produced tiny cobs or no cobs at all. The monsoonal rains coaxed up a fresh growth of green grass. But the very dry soils underneath do not bode well for next year’s growing season, unless a long period of rain rejuvenates the soil this winter.

According to reports from USA Today, this year’s drought is now expected to cost over $77 billion dollars, the third most costly weather disaster in US history after Hurricane Katrina and the 1988 drought. Areas hardest hit include Oklahoma, which just suffered from an extreme drought just last year. Texas, also hit by last year’s drought, is showing persistent or expanding drought as well.

In context, climate change has brought one year of record flooding to the US, followed by a year of record drought. These extreme swings from one condition to the next are not helpful to agriculture and crop viability. Overall, the trend toward drying and swings between more and more extreme conditions is likely to continue for much of the US over the coming decade and worsening into the the 2020s and 2030s.

This year’s drought also shows the potential to worsen into next year should a recovery not come this winter. Overall, this prospect is appearing more and more likely. According to the most recent drought forecast, much of the country is expected to show worsening drought. Only a small region is expected to show persistent or improving conditions and a very small region is expected to show improving conditions. Perhaps, more ominously, the northwest, so far spared the worse harms of the current drought, is expected to fall into drought conditions over the next few months.


Gung Ho, Climate Policy, and Striving Together For a Greater Good

For years, we have focused on what we can do, as individuals, to address climate change. And though much has been achieved through the efforts of many valiant individuals, these admittedly heroic efforts have fallen short. This short-coming is through no fault of those who have attempted, alone and without aid, to surmount it. It is simply that the scope of the problem that is climate change is greater than any single person, or any fragmented group of leaderless people, can adequately manage.

If we are truly going to address the issue of climate change we are going to need to learn to act a little bit more like Marines. We are going to need to adopt the practice of ‘Gung Ho.’ In other words, we are going to need to learn to work together.

Though there is much we can do alone, including using less energy, eating less carbon intensive foods, purchasing solar panels for our homes, driving an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle, riding a bike to work, using public transport, switching out for more efficient light bulbs, and a host of other positive actions, there isn’t much we can do, alone, to make those good choices and actions more appealing or more available to others. And when the pace of emergency grows, as it has in recent years, it becomes more clear that we need to step out of our individual worlds and join with others in our communities, our states, our countries, our nations and even throughout the world to address these problems.

Simply put, sometimes problems exceed the ability of an individual to manage. It is during these times when we must make use of the agencies available to us in order to work together for a common good.

Thankfully, our government systems already provide many of these agencies. We can contact our Congressmen. We can express our concern through media bodies, through the net, and at town hall meetings. We can enhance policy discussion by sharing our input and experiences. And, through these agencies, we can encourage our governments to adopt sound policies and to work with other nations to address the growing problem of climate change.

With expanding zones of drought gobbling up ever-larger sections of the world. With Arctic sea ice in full retreat. With the Greenland Ice Sheet beginning to soften up. And with Arctic methane beginning to emerge as an amplifying feedback, it is high time to establish national and international policies to both prevent further climate change and to mitigate the effects of the climate change already happening. We have spent years quibbling and arguing. But now, for the good of us all, it is time to act.

Some countries have already accepted the need for sound climate policies and these countries have benefited from their own actions. Australia, for example, after suffering a 1000 year drought, recognized the necessity of responding to climate change and put serious policies in place to begin that process. With the US having suffered its own series of extraordinarily dry periods — the driest 800 year period on record from 2000-2004 and the recent major droughts of 2011 and 2012 — it is high time that national climate change prevention and mitigation policies are established.

Climate change will not stop and wait for us. And if we wait for things to grow worse, events can quickly spiral beyond our control. The size of the problem is comparable to the threat posed by nuclear proliferation during the Cold War. Though different in many respects, the need for coordinated action and policy measures to address a wide-ranging threat makes it a useful corollary. We may also compare the current climate difficulty with the ozone threat dealt with during the late 20th century. Both were major issues and both were made manageable through sound policy measures established by nations around the globe.

Both nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation policies as well as chlorofluorocarbon reduction policies resulted in a safer world for all inhabitants of all nations. They contributed to peace, stability, and the healthy economies of all participating nations. There is no reason that climate change policy could not also function in this manner.

In general, the goals of nations engaged in climate change prevention, mitigation, and adaptation policies must be simplified. General goals of reducing carbon output, replacing fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable infrastructure, and of making countries more resilient to the ravages of ongoing climate change should be put in place. Broad definitions should be applied. But very specific long-range goals should be established. We should call for voluntary compliance but we should also put in place serious measures for keeping track of compliance, as well as mechanisms to incentivize that compliance.

Approaching this problem, we must be careful not to allow the special interests of powerful industry players to dominate. However, since some industries will clearly be losers in any transition away from fossil fuels, incentives should be put in place that provide a means for these industries to survive short-term, and prosper long-term, should they take part in a transition away from fossil fuels. For example, government subsidies to fossil fuel industries that replace a significant and growing portion of fossil fuel out-put year-on-year with renewable energy output could be provided. An example of such a transition would be the outfitting of mobile oil platforms to serve as mobile wind generation platforms, finding areas with the highest wind concentration and then transmitting it back to the mainland.

That said, since the false comforts of a dangerous status quo are so appealing, there will be pressure from these interests to only deal with and adapt to the problems caused by climate change and not to address the root cause itself — fossil fuel burning. Unfortunately, bowing to this directive would consign the world to a global warming future that it could not economically or politically adapt to. The threats to world food production, to coastal towns, to livable climates, to the health and well being of citizens for many nations of the world is far, far too great.

The impact of 1000 parts per million CO2 on the climate system, a level that will almost certainly be reached if business as usual fossil fuel emissions continue, is a force that no single nation on this Earth is equipped to handle. And planning to deal with such an instance would be to plan for the dismemberment of human civilization before the end of this century. This is not an acceptable outcome, so adaptation-only policies must be recognized for what they are: plans to fail.

Yet we should still hope that our swift action can result in a good end. Though we are very likely to experience a period of difficulty, though we are already experiencing some difficulty due to climate change, we can still prevent the worst impacts if we start working together immediately. And in doing so, we can affect changes to our countries, lands, and ways of doing business, that result in a more resilient world. In a world that relies on sustainable energy sources. In a world that has managed to balance its populations and consumption with the world’s resources. In a world that has a future well beyond the span of the 21rst century. If we do so. If we start to do so now, we can begin that good work which will enable a greater prosperity and improve the prospects of all people.

This is the promise of a good, sound climate policy. And we should not turn away from it. Instead we should embrace the benevolent spirit of working in ‘thy brother’s service’ in the spirit of ‘Gung Ho.’ We can certainly do this. And we can do this the right way. The way that avoids conflict, domination, and the threat of disintegration. Let us join to take this path together. To take the road of stabilization and to enjoy the rewards of good work. To set our feet on a path toward shining futures and to enjoy the comforts of a world of shrinking troubles.

And of the other way? Let us say no more of it than this: that way lies the abyss.

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