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Satellite Images Show Scope of Calif.’s Record Low Snow

When news broke of California’s record low snow earlier this week, it wasn’t a surprise this year was a recordbreaker. The real shock was just how low the snowpack had dwindled.

Weak snowfall and downright balmy temperatures drove the snowpack down to just 6 percent of normal on April 1, a mark that “obliterates” the previous record, one official remarked. The previous record low came in the winter of 1976-77 when snowpack was 25 percent of normal, and was matched at the end of last winter.

Satellite images released by NASA’s Earth Observatory show how pathetic this year’s snowpack is compared to average. The images captured by NASA’s Aqua satellite compare this year’s spring snowpack to that of spring 2010, the last year California had an average snowpack.

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Where snow normally creeps down toward the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, there’s only green forest and dusty meadows. The northern Sierra are nearly snow-free as are mountains in the Mendocino National Forest, located near California’s northern coast.

That extra white you see over the desert to the east of the mountains? No, it isn’t California’s snow on vacation in Nevada. It’s mostly clouds.

None of this is good news as California heads into its fourth year of drought. Right now, the state should be sitting on a frozen liquid goldmine, with the highest snowpack of the year usually occurring at the beginning of spring. Instead, little precipitation fell this winter and much of what did fall came as rain thanks to record heat.

This winter was California’s warmest on record and comes on the heels of the state’s hottest year on record. The heat not only shifted snow to rain but also helped melt what meager snow there has been, sending the state into the wet season with very little water to serve its 39 million thirsty residents and booming agricultural industry.

About 70 percent of California’s water comes from snowpack. The state’s current water deficit is around 11 trillion gallons according to NASA findings published in December 2014. That’s the equivalent of 710 billion kegs of beer if you’re in the Golden State and trying to drown your drought-induced sorrows.

Recent findings show that precipitation hasn’t really changed that much in California since the 1890s, but the state has gotten notably hotter, which has upped the odds of drought. By the 2030s, California is projected to essentially enter a new climate regime with temperatures similar to last year’s outsize warmth happening nearly every year due to the rise in human greenhouse gas emissions.

Those findings coupled with other research showing the West is seeing increasing odds for an “unprecedented” megadrought in the coming decades paint a troubling picture for water supplies across the region.

The lack of water this year in large part prompted Governor Jerry Brown to require cities and towns to reduce their water use by 25 percent. Some question whether the policy targets the right water users, as agriculture actually accounts for the bulk of the state’s water use, but regardless, the lessons learned from this drought will have a role to play in planning for a warming world.

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