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Why so dry? Experts explain factors behind stubborn drought

Insight: Drought

This story is part of a new quarterly special section at The Press Democrat focusing on stories and issues of community-wide importance. This edition, publishing in print on June 27, is focusing on how the drought is affecting our everyday lives. Read all the stories here.

For more stories on drought, go here.

He’s a weather guru with a growing national following, but Daniel Swain can’t always be crunching numbers, tracking satellite feeds and laboring over meteorological models. The 31-year-old climate scientist and author of the influential blog Weather West also likes to get outdoors. During a May visit to Marin County, where he grew up, Swain went for walk around Phoenix Lake, at the base of Mount Tamalpais. Even as someone so deeply familiar with the consequences of a warming planet, he was unsettled by what he saw.

It wasn’t just the sad state of Phoenix Lake, less than half full, much of its cracked, sunbaked bottom visible to the naked eye.

The surrounding vegetation, usually a vibrant green that time of year, “was super stressed,” Swain recalled. “In some ways it looked worse than the middle of summer. There were manzanitas and oak trees dropping their leaves and turning brown. Those were trees that, a lot of years, don’t do that at all. There were pretty clear signs of drought stress, and it was the very beginning of the dry season.”

From low reservoirs to browning plant life and a disappearing snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, the signs of drought are inescapable. But what are the causes of it? To paraphrase the folk singer Pete Seeger: Where has all the water gone? And is it coming back?

Four meteorologists who were asked, basically, “Why so dry?” offered their explanations, identifying the forces and factors, in the atmosphere and oceans, that have resulted in soaring summer temperatures, and stubbornly minuscule amounts of rain these past two winters.

And they shared their outlooks, which can’t exactly be described as reservoir-half-full.

“There’s zero chance this drought gets better before the next rainy season,” said Swain, after pointing out that it doesn’t rain in California in the summer. “The best you can hope for is that it gets worse gradually, rather than quickly.”

Losing the coin toss

After “running some numbers” earlier this month, UC Merced professor and climate specialist John Abatzaglou determined that in the past 20 years, California on average has gotten 10% less overall precipitation “than in the prior 100 years.”

The state has endured bigger long-term precipitation shortfalls, in the 1920s and ’30s. The problem, he noted, is that the recent shortfalls are happening at a time when California is 1.5 to 2 degrees warmer than it’s been during previous long, dry spells.

The so-called atmospheric rivers bringing precipitation to the state are now warmer. As a result, said Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford, the snowline in the Sierra Nevada is getting higher. And the snow that does fall is more likely to melt early in the season — resulting in more runoff, and less water storage. This year in the Sierra Nevada, he noted, “we had one of the most rapid snowmelts in memory.”

Where a year of below-average rainfall did not always result in drought, the increasing “co-occurrence” of low precipitation and high temperatures, Diffenbaugh said, has greatly elevated the probability that low precipitation will produce drought.

“It used to be in California we were flipping two coins,” he explained. About a quarter of the time, both coins came up tails, he said: above average heat, below average rainfall. The long term warming of the state means that, more and more often, “the temperature coin is coming up tails.”

As result, the preconditions for drought — low precipitation, high temperatures — are falling into place more frequently. Because the Golden State is hotter, Diffenbaugh explained, abruptly shifting metaphors, “when we are dealt a bad hand in terms of precipitation” — such as in the past two rainy seasons — “it’s a much worse hand.”

While there is a general consensus among scientists that the warming trend in California and the West is anthropogenic — man-made — the same can’t be said of why we’ve gotten so little rain of late.

“We can’t point to human-caused climate change for the overall drop in precipitation,” Abatzaglou said. “My take is that this is a poor draw of the cards” — another bad hand, this one dealt by “natural climate variability that likely has its roots in the Pacific” and which “steered the storm track further north in the winter, limiting opportunities for California and the Southwest as a whole to cash in on beneficial precipitation.”

Using the atmosphere as ‘a dump’

Other scientists are finding links between extreme weather — heat waves, droughts, wildfires — and fundamental changes in the jet stream, which serves as a kind of steering current for the atmosphere. Michael Mann is a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State. In 2018, he and an international team of scientists released a study connecting the increase in severe summer weather with a change in how the jet stream is behaving in the summer — a change they attribute to the warming of the planet.

Insight: Drought

This story is part of a new quarterly special section at The Press Democrat focusing on stories and issues of community-wide importance. This edition, publishing in print on June 27, is focusing on how the drought is affecting our everyday lives. Read all the stories here.

For more stories on drought, go here.

While it’s impossible to directly peg increased heat waves and wildfires in the Southwest, or flooding in the Southeast, to changes in the jet stream caused by climate change, such extreme events “are exactly what we expected to happen as we continue to use the atmosphere as a dump for our waste carbon,” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Her research has revealed that the Arctic region is warming two to three times faster than the globe as a whole. Shrinking that contrast, smoothing out the difference in temperatures between the Arctic and areas farther south, has led to some funky behavior by the jet stream, she said.

That behavior, she contends, contributes to “large scale weather like this big heat dome effecting many states out west, at the same time we’re seeing a very wet pattern in the Southeast. These things go hand in hand. The jet stream causes both of them.”

Ridiculously Resilient Ridges

In each of the past two winters, the jet stream deities placed enormous high pressure systems over the northeastern Pacific. Those systems, which Swain has dubbed Ridiculously Resilient Ridges, deflected storms away from Northern California, depriving the area of precipitation.

The summertime equivalent of those systems are the vast domes of intense heat — high pressure systems such as the one that camped out over Four Corners region earlier this month, “flexing its muscles in a spectacular way,” said Swain, “and producing some of the hottest temperatures a lot of the Southwest has ever seen, which is saying quite a lot.”

It’s no coincidence that those all-time highs were occurring in parts of west also experiencing severe drought. California’s increasing heat has accelerated a process called evapotranspiration, in which the atmosphere sucks moisture out of trees, plants, the soil.

That leaves them drier, more parched and flammable. But it also leads to hotter temperatures. These early season heat waves have been so intense, Swain said, “because it’s so ridiculously dry, in the soil.”

Another factor in the dry winter just past could be found in the Pacific Ocean, he believes. A warming of the western tropical Pacific, because of climate change, amplified the effect of a “fairly strong La Niña” — a cooling of the eastern tropical Pacific — and “did not help anything,” Swain said, when it came to rain for California.

Wet winters will return. While climate change may not be affecting the overall amount of precipitation in California, it appears to be influencing how the moisture is delivered.

Research done by Swain and others suggests we are in for an increased variability, or “spikiness,” as he put it: more dry winters offset by conspicuously wet ones. As this is happening, rainy season itself is shrinking.

While a shortened rainy season presents problems in the spring side, as well, “it’s the autumn side that matters, in Northern California, from a wildfire perspective,” he said.

For the arrival of the rains erases the fire danger associated with the offshore wind events of September, October and November.

“When they don’t come,” said Swain, “we’re in big trouble.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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