Weird things are happening in California. Bears, normally hibernating at this time of year, have climbed out of their caves to search for food. Some visitors to Tahoe are renting bikes, not skis.
As the East Coast digs out from its latest snow dump, Californians can only look on enviously. Here, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the state’s great water-supply source, stands at a scary 13 percent of normal.
California suffered its driest year on record in 2013, but what’s yet to come is even more terrifying. Federal forecasters predict that the drought will continue or intensify through at least April—by which time, the “rainy” season will be over.
The Golden State should probably be panicking more than it is. Reservoir levels are falling, but only a few cities, including Sacramento and the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg, have mandated water-use reductions.
Both have instituted cuts on the order of 20 percent for every household. Governor Jerry Brown has asked everyone to make voluntary cuts, but as drought-stricken Midland, Texas, learned a few years ago, voluntary never quite does it. (An only-in-California water-saving tip I’ve seen: go around in the buff, to save on the need to wash clothes.)
The problem is a huge atmospheric ridge of high-pressure that’s been hovering off the coast for an unprecedented 13 months. Storms can’t break through, so they go around and over it. The really worrying part, as the Christian Science Monitor explained this week, is that the longer the ridge hangs around, the sturdier it gets. Nobody knows when it will disband. (And no, we also don’t yet know if all this is linked to climate change, but California will doubtless be glad to trumpet a connection.)
“This could potentially be the driest water year in 500 years,” says B. Lynn Ingram, a University of California at Berkeley paleoclimatologist.
Assuming the drought continues, it’s going to have huge and complex effects.
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