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How severe has the California Drought been?

California statewide precipitation during the last three winters (November-April 2011/2012 through 2013/2014) ranked the second lowest since official measurements began in 1895. Only the consecutive three-year period of 1974/1975 through 1976/1977 was drier. As one critical indication of the cumulative and growing impact of this drought, the September 2014 assessment of statewide water storage was only about 50% of average for this time of year, according to the California Department of Water Resources. Water supply depletion has not resulted from the lack of precipitation alone, but also from very high temperatures with the 2013/2014 winter being the state’s warmest on record.

As the new 2014/2015 wet season commences, the current state of drought as assessed by the US Drought Monitor indicates almost all of California to be experiencing extreme to exceptional drought severity. The situation deteriorated greatly during the past year – the third consecutive year of low precipitation and the driest of the three. Exceptional drought conditions cover over half of the state as of December 4, 2014, whereas one year earlier no regions in the state were considered to be under exceptional drought conditions.

FIGURE 1: Three year average winter all-California precipitation for 1895/1896 to 2013/2014 from NOAA Climate Division Data.

FIGURE 2: Source: United States Drought Monitor:

United States Drought Monitor: California
November 2011 - Present

FIGURE 3: Shown above are a video (top) and static time series plot (bottom) depicting the evolution of the California drought. Beginning in November 2011, the progression of conditions from dry (yellow/D0) to Extreme (red/D3) and then Exceptional (dark red/D4) drought conditions can be seen across the state.

What factors caused the California Drought?

  • Weather conditions were key to explaining the event - a high pressure ridge off the West Coast diverted the track of storms during all three winters, typical of historical droughts.
  • West Coast high pressure was rendered more likely during 2011-14 by effects of sea surface temperature patterns over the world oceans.
  • The drought's first year (2011/2012) was likely the most predictable, when La Nina effects largely explained high pressure off the West Coast, though simulations indicate that high pressure continued to be favored due to ocean effects in 2012-14.

FIGURE 4: The 200mb height (contours), sea surface temperature (color, ocean), and the U.S. precipitation (color, land) anomalies for November 2011-April 2012 observed (top) and average of 150 climate simulations (bottom). Red (blue) denotes warm (cold), and brown (green) denotes dry (wet).

Is the California Drought a symptom of long term climate change?

The current drought is not part of a long-term change in California precipitation, which exhibits no appreciable trend since 1895. Key oceanic features that caused precipitation inhibiting atmospheric ridging off the West Coast during 2011-14 were symptomatic of natural internal atmosphere-ocean variability.

Model simulations indicate that human-induced climate change increases California precipitation in mid-winter, with a low-pressure circulation anomaly over the North Pacific, opposite to conditions of the last 3 winters. The same model simulations indicate a decrease in spring precipitation over California. However, precipitation deficits observed during the past three years are an order of magnitude greater than the model simulated changes related to human-induced forcing. Nonetheless, record setting high temperature that accompanied this recent drought was likely made more extreme due to human-induced global warming.

Assessment Report Details

Causes and Predictability of the 2011 to 2014 California Drought

December 2014

Composed by the Narrative Team of the NOAA Drought Task Force

Lead Author: R. Seager

Co-Authors: M. Hoerling, S. Schubert, H. Wang, B. Lyon, A. Kumar, J. Nakamura, N. Henderson

The NOAA Drought Task Force is organized by the Modeling, Analysis, Predictions and Projections (MAPP) Program of OAR/Climate Program Office.

This report was produced in partnership with the National Integrated Drought Information System

Media Coverage

On Monday, December 8, 2014, NOAA held a science briefing for the media to announce the findings of this report. Media in attendance during the teleconference included TIME, NY Times, NBC, USA Today, Washington Post, Huffington Post, AP, Slate and Bakersfield Examiner, amongst many other news sources. Richard Seager, report lead author & professor, Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory and Marty Hoerling, report co-author & researcher, NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, were available to field questions from the media.



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