Fire & Rain: El Nino Is Unlikely To End The West's Drought

Adam Taggart
By Adam Taggart on Tue, Sep 29, 2015 - 10:08am

Despite the 95% confidence-level weather forecasters have for a huge El Niño system arriving in North America this winter, it's unlikely to end the drought in the West.

And despite that, California's current crisis of tinder-dry climate may quickly shift to one of "too much water", as heavy rains may well cause inordinate flooding and landslides. The damage to vegetation by the drought reduces soil stability and its capacity for absorbing water.

From The Guardian:

A study released last month found that the snowpack that California relies on for most of its moisture is lowest it’s been in 500 years. Nasa says that California’s “rain debt” for the past three years is about 500mm equivalent to an entire year of rain. Water, wherever it comes from, can only help.


What happens this winter is going to be interesting. And it’s not entirely clear whether California wins or loses.

Daniel Swain, climate scientist


But it can also hurt, and it will probably hurt more because of the catastrophic effects of the drought. Long periods without rain strip away vegetation and clog dams with sediment. “There’s something to remember about El Niño,” Patzert told the LA Times in May. “He’s a good boy and he’s a bad boy because he can deliver drought relief … But all that water coming so fast is like trying to catch water out of a fire hose with a champagne glass.”

There’s also a question of where all that rain falls. El Niños usually drop their contents over southern and central California, where it floods rivers and swamps the streets and then runs off into the ocean, making only a small dent in the vast water deficit. What the state really needs is snow over the mountains, the source of most of its water. When the snow melts in the spring, it will slowly feed the state’s rivers and reservoirs, rather than deluging them all at once. But even in an ideal situation, climate scientists warn, one good El Niño year is unlikely to solve California’s water woes.

Earlier this month, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologist Tom Di Liberto estimated that every region of the state would need to have record-shattering rain years to recoup its precipitation debt.

Read the full article by clicking here.

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10 Comments

Mark Cochrane's picture
Mark Cochrane
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: May 24 2011
Posts: 1216
Last time this happened...

This El Nino is being compared to the 1997-98 El Nino because it is the first one to potentially rival that mega-El Nino event in strength, though that still has to be seen.

In any case, under strong El Nino conditions we would expect the northern regions of the country to have a warmer than normal winter for the most part and the southern tier to have a wetter winter.  There is a report from the National Climatic Data Center (Arthur turned this up if I remember correctly) if you want to wade through it (report here).

If (and this is a big IF) this year follows typical patterns, then California may get a respite from the ongoing drought but only in the sense of going from dying of thirst to drowning.

California Flooding

During the month of February 1998, California was struck by a series of storms due in part to the affects of El Nino. The current estimates indicate over $550 million in damages for the state, with that total expected to climb. The state also reported 17 storm-related deaths for the winter, and 35 counties were declared federal disaster areas. Clear Lake in northern California reached its highest level since 1909, flooding portions of Lakeport, about 90 miles north of San Francisco.

Most of the 'extra' water showed up all at once in February setting off mudslides and floods. So a lot of the water did not effectively show up in a usable form for the vegetation since it ran off too quickly in the winter. Still, snow loads in the mountains of California, Nevada and southern Oregon were heavy that winter, Washington and northern Oregon were normal. However, what also must be kept in mind is that El Nino does not make weather from whole cloth, it alters it from within existing conditions. For California, 1995, 1996, and 1997, all non El Nino winters, also brought flooding to the region. In other words, the El Nino exacerbated conditions during an already wet period. Will it have the same effects this year during a markedly dry period?

Another potentially confounding matter this time around is the so-called Blob of hot ocean water that has remained parked off the west coast for the last two years.

That pattern of hot water off the west coast is what it should look like after the El Nino, not before. Those that profess to know what drives weather patterns coming from the Pacific (link) aren't worried about this because the 'Ridiculously Resilient Ridge' (don't ask) that created the Blob has apparently been broken by the El Nino (perhaps the best news for California).

So, the best case would be a wet winter followed by a return to more normal (not necessarily wet) conditions that would start the process of recovery from the drought. The worst case would be a slightly wetter winter that provided just enough moisture to allow vegetation (fuels) to regrow and exacerbate the fire situation in the west. If the Ridge reforms then the drought comes back with it.

The models we have tell us exactly nothing about how regional conditions will develop more than a year out so place your bets according to your best guess or gut feeling...

Mark

Michael_Rudmin's picture
Michael_Rudmin
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
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Posts: 772
I see the blob is actually two...

...and one blob is centered on the Cascadia subduction zone, while toe othe is centered on the triple junction.

Sure, the blob is not at the right depth to be from tectonics, but still...

... that is a VERY interesting map.

Arthur Robey's picture
Arthur Robey
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Joined: Feb 4 2010
Posts: 3936
Oil and Water

I was wondering if the heat not being delivered to Europe was being carried by the thermohaline cycle to the blob. That idea turned out to be a dud because the round trip takes a thousand years. 

However My meanderings did take me to this site that is, as usual, deeply colored by politics. (What is it with the political passion? ). 

  http://www.infiniteunknown.net/2010/09/14/life-on-this-earth-just-changed-the-north-atlantic-current-is-gone/

The claim is that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has affected the Gulf Stream, causing it to shut down, plunging the North Atlantic into cooler conditions. We can expect more arctic ice this winter. 

Of cause that heat will resurface somewhere else. However, the increased albedo of the extra ice has got to help somewhat. Putting numbers to that statement is way beyond my pay scale. 

SailAway's picture
SailAway
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Posts: 404
NASA

Don't worry if NASA can find water on the surface of Mars, surely they can find some in California! crying

Mark Cochrane's picture
Mark Cochrane
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Posts: 1216
That sinking feeling

SailAway,

Alas, NASA and other funded science are finding the reverse of the situation on Mars (I know you were joking). Water is leaving California, never to return. Gravity measurements show just how much water is currently 'missing' from the state.

Roughly 11 trillion gallons was lost between 2011 and 2014. The problem has only increased since then. The loss of the surface water is bad but it is the draining of the aquifers that will really hurt in the coming years. Water levels are down up to 100ft in places. About 2/3 of the missing water came from those aquifers and even if they tried to recharge them they couldn't because of the permanent damage they've sustained.

The very land is sinking beneath their feet in the Central valley. Pulling all that water from below is allowing the land to subside, compressing the pore space and diminishing the potential for those aquifers to ever hold as much water again. The process isn't new, having been documented to have reduced the land surface by 30 ft between 1925 and 1977.

However, now the land is sinking again by inches per month with some places pushing 2 ft per year. This process is destroying infrastructure from bridges, foundations and roads to dams and canals as well as wells and pipelines (link). The real irony though is that as the land subsides and everything on it sinks lower, all of those lands will be increasingly prone to flooding whenever the rains do come!

This is the epitome of an unsustainable land use but you can rest assured that it will continue until the last dollar is mined from the region. Note, even if the pumping of the groundwater was suspended, that these lands would continue to sink for decades as the earth adjusts to the changes that have already been wrought. The elevator only goes down from here.

California was using more water than it was receiving even when it was getting wet years. What will it do if things truly get dry?

Mark

pyranablade's picture
pyranablade
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Nov 8 2010
Posts: 205
Alarming stuff

To my way of thinking none of the economic stuff on this site is half as scary as this climate change stuff.

 

I recently read an article that a spot in the North Atlantic is the one exception - it is getting colder. But that isn't a good thing. It had already been predicted that climate change would put a stop to prevailing ocean currents and it is already happening. The ice melting off of Greenland is no longer circulating throughout the Atlantic but is now stuck in one cold spot.

But back to California - lots of America's food is grown there. And people are drinking more Almond milk than ever - despite articles telling them how much water is requited to grow the nuts and then make it into "milk." At the same time the Ogallala aquifer is also drying up. So I'm very concerned about that in itself, but maybe even more concerned about how complacent most Americans are about it and the attitude that things will take care of themselves - via technology or some "solution." But of course, we (in the enlightened minority) know there are no solutions to predicaments like we're in.

Mark Cochrane's picture
Mark Cochrane
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: May 24 2011
Posts: 1216
Yes indeed

Pyranablade,

I agree with you. The economic mess is the most acute problem we have but arguably the simplest to deal with or recover from. The resource issues (including oil) are much larger predicaments but still reasonably within our control to respond to, if we choose to act accordingly, but the environmental and climatic fallout of our foolishness will surprise, perplex, and haunt us for centuries to millennia. You cannot opt out no matter how rich you are or where you move.

That said, I recently posted on the North Atlantic issues that you mention on the Climate Change thread (#2972 Why is the North Atlantic Getting Colder).

The Ogallala is another serious issue that is currently primarily affecting Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Nebraska has longer to ride this one out but even where there are estimates of extensiveavailable  aquifer water the projections (hundreds of years...sure) they are much too optimistic because 1) they always project "at current rates of consumption", and 2) they don't account for the energy costs needed to draw the water up from hundreds of feet below the surface as we descend Hubbert's Curve. It isn't the end of the world to lose this water, since the answer is dryland agriculture which was practiced before they starting pumping up the water in the first place. It just isn't as profitable.

Out in the Central Valley of California though the problem is much more permanent. No water will mean no agriculture. Time to start growing more of our fruits and vegetables closer to home.

Mark

bj-brown's picture
bj-brown
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Joined: Dec 15 2009
Posts: 11
Perhaps California now knows

Perhaps California now knows what MX feels like.  Note the satellite pictures of the border showing what happens when CA takes all the water coming from the North.

http://i.imgur.com/Ue1Rntj.jpg

Even without climate change and sea level rising, areas like New Orleans are sinking due to water diversion.

With the earth so far beyond carrying capacity, it's hard to see enough resources available to make a dent in these issues.  

bj-brown's picture
bj-brown
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 15 2009
Posts: 11
Perhaps California now knows

Perhaps California now knows what MX feels like.  Note the satellite pictures of the border showing what happens when CA takes all the water coming from the North.

http://i.imgur.com/Ue1Rntj.jpg

Even without climate change and sea level rising, areas like New Orleans are sinking due to water diversion.

With the earth so far beyond carrying capacity, it's hard to see enough resources available to make a dent in these issues.  

blackeagle's picture
blackeagle
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: May 16 2013
Posts: 217
This little rascal...

El Niño, of course... Winter 97/98 here is Quebec. It all started on January 5th, 1998 by an ice storm. in three days we received 50 mm of ice. Power lines collapsed like card houses. I was relatively lucky to lose power for only 7 days. Other lost power for about two months. The ice storm was followed by a pinching cold.

Today, 18 years later, a lot of trees on my property are still bent (Especially birch). But, back to January 1998...

No electricity in Montreal... no way to get cash from ATM... no way to pay merchants with useless cards... no way to do our grocery... no way to get gas... no way to heat the apartment we were living in... just keep everything closed and wear layers over layers... I ate KFC chicken three meals/day for a few days (The only opened restaurant in south-west of Montreal that was accepting cards)...

Police was at every street corner downtown to help with traffic and help people if required. Social solidarity worked relatively well. With some friends we sent our wives and children into houses that did not lost electricity. The rest of husbands stayed in their empty cold houses/apartments to guard them.

Now fast forward to January 2016... if the little monster makes whims with the climate, then we already have an idea of what may happen... and it will be a good self audit to assess our preparedness... and, of course, if the economy is not in too bad shape we can fix what the assessment highlights.

Today, I left the big city, have stored food, piles of logs, a well, a wood stove, a brick oven, 250W of solar panels for lighting, a propane powered generator (for the well pump), an airtight and  well insulated house, but all this was never tested in real conditions.

Next steps: four season greenhouse + more solar power + small pond + larger outside garden. Enough to keep me busy in 2016.

We just hope that this little thug doesn't flood the west coast and doesn't warm too much our cold winter.

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