The California megadrought is over. Or is it?

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From drought-busting rains in California to wildfire smoke in New York City and the active tropics, 2023 was crazy. But El Niño isn’t done yet, as host Ed Oswald explains.

For full show notes, visit this episode’s page on the Weather Whys Podcast website.

Transcript

[00:00:00] Ed Oswald: Welcome to the Weather Whys Podcast. I’m your host Ed Oswald from The Weather Station Experts. In this episode, we’re discussing California’s megadrought. Is it over? I’m glad you could join us. Let’s get started.

[00:00:15] The sound of rain. Most Americans take this for granted. But rain is a valuable commodity for those living in the west. And more often than not, there’s too little of it to go around.

[00:00:28] That was the case across California over the past two decades. Save for a brief respite here and there, rainfall has averaged well below normal. This lack of rain made national headlines.

[00:00:38] Reservoir levels fell to their lowest recorded levels in 2023, and it seemed as if California and the rest of the west were heading for a serious water crisis.

[00:00:47] And then the rains came. starting in late December, a series of strong storms pummeled California. Places that only see a few inches of rain in an entire year got that in a single storm. And it wasn’t just one.. over a dozen storm systems struck the state between December and March.

[00:01:03] These storms found their way to California along an atmospheric river. Atmospheric rivers are narrow bands of wind that transport a lot of water vapor from the tropics to more temperate climates. They can be several thousand miles long and only tens to hundreds of miles wide. Most of you will know these events by their nickname, the “Pineapple Express”, the name comes from where it originates: near Hawaii.

[00:01:26] Reservoirs that had been critically low rose quickly, perhaps the most significant change was Lake Oroville in Northern California. In September twenty twenty one water levels dropped to 628 feet, their lowest level ever. By June of the following year though, the lake was at a hundred percent capacity, rising some 300 feet over that period.

[00:01:45] Historic snows in the Sierra Nevadas were an added benefit. After years of little snowfall, some areas saw two hundred to 300% of their normal snowfall, continuing into March and April in some places.

[00:01:58] And for the first time in years, a snowpack made it through the hot California summer, critical to keeping water flowing during those dry summer months.

[00:02:06] Then, who would have expected a tropical system to strike Southern California? That was an added bonus, and helped to alleviate the long-term drought the state had been experiencing.

[00:02:15] So after all this, can we say that California’s megadrought is over? We’ll discuss that more… after the break.

[00:02:21] The Weather Whys Podcast is brought to you by The Weather Station Experts. A home weather station is a great way to expand your weather knowledge, and The Weather Station Experts has real hands-on reviews so you can make the right choice. Visit us on the web at theweatherstationexperts.com.

[00:02:38] Welcome back. Even with all the rain that California has been seeing, is the state truly in the clear? Let’s take a look at the bigger picture. First ground water mismanagement has left some underground aquifers so dry that they’ve collapsed from the weight of the ground above them. In some areas of California, the ground is actually sinking because of this.

[00:02:58] Even a winter as extreme as this past one is not enough to replenish these aquifers. That will take multiple seasons.

[00:03:05] In other words, if the state swings back to dry conditions again, the megadrought will come roaring back.

[00:03:11] But a few things are working in the state’s favor. We’ve already mentioned Hillary, that storm gave unexpected replenishment to reservoirs across SoCal at a time with little, if any rainfall typically falls.

[00:03:23] And while early on storms had targeted the Northwest… another area experiencing extended drought… It appears at least a normal, if not another wet winter is in store thanks to the effects of El Nino, according to meteorologists. That’s very good news.

[00:03:37] But we must keep in perspective the historic nature of this megadrought. Prior to last winter, climate experts found that the drought was more severe and long lasting than any other in the past 600 years.

[00:03:48] Then there’s the groundwater mismanagement. The ground can’t hold as much water as it used to due to the loss of those aquifers. Even if these were to refill completely, California was still have less water overall stored for the inevitable dry weather the state’s always experienced.

[00:04:04] Combined with the effects of climate change, the normal swings of California’s climate have become much more pronounced. While we’re apparently in a period of higher precipitation, it would have to continue past this winter to truly make a difference.

[00:04:17] So while California might be out of drought now by definition, the threat of it will always be around. But at least we’ve stepped back from the ledge, and Californians won’t be forced to make tough decisions, at least for the near future.

[00:04:29] You have just listened to the Weather Whys Podcast. I’m your host, Ed Oswald. Weather Whys as a production of The Weather Station Experts and Oz Media. Today’s episode was produced by Derek Oswald and myself from our studios here in West Lawn Pennsylvania.

[00:04:45] If you’d like to learn more about Weather Whys, please visit our website at Weather Whys that’s w H Y s.show. On our website, you can listen to this episode and any past episodes and also get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

[00:04:59] Don’t forget to subscribe to Weather Whys to get the latest episodes as soon as we release them. You can find these links to apple podcasts, Spotify, Google, and more on our website as well. That’s all for today. Be sure to join us again next time, when we take a look at winter’s hidden danger, the snow squall. Thanks for listening. And stay weather-wise.

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About the Author

Ed Oswald

Ed Oswald has nearly two decades of experience in technology and science journalism, and specializes in weather stations and smart home technology. He's written for Digital Trends, PC World, and TechHive. His work has also appeared in the New York Times. When he isn't writing about gadgets, he enjoys chasing severe weather and winter storms.
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