NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks with Andrew Schwartz of the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab about how record snowfall in western states could mean a less drought-ridden 2023.
The Western US is an empire built on snow. And that snow is vanishing.
Since most of the region gets little rain in the summer, even in good years, its bustling cities and bountiful farms all hinge on fall and winter snow settling in the mountains before slowly melting into rivers and reservoirs.
Heavy snow in Northern California has given a recent boost of moisture to a region grappling with drought.
The Central Sierra Snow Lab at the University of California, Berkeley said Friday that more than 16 inches (43 centimeters) of snow fell in the past day.
“We are now at 61% of our normal #snow #water equivalent for this date,” said a tweet from the lab specializing in snow hydrology and climatology.
The spring storm had triggered warnings from the Oregon border down through the southern Cascades and the northern Sierra Nevada. But the late-season precipitation was welcome after a dry winter.
An active weather pattern is in place across the western United States, AccuWeather forecasters say, and the arrival of a storm in the Northwest will eventually result in widespread impacts from California to the central and southern Rockies.
An area of low pressure was diving southeastward over the interior West on Tuesday. As the storm strengthens will moving into the Southwest region, areas of snow will break out and become locally heavy from the Sierra Nevada to the Rockies in Colorado and the various ranges in northern Arizona and New Mexico.
The second manual snow survey for the current water year demonstrated the impact that dry conditions in January have had on California’s snowpack. The Department of Water Resources (DWR) conducted the survey at Phillips Station earlier in the week. While the measurements were relatively strong, there is still concern for the rest of the season as statewide water storage levels sit at about 76 percent of average.
Snow season in Northern California has always been characterized by starts and stops, but this season may have brought a little extra whiplash with a big storm in October, a dry November, record snowfall in December to end 2021 only to be followed by a near-record dry January.
This region has seen similar extremes before, but because of climate change and resulting rising global temperatures, weather patterns are shifting to make these dramatic “dry to wet back to dry” periods more common. Tracers of this trend are showing up in climate data for the Sierra and the Western U.S. as a whole.
The National Weather Service in Sacramento tweeted Sunday that, despite California having a mostly dry January, snow depth and snow water content “is looking good and still running above average for this time of year.”
Currently, the Northern Sierra is at about 113 percent of what is considered the normal amount of snow for this time of year. Central Sierra snow is at about 109 percent. Overall, the state has about 111 percent of its average snowpack right now, thanks to the record-breaking storms that came toward the end of 2021.
The average temperature for the last six months is the hottest recorded in Colorado and the country as a whole, according to data released this week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The next-highest six-month average temperature peak in Colorado came during the 1930s Dust Bowl era, the data shows.
After one of its driest summers in years, satellite images show that Mount Shasta is blanketed in its signature snow once again after December storms swept across Northern California.
The images show the mountain nearly entirely devoid of snow in early September, after a very hot summer for the region compounded the lack of snowpack after two severely dry winters, dissipating the snowpack earlier than normal. Just four months later, the mountain appeared transformed, covered in snow once again.
The deluge of snow in recent days along the Sierra Nevada mountain range has been a record-breaker. And that’s not only good news for ski resorts but it may lead to a healthy boost in hydroelectricity production in California this coming summer, which would help the state’s often-strained electric grid.