California Still in Drought?  Yes, No and Maybe — Part 1

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From Watts Up With That?

News Analysis by Kip Hansen — 26 January 2023

There are claims that despite being flooded, washed away, landslided and buried in snow California is really still in drought. 

The New York Times article Despite Rain Storms, California Is Still in Droughtwritten by three journalists Elena ShaoMira Rojanasakul and Nadja Popovich, states “the sudden deluge has not made up for years of ongoing drought.”

Cliff Mass, professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington, and hosts the Cliff Mass Weather Blog, has a different opinion:  The California Drought is Over. Definitively.

The New York Times journalists are generally required to write to the newspaper’s Climate Hysteria Narrative, in which all things weather and climate must be portrayed as having negative impacts.  So, their stories about California’s recent weeks of stormy rainy weather were all “disaster disaster” now they must insist that despite all that rain California still remains in drought.

Dr. Cliff Mass carefully debunks this claim in his piece linked above, which was re-posted here at WUWT.

But let’s try to be a little more scientifically disinterested.

Is it possible that both claim and counter-claim are true?  Is that possible?  Yes, very much so.

How can that be true?

1)  Definitional Differences.   According to (the website of the National Integrated Drought Information System):

“Drought is generally defined as “a deficiency of precipitation over an extended period of time (usually a season or more), resulting in a water shortage.”

“As the different definitions at right illustrate, though, drought can be difficult to define—so difficult, in fact, that in the early 1980s researchers found more than 150 published definitions of drought, reflecting differences in regions, needs, and approaches.”

Those definitions given by include:

Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “A period of dryness especially when prolonged.”

American Meteorological Society: “A period of abnormally dry weather sufficiently long enough to cause a serious hydrological imbalance.”

NOAA’s National Weather Service: “A deficiency of moisture that results in adverse impacts on people, animals, or vegetation over a sizeable area.”

So, the factors that are involved in ”drought” include dryness, time period, impacts,  timing, geographical area and (unmentioned) climate type.

Dryness:  Of what?  soil?  Lack of rain or snow?  Reservoir levels, lake levels, river flow, water tables?  Humidity? (and what might a ‘hydrological imbalance’ be?)   Most drought declarations are based on rainfall amounts as “percentages below normal” (for the month, year-to-date, etc).

Time Period: “If a weather pattern that results in a precipitation deficit lasts for a few weeks or months, it is considered short-term drought. If the pattern and precipitation deficits last for more than six months, it is typically considered long-term drought. “ [ source –  ]

But we know that droughts can also span years, decades, centuries and millennia (Northern Africa).

Impact:  There are many different types of drought, classified by their type:

  • Meteorological Drought is based on the degree of dryness or rainfall deficit and the length of the dry period.
  • Hydrological Drought is based on the impact of rainfall deficits on the water supply such as stream flow, reservoir and lake levels, and ground water table decline.
  • Agricultural Drought refers to the impacts on agriculture by factors such as rainfall deficits, soil water deficits, reduced ground water, or reservoir levels needed for irrigation.
  • Socioeconomic Drought considers the impact of drought conditions (meteorological, agricultural, or hydrological drought) on supply and demand of some economic goods such as fruits, vegetables, grains and meat. Socioeconomic drought occurs when the demand for an economic good exceeds supply as a result of a weather-related deficit in water supply.

Timing:  This applies particularly to short-term agricultural drought – or lack thereof.   Gentle rains in springtime, allowing planting and germination of crops (at more-or-less the right time) are good, but heavy springtime rains can prevent planting until late in the season, and when considering drought, not enough rain at planting time or short-term drought prevents germination or dries up the emerging shoots. 

When drought – lack of rain – hits as crops are maturing, it can result in near total crop failure.  Too much rain at that time can ruin crops.

Geographical Area:  10 inches of rain per year in Scotsdale, Arizona (a desert city) is normal, but would be severe drought in Seattle, Washington, where the average is 38 inches per year. The county I live in is rather small, yet tells me, after a wet winter so far, that the southern part of he county is “in drought”.

Our media and press too often talks of political units as if they were geographical units – using State and County and National boundaries as if they determined weather, climate and other natural phenomena. 

In our case today, California is not a Climate Zone, does not have a single weather type or expectation, nor can California be simplified into Northern and Southern California.

Climate Type:  Most people are aware that there are differing climates, by area.  Rain forests, deserts, Mediterranean climates (and diets, it seems).  Steppes and high mountains and polar ice caps. In reality, there are far more and varied types of climates.  The most used classification today is the Köppen–Geiger climate classification system, in which climates are divided into five main climate groups, with each group being divided based on seasonal precipitation and temperature patterns.

A quick glance at the map allows us to identify the areas of major deserts in bright red and the band of tundra in the northern hemisphere.  The blues as tropical forests in South America, Africa and island nations lying between Southeast Asia and Australia. (Note: The above chart leaves out “H Highland/Timberline” such as found in the High Sierras of California).

And California?

Looking at the map and the list of the 11 climate types found in California gives us most of what we need to know:  Almost all descriptions (see larger here) include the words “dry”, “arid”, “Mediterranean” or “hot”.  The larger southeastern deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado, are obvious, but no so obvious are the semi-arid/steppe environments of the southern Central Valley and much of the Southern California coastal area starting at the Los Angeles basin and continuing south to the border with Mexico.  North of Los Angeles, starting at Santa Barbara (where I attended university) all the way to the northern border with Oregon, the immediate coast (west of the coastal mountains) is that wonderful mild and somewhat mysterious climate type called “Mediterranean/summer fog”  (for which Monterey, Santa Cruz and Big Sur and the Coastal Redwood forests are so famous).

There is no one climate that is California.

When it is said that California is still/is not still in drought, what do they mean?

That’s the problem.  One has to be very careful when speaking of drought, and the NY Times’ crew certainly wasn’t.   Cliff Mass covered a lot of territory, and gave us graphs and carts of differing drought indicators.

But here is what the still says as of Tuesday, 24 January 2023 (latest data is for week ending 17 January 2023):

Cliff Mass used the right-hand-most image above in his refutation (linked above).  This next image is what appeared in the NY Times:

which is a one-month view on the left and a three-year on the right.

On the other hand, the California SPIE (The Standardised Precipitation-Evapotranspiration Index) on a 12-month basis, downloaded on 21 Jan 23, looks like this:

Which shows still quite dry in the southeast-most corner of the Colorado desert.

What can we make of all this?

Some of these images have some commonalities.  But, in the end, they are more different than they are alike.

Why?  I’ll cover that in Part 2.

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Author’s Comment:

I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and early 1960s.  In that 20-year period we had years-long droughts, requiring water conservation rules; we had rainy years, we had atmospheric rivers (called Pineapple Express in those days, coming from Hawaii), we had great floods — filling Los Angeles’ extensive flood control channels (and my local park — intentionally built as a flood control device).

I spend summers camping and hiking the great dry brush covered hills and mountains, and exploring nearly endless deserts by day and by night.

California is a “mostly dry” place – beautiful where not covered with concrete and the rabbit warrens of far too many people.

Stay tuned for Part 2

Thanks for reading.

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