North State winter outlook

Nov 11, 2014 8:54 PM by Meteorologist Jason Atcho

After 3 consecutive years of below average precipitation, the state is facing some of the toughest times in its history. California's drought means water resources are dwindling across the state and all eyes are focused on this year's winter outlook.

Last month's rain across the North State was a welcomed sight, but unfortunately it's just not enough to get us out of the giant hole we're in. "It's not alleviating the long term impacts of the drought that we've seen all year," said Michelle Mead, Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

After years of below average rain, this is the first year in California's history that a majority of the state is in an exceptional drought, which is the worst on the drought monitor. With dry year after dry year, the water levels keep dropping. Even a decent winter won't get things back to normal. "An average year is not going to put us back. It certainly won't hurt but that gap, about 32 inches, would stay the same. What we need is an unusually wet, actually an extraordinarily wet winter," explained Eric Kurth, Meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

The Climate Prediction Center has put out forecasts for this winter and they're saying the warm temperatures we've seen all year will continue into the next few months. "The precipitation outlooks are equal chances which is that 33.3% of at, above, or below normal," said Mead.

Even if we get an average amount of precipitation, it'll likely be too warm which would cause a thinner snowpack. That affects us significantly since the snowpack is one-third of the state's water supply. "Typically the snow will melt off into June and July, and last winter it was gone by May first," said Mead.

Many people are hoping for an El Niño to bring an end to the drought. This is when we see warming sea surface temperatures that enhance precipitation. However, there's more to it than just that. "It's kind of a puzzle and what we haven't seen develop is so far this year is that atmospheric connection. We have not seen the showers and thunderstorms shift to the east like we typically see in an El Niño pattern," explained Mead.

The probability of an El Niño forming has dropped to 58% and even if it does develop, it's forecasted to be weak one. "There's a misconception that El Niño means statewide California is going to see a lot of rain, and historically that hasn't really been the case. It's really a southern California signal and sometimes central and northern California reap some of the benefits but it's not a sure thing," said Mead.

These seasonal outlooks can't key in on short term weather. What we need to be hoping for are several events with atmospheric rivers, or pineapple express, which can bring us a months' worth of rain in just a few days. "They can really dump a lot of precipitation on us very quickly. So what we need is to get quite a few of those atmospheric river events and they could really turn it around," explained Kurth.

In the meantime, we're at the mercy of Mother Nature. All we can do hope for rain, but prepare for the worst. "We have to continue to conserve. We have to plan for another dry year because the winter outlooks are not looking like we are going to see above average precipitation this winter," said Mead.

Even if we had a wet winter this year, we would need more than 150% of the average precipitation to get us back to normal levels.


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