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California’s Snow Cover Hits a 500-Year Low, and El Niño Probably Isn’t Coming to Save Us

It's a reality check not just for skiers, but all water-based life forms in California.


As if it weren’t enough that California is on fire, we’re also running out of snow. A new report out today in Nature Climate Change finds that our four-year drought is not just the drought of the decade but, by some measures, the drought of the entire half-millennium. By studying tree rings and historical snow-pack records, researchers from the University of Arizona concluded that the Sierra Nevadas haven’t been this short of snow in at least five hundred years, meaning that the last ones to see it like this were Native Americans (and whatever you'd call the pre-Internet incarnation of social media presence Karl the Fog). 

CityLab posted a duly unsettling photo from NASA, showing the change in snow pack only in the past five years. This doesn’t just suck for skiers, but all water-based life forms that call California home, given that more than two-thirds of our water reaches us from snow melt in the mountains. And just as warm, dry conditions hasten the spread of wildfire, they also spell doom for our stores of powder. “We should be prepared for this type of snow drought to occur much more frequently because of rising temperatures,” University of Arizona researcher Valerie Trouet says in a statement. “Anthropogenic warming is making the drought more severe.”

Now would be an excellent time for El Niño (heyyy, baby) to swoop in and drench us all. And though the likelihood of a fluke weather system coming to the rescue keeps on rising—it now stands at 95 percent—we don’t exactly get to choose where it goes. CBS notes that storms, if we get them, are most likely to hit Southern California, where water is often channeled away from private property, back into the ocean. The state’s biggest reservoirs, meanwhile, are concentrated in Northern California, which is less likely to get the really serious rain. So even if we’re blessed with a drought-busting storm system, our infrastructure is not exactly poised to make the most of it.

In lay terms, we need "a ton" of rain to get out of the hole we're in, according to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For our region of Northern California to catch up, we'd need a whopping 259 percent of our normal rainfall from October 2015 through September 2016. That amount would pull us out of the bottom 50 percent of records dating back to 1928, potentially challenge our infrastructure (if it all decided to turn up at once), and maybe, just maybe, give firefighters and our scorched rural tracts a much-needed break.


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