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California Drought Improves; 2015 Warmest Year On Record

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Boreal Mountain Resort and other ski areas in California opened in November 2015. Storms in December and January have brought more snow to the Sierra Nevada. Forecasters say more snowpack is needed to end California's long-term drought.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Recent storms have brought more improvement, however slight, in the historic four-year drought in California over the past week. 

The U.S. Drought Monitor says the percentage of severe and extreme drought was reduced in extreme northwestern California and southwestern and south-central Oregon.

"This doesn’t mean the region is drought free by any means, but it’s certainly a good start to the Water Year as we sit near the mid-point of the snow season," according to the weekly update. "Now we’ll see if Mother Nature finishes strong or changes her mind."

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The update says there was improvement in drought conditions throughout the western region, "but mostly found outside of California where favorable precipitation continues to come in waves (also covering the coastal ranges from northern California up to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington) with favorable prospects for more precipitation on the horizon this week as well."

The Drought Monitor intensity levels are Abnormally Dry, Moderate, Severe, Extreme and Exceptional drought.

In California, 100 percent of the state is abnormally dry, moderate drought covers 97 percent of the state, with 86 percent in severe, 68 percent in extreme and more than 42 percent in exceptional drought.

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Significant drought improvement came in eastern and northern Nevada, according to the update released January 21.

Severe drought in Nevada has been reduced to 40 percent from 64 percent the previous week.

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In Nevada, 98 percent of the state is abnormally dry, moderate drought covers more than 73 percent of the state, with nearly 41 percent in severe, 25 percent in extreme and nearly 5 percent in exceptional drought.

More Snowpack Needed To End Long-Term Drought

"For most of the West, snowpack and snow water equivalent numbers are running above-normal to well above-normal in general," the report states. "This issue of snowpack will be ever more important as stores of snow will hopefully continue to build as we head into the final half of the snow season, which will then be needed to begin the filling of reservoirs while also providing some buffer against the high demand that will follow come summer."

"The hydrological impacts (depleted streams, depleted deep soil moisture reserves, reservoirs and groundwater) are the last to emerge going into drought and they will be the last to recover coming out. El Niño continues to spur on this slow recovery process (especially for those areas with the long-term "L" drought label - or Long-Term), but much more is needed (particularly in the form of snow) to begin chipping away at the "L", particularly in California and southern Oregon where the multi-year drought has been entrenched for some time now."

Reservoir Jan 20 2016

Major reservoirs located in north and central California show dramatic improvement over the past month, due to frequent storms that have brought above normal rain in January. 

For example, Folsom Lake, at a record low in November 2015, is now filled to 35 percent of capacity, compared to 16 percent a month ago.

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Reservoirs in the southern part of California have improved only slightly as El Niño and a shift in the southern jet stream have brought major storms to central and northern California.  

U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook Is Positive For California

The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook (January 21 - April 30, 2016) from the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center predicts "drought remains but improves" in much of California and Nevada, with "drought removal likely" in extreme northwest and southeast California.  

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The forecast, released January 21, also says drought improvement and removal is likely in Nevada and the Pacific Northwest, where widespread heavy rain and mountain snowfall has already "resulted in significant drought reductions."

"Drought relief also occurred across parts of northern California, the Great Basin, and the Desert Southwest," according to the seasonal outlook. "During the next 3.5 months, El Niño conditions favor continued drought improvement or removal across southern Oregon, California, the Great Basin, and the Southwest, while an anticipated dry signal supports drought persistence across the Northwest."

More Rain Predicted For California, West Coast

Looking ahead, the weekly drought update says "the best bet for the heaviest precipitation totals can be found in east-central California, northern California, and the coastal ranges of Oregon and Washington along with the Gulf Coast and Mid-Atlantic regions."


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"The 6-10 day outlooks (January 26-30) are calling for a high probability of above-normal temperatures across the entire western half of the country (from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean) with the greatest signature found along the west coast from San Diego to Seattle," according to the drought update.

"Precipitation is also most likely across northern California, the Pacific NW and the Great Basin with a slightly better chance of above-normal rains falling across the Southeast and central Florida in particular."  

2015 Warmest Year On Record, 2nd Warmest In California

Meanwhile, NASA and NOAA say 2015 was the warmest year on record with the global average nearly 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer than the 2014 average.

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NOAA reports the average temperature on land and ocean surfaces around the world was 1.62° F (0.90° C) above the 20th century average.

That makes 2015 the hottest since instrument records began being kept in 1880, beating the record set in 2014.

The annual average temperature in the continental U.S. in 2015 was hotter than the 20th century average, according to NOAA.

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