california drought

How Dismal Is California's Snowpack? These Photos Tell a Grim Story

January and February are typically California's wettest months, when snowstorms replenish the Sierra Nevada snowpack

These side-by-side photos show California's snowpack in February 2019 and February 2020.
NWS

Side-by-side satellite photos show the difference a year can make when it comes to California's vital snowpack in Sierra Nevada Mountain range.

The photos show the mountains covered in snow at this time last year following a conveyor belt of storms that brought steady snowfall throughout the winter. A photo taken Feb. 17 of this year illustrates the dreadful condition of the snowpack, which provides water for about 30 percent of California.

Ideally, a barrage of storms blanket the mountains in snow during winter. That snowpack then melts in warmer months and water flows into the state's vast system of reservoirs and aqueducts.

The snowpack is at 53 precent of normal for this time of year.

Last year at this time, the statewide snowpack was 127 percent of average. By the time the final snowpack survey of 2019 was taken, it was nearly double its average for early May after a series of winter storms pounded the West Coast.

January and February are historically the wettest months of the year in California. But that hasn't been the case in 2020 with a dry weather pattern dominating the state since the start of January.

California Snowpack Through the Years

Last week, about 46 percent of California was considered abnormally dry, according to the US Drought Monitor report. The weekly report noted that a swatch of the state's Central Valley has entered moderate drought.

The monitor's categories range from abnormally dry to the most severe exceptional drought.

Los Angeles is on pace for its fourth driest February on record, recording just a trace amount of rain this month.

One main reason is that high pressure is blocking rain from moving into California and steering it toward the Pacific Northwest. The systems that would otherwise bring rain and snow are pushed too far north, which is especially bad news for the state's snowpack.

This map displays high pressure pushing a storm system north of california.
NBCLA
This map shows high pressure pushing storm systems to the north of Caifornia.

Snowpack typically peaks around the time of the April 1 survey, so there's still time for conditions to improve before the hot and dry summer months.

And, California has seen much worse during its history of prolonged dry spells followed drought busting wet winters. Consider February 2015, when more than 41 percent of California was in the most severe drought category. At that time, nearly all of the state was in moderate drought or worse.

That was just part of a years-long drought that was finally washed away by a series of powerful winter storms in 2017.

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