Dry, hot California winter closes ski resorts, stalls wildflower blooms and revives drought fears

Paige St. John, Rong-Gong Lin II and Sarah Parvini, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

University of California, Berkeley researcher Randall Osterhuber at the snow lab in Soda Springs has been measuring the frozen water bank on which California's summer supplies so keenly depend on: just 13 inches Monday morning. Last year at this time, there were 128 inches, or nearly 11 feet of snow.

In the deserts of Southern California, chances of a brilliant springtime wildflower bloom are fading fast. Only a few poppies have sprouted at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, and the hills are mostly brown.

At Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California's largest state park, some flowers, including lavender, are blooming. But even a half-inch more rain would do wonders, said Betsy Knaak, executive director of the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association. Since New Year's Day, less than an inch of rain has fallen in Borrego Springs; last year, Borrego Springs saw more than 2 1/2 inches in January and nearly 2 inches in February.

The persistent mass of high pressure hanging around California doesn't seem to be going anywhere. It has budged slightly, enough to allow this week's storm to get through -- but it's moving in a way that results in a pretty dry system.

The ridge of high pressure has pushed the track of storms from the Pacific Ocean first north into Alaska before making a hairpin loop down from British Columbia and into California. That takes it through an overland route that keeps the storm relatively dry, said meteorologist David Sweet of the National Weather Service's Oxnard office.

Only a few hundredths of an inch of rain are expected to hit the lower elevations of L.A. County. "It's not much," Sweet said. "There might be a little bit of snow on the Grapevine."

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"To get that really beneficial rainfall and Sierra snowfall, we need these 'atmospheric river' type storms, where the moisture is coming off the Pacific Ocean," said meteorologist Tony Fuentes of the weather service's Reno office. But the track of atmospheric river storms, which California benefited from last year, has been blocked by the high pressure sitting around the state.

San Francisco has now seen 18 consecutive days without rainfall, said meteorologist Jan Null. If that pace keeps up for the next 10 days, the city will have reached the ninth longest streak of no rain during the wintertime. And if no rain appears for four additional days, San Francisco will be in the running for the fourth longest dry spell in the wintertime, Null said.

If February joins December and January into record-setting dryness, "then California is marching into unprecedented territory, which has never been seen before in the recorded climate history," Steve Johnson, long-range forecaster with Atmospherics Group International, said in an email. "Unless March and/or April bring abundant rains ... this rainfall season could end up being one of, or possibly THE driest in our climate history."

Some held out hope for a March miracle, in which just one or two wet weather systems could lay down enough snow to make up the difference. One such memorable March came in 1991.


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