In the annals of weather records, this is one nobody wanted to break.
On Thursday, downtown Sacramento recorded its 47th continuous winter day without measurable rainfall, breaking a record that has stood since 1884, according to the National Weather Service. It appears likely the city will go on to shatter the record, as there is no sign of rain for at least another week.
“That’s pretty darn impressive,” said Kelly Redmond, a climatologist and deputy director at the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno. “It’s just tremendous that this kind of spectacular dry period has continued for so long.”
The record applies only to downtown Sacramento, but exemplifies the extraordinarily dry conditions across California that last week prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a statewide drought emergency.
Redmond said that, for California as a whole, the dry trend is actually much longer. Based on records dating to 1895, the 30 months ending in December 2013 were drier than any similar period ever recorded in the state.
“It’s just seeming to find a new way to not rain every few days,” he said. “I think at this point, people would like to see just about any form of precipitation.”
In response, municipal water agencies throughout the Sacramento region have called on customers to slash water use by 20 percent. The latest to join that list is the Elk Grove Water District, which approved a voluntary 20 percent conservation order on Wednesday. The cities of Sacramento and Folsom have already made that conservation target mandatory, and many others are likely to do the same in February as the dry trend continues.
John Woodling, executive director at the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, called the situation “unprecedented” and said agencies may need to put in place much tougher watering regulations once temperatures increase in spring and summer.
“This is real,” Woodling said. “We need to step up and save water and I think people should err on the side of doing everything they can. If you think you can reduce your outdoor watering entirely, do it now.”
There are also grave implications for fire danger. Already, wildland fires are popping up across the state, an unusual occurrence in January. Forest fires have struck some corners of California that are traditionally the wettest, including Humboldt County, where the Red fire burned 333 acres west of the town of Willow Creek earlier this month.
Another blaze, dubbed the Soda fire, is burning in the Sequoia National Forest at elevations above 7,500 feet – a range normally blanketed by deep snow. It has burned 735 acres so far.
In Northern California, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection normally puts most fire engine crews on seasonal furlough in winter. But it recently hired back enough firefighters to staff 26 engines across the north state because of the dry conditions, said Cal Fire director Ken Pimlott.
“The vegetation conditions are extremely dry statewide,” said Pimlott. “I’ve been a firefighter for 30 years and I talk to all of our peers, and no one can remember when we’ve had these kind of conditions statewide and had this level of activity. It’s a situation to take very seriously.”
Paul Iniguez, science and operations officer at the National Weather Service office in Hanford, noted that winter is already half over. So the odds of getting enough precipitation, in the weeks that remain, to avoid another drought year and a severe fire season are slim. Iniguez performed a statistical calculation to estimate the odds that California could emerge from this winter with merely average precipitation. He used computers to sample 1 million possible scenarios based on 120 years of weather records.
The results? There is only a 1 in 200 chance of obtaining average precipitation this winter, Iniguez found.
“We’ve basically locked in below-average rainfall for the rest of winter because it’s been so dry so far,” he said.
The dry weather is caused by a high-pressure ridge parked over the Pacific Ocean, diverting storms north of California. This ridge has been unusually persistent, essentially fixed in place for more than a year. Why this has occurred is unknown, but it may be linked to warm ocean conditions in the North Pacific and Gulf of Alaska.
The American Meteorological Society recently announced it will convene a group of scientists later this year to investigate whether the California drought is caused by climate change.
One sign of hope on the horizon is that computer weather models are hinting that a storm might break through the high pressure in the first week of February. But that is still a long way off, so the confidence is low.
Redmond has another reason for optimism. Weather experts are planning to assemble in Sacramento on Feb. 20 for a drought forum. The location and other details are still being worked out.
“Usually the best way to get some rain is to have a drought meeting,” Redmond said. “I’ve been to more drought meetings in the rain than probably any other kind of meeting. That’s probably the most hopeful sign I think I have.”