NASA Satellite Image Shows California Experiencing Record Drought
February 19, 2014

NASA Satellite Image Shows California Experiencing Record Drought

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Much of the American West is suffering from a persistent dry spell with California seeing the worst of it. And the drought is so bad in California that it can be seen from space.

Using data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites, NASA scientists released an image detailing the severity of the conditions in California. The state’s mountains and vegetation cover show considerable dryness, as much of the state is in extreme drought conditions.

By the end of January 2014, nearly three-quarters of the state was in extreme drought, with a wide band in the west central area of the state experiencing exceptional drought. Data from MODIS also shows that California is experiencing the driest periods since record-keeping began in 1885. In the past year – from Feb 1, 2013 to Jan 31, 2014 – a statewide average of 6.97 inches of rain fell; a more than 70 percent drop from the annual average precipitation of 22.51 inches.

The image shows the impact the drought has had on farms, forests and wild lands in California. Shades of brown depict where plant growth was below normal for the time of the year. Green shades depict areas where vegetation is more widespread than normal. Gray areas in the image depict where data was not available.

Surprisingly, there is an abundance of greenness along the outer edges of the Sierra Nevada range.

“In a normal year, much of the green areas near the mountains would be snow-covered,” said Ramakrishna Nemani, a vegetation sensing expert at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “Since there is not much snow this year, the evergreen vegetation appears anomalously green. In fact, that is bad news for this time of the year.”

The continuing drought has left the coastal mountains from north of San Francisco to south of Los Angeles snow-free. The Sierra Nevada Mountains have seen similar patterns. While there are a few patches of green, which indicate where farms still have access to water for irrigation, most of the region is brown – a sign that the region is suffering from drought stress.

“If you showed me this image without the date, I would say: ‘This is California in early fall after a long, hot summer, before the fall and winter rains and snows arrived,’” said Bill Patzert, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This is no California winter postcard.”

Although some areas of California – particularly the north and central regions – received some rain and snowfall in early February, the drought continues its deep grasp.

“Although there were short-term local improvements from this week’s ample precipitation, the long stretch of subnormal precipitation dating back to 2011-12 wet season has accumulated large deficits, leaving rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and snow packs well below normal,” wrote David Miskus of the NOAA Climate Prediction Center. “Even though this storm was welcome, the central Sierra still needs 3 to 4 more copious storms to bring this wet season close to average. Unfortunately, little to no precipitation fell on southern California and the Southwest.”

Image 2 (Below): Extreme ( Light Red) and Exceptional (Dark Red) drought conditions shown in this image of California. Credit: US Drought Monitor