There’s a ton of rain in the forecast for California. A fire hose of moisture from the tropical Pacific Ocean is expected to take aim at the West Coast, delivering a series of storms to the Golden State. But although the weather pattern appears to be changing, the drought is not, and even a wetter-than-average March may be too little, too late.
The precipitation outlook through mid-March looks great for the West, and California in particular. While much of February was dominated by high pressure and sunshine, forecast models are predicting a pattern change over the next week that will lead to more storms coming off the Pacific and more chances for rain and snow.
Models are forecasting this pattern — low pressure over the West and high pressure over the East — to remain in place through the middle of the month, and possibly into early April.
In the near-term, Northern California has a few damp days ahead this week, but the Pacific moisture tap is expected to really turn on starting this weekend. The “pineapple express” will be in full swing — an atmospheric river of moisture that extends from the central Pacific Ocean, near Hawaii, all the way to the West Coast. California’s heaviest rains tend to come from atmospheric river events.
A series of strong storms with heavy rain and gusty winds is forecast to start Saturday and follow in quick succession. “Given the model consistency and agreement,” wrote the National Weather Service in the San Francisco Bay Area, “confidence is quite high that our area will see periods of significant rainfall along with locally strong winds form this upcoming weekend well into next week.”
Through next Monday, forecast models are projecting widespread rainfall totals of more than two inches across Northern California and 20 to 30 more inches of snow in the Sierras.
Southern California does not look as though it will get quite as much rain from these events as their neighbors to the north in the next week, though the NWS says it is expecting “non-trivial” amounts.
The pattern shift has lead the NWS to paint the West in green in precipitation outlooks through March 13. It’s forecasting a 60 to 70 percent chance of above-normal precipitation across almost all of California through March 9, and a 50 to 70 percent chance through March 13.
This is good news for California, but extreme drought is a long game.
It may come as a surprise to those who don’t live in the state, but California is in nearly the exact same drought situation that it was in one year a go, despite a winter’s worth of strong El Niño conditions. As of Tuesday, a little more than 38 percent of the state was in “exceptional drought” — the most severe category on the U.S. Drought Monitor scale. That’s only down from nearly 40 percent at this time last year, for a total exceptional drought reduction of 1.4 percent.
Looking at the rainfall totals so far this season, it’s no wonder the drought hasn’t budged.
San Francisco’s season-to-date rainfall is just 80 percent of normal, and Sacramento has seen only 70 percent of what falls in a typical season through late February. A few locations in the Central Valley have been lucky enough to surpass their annual averages — Fresno is up to 133 percent of normal — but it’s certainly not the norm. Hanford, Bakersfield, Paso Robles and Santa Maria are all running below average.
Southern California, which was topping 90 degrees and shattering records in mid-February, has undoubtedly had it the worst in a winter many thought was going to bring the rain. Santa Barbara is at just 56 percent of normal. Los Angeles is at 70 percent. Camarillo: 39 percent. Long Beach: 57 percent. Palm Springs: 62 percent.
It’s not to say that the West hasn’t had beneficial rain this winter. The Pacific Northwest has had a boom season, which has eradicated nearly all of Washington state’s drought and brought Oregon’s drought out of the extreme category. Seattle had its rainiest “strong El Niño” season on record. Far northwest California has also been on the winning end of the season; Eureka, Calif., has had 125 percent of its average rainfall so far this winter, and Crescent City is running near 120 percent.
But it still leaves a large portion of the West, and nearly all of California itself in the same drought it has had for the past four years, and time is running out in this rainy season. Grand promises of “one storm after another like a conveyor belt” have not been kept so far this winter, despite the ongoing, near-record El Niño.
The problem with this El Niño is that, despite matching the intensity of the 1997-1998 event — which brought torrential wintertime rainfall to Southern California — it’s just not the same. Jan Null, founder of Golden Gate Weather Services, has been tracking El Niño since it began in mid-2015. He said this year is the “poster child” for the adage that all El Niños are different.
In February, the warmer waters in the Pacific Ocean covered a significantly larger area than they did in 1997-1998. Other sea-surface temperature patterns were different, as well — all of which have the ability to influence the position of the jet stream and California’s weather. Instead of a series of winter storms, the region was baking under a ridge of high pressure.
March tends to be the last month that El Niño has a chance to play a significant role in California storm tracks, and we may be seeing this pattern play out in the forecasts in the next few weeks. But its best shot at significant, drought-busting rain might be over until next winter, especially for the southern half of the state.