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Western USA Snowpack and Reservoirs


I last reported on the snowpack and reservoirs in California and the Colorado River Basin at the end of January. At that time, the snowpack had gotten off to a slow start. Boy, did things change!


Most of the western USA has a monsoonal precipitation pattern: most of the rain falls during the winter, and from about March through the end of November, there usually isn’t much precipitation. For that reason, the entire region depends on stored water, either in reservoirs, or perhaps even more importantly, in the snowpack that builds up on the mountains. Because I have family in California, and because the long-term predictions for the water supply in the West have been grim, I have been following the status of the snowpack and the reservoirs in California and the Colorado River Basin. The most important measurement for the snowpack is usually around April 1, while maximum levels on the reservoirs typically occur some weeks later, as the snowpack melts. For instance, Lake Powell, the uppermost very large reservoir on the Colorado River, reaches its highest monthly average in July. Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir in California, reaches its highest average level in May.

Figure 1. Source: California Department of Water Resources, 2019a.

Figure 1 shows the snow water content of the snowpack in California. (The snow water content represents how much water there would be if you melted the snow in a given location. For instance, if you melted 7 inches of snow, it might only represent 1 inch of water.) The 3 charts represent the 3 major snowpack regions of California. The dark blue line is for 2019, while the light blue area represents average. The units along the y-axis represent percent of the April 1 average.

You can see that 2019 had an above average snowpack, maxing out at more than 150% of average in all 3 regions. By this time of year, the snowpack has largely melted. Notice the text at the bottom right: “Statewide Percent of Average for Date: 71%.” Despite having a snowpack that maxed out at 150% of average, the amount of snowpack remaining on this date is less than average. This illustrates another way that climate change is affecting California: temperatures are up, and the snowpack is melting more rapidly than in the past.

Figure 2. Source: Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, 2019.

I use Mammoth Mountain to illustrate snowfall amounts; it is located in the middle-south of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, south of Yosemite. Their website indicates that they are still open with 15” at the main lodge and 55” at the summit – on July 4th! Figure 2 shows snowfall at Mammoth Mountain by year and month. Paralleling the snowpack survey, this chart shows that 2019 was well above average at Mammoth, but not a record. There was one month with a lot of snow: February.

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Figure 3. Source: California Department of Water Resources, 2019b.

As a result, California’s reservoirs are all above average for this date, as shown in Figure 3. Even lake Oroville, which had to be mostly emptied when the dam eroded, threatening catastrophic failure, is nearing capacity. Every single reservoir is above average, and only one is not near capacity.

Many western states, including Southern California, are heavily dependent on water from the Colorado River. Lake Mead is the largest reservoir, and it is capable of holding more water than any other in the USA. For a couple of decades, there has been concern that water demands on the Colorado River had increased, and water supply into it had decreased, to the point that Lake Mead would be drained within a couple of decades. Over the last 5 years, water levels were so low that they flirted with the mandatory cut-back level: states would have lost a significant portion of their water.

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Figure 4 shows that snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin was higher than average in 2019, and this represents the 2nd time in the last 3 years. This snow melts into a number of reservoirs along the tributaries of the Colorado River, and then into Lake Powell, the first of the gigantic reservoirs along the Lower Colorado River Basin. From Lake Powell, it is released into Lake Mead. Figure 5 shows that Lake Mead is up from its record low a few years ago, but it is still historically very low.

Figure 4. Source: water-data.com, 2019b.

Figure 5. Source: water-data.com, 2019a.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bottom line here is that the draught has finally broken in California, and that state is sitting on plenty of water for now. This was to be expected – nobody ever thought that California’s water supply problem would be a straight line from full to empty. The regions history, however, indicates that draught is a normal occurance for the state, and in recent years, wet periods have not lasted too long. The whole point of reservoirs is that they get drawn down during dry periods. So long as they get refilled before they are empty, the system is working just like it should. Three things can break the system, though: first, if water demand increases too much, and there just isn’t enough water to satisfy the demand. California is getting close to outstripping supply, as is all of the West. Second, wet years could get less wet, and then they might not be sufficient to refill the reservoirs. This year was sufficient to refill the California reservoirs, but Lake Mead still has a long way to go! And finally, if too many years go by before a wet one comes along, then the reservoirs could get sucked dry. California was getting close, and Santa Barbara, in particular, got really, really close.

The long term projection is still guarded, as population continues to enter western states and climate change continues to threaten the snowpack. How it will unfold year-by-year is anybody’s guess, but for now, things are better than they were a couple of years ago.

Sources:

California Department of Water Resources. 2019a. Current Reservoir Conditions. Downloaded 7/4/2019 from http://cdec.water.ca.gov/reportapp/javareports?name=rescond.pdf.

California Department of Water Resources. 2019b. California Snow Water Content, July 1, 2019, Percent of April Average. Downloaded 7/4/2019 from http://cdec.water.ca.gov/reportapp/javareports?name=PLOT_SWC.pdf.

water-data.com. 2019. Lake Mead Water Levels, All Time. Downloaded 7/4/2019 from http://graphs.water-data.com/lakemead.

water-data.com. 2019. Lake Mead Water Level: Averages by Month. Downloaded 7/4/2019 from http://lakepowell.water-data.com/index2.php.

water-data.com. 2019. Upper Colorado Basin Snowpack (Actual Values). Downloaded 7/4/2019 from http://graphs.water-data.com/ucsnowpack.

Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. 2019. Extended Snow Report. Downloaded 7/4/2019 from https://www.mammothmountain.com/winter/mountain-information/mountain-information.

The World’s Thinning Glaciers


Glaciers around the world are melting. Millions of people around the world who depend on them are likely to be impacted.


One of the signs of climate change that has received the most attention is the shrinking of glaciers around the world. Sometimes it is presented as a cause of sea level change, but it has only a minor effect on sea level. The Greenland Ice Cap and the Antarctic Ice Cap are far larger bodies of ice, and they will (and already do) contribute more to rising sea levels than do all the glaciers around the world. Further, much of the predicted rise in sea level is due to nothing more than the thermal expansion of water. You know, things expand as they heat up. Well, the oceans are projected to heat up only a little, but there is so much of them that expansion contributes significantly to the rise in sea level.

Melting glaciers matter for a different reason: people depend on them for water. Glaciers form the headwaters of many of the world’s rivers, great and small. Not meaning to make a comprehensive list, in Asia, the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Yangtze, the Huang-ho (Yellow), and the Oxus all arise from glacial melt. In Europe, the Danube, the Rhine, and the Po all receive substantial glacial melt. In South America, the Madeira (largest tributary of the Amazon) receives glacial melt from about 1,000 miles of the east slope of the Andes. Finally, in North America, the Missouri, Columbia, Snake, Yukon, McKenzie, and Fraser Rivers all receive significant glacial melt.

Figure 1. Source: Schaner, Voisin, Nijssen, and Lettenmaier, 2012.

Figure 1 is a map indicating river basins for which at least 5% (green), 10% (yellow) 25% (orange), and 50% (red) of discharge is derived from glaciers in at least one month. (The “at least one month” qualification matters – glaciers melt much more during the warmer months of the year). Notice that one of the 2 largest blotches of color is located along the northwest coast of North America. This is a high mountain region that is very far north and close to an ocean: a perfect recipe for glaciers. The other is located in Central Asia, where the highest mountains in the world are located, and which receive the famous monsoons of India.

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Table 1. Source: Schaner, Voisin, Nijssen and Lettenmaier, 2012.

Table 1 shows the number of people and the land area that depend on glacial melt. Considering the world as a whole, an estimated 120 million people depend on rivers that get 50% or more of their water from glacial melt (1.8% of the world’s population). About 600 million people depend on rivers that get 5% or more of their water from glaciers (8.9%of the world’s population). So, we are talking about substantial numbers of people. Should the earth’s glaciers decline substantially, some of these people would be likely to lose access to water entirely, at least for part of the year. For others, important life-sustaining activities, such as agriculture or transportation, would be curtailed.

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Figure 2. Source: WGMS, 2017, updated, and earlier reports.

So what is the status of the world’s glaciers? Sadly, it is not good! The World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) is a joint project of the World Data System, the International Association of Cryospheric Sciences, the United Nations Environment Program, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, and the World Meteorological Organization. The WGMS studies and monitors the world’s glaciers, and serves as a repository for data on them. They have a set of 30 glaciers around the world that have been repeatedly measured for at least the last 30 years (some much longer), with few or no gaps. Figure 2 shows the status of these 30 glaciers. The year is represented on the x-axis, and the change in mass is represented on the y-axis. The units on the y-axis are meter water equivalents, which are equal to metric tons per square meter of surface. Thus, in 2015, the year of greatest loss, these 30 glaciers collectively lost about 1.1 metric tons of ice per square meter of surface. When you consider that the earth has hundreds, if not thousands, of glaciers, then it becomes clear that we are talking about a lot of ice that is melting into water.

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Figure 3. Source: WGMS, 2017, updated, and earlier reports.

Many of these glaciers are hundreds or thousands of feet thick, and the loss in mass represents thinning of the glacier (melting from the top or bottom) every bit as much as it represents retreat (melting at the bottom end of the glacier). Figure 3 shows the cumulative loss in mass of these same 30 glaciers since 1950. Don’t be confused by the early values above 0 – the glaciers have been losing mass throughout, but for some reason, the WGMS set 1976 as zero, not 1950.

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Figure 4. Source: WGMS, 2017, updated, and earlier reports.

The reference glaciers are concentrated in North America and Europe more than in other continents. However, consider Figure 4, which shows the cumulative mass lost by region. Western Canada/USA and Central Europe have had greater loss than any other regions. However, all regions have had significant loss, including Svalbard and Jan Mayen (3rd worst), and Asia Central (4th worst).

I thought I would illustrate the global nature of the retreat with reference to a few very well known glaciers. Though not necessarily the largest or most important, they are famous.

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Figure 5. Mt. Everest and the Khumbu Glacier. Source: NASA 2011.

To represent Asia, I chose the Khumbu Glacier. Located in Nepal, this is the glacier of Mt. Everest. Base camp sits on it; climbers walk up it and through the Khumbu Ice Fall (where the glacier pours over a cliff), before starting their ascent of the mountain itself. It was measured 3 times: 1970, 2000, and 2016. Between 1970 and 2000, it thinned by an average of 300 cm. (9.8 feet) per year. Between 2000 and 2016, it thinned faster, by an average of 500 cm. (16.4 ft.) per year. (The surface of most glaciers collect dust and debris, thus parts of the glaciers turn brown or gray.)

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Figure 6 Photo by John May, 2015.

To represent Europe, I chose the Mer de Glace, the famous glacier just east of Mt. Blanc (and the 2nd largest in Europe). The first measurement of the Mer de Glace was in 1570. I told you some of these measurements went back more than 30 years! By the early 1600s, the front of the glacier had advanced by about 1,000 meters. It then varied until the late 1800s, when it began retreating. By the early 2000s, the front of the glacier had retreated about 1,000 meters from its 1570 location, and about 2,000 meters from its location during the mid-1800s. Meanwhile, the thickness of the glacier was measured in 1980, 2003, and 2012. Between 1980 and 2003, it thinned at a rate of about 18-20 mm. per year (0.06-0.065 ft.) Between 2003 and 2012, the thinning accelerated to about 160 mm. per year (0.5 ft.).

Figure 7. Source: NASA.

To represent North America, I chose the Muir Glacier: the photos of its retreat are as dramatic as any around the world. It was first measured in 1880, and since then its front has retreated about 29,000 meters (95,144 ft. or 18 miles). The photos in Figure 7 were taken in 1941 and 2004, and show about 7 of those 18 miles of retreat.

I’ve discussed what climate change and snowpack loss in the Northern Rockies might mean for the water supply in the Missouri River, and those who want to explore that topic can find the post here.

Glacial loss matters in some locations more than others. A very large number of people are likely to be affected, especially in Asia. Those people often live at a subsistence level; what loss of the glaciers will mean to them is hard to know. What kind of famine, pestilence, migration, political instability, and war might result is anybody’s guess.

Sources:

NASA. 2011. Adapted from ”everest_ali_2011298_geo.tif.” Downloaded 2019-07-01 from https://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=82578.

NASA. “Graphic: Dramatic Glacier Melt.” Global Climate Change. Downloaded 6/24/2019 from https://climate.nasa.gov/climate_resources/4/graphic-dramatic-glacier-melt.

Schaner, Neil, Nathalie Voisin, Bart Nijssen, and Dennis P. Lettenmaier. 2012. “The Contribution of Glacier Melt to Streamflow.” Environmental Research Letters. 7 034029. Downloaded 6/24/2019 from https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/7/3/034029.

WGMS. 2019. WGMS Flucuations of Glaciers Browser. Data accessed online 6/24/2019 at https://www.wgms.ch/fogbrowser.

WGMS (2017, updated, and earlier reports): Global Glacier Change Bulletin No. 2 (2014-2015). Zemp, M., Nussbaumer, S. U., Gärtner-Roer, I., Huber, J., Machguth, H., Paul, F., and Hoelzle, M. (eds.), ICSU(WDS)/IUGG(IACS)/UNEP/UNESCO/WMO, World Glacier Monitoring Service, Zurich, Switzer- land, 244 pp., based on database version: doi:10.5904/wgms-fog-2018-11. Downloaded 6/24/2019 from https://wgms.ch/global-glacier-state. (While this is the citation the source document suggests, the graphs used in this post were updated in January, 2019.)

No Decline in Missouri Crop Yields (Yet)

There have been some recent articles about how climate change is harming agriculture. One by Kim Severson in the New York Times (here) says “Drop a pin anywhere on a map of the United States and you’ll find disruption in the fields.” It goes on to discuss the impacts on “11 everyday foods”: tart cherries (Michigan), organic raspberries (New York), watermelons (Florida), chickpeas (Montana), wild blueberries (Maine), organic heirloom popcorn (Iowa), peaches (Georgia and South Carolina), organic apples (Washington), golden kiwi fruit (Texas), artichokes (California), and rice (Arkansas).

Well, that is a sampling of foods from around the country. I’m not so sure how “everyday” many of them are, but rice is certainly one of the basic grains.

A somewhat more convincing article by Chris McGreal in The Guardian interviewed farmers in valley of the Missouri River near Langdon, in northwestern Missouri. These are corn and soybean farmers. Their problem has been moisture: they have had too much rain. In many years, the ground has been so muddy that crops were ruined or not planted at all. In other years, the rain has caused the water table to rise so much that the ground looks dry on top, but is mucky mud just a few inches down. This is something, of course, that would affect river valleys the most, and the big river valleys in Missouri are some of the richest farmland the state has.

Figure 1. Data source: National Agriculture Statistics Service, USDA.

Most climate change studies project that climate change will impact agriculture negatively. Given this blog’s focus on the large statistical perspective, I thought it might be interesting to see how crop yields are doing in Missouri. The United States Department of Agriculture publishes the data. This data is a statistical average of yields across Missouri. Results in any one location may be different.

Figure 1 shows the per-acre yield for corn. The data shows that corn yields vary significantly from year-to-year, and that some years are really terrible, with yields being roughly half of what they are in good years. That said, there is a clear trend toward increased yields from 1957 right through 2014. Yields since then have been lower, and it is possible that we are looking at the start of a downward trend, but 4 years is not sufficient to tell.

Figure 2. Data source: National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA.

Figure 2 shows the per-acre yield for soybeans. The yearly variation here may be somewhat less, but the overall pattern is much the same. With soybeans, however, yields increased right through 2017.

This data doesn’t tell us why crop yields are rising. Perhaps they are due to improved farming practices and better seed stock. It is possible that warmer temperatures, an increase in carbon dioxide, and more rain have benefitted crop yields overall, even if they have hurt some farmers in some locations. We just don’t know, at least not from this data.

What we do know is that, overall, the predicted negative effects of climate change do not yet seem to be reducing yields in these two important crops.

Sources:

McGreal, Chris. 2018. “As Climate Change Bites in America’s Midwest, Farmers Are Desperate to Ring the Alarm.” The Guardian,” 12/12/2018. Viewed online 5/1/2018 at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/dec/12/as-climate-change-bites-in-americas-midwest-farmers-are-desperate-to-ring-the-alarm.

Severson, Kim. 2019. “From Apples to Popcorn, Climate Change Is Altering the Foods America Grows.” The New York Times, 4/30/2019. Viewed online 5/1/2019 at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/30/dining/farming-climate-change.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fclimate&action=click&contentCollection=climate&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=sectionfront.

National Agriculture Statistics Service, United States Department of Agriculture. Quick Stats. This is a data portal that can be used to build a customized report. I focused on yield, in bushels per acre, for corn and soybeans from 1957-2018. Data downloaded 5/1/2019 from https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov.

Missouri Weather-Related Deaths, Injuries, and Damages in 2017

Figure 1. Data source: Office of Climate, Water, and Weather Services, National Weather Service.

Damage from severe weather in Missouri shows a different pattern than does damage nationwide. As Figure 1 shows, the cost of damage from hazardous weather events in Missouri spiked in 2007, then spiked even higher in 2011. Since then, it has returned to a comparatively low level. The bulk of the damage in 2011 was from 2 tornado outbreaks. One hit the St. Louis area, damaging Lambert Field. The second devastated Joplin, killing 158, injuring 1,150, and causing damage estimated at $2.8 billion. The damages in 2007 came primarily from two winter storms, one early in the year, one late. In both cases, hundreds of thousands were without power, and traffic accidents spiked.

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Office of Climate, Water, and Weather Services, National Weather Service.

Figure 2 shows deaths and injuries in Missouri from hazardous weather. Deaths are in blue and should be read on the left vertical axis. Injuries are in red and should be read on the right vertical axis. The large number of injuries and deaths in 2011 were primarily from the Joplin tornado. In 2006 and 2007, injuries spiked, but fatalities did not. The injuries mostly represented non-fatal auto accidents from winter ice storms. The fatalities in 1999 resulted from a tornado outbreak.

I understand the trends in both figures this way: once in a while, Missouri has been struck with catastrophic weather events. They cause lots of deaths and a lot of damage, at a whole different scale from years with no catastrophic weather event. In years with no such event, weather-related deaths in Missouri have been around 40 or fewer, and injuries have been roughly 400 or fewer. Damages in such years have been about $150 million or less. In years with catastrophic weather events, the totals can be much higher.

2017 was a year in which Missouri saw no weather disasters that caused such high damages, or killed or injured so many people. That does not mean that Missouri was unaffected, however. The state was included in several billion-dollar weather disasters, the most costly of which was probably the flood of April 25-May 7. That was a historic flood for many of the communities that were affected.

The Missouri data covers fewer years than the national data discussed in my previous post. It also covers all hazardous weather, in contrast to the national data, which covered billion dollar weather disasters only. In addition, for some reason the Missouri data for 2018 has not yet been posted.

While the national data shows a clear trend towards more big weather disasters, Missouri’s data does not. The Missouri data seems to reflect the kind of disaster and where it occurred. Tornadoes, if they hit developed areas, cause injuries, deaths, and lots of damage. Floods cause fewer injuries and deaths; damage can be significant, but it is limited to the floodplain of the river that flooded. Ice storms affect widespread areas; damages come mostly through loss of the electrical grid, which can cause widespread economic loss and from car crashes, which cause many injuries but fewer deaths.

Sources:

Office of Climate, Water, and Weather Services, National Weather Service. 2016. Natural Hazard Statistics. Data for Missouri downloaded at various dates from https://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/hazstats.shtml#.

CPI inflation Calculator. 2019. 2017 CPI and Inflation Rate for the United States. Data downloaded 4/6/2019 from https://cpiinflationcalculator.com/2017-cpi-and-inflation-rate-for-the-united-states.
National Centers for Environmental Information. 2019. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters: Table of Events. Viewed online 4/6/2019 at https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/events/US/1980-2018.

Descriptions of specific weather events, if they are large and significant, can be found on the websites of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency, and local weather forecast offices. However, in my experience, the best descriptions are often on Wikipedia.

Natural Disasters Down in USA in 2018

The number of natural disasters in the USA in 2018 declined from 2017, and the amount of damage they did also declined.

Figure 1. Source: National Centers for Environmental Information, 2019.

Since 1980, there have been 241 severe weather and/or climate events in the USA that have caused damages exceeding $1.6 trillion dollars. The most important of these are the “billion-dollar disasters,” events that caused damages in excess of $1 billion. Figure 1 shows the data. The columns represent the number of events, with each color representing a different type of event. The black line represents a moving 5-year average number of events. They gray line represents the cost of damages, in billions of dollars.

In 2018, there were 14 billion-dollar disasters. That is more than double the long-term average. The 4 years with the most billion dollar disasters have all occurred in the last 8 years, and the last 3 years have ranked #1 (tie), #3, and #4. The last 3 years have been significantly higher than any other years except 2011. The increase comes primarily from severe storms, a category that excludes hurricanes and tropical cyclones, flooding and winter storms. These are tornadoes, thunderstorms, hail, and similar kinds of storms.

The estimated CPI-adjusted losses in 2018 were $91 billion. That’s quite a chunk of change, but it much less than the costs in 2017 ($312.7 billion), 2005 ($220.8 billion), or 2012 ($128.6 billion). 2017 was a terrible year (see here): Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria struck in 2017, and not only was it far-and-away the most costly year, it also tied for the highest number of disasters. Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, and Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012. Hurricane Katrina is still the single event that caused more damage than any other, followed by Hurricanes Harvey and Maria. Last year, the most costly natural disaster was the series of wildfires in California, especially the Camp Fire. The fires caused an estimated $24 billion in damage.

Looking at Figure 1, starting somewhere around 2005, the number of billion-dollar disasters starts to trend upward. The amount of damage does, too, though the variation from year-to-year is much greater. The National Centers for Environmental Information, which keeps this data, factors the Consumer Price Index into it, so the change is probably not due to inflation.

Three factors probably account for most of the increase. First, climate change has caused an increase in the amount of energy in the atmosphere, energy that is available to power more and bigger storms. I once calculated that the increased radiative forcing from climate change was equal to the energy output of 1.6 million nuclear power plants. (See here) That’s a lot of energy available to power storms. Second, climate change has caused an increase in droughts throughout the western United States. Even in years like this one, when there has been an abundance of winter snow, the warm temperatures cause the snow to melt earlier in the spring, and they dry out the land faster during the summer. The result is a tinder box, perfect conditions for huge wildfires. And finally, we keep putting ourselves in harm’s way. Development has increased along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, where it is in the path of any hurricane that comes ashore. Development has also increased along the fringes of forests, where it is vulnerable to wildfire. And even in the middle of the country, sprawl has increased the built-up area, making tornadoes more likely to grind over it, as opposed to farmland.

Missouri was in the region damaged by some of the big weather events of 2018, so the next post will look at how we fared here in the Show Me State.

Sources:

The National Centers for Environmental Information Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters portal has 5 pages available, and I used them all for this post: Overview, Mapping, Time Series, Summary Stats, and Table of Events. Downloaded and viewed online 4/3/2019 at https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions.

Cold Winters and Phony Baloney (at least in Missouri)

This week I returned to St. Louis after being out of town for some time. I was greeted by a chorus of moans and groans about the horrible winter. Such kvetching! Of course, it is easy for somebody who has been in warmer climes to pooh-pooh the harshness of the winter back home. So, I decided to look and see what the statistics say, and since that is the focus of this blog, to do a post on what I found. I’m going to look at the winter in St. Louis and in Kansas City. For weather statistics, winter begins December 1st and ends February 28th (or 29th in leap years). I’m writing on February 21, so the data for this winter extends only through 2/20/2019. One final note: for grammatical reasons, in what follows, “normal” means historical average (mean).

The weather service office in each location keeps its data in slightly different formats, so I will do one, then the other.

Winter 2018-2019 in St. Louis

First, let’s ask if it has been excessively cold in St. Louis this winter. According to the National Weather Service, the record low temperature in St. Louis is -22°F, which occurred 1/5/1884. The observed low this winter was -6°F, on 1/20/19: cold, but nowhere near the record. For the 82 days from 12/1/18 through 2/20/19, on 57 of the days the record cold for that date has been -5°F or colder. This year, the low temperature has been nothing like that.

Figure 1. Data source: NOAA, National Weather Service, St. Louis Forecast Office.

Well, you may say, perhaps the low temperature has not set records, but on most days it has been lower than normal. Figure 1 shows the daily observed low temperature compared to the normal low temperature for that date. The blue line shows the observed temperature for 2018-19, and the red line shows the normal low temperature for that date. The chart suggests that for much of the winter, the low temperature in St. Louis has actually been above normal. There have been a few cold outbreaks, but not record cold. The observed low temperatures over the period this winter have averaged 27°F. The normal low temperatures over the period have averaged 26°F. So guess what? The average low temperature this year has been about a degree above normal.

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Figure 2. Data source: NOAA, National Weather Service, St. Louis Forecast Office.

Well, you may say, perhaps the low temperature has not been excessively low, but the daily high temperature has been colder than usual. It’s not the deep lows of the night that has gotten to us, it’s the fact that it hasn’t warmed during the day. Figure 2 shows the daily observed high temperatures for 2018-19 (blue line), and the normal high temperature for those dates (red line). The chart shows that during the cold outbreaks noted above, the high temperature has, indeed, been cooler than normal. But much of the winter has also had highs above normal. Over the period, the observed highs this winter have averaged 43°F, while over the period, normal highs averaged 42°F.

Winter 2018-19 in Kansas City

The National Weather Service Office in Kansas City does not seem to publish a data series that contains information similar to the one published by the office in St. Louis. I have used, instead, data from the Climate-at-a-Glance data portal. This data does not include daily values, only monthly averages. Plus, it only extends through the end of January. January 19 was the coldest day of this winter, however, so it is included. Data collection began in 1972-73.

Figure 3. Source: Climate-at-a-Glance.

Figure 3 shows the data, with the blue line representing the observed values, and the gray line representing the average. The average temperature in Kansas City this winter was 2.5°F above normal.

The month of February to date can be included by using heating degree days instead of temperatures. Heating degree days are a measure designed to indicate to what degree the interior of buildings will require heating. To calculate it, average a day’s high and low temperature, then subtract the result from 65. This is how many heating degree days there were on that day. Now, to measure a period of time, simply sum the heating degree days for each day in the period.

The problem here is that the data in the climate summaries, where the heating degree data is published, use a different period to determine normal than does the data above. The data above uses values that run from when record keeping started to the current date. The climate summaries use data from 1981-2010. It was around 1980 that the effects of climate change really kicked in. This results in different estimates of “normal,” with the climate summary referencing only recent (warmer) history, and the other data referencing much longer (cooler) periods of time.

That said, it is the only way I can think of to include February for Kansas City in this discussion, so this is what the data shows:

Observed Heating Degree Days Normal Heating Degree Days Difference
December 2018 928 1040 -112
January 2019 1135 1114 21
February 1-20 2019 731 657

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Looked at this way, it would appear that December created about 11% fewer degree days than normal, but January and February (to date) have created about 2% and 11% more, respectively. If you sum the differences for the 3 months together, then the winter to date has created 17 more heating degree days than normal, a trivial amount: in terms of heating degree days, Kansas City’s winter in 2018-19 should be understood to be roughly normal.

Now, none of this speaks to snow or blizzards. I understand that the winter storm at the end of January was a terrible event. In a similar fashion, I was in Hawaii when the winter cyclone came ashore in early February. I saw whole fields of banana trees leveled, just snapped off mid-trunk. On the top of Mauna Kea, the wind was recorded at 190+ mph. None of that changes the fact, however, that Hawaii has a lovely climate, and it was a wonderful place to visit (although too crowded these days, I’d say). Same in St. Louis. This blog is more concerned with statistical trends than individual events, and none of the statistics suggest that this has been, on average, a freakishly cold winter.

I read that people who believe in climate change are being peppered with the question “If the Earth is warming so much, how come it is so cold?” Nobody ever said that climate change would banish all cold, and the predictions are for more intense storms, just like the ones referenced above. But the real answer seems to be that it isn’t actually so cold, at least not here in Missouri. The whole question is nothing but phony baloney, at least here in Missouri.

Sources:

NOAA National Centers for Environmental information, Climate at a Glance: U.S. Time Series, retrieved on February 21, 2018 from http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag.

NOAA, National Weather Service, Kansas City/Pleasant Hill Forecast Office. 2/21/2019. Daily Climate Report. For this post, I used reports for 12/31/2018, 1/31/2019, and 2/20/2019. Viewed online 2/21/2019 https://w2.weather.gov/climate/index.php?wfo=eax.

NOAA, National Weather Service, St. Louis Forecast Office. 2/21/2019. Climate Graphs. Data retrieved on 2/21/2019 from https://www.weather.gov/lsx/cliplot.

2018 Was Wetter Than Usual in Missouri

2018 was the 3rd wettest year on record across the contiguous USA.

Figure 1. Source: NOAA Climate-at-a-Glance

So says data from Climate-At-A-Glance, the data portal operated by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Figure 1 shows the data, with the green line representing actual yearly precipitation, and the blue line representing the trend across time. The left vertical scale shows inches of precipitation, while the right shows millimeters of precipitation. In 2018, the average precipitation across the contiguous USA was 34.62 inches, which was the 3rd highest amount in the record. Over time, precipitation seems to be increasing at about 0.18 inches per decade. The trend towards more precipitation is present in the Eastern Climate Region (+0.30 inches per decade), the Southern Climate Region (+0.24 inches per decade), and the Central Climate Region (+0.23 inches per decade). It is almost absent in the Western Climate Region, however (+0.02 inches per decade). In fact, 2018 was a below-average precipitation year in the West. (Except where noted, data is from the Climate-at-a-Glance data portal.)

(Click on figure for larger view.)

Figure 2. Source: NOAA Climate-at-a-Glance.

In Missouri, 2018 was the 41st wettest year on record, with 43.04 inches of precipitation. (Figure 2) This puts the year 2.54 inches above the long-term average. As expected, the variation from year-to-year is much larger than the change in precipitation over time, but since 1895 Missouri has trended towards about 0.24 inches more precipitation per decade.

Unlike 2016 and 2017, 2018 did not bring epic flooding to Missouri. Perhaps the most notable thing about Missouri precipitation in 2018 were two almost out of season snow events – one over the Easter weekend in April, and one in mid-November. The latter heralded what has been a very snowy winter so far in 2019 for Missouri and much of the Midwest.

Figure 3. Source: Source: NOAA Climate-at-a-Glance.

The Northern Rockies and Plains are where most of the water that flows into the Missouri River originates, and the Missouri River provides water to more Missourians than any other source. This region saw 24.83 inches of precipitation in 2017, some 5.82 inches above average. (Figure 3) As expected, the variation between years is much larger than the change over time, but here, too, precipitation has been increasing, though the change has only been +0.07 inches per decade.

What to watch for in Missouri, then, does not appear to be a decrease in average yearly precipitation, but two other issues. First, demand for water has been increasing. Will it grow to outstrip the supply? Second, this winter notwithstanding, climate change is causing precipitation that once fell as snow to fall as rain. This changes the timing of when the Missouri River receives the runoff. Will that affect the ability of the river to supply water to meet the various demands? So far, these answers are not known. (For a more extended discussion, see here.)

Figure 4. Source: Source: NOAA Climate-at-a-Glance.

The water situation in California is more serious than it is in the Northern Rockies and Plains, Missouri, or contiguous USA. California has a monsoonal precipitation pattern, and it has regions that receive a great deal of precipitation, while other regions receive little, if any. Consequently, the state relies on snowfall during the winter, which runs off during the spring and early summer, and is collected into reservoirs. This water is then distributed around the state. Thus, the amount of water contained in the snowpack on April 1, which is when it historically started melting in earnest, has been seen to be crucial to California’s water status.

After a big water year in 2017, 2018 returned to below-average precipitation. It was the 34th driest year on record, with precipitation 4.54 inches below average. (Figure 4)

As I reported previously, the California snow season started slowly this winter. It has been catching up, and is now nearly average for this date. The snowpack is above average in the Colorado River Basin above Lake Powell, the other major source for California’s water. The snowpack is 110% of the average for this date. (National Resource Conservation Service, 2/14/2018).

Sources:

California Data Exchange Center, Department of Water Resources. Current Year Regional Snow Sensor Water Content Chart (PDF). Downloaded 1/22/2018 from https://cdec.water.ca.gov/water_cond.html.

Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. 2018. Snow Conditions and Weather: Snow History. Viewed online 1/15/2018 at NOAA National Centers for Environmental information, Climate at a Glance: U.S. Time Series, published January 2018, retrieved on January 15, 2018 from http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag.

Natural Resource Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Upper Colorado River Basin SNOTEL Snowpack Update Report. Viewed online 1/28/2018 at https://wcc.sc.egov.usda.gov/reports/UpdateReport.html?textReport.

NOAA National Centers for Environmental information, Climate at a Glance: U.S. Time Series, published January 2018, retrieved on January 15, 2018 from http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag.

2018 Was the Fourth Hottest Year on Record

2018 was the 4th warmest year on record globally, and the 14th warmest for the contiguous USA.

Figure 1. Source: NOAA Centers for Environmental Information.

Figure 1 shows the average annual temperature for the Earth for each year from 1880-2018. The chart shows the temperature as an anomaly. That means that they calculated the mean annual temperature for the whole series, and then presented the data as a deviation from that mean. Degrees Celsius are on the left vertical axis, and degrees Fahrenhiet are on the right. Because the earth contains very hot regions near the equator and very cold polar regions, the actual mean temperature has relatively little meaning, and Climate-at-a Glance does not include it in their chart. (All data is from NOAA, Climate at a Glance.) 2016 was the highest on record, and the 4 highest readings have all occurred within the last 4 years. You can see that the Earth appears to have been in a cooling trend until around 1910, then a warming trend until mid-Century, then a cooling period until the late 1960s or early 1970s, and then a warming period since 1970. Over the whole series, the warming trend has been 0.07°C per decade, which equals 0.13°F per decade. Since 1970, however, the warming has accelerated to 0.17°C per decade (0.30°F).

(Click on chart for larger view.)

Figure 2. Source: NOAA Centers for Environmental Information.

Figure 2 shows the average yearly temperature for the contiguous United States from 1895 to 2018. In this chart and those that follow, the vertical axes are reversed, with °F on the left vertical axis, and °C on the right. The purple line shows the data, and the blue line shows the trend. 2018 was the 14th highest in the record at 54.58°F. The 4 highest readings have all come within the last decade. Over the whole series, the average temperature has increased 0.15°F per decade. Since 1970, however, the rate has increased substantially.

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Figure 3. Source: NOAA Centers for Environmental Information.

Figure 3 shows the average temperature across Missouri for 2018. Across the state, it was the 35th warmest year on record, with an average temperature of 55.2°F. In Missouri, the warming trend from 1930-1950 was more marked than it was nationally; across the whole time period, the trend has been for a 0.1°F increase in temperature each decade. As was the case nationally, since 1970 the increase has accelerated.

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Figure 4. Source: NOAA Centers for Environmental Information.

Because conditions in the Northern Rockies and Plains affect how much water flows into the Missouri River, which provides more of Missouri’s water supply than any other source, I have also tracked climate statistics for that region. Figure 4 shows the data. Last year was slightly above average for this region. This region has been warming at a rate of 0.2°F per decade over the whole period, and, since 1970, the rate has accelerated substantially.

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Figure 5. Source: NOAA Centers for Environmental Information.

Because I have been concerned about the water supply in California, I also track the climate statistics for that state. Figure 5 shows the data. Last year was the 3rd warmest year in the record, with an average temperature of 60.2°F. California has been warming at a rate of 0.2°F each decade. Since 1970 the rate of increase has accelerated substantially.

In all 4 locations the average yearly temperature seems to have increased significantly for several decades, then paused during mid-Century, and then resumed climbing, but at an accelerated rate. There seems to be little doubt that across the country it is warmer than it was. In Missouri, the average yearly temperature has been increasing, but at a rate that is somewhat less than in the other locations I looked at.

Sources:

NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, Climate at a Glance. Retrieved on February 1, 2019, from http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag.

California Snowpack Update – January 2019

Followers of this blog know that I usually report on the snowpack conditions in California once or twice during the winter. I do this because I have family living in California, and because California constitutes an incredibly large percentage of this nation’s economy, and because it provides an incredibly large percentage of the fruits and vegetables we eat.

California depends on its snowpack for about 30% of its water supply. Climate change will reduce the California snowpack by as much as 40%, it is projected, putting the state’s water supply at risk. The snowpack is projected to decline mostly because the increased temperature will cause precipitation to fall as rain instead of snow, and because it will cause increased melting during the winter months.

Figure 1. Source: California Data Exchange Center, 2019.

The snow year got off to a slow start in California this year. The January 24 measurements showed the snowpack at 56-63% of average for that date, depending on which hydrologic region was measured. (See Figure 1.)

(Click on figure for larger view.)

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Figure 2. Data source: Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort, 2019.

The snowpack is below average despite the fact that California has had significant precipitation. November and December were slow, but at Mammoth Mountain, a ski resort located in the Sierra Nevadas, they have had 93 inches of snow this January. That puts the total for the winter within 2 inches of average for this date, and the month still has 4 days to go as I write.( See Figure 2.)

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Figure 3. Source: California Department of Water Resources, 2019.

Because California receives most of its water during the winter, but needs it most during the summer, the state operates many reservoirs. The water content of the most important are shown in Figure 3. The Lake Shasta, Trinity, and Oroville Reservoirs are the three largest, and thus, the most important. In general, the reservoirs appear to be close to normal levels for this time of year. The one exception is the Oroville Reservoir, which is at 39% of capacity. This reservoir was severely damaged in 2017, when storms caused emergency releases, which eroded away major portions of the dam. Repairs were completed last fall, but the dam has yet to refill. Whether it will ever refill given California’s reduction in snowpack is an interesting question to which I don’t know the answer. Oroville is the major water source for the California State Water Project, and, thus, it is important.

The Colorado River is another important source of water for California, and Lake Mead is the principal reservoir at which its level is measured. It is at 1085.21 ft. above sea level, or 40% of its capacity. For this date the average is 1159 ft. above sea level, and the historical low was 1083.46 ft. above sea level, reached in 2016. Lake Mead can be recharged with water from Lake Powell, and that reservoir is also at 40% of capacity. It is usual for these reservoirs to be low during the late fall, and then recharge during the winter. However, Lake Mead continues to flirt with historical lows and with the level at which mandatory water restrictions go into effect.

The bottom line here is that California’s water supply continues to be below historical levels, though not quite as low as during the terrible drought a few years ago. As of right now, signs do not point to a severe water crisis this year, but the state continues to walk a rather fine line. Should drought recur, a severe crisis is likely to occur..

Sources:

Alexander, Kurtis. 2018. “Oroville Dam Fixed and Ready to Go, Officials Say – But at a Big Price.” San Francisco Chronicle. 10/31/2018.

California Data Exchange Center. California Snowpack Water Content, January 24, 2019, Percent of April 1 Level. Downloaded 1.27.2019 from https://cdec.water.ca.gov/reportapp/javareports?name=PLOT_SWC.pdf.

California Department of Water Resources. Current Reservoir Conditions. Downloaded 1/27/2019 from http://cdec.water.ca.gov/reportapp/javareports?name=rescond.pdf.

Lake Mead Water Database. Viewed online 1/27/2019 at http://lakemead.water-data.com.

Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort. Snow & Weather Report. Viewed online 1/27/2019 at https://www.mammothmountain.com/winter/mountain-information/mountain-information.

2017 Climate in the USA

The last post reported on 33 climate trends discussed in “State of the Climate 2017,” a report published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. This post characterizes the 2017 climate in the United States. Be sure to catch that this is for 2017, not 2018, the year just ended. In what follows, “CONUS” means the continental United States. All anomalies compare to the 1981-2010 average.

Figure 1. 2017 Temperature Anomalies Across the CONUS. Source: Blunden, Arndt, & Hartfield, 2018.

The annual average temperature in 2017 for the contiguous United States (CONUS) was 12.5°C or 1.0°C above the 1981–2010 average—its third warmest year since records began in 1895, 0.2°C cooler than 2016 and 0.4°C cooler than 2012. Figure 1 shows a map of 2017 temperature anomaly across the United States. Every state was warmer than average except for Washington. Most of Missouri was 1.0-1.5°C warmer than average (1.8-2.7°F). A few areas were even warmer, but the map isn’t sufficiently detailed to determine for sure which areas they were.

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Table 2. 2017 Precipitation Anomalies Across the CONUS. Source: Blunden, Arndt, and Hartfield, 2018.

Averaged nationally, precipitation was 104% of average, making 2017 the 20th wettest year in the record. The pattern was variable, however, as shown in Figure 2. In particular, winter precipitation was higher than average, with Nevada and Wyoming each having the wettest winters on record. The California mountains were wetter than average (I reported on the large snowpack in the winter of 2017 in previous posts). So was eastern Colorado-New Mexico. On the other hand, much of the Southwest and the northern Plain States were in drought. It was also dry along the Mississippi River from the Missouri Bootheel into central Iowa.
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Figure 3. Source: Blunden, Arndt, and Hartfield, 2018.

There were 16 weather-related events in 2017 which resulted in damage of more than $1 billion. That tied with 2011 for the highest number of billion-dollar disasters. The total damages they caused was $306 billion, a new record. Figure 3 shows a map of where they were roughly located. There were three major hurricanes across the southern United States, plus catastrophic fires in California and other western states. Missouri and Arkansas were affected by flooding in late April-early May 2017.

Missouri had 13 fatalities and 155 injuries from weather-related disasters in 2017, and a total of $156.20 million in damages. There have been many years when the Missouri’s weather-related damage has been below $100 million, but in 2011 it was over $3.4 billion.

Sources:

Blunden, J., D. S. Arndt, and G. Hartfield , Eds., 2018: State of the Climate in 2017. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 99 (8), Si–S332, doi:10.1175/2018BAMSStateoftheClimate.1. Downloaded 12/15/18 from https://www.ametsoc.org/index.cfm/ams/publications/bulletin-of-the-american-meteorological-society-bams/state-of-the-climate.

Office of Climate, Water, and Weather Services, National Weather Service. 2016. Natural Hazard Statistics. Data downloaded 2/10/16 from http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/hazstats.shtml#.