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'Critical' California snowpack could disappear by Spring

Dr. Mario Picazo
Meteorologist, PhD

Tuesday, February 27, 2018, 8:00 - Despite the cold weather across parts of Western U.S., including California, over the final stretch of February, The Weather Network's Spring Forecast is calling for a drier and warmer than average three- month period.

But, this shouldn't really come as a surprise. So far, the 2017-18 precipitation season has been one of a kind, making the top of the list for one of the driest on record in Southern California. The dry scenario in the south has actually extended to other areas of the north as the season has been moving along. Temperature-wise, until mid-February -- before the colder weather arrived -- California had experienced one of its warmest starts of winter on record, and this obviously impacted the state's snowpack.

SPRING FORECAST: Find out what the next three months of weather has in store for you, here.

Precipitation anomaly from OCT 1, 2017 TO FEB 23, 2018, courtesy of NOAA.

Snowpack levels well-below average and expected to drop in Spring

As of late February, the "critical snowpack" was close to a third of the average for the state. These limited values, together with an unfavorable spring weather forecast, could definitely step up the intensity of the current drought as summer nears. However, the flip from very warm weather to much colder weather during the final stretch of February has certainly helped keep the little snow available in place, although that may just be a passing trend. 

Examining the two maps below, one for February 25th 2017 and the other for the same exact date one year later, one can see the deficit California is already experiencing this season. In 2018 snowpack levels only reached the 3-foot mark in the higher terrain of the northern Sierra Nevada' , while the extension of snow covered areas was also much lower than those seen a year earlier.

Snowpack Feb 25, 2017

Snowpack Feb 25, 2018

STUDY: 'The Big One' puts California at risk of significant sinking

Beyond the shortage of storms moving in from the Pacific that would otherwise bring snow to the mountains, another major cause for the lack of snow is that a good portion of California's early winter snowpack vanished due to the persistent warmth. Snow water content has been no more than a flat line on the graphs -- well-below the average values, but very close to the values reminiscent of the very dry episodes of 2014-15. 

California Snow Water Content

Despite some active weather moving into California during the end of February and early March, the Spring trend mentioned earlier is just around the corner. This could mean the return to a drier warmer weather pattern that would put the existing snowpack at risk. 

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The higher chance of warmer than average weather affecting California off-and-on during the Spring months, would also translate into an accelerated melting of the snowpack. Depending on how fast this occurs, it could in some cases be less favorable for California's water reserves and could even increase the risk of flooding and avalanches in mountain areas and nearby

Snowpack as of late February 2018

Like many other years, California's precipitation season will slowly dwindle as we move into April and May, however, and despite the dry Spring forecast announced for the southern half of the state, months like March and April could still mean abundant snow for the state's mountains, and this would help put a dent in the upcoming drought. 

WATCH BELOW: What will spring bring to your part of the country? From temperature and precipitation trends to a summer sneak peek, see it all in our official Spring Forecast, below!

Thumbnail image courtesy: Wikipedia/Creative Commons

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