A blessing in disguise, I suppose, was the arrival this winter of massive amounts of moisture in the West. Struggling through five, six years of dry conditions in the extreme, California may officially emerge from drought, which is obviously a good thing. But we’re cautioned that drought in “portions” of California will ease, and it looks like the southern half of the state will continue to be very, very dry.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor’s January 10 report, the areas experiencing “extreme drought” have shrunk to 3.71 percent from last year’s 13.09 percent. “Extreme drought” areas went from 6.56 percent one year ago to 0.28 percent. Still, the estimated number of people living in areas affected by drought in the West stands at nearly 32 million.
Communities in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains were buried by snow that fell in increments of feet, not inches. That’s not terribly unusual for the region, and it’s something for which every ski bum devoutly wishes, but c’mon. Not all at once. And downslope, the rain fell so hard and fast, bringing up to nearly 20 inches in one week, that reservoirs filled quickly; it’s been reported that the storms added 350 billion gallons to the reservoirs. Flood gates had to be opened, releasing the excess to wash downstream. Massive and frightening flooding destroyed structures and took down the historic “Pioneer Cabin Tree” in Calaveras Big Trees State Park.
Long-depleted reservoirs have been, and may continue to be replenished throughout the West, but will it be enough? Will the surplus last? Hydrologists in California have predicted that the near-historic rain won’t end the state’s three-year drought emergency, declared in 2014 by Governor Jerry Brown. Rebuilding the snowpack has helped, but lasting effects also depend on how dry the summer will be.
In Colorado in January, at least three destination ski resorts were forced to close because there was too much snow. Too much. We can chuckle at the irony, but there’s an economic impact to this: Those who can afford to spend their days schussing will be disappointed, but area businesses of all kinds will be missing revenue.
Then there’s the continuing roller coaster ride of weather phenomena across the country, with the Southeast receiving welcome precipitation that made significant improvements in some areas of drought, and brought snow to the mountains of western North Carolina – much to the delight of some, to the frustration of others. Note we said “some” areas of drought. Portions of northern Alabama and northern Georgia are still experiencing “extreme” drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and it’s estimated that nearly 17 million people are affected by varying degrees of drought in six southeastern states ranging from Virginia to Alabama. A significant percentage of the Northeast remains in drought.
Winter Storm Jupiter brought sheets of ice across the southern Great Plains and Midwest, causing the governors of Oklahoma and Missouri to declare states of emergency and delaying by several hours the NFL division playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the home team Kansas City Chiefs. Up to an inch of ice clung to power lines, trees and structures and made travel nearly impossible in some areas. Oddly, as I write this in northern Illinois in mid-January, I’m watching it rain. I encountered a few little patches of thin ice during my morning Diet Coke run, but for the most part, it’s just dreary and wet.
Has the world turned upside down? No. And while I’m adamantly not dismissing the effects of climate change, I believe these are the vagaries of weather patterns. Decades ago, one of my most enjoyable days during grad school was when we experienced a crippling ice storm in central Illinois. I lived in the farm country off campus, and was able to wander about taking photos of the spectacular effects. Decades before that, my mother allowed me to strap on my ice skates and fly up and down our street during another storm. And this was a woman who, in the summer, would not allow me to ride my bicycle with friends in the street, despite the fact that we were likely to encounter one or two cars per hour.
One does not wish for extremes of any kind when it comes to weather patterns. But what I do wish for is that I could find my skates.