California Closes in on Driest Calendar Year on Record

By: Christopher C. Burt , 8:45 PM GMT on December 20, 2013

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California Closes in on Driest Calendar Year on Record

In mid-October, and again mid-November, I posted blogs concerning how dry the year had been in California, ending each blog with the optimistic caveat that the wet season was just beginning and there was plenty of time to catch up precipitation-wise before the end of the year. Well, it turns out that was nothing more than optimism. With only 10 days left and the latest forecast models indicating a close to zero chance for any further significant precipitation to fall in the state, it now appears virtually certain to become California’s driest calendar year on record. Needless to say, California is one of the most water hungry places on earth.

As if to add insult to injury a very unusual late-season wildfire broke out in the Big Sur area along California’s central coast on Tuesday December 17th. The fire burned just 1000 acres but 34 homes were lost. This would appear to be the most destructive December wildfire in central or northern California history and the worst fire in all of California this past year (2013) so far as homes lost. Red flag warnings have never previously been issued for this region during the month of December.



An aerial view of the Big Sur fire last Wednesday. Still from video by KRON/NBC News, San Francisco.

Below is a chart of how much rain has fallen at some select California locations since January 1st (as of December 20th). The annual normal and percentage of such so far this year are in the other two columns:



With no more rain forecast for at least the southern two-thirds of the state until the end of the year, it appears that both San Francisco and Los Angeles will end up experiencing their driest calendar years on record. The previous record for San Francisco downtown was 9.00” in 1917 (POR back to Nov. 1849) and for Los Angeles downtown 4.08” in 1953 (with a POR back to 1877). It is simply astounding by how large a margin San Francisco will beat its previous record (a margin of about 40%!) and this for a period of record going back over 160 years, one of the oldest continuous records for precipitation in the U.S.

Many other locations around the state are also likely to record their driest year. Below is a summary of sites in the southern California area and where they stand vis-à-vis record territory:



Since the table was created on December 15th some additional rainfall has fallen at a few of the sites listed including downtown Los Angels with .11”, Burbank with .18”, and Santa Maria with .03”. Notice how Paso Robles (which received no measurable rainfall since December 15th) is on track to beat its former driest year on record by more than 50% and may end up even drier than Death Valley this year (see charts above)! Table produced by NWS-Los Angeles.

It is not just California that has been so dry but also much of the Pacific Northwest. Eugene, Oregon has received only 21.08” of precipitation so far this year (as of December 20th) against a normal of 46.10”. Its driest year on record was 1944 when 23.26” was measured (POR to 1891). Snowfall is also running well below average as the map below indicates:



A map of the percentage of average water content of the snow pack as of December 15th across the western U.S. WRCC data.

I will have a comprehensive round up of the annual precipitation totals and records after the New Year.

Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian

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16. WunderAlertBot (Admin)
9:53 PM GMT on December 23, 2013
weatherhistorian has created a new entry.
15. Engxladso
7:36 AM GMT on December 23, 2013
In marked contrast to California, Britain is about to be slammed by yet another deep Atlantic depression. The BBC weather service just announced that the expected central pressure of this beast would be 927mb and that it was being propelled across the Atlantic by a 280mph jet stream. The BBC was suggesting that both of these figures are close to all time records.

I was wondering if Dr Masters would care to comment on this. Thanks.
Member Since: November 18, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 7
14. BaltimoreBrian
2:56 AM GMT on December 23, 2013
Here is an article by the California Rice Commission on water usage by rice agriculture.

Water Use in Rice
Member Since: August 9, 2011 Posts: 26 Comments: 8605
13. bostonandrew
6:15 PM GMT on December 22, 2013
Zero population growth will happen. Just how horrible those times will be, is still up to question.
Member Since: December 16, 2001 Posts: 0 Comments: 5
12. cycloneRichard303
7:52 AM GMT on December 22, 2013
Here in Carson City it's also been very dry. Through December 21st we had received 4.08 inches of precip. The normal would be 10.56. With no more storms forecast to hit the area until after New Years we are on pace for 38.6% of normal. Combine that with a hot, dry summer,cold and dry (so far) and fire season looks pretty ominous unless we got a large amount of precip Jan-April.
Member Since: August 21, 2013 Posts: 0 Comments: 2
11. Astrometeor
6:26 AM GMT on December 22, 2013

US Drought Monitor w/ focus on California
Member Since: July 2, 2012 Posts: 100 Comments: 10275
10. Rainscout
4:58 AM GMT on December 22, 2013
Totally agree with post #9...just seems to be complete ignorance in the media and public about the critical nature of winter rain along the whole west coast but especially Calif...I really think that Calif cannot go more than 2 years without significant rain and this would be the third in a row and.. dry on steriods!! I also know that a couple of gully washers could bail us out a little but what we need is a long sustained period of wet weather and that seems like a complete pipe dream right now..what bothers me most is the attitude that we can just dam more rivers or drill deeper wells and extract more ground water and continue urban sprawl till the cows come home..seems like we are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic...we won't even mention the fire danger!!too bad I was born a rain and weather lover...most people don't even know where I am coming from..thanks for letting me rant...
Member Since: December 21, 2013 Posts: 0 Comments: 1
9. maestra545
10:51 PM GMT on December 21, 2013
Thank you for posting this article. The lack of serious media attention to this record-breaking dry year boggles the imagination. Why haven't we seen a massive public service campaign to limit water use? Why haven't simple restrictions on activities such as car-washing been implemented?

A while ago I read an article that linked deforestation in the Amazon to a coming drought in the Northwest. If such a correlation is correct, then California's extremely dry year may not be an anomaly.
Member Since: December 21, 2013 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
8. Rainscout
8:01 PM GMT on December 21, 2013
Great to find some people with the common sense to see the serious nature of this drought.... I long ago gave up thinking you would get any intelligent information from the media regarding weather... Especially in Calif....where apparantly people think of rain as a inconvienience at best... Most have little understanding of where their water comes from ...with almost half the rainy season gone and we are looking at pretty much a bone dry forecast for as far out as they are willing to go....as said above ..I too have lived in northern Calif. Most of my life and have seen some dry years ..to be sure.. But this one is in another diemension ...it would take an almost miracle turn around for us to crawl out of this one..it will be interesting to see what the biggest water consuming state in the nation does with this historic looming drought....even the Noaa national weather said " mother natures Christmas gift to California warm and dry through the holidays".....go figure
Member Since: December 21, 2013 Posts: 0 Comments: 1
7. Christopher C. Burt , Weather Historian
7:58 AM GMT on December 21, 2013
Quoting 6. mesocyclone2006:
The meteorological pattern over the North Pacific leading to this phenomenal dry spell in California is itself very extreme and disconcertingly persistent. There are now several in-depth discussions on this topic on the California Weather Blog at Link

All I can say, as someone who has lived here all my life, is that the current situation really is unnerving. Pretty drastic water supply issues are not far off, and this reality does not yet really seem to have registered with many folks yet. Maybe a warm, sunny, and parched Christmas and New Year's will start ringing some alarm bells?


Thanks for this and the great link as well. I'm amazed at how my fellow Californians, and especially the local media, have for the most part, been ignoring the historical aspect of this potential drought. The TV weather folks have been cheerfully accepting the pleasant weather as something to be grateful for. I imagine that after the New Year, and the sobering statistics become newsworthy, we will suddenly see the alarm bells go off.

Of course, a series of wet storms in January-April could turn things around. Hence, the California Department of Water Resources is holding its breath before pronouncing this a drought emergency and all that entails.
Member Since: February 15, 2006 Posts: 299 Comments: 279
6. mesocyclone2006
7:35 AM GMT on December 21, 2013
The meteorological pattern over the North Pacific leading to this phenomenal dry spell in California is itself very extreme and disconcertingly persistent. There are now several in-depth discussions on this topic on the California Weather Blog at Link

All I can say, as someone who has lived here all my life, is that the current situation really is unnerving. Pretty drastic water supply issues are not far off, and this reality does not yet really seem to have registered with many folks yet. Maybe a warm, sunny, and parched Christmas and New Year's will start ringing some alarm bells?
Member Since: December 21, 2013 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
5. BaltimoreBrian
5:06 AM GMT on December 21, 2013
Fair enough--thanks for the information nonblanche.
Member Since: August 9, 2011 Posts: 26 Comments: 8605
4. nonblanche
4:58 AM GMT on December 21, 2013
Quoting 3. BaltimoreBrian:
California rice farming--insane! Have to wonder what will happen if there is a dry winter and spring. Hopefully we won't find out.


I lived in Davis for a few years, near the Sacramento rice growing region. It's normally a big swampy delta with levees, not only perfect for rice growing but in the off season serves as a stopping place for large numbers of migrating water birds.

I've had to correct people before, you're not alone. People have this idea of California agriculture as some vast water-sucking monstrosity that pumps other peoples' water all over the desert. California is big, and long, and wide, and covers a multitude of climates and ag zones.
Member Since: October 21, 2010 Posts: 2 Comments: 256
3. BaltimoreBrian
2:17 AM GMT on December 21, 2013
California rice farming--insane! Have to wonder what will happen if there is a dry winter and spring. Hopefully we won't find out.
Member Since: August 9, 2011 Posts: 26 Comments: 8605
2. indianrivguy
9:20 PM GMT on December 20, 2013
so are the frackers and farmers fighting over water yet?
Member Since: September 23, 2006 Posts: 1 Comments: 2538
1. hydrus
8:51 PM GMT on December 20, 2013
it is rare when the Pacific Northwest is lacking rain. They are usually extremely wet and folks do complain..They may stop now..:)
Member Since: September 27, 2007 Posts: 1 Comments: 21175

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About weatherhistorian

Christopher C. Burt is the author of 'Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book'. He studied meteorology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison.