100 miles east of the Sierra Nevada, Death Valley has a well-deserved
reputation as one of the planet's hottest places. In 1913, the temperature
reached 134 degrees, a world record at the time. (Libya has since topped it by
year, Death Valley - shown here - set a different kind of warming record: It reached 120
degrees on May 19th, the earliest ever recording for that
is just one of many noteworthy weather events recorded by the Western Regional
Climate Center at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, which tracks climate
and weather patterns across the western United States.
it was another hot, dry year for California: here in the Sierra, it warmed up early - and burned early - then stayed toasty and largely snow-free nto early December. To see my piece on the tardy debut of winter in the Sierra, click on this link:
Climate scientists say the western U.S. is more vulnerable to climate change than the rest of the country and it sure seemed like that last year. Two-thousand and eight toyed with us - it started with a bang (big snows in January) and then tapered off into the second year of a statewide drought. The climate center's monthly reports, which are prepared for the federal government, reflect the drama. Here are some of the highlights:
January 4-7, 2008: One of the more powerful storms in the past few
years slammed into California adding much needed snow in the mountains. Wind damage was severe wiith gusts to as high as 165 mph on the Sierra ridge crests. Snow pack in the Lake Tahoe area
increased from 51% of average on the morning of January 3rd to about
104% three days later.
Heavy snow in the mountains of the West pushed the snow pack
to near or above normal in nearly all locations by February 1st. In
the Sierra Nevada the snow water equivalent increased from 53% of normal at the
beginning of the month to about 115% by the end. Rainfall totals range from 8 inches along the north coast to 12 inches in the southern California mountains. Up to 10 feet of snow fell in the central Sierra. In the Owens Valley, Bishop measured an astonishing 4.29 inches of rain on the 4th and 5th, an amount that is 85 percent of its annual average.
February -- A moderate La Nina (cooler-than-usual ocean water on the equator between Peru and the Date Line) has been under way for most of this winter. Typically, this condition is associated with dry winters in the far Southwest and wet winters in the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies.
March was extremely dry in much of California, tying
the driest in 68 years at Sacramento airport with 0.05 inches. The Sierra Nevada snow pack dropped to
about 95 % of normal as of the important April 1st survey; only 17
inches of snow fell near Donner Summit for the month.
In April, precipitation was below normal throughout the
West. Many stations in California
and Nevada reported their driest March-April total precipitation. While
mountain snowpacks were healthy in the Rockies and the Northwest, the central
Sierra Nevada snowpack dropped to a dismal 56% of normal. The Central Sierra Snow Lab, near
Donner Summit, CA, measured only 26 inches of snow for March and April
combined. The average is 112
In May, temperatures ranged from 2 to 4 degrees above
normal in parts of California. Las Vegas, NV, reported a record high of 108F on
the 19th - the same day
Death Valley National Park, seen below, topped out at 120. On May 23, Bakersfield reported
.08 inches of precipitation, breaking an 87-day period with no measurable rain.
The climate center reports that statewide, California experienced its driest
spring (March-April-May) in over a century.
In June, temperature across the 11 western states were
almost perfectly split with the northern half two to four degrees below normal and the southern half two
to four degrees above normal. From the 19th to the 22nd
southern California suffered through record heat. On the 20th, Santa Maria, on
the south coast, recorded it all time highest temperature with 110 F. Also in June, Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought after 2 consecutive years of below
normal rainfall, especially from late winter to early summer. By June 30, much
of California had received only 75 percent of its normal precipitation, after a
promising start. Many locations recorded less rain over the previous two years
than their annual average. June 21st brought dry lightning to much
of the northern half of the state sparking over 800 fires and producing very
thick smoke. Unhealthy air quality
persisted through the end of the month in numerous California, Oregon and
On July 9th 110-degree heat northwest of
Bakersfield led to a vineyard worker dying due to the excessive heat
conditions. Parts of the Intermountain West were extremely warm, as well, with
Denver recording its second warmest July on record dating back 60 years. On
July 12th an intense thunderstorm just north of Mt. Whitney near
Independence dropped heavy rain, reportedly 6-7 inches, causing a flash flood
and a 300-yard wide mudflow that seriously damaged 25 homes near Oak Creek and
closed U.S. Highway 395 for 2 days.
In August, temperatures across the West ranged from
above normal in the Great Basin and the Southwest to below normal in the
Pacific Northwest. California was very warm inland. Redding and Modesto
recorded their warmest Augusts on record, as did Reno, NV.
On August 31, a climate station
atop White Mountain Summit measured a daily mean speed of 60.6 miles per hours.
Another station on Mt Warren, near Yosemite National Park, recorded a mean
daily wind speed of 66.3 mph and five hours over 100 mph, highly unusual for
summer. Cottonwood trees were
blown over north of Lee Vining, and a kayaker drowned during reported 80 mph
winds on adjoining Mono Lake.
September, temperatures were very near normal across the West with slightly
below readings in the intermountain region and northwest to slightly above
normal in the southwest. Precipitation
was generally below to near normal throughout the region.
October, numerous Santa Ana events in southern California led to the highest
average maximum temperature (dating back 103 years) in downtown Los Angeles at
84.9 deg F. On the 13th, strong high pressure produced windy and
warm conditions across southern California and fanned fires that eventually
burned over 20,000 acres and destroyed over 50 residences. One fatality was
reported. A gust to 87 mph was
noted at an automated station in the San Gabriel Mountains with extremely low
November, temperatures were above to well above normal across the West. The
average maximum temperature in downtown Los Angeles was 77.7 degrees which
combined with October's average maximum temperature of 84.9 was the warmest
Oct-Nov average maximum on record.
Dec. 1, warmer temperatures had dropped mountain snowpacks across the region to
well below average. The Lake Tahoe
drainage was at 3% of normal and the lake level had dropped to just 2 inches
above its natural rim. measured in 2007.
Through December 12th,
New Orleans measured more snow than Lake Tahoe, but that changed quickly. By the end of the month, the Sierra
Nevada snowpack had risen from 3% of normal to 85% of normal.
Overall, temperatures across the
west, including California, were mostly below normal in December but the dip was not enough
to offset another warmer than average year for California and the Sierra
In the Sierra, the mean annual
temperature in 2008 was 50 degrees, one degree warmer than normal. Overall,
2008 was one of the 20 warmest years in the range since 1895 but more
importantly it comes on the heels of nine consecutive warmer-than-average years
- a pattern that holds true statewide, too. And that is a concern to scientists
who believe it is yet another indication that rising levels of greenhouse gases
from the burning of fossil fuels are already starting to influence the state's
"It continues a recent pattern,"
Kelly Redmond, deputy director of the Western Regional Climate Center told me
this week. "Taken as a group, there is no other set of years that looks like
that. It says to me there is something new going on."
Photos by Tom Knudson, Sacramento Bee