How Bad is the California Drought? Possibly the worst in over 1,000 years…

Jesse Cassidy | | BrainsBrains

As just about everyone knows by this point, the West is within the grips of a severe drought, California in particular. However, California has had a long history of drought and water issues, so really how serious is this drought that has seen the first ever mandatory water restrictions? As it turns out, the current drought is actually pretty severe. A recent study published in the American Geophysical Union found that the current drought in California is the worst drought the area has seen in nearly 1,200 years. Using tree ring data stretching back over one thousand years, researchers were able to reconstruct precipitation models that show just how severe the current drought in the Golden State actually is.

California satellite imagery, photo:

Using tree ring data, and soil moisture composition, the study titled, “How Unusual is the 2012-2014 Drought?” by Daniel Griffin and Kevin Anchukaitis, found that 2014 was the single worst drought year in the past 1,200 years. Using Blue Oak trees in central and southern California, which thrive in dry climates, researchers were able to reconstruct nearly 1,800 years of precipitation data. Blue Oak trees grow wider bark rings during wet moist periods, and smaller rings during dry periods, helping researchers reconstruct a rainfall history of the California area. Using tree ring data dating back to the thirteenth century, researchers found that the current conditions in California are worse than they have been in the past 1,200 years. While multi-year droughts are not uncommon in California’s history, the current drought stands out as a result of high temperatures.  The California area has experienced similar and sometimes worse periods of drought, however, the record high temperatures combined with the lack of precipitation make the current drought in California among the worst ever. 

Squaw 2014-2015
Squaw 2014-2015

As California and the West in general suffer one of the worst droughts in history, it is important to understand the distinction between weather and climate. This past winter the East Coast saw heavy snowfall and cold weather, as a result, senators were throwing snowballs on the Senate Floor to prove that “Global Warming” did not exist. Meanwhile the West Coast suffered one of the driest and hottest winters on record. Climate and weather are easy to confuse for some, in layman terms, weather is what is happening today, i.e. its cold and snowy outside right now, while climate is long term weather over periods of years, i.e. it is always sunny and warm in southern California. The distinction between the two is very important, just because it snowed once in May does not mean climate change is not occurring.

Flood of 1862, image:
Flood of 1862, image:

The California area has a long history of extreme and unpredictable weather. Drought has plagued the area for centuries, as well as extreme snow and rainfall events. In 1862, California saw so much rain that the central valley turned into an inland sea. Variable and extreme weather are part of the California climate, where one year it can snow well over 800”, and the next year barely break 350”. Despite this unpredictability, it is important to conserve and save during times of drought, and not take unusually wet years for granted. While the past four years in Tahoe have been rough, the drought cannot last forever, and it will snow in Tahoe once again.

Tahoe when it snows, photo: Miles Clark

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One thought on “How Bad is the California Drought? Possibly the worst in over 1,000 years…

  1. Saw something from noaa saying we a 2.5+ years behind on precipitation in the tahoe area. Going to take alot of really wet years to fill the lakes and reservoirs back up

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