Subscribe Contribute Advertise Facebook Twitter Instagram Forums Newsletter
CA Drought and 2014 hiking season
Display Avatars Sort By:
Amy Lauterbach
(drongobird) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
CA Drought and 2014 hiking season on 01/15/2014 20:27:26 MST Print View

As always, Wunderground provides a great summary of the situation.

The fat lady didn't sing yet, but we're far enough along that some folks making plans for big CA hikes in 2014 ought to keep an eye on this. 99% of people who might be hiking in 2014 Sierra know this, but for the 1% who don't know, here is some basic info...

California receives the vast majority of its rainfall in the winter. The heart of the rainy season is November to March. October and April are shoulder seasons. Here's the data for San Francisco. Other locations in the state are variations on the same theme:


The 2011-12, and the 2012-13 rainy seasons were not very wet. As a result, the snowpack in the Sierras was very poor. The following graph puts it into perspective. Neither 11-12 nor 12-13 were as dry as the record low snowpack in 76-77, but the past two winters achieved only ~50% of normal snowpack. Pink line shows the 12-13 season; green shows the 11-12 season.


Here's a link to the current version of these same graphs (which includes 13-14 but drops 11-12).

If we're lucky the high pressure system that has been blocking the storms we normally receive will find a new parking place, and we'll finally see the arrival of winter. Maybe we'll reach the 50% of normal snowpack numbers that we had in the past two winters. Chances for something better than 50% of normal are rapidly diminishing.

If I were planning big trips, I'd think about five things.
1. Mosquitoes will not be a problem in August. They may peak by early or mid July. In a "normal" year, there are still swarms in the southern Sierra in late July to early August.
2. Fire season has the potential to be horrendous. That might mean closures. And it might mean crummy visibility. In a troublesome preview of what might be in store for us, there was an unprecedented wildfire in Big Sur a few weeks ago - in a normal world there should not be wildfires in Big Sur in December or January, that's just weird. Many (most?) CalFire stations close down for the winter, we just don't have wildfires this time of the year.
3. High passes will be snow free earlier in the season than is normal. "Normal" varies based on the pass, so there's no magic date. But if you look at the snowpack graphs you can see that in the past two years the snowpack at the measurement stations was down to 0% in mid-May instead of early-July.
4. Drinking water in the High Sierra (Mammoth to Cottonwood) will not be a problem. There are plenty of lakes and rivers. Small creeks will dry up earlier than usual, but lakes and rivers will be AOK as water sources.
5. If I were planning to hike in parts of the state without permanent alpine lakes or rivers, I'd get local info about the status of seasonal water sources.

Edited by drongobird on 01/15/2014 20:54:26 MST.

Kathleen B

Locale: Pacific Northwest
CA Drought on 01/15/2014 20:42:01 MST Print View

Very helpful post. Thank you for putting it together. Here in north central Washington I haven't had to use my snowshoes yet, but the microspikes are getting a workout due to all the ice in places where there is usually lots of snow. Interesting winter...

David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Pics on 01/15/2014 21:11:09 MST Print View

CA with and without snow

David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Re: Pics on 01/15/2014 21:11:44 MST Print View


Paul Wagner
(balzaccom) - F

Locale: Wine Country
no fun on 01/16/2014 19:53:04 MST Print View

This is really getting crazy. And no real rain in sight. My friends who are farming are looking at catastrophic losses

Ian B.

Locale: PNW
Re: no fun on 01/16/2014 20:11:15 MST Print View

"Thank you for putting it together. Here in north central Washington I haven't had to use my snowshoes yet, but the microspikes are getting a workout due to all the ice in places where there is usually lots of snow."


Horrible snow year here in Washington. A short day hike at 4500' felt like I was walking on a skating rink.

Hiking Malto
(gg-man) - F
Re: Pics on 01/16/2014 20:14:54 MST Print View

Those pictures are sobering. I would suggest that PCT hikers leave early if this continues to avoid fire season which could be epic.

Scott S
(sschloss1) - F

Locale: New England
Meh on 01/16/2014 20:33:55 MST Print View

The drought is obviously a huge, huge problem. But I think it's way too early to start planning for August based on the weather in January. I did the PCT in 2009. The snowpack was well below average throughout the winter, but May and June turned out to be cold and wet (I think it was the wettest June in CA history iirc). So, the snowmelt was delayed and some new snowfall happened late. By the time I hit the Sierra, the snowpack was average or a bit above average according to locals.

Anyway, here's hoping for more rain/snow.

Hk Newman
(hknewman) - MLife

Locale: Western US
Potential for western drought 2014 on 01/16/2014 20:34:28 MST Print View

Brought up on the other website as well (BP). Looks like an abnormally dry January except for Colorado right now, plus the ID/MT/WY border area and around Salt Lake City (here's hoping spring showers are enough to reverse the trend)
Stream forecast Jan 2014

Link to current and archives as of 1/16/2014:

May need to take into account how a local ecosystem responds to one or 2 good rainstorms though.

ed: add

Edited by hknewman on 01/16/2014 20:41:31 MST.

Marko Botsaris
(millonas) - F - MLife

Locale: Santa Cruz Mountains, CA
Re: CA Drought and 2014 hiking season on 01/16/2014 21:40:21 MST Print View

There are low snow years, and then here is this year. Normally by this time we have had a few several day long deluges here in the Santa Cruz mountains, even if it end up being a low snow year. Just one of these would change that satellite image to normal looking. We have had zero of these this year. Hopefully we will get one or two in February.

The blackbirds in town started singing their spring mating song last week! Usually they start in February. Cats and Dogs living together! Mass hysteria!

Amy Lauterbach
(drongobird) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
CA Drought and 2014 hiking season on 01/16/2014 21:57:50 MST Print View

"I think it's way too early to start planning for August based on the weather in January."

Clearly somebody who has the option to wait until later to plan their weather-dependent hikes ought to wait. But sometimes that's not possible. For example, Jim and I got our airplane tickets for an Alps 2014 hike in December - because we fly on frequent flier miles and those tickets are very limited. Even in December we were very limited in what dates we could fly in the April-June timeframe. If overseas readers are making plans for a 2014 Sierra hike, they may well be choosing dates right now. If I were forced to choose now on timing for a Sierra trip, I'd absolutely consider the drought. And if somebody wants to place a bet on the intensity of the fire season, sign me up.

We've taken perhaps 50 backpacking trips in the High Sierra, and we are highly averse to mosquitoes, so we plan our trips around them. We have been pretty satisfied with this guidance:

- Average snowpack, mosquitoes are not a problem by Aug 15.
- Low snowpack, mosquitoes are not a problem by Aug 1.
- Very high snowpack, we wait until September.

We've already had two consecutive dry years. In 2013 I took a High Sierra hike in mid-July and had almost no mosquitoes. That would NOT be the case in a normal year.

The chances that we'll have a normal snowpack year are effectively zero now. We are normally at 50% of average maximum snowpack. And we're currently sitting at only 10% of what we normally have on Jan 16. The 10 day forecast is warm and dry. Record-breaking warm. We only have 10-14 weeks of rainy season left, so 10 days represents a good chunk of the possible recovery time.

W.R.T. fire season, the soil is already so dry due to two years of sub-normal rain, and the fuel on the ground is so dry, that as of right now there's actually a fire warning in effect. This is just completely abnormal, in a way that might be hard for folks who don't live in a Mediterranean climate to viscerally appreciate. The NWS forecast discussion as I write this says:

We are all, obviously, hoping for some sort of recovery. Unlike the mid-west and east, where rain is possible all year, we really don't have that much time left. I keep thinking, OK the 10-day forecast is for warm and sunny, but certainly winter will arrive on day 11. But I've been thinking that now for 8 weeks, and so far so bad.

Keeping my fingers crossed, and hoping that in two weeks we'll have a favorable update in this thread :)

Edited by drongobird on 01/16/2014 21:58:46 MST.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: CA Drought and 2014 hiking season on 01/16/2014 22:57:40 MST Print View

Amy, the only way to make this rain happen is to bet against it.


Jeremy and Angela
(requiem) - F

Locale: Northern California
Re: Re: CA Drought and 2014 hiking season on 01/16/2014 23:27:57 MST Print View

I've been keeping on eye on some of the longer range models as covered here:

With the exception of the recent slight rain, the past several weeks have been suggesting no real changes within a two week range, which is about at their limits, even though there was an ever-just-out-of-range suggestion that the pattern might change beyond that time.

As of today's run it looks like that troublesome high pressure ridge might finally start to roll towards the Aleutians in about 10 days, giving some slight chance for rain before the month ends. The real hope will be that February and March are able to draw in a great deal of moisture, but so far we're tracking with '76-'77.


USA Duane Hall
(hikerduane) - F

Locale: Extreme northern Sierra Nevada
CA Drought and 2014 hiking season on 01/17/2014 11:18:47 MST Print View

I wonder what bpers stove backup plan is with all the hype the last year over improved efficiency of both alcohol and Esbit type stoves. I'm worried some are going to ignore warnings and bring one of those stoves regardless. Throw in the mix too, of woodstove users. I live in the Sierra, so I'm aware of conditions, cutting fuelwood too, you are always up to date on conditions.

Billy Ray
(rosyfinch) - M

Locale: the mountains
Re: CA Drought and 2014 hiking season on 01/17/2014 11:31:49 MST Print View

Los Angeles (CNN) -- California Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday declared a drought emergency for the state, saying it is facing perhaps "the worst drought that California has ever seen since records (began) about 100 years ago."

The governor's announcement, made in San Francisco, came as a wildfire burned Friday with only 30% containment in 1,700 acres of foothills of Los Angeles County near Glendora. An illegal campfire apparently ignited the wildfire, and fire officials also cited drought conditions for contributing to the blaze.

In his declaration, the governor called for voluntary "20% conservation of our water use" statewide.

"It's important to wake all Californians to the serious matter of the drought and lack of rain," Brown told reporters. "We are in a unprecedented, serious situation that people should pause and reflect on how we're dependent on rain, Mother Nature and each other.

Nico .
(NickB) - MLife

Locale: Los Padres National Forest
CA Drought and 2014 Hiking Season on 01/17/2014 11:34:32 MST Print View

Here in Los Padres NF, the head ranger has already announced the imposition of Level III Fire Restrictions. The restrictions are said to be in place until the end of the 2014 fire season (maybe next Fall???). This is the earliest I've ever seen these restrictions go into effect. Usually they don't go into effect until July-ish.

Nonetheless, I have to admit the conditions probably warrant it. Many of the creeks/springs around here have only a slight trickle, if anything. Typically January would not be a time to have to worry about finding water anywhere in our area. Last year, and this year even more so, have been an unfortunate exception.

Marko Botsaris
(millonas) - F - MLife

Locale: Santa Cruz Mountains, CA
Trout Emergency on 01/17/2014 19:30:01 MST Print View

"Los Angeles (CNN) -- California Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday declared a drought emergency for the state, saying it is facing perhaps "the worst drought that California has ever seen since records (began) about 100 years ago." "

When I head a story on NPR about this today I initially herd the gov declare a "Trout Emergency", some kind of Freudian miss-hear. I was thinking, "well, you don't hear that phrase much", but then I came to my senses. "Trout Emergency" does sound like a good name for a fishing-related cottage business.

On another note, I was enjoying driving today with my sun roof down. I haven't opened it in the months Nov-March since I moved here 14 years ago. Its not just the absence of rain - usually in the winter here (in the redwoods) everything is completely damp, fog in the morning, everything seeping, regardless of the rain situation. This has totally not been the case here. It feels like October, which I suppose it is in fact an extension.

Amy Lauterbach
(drongobird) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Tool for comparing CA snowpack across years on 01/18/2014 17:10:16 MST Print View

Here is the nice page where you can compare snowpack for different years.

If you hiked the PCT in 2009 (as Scott S's mentions above) you were there after a roughly 80% of normal winter. 2010 hiking season followed a fairly normal winter in the central and southern Sierra. 2011 followed a very wet winter.


2011-12 and 2012-13 (and as of now 2013-14) are in a different category than the 2008-2009 dry year.


Shaking the rain-sticks here in the Bay Area --Amy

Doug Smith
(Jedi5150) - F

Locale: Central CA
dry on 01/20/2014 00:36:31 MST Print View

I can't believe how dry it's been this year. Boy did I pick the wrong winter to get back into cross country skiing. Hahaha

My only comment is on the fire danger. I know that dryness doesn't help, but I was talking to some Calfire guys not long ago and they were saying forest fires were much worse on summers that had lots of rain/ moisture in the winter preceding. They explained that although it seems like it would be opposite, the heavy rain winters cause so much growth of the brush that it makes the fires much larger and harder to control when they do finally start up in the summer. It kind of made sense when explained that way.

Jim H
(jraiderguy) - M

Locale: Puget Sound
Cliff Mass post on 01/20/2014 10:07:25 MST Print View

Cliff Mass is a professor up here in the PNW and has a popular weather blog. He posted about this last week, and it includes a couple additional figures like reservoir levels.