24 trillion gallons of water have doused California amid historic stormy streak
The start of 2023 has been wetter than all of 2022 for some towns across California, and in the Sierra Nevada, this has translated to hundreds of inches of snow.
Storm chaser Brandon Clement traveled through the Donner Pass region to see an empty Interstate 80 and towering piles of snow burying homes in the region on Jan. 11.
California has been under constant bombardment by winter storms since the final days of 2022, with widespread rain washing away records and putting a meaningful dent in the long-term drought that has plagued the West.
In the mountains, the atmospheric rivers have been more akin to atmospheric avalanches over the Sierra Nevada, with yards of snow piling up higher than they have in years. So much snow has accumulated that some ski resorts have had to temporarily close, including Mammoth Mountain, which is located about 100 miles southeast of Lake Tahoe.
Snowiest winter in years for California mountains
"We have already surpassed last season’s total snowfall numbers," Mammoth Mountain Communications Director Lauren Burke told AccuWeather in an email. "Mammoth is no stranger to these massive atmospheric-river-style storms that bring huge snowfall numbers with heavy water content, but this is a very strong start to the season."
The storm on Monday and Tuesday unloaded 72 inches of fresh snow at the base of Mammoth Mountain, bringing the ski area’s total to 190 inches just since the atmospheric rivers began. The seasonal total is now up to 328 inches, which is a bigger snowfall total than what has fallen at the ski resort during each of the previous three winters.
An even more staggering amount of snow has fallen at the summit of the mountain, which reaches an elevation of 11,053 feet. If the Statue of Liberty was removed from its pedestal and placed at the top of Mammoth Mountain, the total snow amount would be approaching its waist, where 441 inches (36 feet) of snow have fallen so far this season.
Piles of snow towered nearly twice as high as a person who was clearing snow at Mammoth Mountain, California. (Credit/Mammoth Mountain)
California relies on melting snow during the summer to feed streams and fill water reservoirs when precipitation is scarce. April 1 is a critical date as it marks the end of the wet season, and the amount of frozen water locked up in the mountains is a good indicator if long-term drought conditions will worsen or improve.
On Wednesday, the snowpack in the southern Sierra was more than 250% above average by mid-January standards, according to the California Department of Water Resources. Just as impressive is that the water content of the snow is higher than what is typically measured on April 1, the date when the snowpack is at its peak level.
Moreover, the snow levels recorded on Jan. 11 were higher than any other year on record for that date, including during one of the wettest and snowiest winters in California history back in 1983.
Deluge eases drought concerns
Approximately 24 trillion gallons of water have fallen across California since the stormy pattern commenced at the end of December with many areas measuring several months' worth of rain in less than three weeks. This is more than three times the volume of water in Lake Champlain and enough water to fill more than 36 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.
"Large portions of Central California received over half their annual normal precipitation in the past 16 days with the sequence of atmospheric rivers since December 26," the National Weather Service said on Wednesday. California experienced its third-wettest 24-hour period since 2005 from 4 a.m. PST Monday through 4 a.m. PST Tuesday, only behind Jan. 9, 2017, and Jan. 5, 2008.
San Francisco measured more rain in the first 11 days of January (5.89 inches) than during the first 11 months of 2022 (3.76 inches). People in downtown San Francisco on Tuesday afternoon were also pelted by pea-sized hail as a strong thunderstorm swept through the Bay Area.
Floodwaters course through a neighborhood in Merced, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
The heaviest rain from the most recent storm focused on the south-facing slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California with over a foot of water filling rain gauges at weather stations across the area.
Nordhoff Ridge, located 20 miles north of Oxnard, California, reported 18.31 inches of rain in 48 hours. This is more than the 15.58 inches that have fallen in San Diego since the start of 2021, and more than the 15.46 inches of rain that have fallen in Sacramento since Oct. 1.
The AccuWeather satellite loop from Dec. 26, 2022 to Jan. 11, 2022 shows a parade of storms hitting California.
Precipitation managed to make it over the towering mountains in the southern Sierra with Bishop, California, measuring 3.03 inches of rain on Monday, the sixth-wettest day of all time in the city. The typically arid city measured 5 inches of rain through the first 11 days of January, more than its entire annual average rainfall of 4.84 inches. The weather station in Bishop became the first in the U.S. to reach its average annual precipitation total.
The pitter-patter of raindrops even reached Death Valley, one of the hottest and driest areas of North America.
The barrage of bomb cyclones and atmospheric rivers has not been a drought buster, but there have been big strides in the right direction following years of drought.
The latest analysis by the U.S. Drought Monitor, which was released on Thursday, showed that the extreme drought conditions, which covered 41% of the state at the beginning of their water year, Oct. 1, 2022, had been all but eliminated in California. Additionally, the extent of the severe drought conditions was reduced by 25%.
The total impact that the most recent storm had on the drought was not captured by the latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor as the data used in the report was gathered on Tuesday, Jan. 10, and precipitation continued to fall across California through midweek.
More rain, mountain snow on the way
More improvements to the ongoing drought are anticipated with two more storms forecast to slam into California through the weekend. While the precipitation will continue to benefit the drought, each storm system will bring a renewed risk of flash flooding, mudslides and disruptions to daily activities.
During the recent rounds of storms from Dec. 26 through Jan. 11, an estimated 1.6 million electric customers experiences power disruptions, PowerOutage.us told AccuWeather.
"Tree damage and power outages could be more extensive with how wet the ground is already," said AccuWeather Meteorologist Joseph Bauer.
The weather pattern will continue to send storms into California through the third week of January, including multiple rounds of rain in Los Angeles and San Diego.
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