Can West Coast Atmospheric Rivers Help Relieve Drought Conditions? It’s too early to tell, experts say

The atmospheric river currently affecting the West Coast, while creating dangerous weather conditions for millions of people, may have the potential to temporarily reverse drought conditions in states that need water, experts say.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Atmospheric rivers are described as “rivers in the sky” because they are somewhat long and narrow regions in the atmosphere that transport most of the water vapor out of the tropics.

Atmospheric rivers typically bring heavy rain, wind and snow where they flow, especially along the West Coast, according to NOAA.

Despite the continued rain and snow, some experts think it’s too early to tell whether the latest atmospheric river will do enough to reverse drought conditions, and they say they’ll have a clearer picture in the spring.

“Everyone should be very careful about making predictions,” Nicholas Pinter, Ph.D., associate director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, told ABC News.

Photo: A man walks down the Folsom Lake boat ramp, which is normally underwater, on Oct. 3, 2022, in Folsom, Calif.
A man takes a long walk down Folsom Lake’s boat ramp, which is normally underwater, on Oct. 3, 2022, in Folsom, Calif.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP, File

Earlier this month, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) was bracing for a fourth dry year and more extreme drought conditions, but according to experts, that may change course, as some parts of the state are expected to receive rain from the next seven. 10 days.

According to the National Integrated Drought Information System (NDIS), much of California saw below its average precipitation levels over the past two months east of the Atmospheric River. Much of the state was under a severe to exceptional drought warning, data showed at the time.

Flood watches and advisories have been issued from Seattle to San Francisco Bay. Flooding is possible due to “excess rainfall” in parts of northern and central California.

According to NOAA’s California Nevada River Prediction Center, the San Francisco Bay Area saw between 1.02 and 2.83 inches of rain in November. In the past three days, 2 to 4 inches of rain have been reported in the Bay Area, causing flooding in some areas.

Parts of Northern California received 6 to 8 inches of rain in the past 36 hours. In November, parts of the Northern California coast received up to 8.75 inches of rain.

Photo: Dec. 27, 2022 Umbrellas come out near the Van Nuys, Calif., courthouse as the rain begins.

Dec. 27, 2022 Umbrellas come out near the Van Nuys, California, courthouse as the rain begins.

Orange County Register via AP

Photo: Cars are stopped in the northbound lanes of Highway 101 after flooding closed the highway near Chualar, California on Dec. 27, 2022.

Vehicles are stopped in the northbound lanes of Highway 101 after flooding closed the highway near Chualar, California on December 27, 2022.

Nick Currie/AP

“What we’ve seen in these drought conditions is that river levels have dropped right down,” Michael Anderson, DWR’s state climatologist, told ABC News. “December, January and February are when we would normally expect half of our annual rainfall. We’re on the first of them.”

According to Pinter, after less than a year of rain, people will start talking about drought again.

Experts say that to stop drought conditions in California, even temporarily, it would need to be 120% to 200% above average by the end of the season.

“What we want to see is a series of years of above-average rain and snow,” Pinter said. “Because California’s water reach is so long, we want to see that precipitation pattern over the Colorado Basin as well.”

The Colorado River Basin has experienced drought conditions for more than two decades, according to the NDIS, causing reservoirs in the Colorado Basin, Lake Mead and Lake Powell to reach historic lows.

ABC News’ Meredith Deliso, Stephanie Ebbs, Danielle Manzo and Callie Bertash contributed to this report.

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