California Kindling: A Dry Winter and Reduced Snowpack Means Wildfires for the Golden State

The wildfire season is starting early in southern California this year, thanks in part to an unusually dry winter and spring. As the climate warms, will drought and fires become the norm?

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Wildfires are just a part of life in Southern California, like earthquakes or glimpsing Adam Sandler shopping at the Santa Monica Place mall. (OK, that one just happened to me yesterday.) But what’s not normal is a wildfire season that begins at the start of May, when kids are still at school and temperatures should just be warming up. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening now northwest of Los Angeles, where an unusually early wildfire has already forced thousands of residents to flee and threatened the Naval Base Ventura County.

From USA Today:

More than 10,000 acres of rugged, brush-covered terrain have been burned by the fire that began during the morning rush hour near the major highway and commuter route into Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley on Thursday.

Thousands of people have fled the area as the wildfire, which has damaged 15 homes, threatened 2,000 more and 100 businesses in its race toward Malibu.

The hope is that the gusting winds that have stoked the fires will begin to taper off on Friday, and cooler temperatures could halt the progression of the flames. But regardless, chances are that this week’s wildfires may just be a rehearsal for what could be a long, hot summer. California is primed to burn.

(Photos: Wildfires Ravage California Coast)

That’s due in part to the fact that an unusually dry winter and spring has left California’s vital snowpack at just 17% of normal levels as of the beginning of May. The melting snows of the Sierra Nevada mountains have long fed both farmers and city dwellers in California, a state that usually doesn’t get a lot of precipitation on its own. Think of the snows as a natural reservoir that’s opened each spring—only this year, the reservoir is almost empty. As Frank Gehrke, the chief surveyor of the state’s Department of Water Resources, told the AP:

I’m finding nothing. Seriously, there is no snow on the course at all.

Right now it’s not officially a drought, but the state is still projecting that it will only have 35% of the water needed by California’s 25 million people. Snowmelt, or the lack of it, is a big part of that equation, providing about 30% of the water used in California. The good news is that the actual man-made reservoirs in the state—sites like Lake Oroville and Lake Shasta—are still fairly close to capacity. But if extremely dry weather were to become the norm, even those reservoirs wouldn’t last long.

(MORE: The Great Drying Strikes Again)

As the globe continues to warm, that’s one of the biggest questions facing climate scientists: what will warming due to the rainfall that human civilization depends upon? That’s what a new NASA-led modelling study that was released today is working to answer. Researchers led by William Lau of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center analyzed 14 climate models and concluded that wet regions are likely to see increases in heavy precipitation, while drier parts of the world are likely to get drier. Specifically, for every 1 F of CO2-induced warming, heavy rainfall—an average of more than 0.35 in. a day—will increase globally by 3.9%, and light rainfall will increase by 1%. But moderate rainfall—probably the most beneficial and least destructive—will decrease globally by 1.4%. And for every 1 F in warming, the models expect that the length of periods without rain will increase by 2.6%.

Your standard caveat: climate models are just that—attempts at prediction, prone to some degree of error in either direction. But the NASA study is hardly the first to predict that drought will increase in already arid areas like the southwestern U.S.—areas, it should be noted, that have already experienced mega-droughts in the recent geological past. Couple drying trends in the future with continued population growth—and a large and thirsty agricultural sector—and the future is looking crispy for California.

(MORE The Once and Future Southwestern Mega-Drought)