Feb 11, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Extreme weather whiplash hits California with record heat and wildfires

Illustration of a pair of legs with one foot wearing a rain boot and the other wearing a sandal.

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

An extraordinary example of weather whiplash is under way in California, where one of the state’s wettest months of December was followed by a bone-dry January into the first part of February.

Why it matters: The state entered the wet season with extraordinary precipitation deficits from a multi-year "mega-drought," and a dry winter could result in severe water restrictions and another devastating fire season.

What's happening: The wet December brought hope that water resources could be replenished, given the deep snowpack that built up. Nearly 18 feet of snow fell at the Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab, the most ever recorded there in December and third-highest total for any month.

  • Then weather patterns changed drastically, with a strong ridge of high pressure parked across the West from January into early February, causing storms to detour around the state and temperatures to increase.
  • It is as if Mother Nature shut off the tap and turned up the thermostat.
  • The same snow lab has now recorded its longest consecutive stretch of winter days without measurable precipitation on record, with no snow in sight for at least another week.
  • "Fingers crossed that we start seeing snow again soon," staff tweeted Wednesday. "Temperatures are above avg for this time of year and snowmelt is accelerating."

The big picture: Climate studies have consistently shown that precipitation is likely to fall in a feast or famine fashion in California, often swinging rapidly between the two. Studies show that more dry periods are likely to overlap with strong offshore wind events into the late fall and winter, raising the risk of wildfires.

  • While this weather whiplash event is unusually punishing, it's also a preview of what’s to come.
  • In Los Angeles, which had 9.46 inches of precipitation in December for its second wettest month in 121 years, just 0.19 inches fell in January.

Threat level: And now, as the city gears up for the Super Bowl this weekend, Southern California has been contending with an unusual winter heat wave. An unheard of February heat advisory is in effect for the region through Sunday.

  • Numerous locations in California and the Pacific Northwest have set daily temperature records in recent days, with some February records threatened as well.
  • Multiple brushfires erupted on Thursday, causing evacuations, amid gusty and dry Santa Ana winds. With temperatures in the mid-to-upper 80s on Sunday, the game itself may be the hottest Super Bowl on record at kickoff.
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