Monday, September 7, 2015

A Brief History of El Niño Weather That Has Hit California

Tom Stienstra writes:

1959 El Niño: In a big El Niño winter, 1958-59, a single continuous storm dumped 189 inches (15.75 feet) of snow on Mount Shasta at the old Ski Bowl, the highest snowfall from a single event in North America. “We tried to shovel the roof, but it just kept coming,” said Carl Alto, an old friend of mine who worked there. “Pretty soon we were just buried up there.”
Ultimate teeter-totter: In January 1995, with a moderate El Niño, the Russian River had a severe flood in which the river came up 40 feet, and many houses were wiped out. Then, in February, it was drought-like dry, and people made plans to rebuild (with their houses on stilts). March then brought another epic flood. “For what you call the teeter-totter effect, you can’t be more severe than that, back-and-forth,” [meteorologist Michael] Pechner said.
Flood of 1862: On Feb. 9, 1862, William Brewer, the geologist, explorer and historian, wrote in his diary, “In the Sacramento Valley, for some distances, the tops of the (telegraph) poles are under water.” On Feb. 10, he added: “Nearly every house and farm over this immense region is gone. There was such a body of water — 250 to 300 miles long and 20 to 60 miles wide, the water ice cold and muddy — that the wind made high waves which beat the farm homes in pieces. America has never seen such desolation by flood.”
San Francisco, 1862: In that era, the city of San Francisco was one of the few cities to keep official records, and in one month alone, January 1862, it rained 24.36 inches, nearly 1 inch of rain per day.
1937 cold snap: In 1980, on a trip with Ted Fay, the fly-fishing legend, he told me a story I always thought was a tall tale — that is, until now. “I was driving across Nevada in January of ’37, and it was raining hard,” he said. “Suddenly it cleared up and we had a hard freeze overnight, like 40 below, and near Winnemucca, all the cows froze standing up. Three weeks later, I came back through and the whole town was out there standing along (the highway), betting on what cow would fall over next.” Turns out, this yarn could be true. The lowest temperature recorded in California history was minus-45 degrees, recorded Jan. 20, 1937, at Boca, near Truckee in the Sierra Nevada, during the event Ted told me about.
1937-38 snow: In another teeter-totter, the ’37 cold snap was followed the next winter by record snowfall. Norden, located at 6,886 feet near Donner Summit, recorded the Sierra’s highest snowfall, 819 inches (68.25 feet). “I don’t doubt that we could see something like that again in the very new future,” Pechner said. “If we use 700 inches as the benchmark for epic snows, it’s happened a half dozen times since the 1860s.”
Shasta ’37-’38 teeter-totter: It did not snow even one flake in November 1937 at Mount Shasta, Fay told me. Then it rarely stopped in December, January and February, and north state communities became snowbound and isolated like a series of islands.
1964 Christmas flood: In the Redwood Empire, it rained daily from Dec. 18, 1963, to Jan. 7, 1964, and in a two-day span before Christmas, it rained 22 inches in the Eel River watershed. The flood destroyed 16 major bridges, 10 county bridges and 100 miles of railroad lines. The flood crested at 46 feet at Miranda, and there is a sign along Highway 101 that shows what appears to be an impossible watermark. “It was actually a weak La Niña for that event,” Pechner said. “That proves you don’t need an El Niño to cause flooding in California. What you need is a strong jet stream that taps subtropical moisture.”
1911 snow: In January 1911, it snowed 390 inches in Tamarack (central Sierra, Calaveras County) and in late winter, the snow piled up to snowpack of 451 inches (37.5 feet), the most snow in a month and highest snowpack in North America. Can you imagine standing at your cabin with a shovel?...
Hottest: On July 10, 1913, it was 134 degrees in Death Valley, the hottest temperature ever recorded on the planet. “We’ve come close to that record in recent years,” Pechner said.
Driest: Weather years are not usually measured by calendar year, but by season. Yet for calendar year 2013, San Francisco received 3.38 inches of rain, Fresno 3.01 inches, the lowest ever measured in a year. In a four-year span, 2011-15, Los Angeles received 29.14 inches. “In four years, L.A. received barely double what they should get in two winter seasons,” Pechner said.
El Niño, ’82-’83: In a little-known record, it rained 257 inches in the winter of 1982-83, measured at a U.S. Forest Service weather station at Camp Six above Gasquet near the Smith River in Del Norte County.
Comparing ’82-’83: “The winter of ’82-’83 was a very strong El Niño,” Pechner said. “Since 1950, when El Niño records began, there have been only two El Niños in that category. The other was ’97-’98. That’s over 65 years of records. The present El Niño could be as strong or stronger than ’82-’83 and ’97-’98. Everything points to it.”

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