Hydrology, Cryosphere & Earth Surface Research Spotlight

Monster El Niño Not Enough to Quench California Drought

New research shows that the Sierra Nevada snowpack will likely not recover from the current drought until 2019.

Source: Geophysical Research Letters


The unprecedented drought that has gripped the Southwest United States has severely depleted the Sierra Nevada snowpack, the major source of water for drinking and farming in California. Researchers and water managers thought this past winter’s monster El Niño would bring enough rainfall to help ease the strain on water resources, but whether El Niño rains were enough to replenish the dwindling snowpack remained to be seen.

This animation shows the change in snow water equivalent in the Sierra Nevada mountains from 1985 to 2015.
This animation shows the change in snow water equivalent in the Sierra Nevada mountains from 1985 to 2015. New research shows even with this winter’s strong El Niño, the Sierra Nevada snowpack will likely take until 2019 to return to pre-drought levels. Credit: Steve Margulis/UCLA

Here Margulis et al. calculated daily estimates of this winter’s snowpack volume in the Sierra Nevada using data from Landsat satellites and snow survey data collected by California’s Department of Water Resources. The team also used the satellite images and historical measurements of the snowpack and of past El Niños to estimate the snowpack’s total volume for each year from 1951 to 2015.

The researchers found that this winter’s strong El Niño did not bring enough rain to replenish the snowpack’s depleted stores. In 2015, the water volume of the snowpack was just 2.9 cubic kilometers (0.7 cubic mile), whereas a typical year is about 18.6 cubic kilometers (4.46 cubic miles), according to the study. Accounting for the 4-year snowpack deficit from the 2012–2015 drought, the researchers conclude it will likely take until 2019 for the snowpack to return to predrought levels, even if there are above-average precipitation years.

The team suggest that their method, which provides unprecedented detail and precision, could be useful in characterizing snowpack water in other mountain ranges, including the Andes and the Himalayas. These areas currently have much less on-site monitoring than in the Sierra Nevada.

The larger goal of the research is to build a detailed, continuous picture of the historical snowpack and diagnose the primary factors that cause it to vary. This information can ultimately improve models for predicting how much water will be available from the snowpack in the future, which will inform water management decisions. (Geophysical Research Letters, doi:10.1002/2016GL068520, 2016)

Lauren Lipuma, Contributing Writer

Correction, 21 July 2016: The spotlight has been updated to correct and clarify how the scientists calculated their estimates.

Citation: Lipuma, L. (2016), Monster El Niño not enough to quench California drought, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO055707. Published on 15 July 2016.
© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
  • Scott Waichler

    I agree this article has many problems. One seems so blatant and obvious I can’t believe it is real. It is nonsensical to talk about snowpack recovering over multiple years. There is no reference to snow and ice that persists from year to year (which is a very small amount in the Sierras), only snow through the winter. How can the snowpack thus referenced “recover”? It is seasonal. Only reservoirs that persist interannually can recover, e.g. soil, aquifers, and surface water.

  • Casa Quicc

    There are some errors in the story. First NASA only has one Landsat satellite currently in orbit and second it collects images every 16 days not on a daily basis.

  • Itachee

    The idea that this past winter’s El Nino was going to be of “Godzilla” proportions was noting but media hype coming from so called weather scientists. And this article is yet another example of the hype and media distortions. I say that as a retired water resources engineer with 35 years experience including two prior droughts. Based on that experience and studying CA hydrology over the past 100+ years I expect this coming winter to dy dry with a real big boomer winter in 2018. All one needs do is look up the precipitation, snow pack and run off records (readily avilable on line) for the period of 1986-95 or 1927-35.

    Today there are too many so called scientists trying to justify thier existence (research funding) with outlandish predictions hyped by the media.