The California Drought, As Seen From Space

No snow, no water.

National Journal

What's missing in the photo on the right? Snow. And perhaps a bit of greenery.

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released that photo to illustrate what a year of drought conditions (which have intensified recently) have wrought on the landscape. The amount of snow in California's Sierra region is between 4 percent and 22 percent of normal. And a change that drastic is easily seen from space.

It's possibly the worst drought California has experienced in 500 years. Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency. Some rural areas may run out of water entirely in the next four months if conditions don't improve. California's State Water Project, an agency that redistributes water from the snowy mountains in the north to the drier south, has announced it cannot deliver water to many communities in the coming months. Those towns will be on their own for water resources.

The Contra Costa Times, based in Northern California, explains:

In November, because of the drought, officials at the state Department of Water Resources announced that summer water deliveries from the project would be only 5 percent of the amount that the farms and cities who buy water from the project have under contract. By comparison, the project allocated 35 percent last year and 65 percent in 2012.

But even that proved to be too optimistic.

"Simply put, there's not enough water in the system right now for customers to expect any water this season from the project," said Mark Cowin, the department's director.

Why is this happening? Meteorologists say it's because of persistent high pressure over the region (called in weather media the "resilient ridge"), which is diverting storms northward toward Alaska. It's the same bit of high pressure that has caused the "arctic vortex" to push southward on the eastern half of the United States. (This video provides a great explainer of how the two are related.)

(NOAA / NASA)The result is a bone-dry landscape. In this map, also from NASA, you can clearly see how incredibly dry the state is.

And the frustrating truth is that there's little the state can do but conserve and wait.

"We can't make it rain, but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California's drought now threatens, including dramatically less water for our farms and communities and increased fires in both urban and rural areas," Brown said in declaring the state of emergency last month.