Wacky weather: Bakersfield gets more rain than San Francisco in 2013

The Fresno BeeDecember 30, 2013 

How crazy dry was 2013 in California? The desert landscape in Bakersfield wound up with more rainfall than lush San Francisco.

Gray, foggy December days moved north from the Central Valley into Oregon.

And Fresno and Los Angeles now have more in common than dirty air. Both endured their driest calendar year on record.

State leaders have not yet declared a drought, but rainfall has been subpar over the last two winters. After a dry December, NOAA's Climate Prediction Center continues to forecast below-average precipitation for the third consecutive winter.

Blue skies and above-average temperatures may be delightful, but they are alarming to farmers, city officials and industry leaders all over the state.

Where's the rainfall?

"It's just not happening," said meteorologist Jim Dudley of the National Weather Service's office in Hanford. "It doesn't look like the first part of January will be much different."

Is it El Niño, La Niña or any other phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean?

Scientists are not seeing a big connection between the dry year and the ocean, said scientist Nicholas Bond of NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.

There is no ocean warming of El Ninõ or cooling of La Niña. Shallow water temperatures along the equator in the Pacific are neutral this year.

Meantime, a stubborn high pressure system has been bouncing storms to the north, preventing California, Oregon and Washington from getting the usual rain and snow.

"We didn't see any indication that this dry pattern would develop in the far West," Bond said. "But it may be too early to panic. There's a lot of the winter left, and California's wet season is typically the strongest in January."

This is no typical rainfall time in California, however. Fresno has only 3.01 inches of rain this year, falling well short of its lowest previous total of 3.55 inches in 1947. The average annual rainfall in Fresno is 11.5 inches.

The highest monthly total in Fresno this year has been .89 of an inch in February. Seven times, the city's monthly totals fell below .10 of an inch.

In the past, there have been big rainfall months during droughts for Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley. During a six-year drought, the city recorded 7.24 inches of rain in March 1991. Bakersfield had 4.33 inches the same month.

But a stubborn ridge of air over the West Coast is pushing away any miracles right now and helping to create an odd precipitation picture.

Bakersfield on the arid southern end of the Valley picked up more rainfall this year than Fresno, due to some southerly storms. Bakersfield's total is 3.43 inches.

Even stranger, San Francisco -- averaging more than three inches of rain in December alone -- has only 3.38 inches for the entire year, meteorologist Dudley said.

Perhaps more unsettling is the Sierra snowpack, where about 60% of the state's water resides each year. The snowpack is less than 25% of its average size.

Reservoirs, the state's drought buffers, are dropping. The largest reservoir, Shasta in Northern California, is only a little more than one-third full, which is 58% of average for late December.

Some scientists say the West's dry spell is a preview of future droughts, which are expected to occur more often as the climate warms, said Bond of NOAA's laboratory in Seattle.

"No doubt it's a wake-up call, and a lesson in how we will have to adapt," he said. "But I think I'd rather just get the rainfall this year."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6316, mgrossi@fresnobee.com or @markgrossi on Twitter.

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