Earth Log: Dry weather in 2013 shocks even meteorologists

The Fresno BeeJanuary 7, 2014 

Meteorologists say 2013 was more than a record-setting drought year. They're calling it historic — a year that nobody in the weather business forgets.

By most accounts, the dry year was much, much worse than meteorologists had ever seen, including desperately dry 1976.

Fresno-area meteorologist Steve Johnson, who has been tracking weather in California for decades, said on a drought scale of 1 to 10, last year was a 14.

"After I looked at the numbers around the state, I was in a state of shock on New Year's Eve," he said.

That's because records were not merely broken. They were obliterated.

Think about it. Weather records usually are broken by only small percentage points. Not this time.

Many old records fell by more than 40%. In the case of downtown Oakland, it was 58% — the 1976 record being 10.02 inches of rainfall and the 2013 total being 4.24 inches.

Gilroy's new record is a whopping 77% lower than its previous all-time low. That looks like a typo to many experts.

There were dozens of cities throughout the state that set records, as there were in the drought year of 1976, according to Johnson and other meteorologists.

Johnson added that his analysis of past weather records led him to forecast a 77% chance of a dry 2014 in California.

Federal forecasters seem to agree. The drought outlook from NOAA shows the West's drought will persist or intensify over the next three months.

Reservoirs already are low, according to the Department of Water Resources. Shasta Reservoir in Northern California is down to 37%. In the foothills along the San Joaquin Valley, Pine Flat Reservoir on the Kings River is less than 20%.

State hydrologists surveyed the snowpack last Friday and determined it held only 20% of the water usually found at this time of year. It all points to a third consecutive year of drought, which would hit Valley farmers hard.

I don't think it's too early to talk about water conservation this year.

What's 'clean burning'?

In the midst of another soot siege in the Valley's air, the question arises: What does "clean burning" in your fireplace mean? You hear the term in the media. Does it mean you can burn if there's a daily burn ban?

Short answer: No. You can't burn any kind of wood, pellets or manufactured logs, such as Duraflame, when the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District prohibits burning in your county.

"Clean burning" applies only to days when burning is allowed. It isn't a requirement. It's a suggestion from the air district.

Clean burning involves the use of federally certified wood-burning stove or similar device. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adds that manufactured logs burn cleaner than regular wood.

If you check the air district's page and see that burning is banned in your county, do everyone a favor. Don't burn.

Rainfall questioned

In a story last week, I mentioned San Francisco had less rain than Bakersfield in 2013, and I heard from readers who checked the facts.

Downtown San Francisco had 5.59 inches — meager, indeed, but certainly more than Bakersfield's 3.43 inches. So you're right if you noted that discrepancy in my story.

But just to clarify, I was not quoting the downtown number. I was talking about the airport total, which was 3.38 inches.

"But people don't live at the airport," a reader told me. "You should have used downtown."

Fair enough, but Bakersfield's rainfall total also is recorded at an airport — Meadows Field.

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