TIME weather

Entire State of California Facing Worst Drought Since Tracking Began

California Drought
Cracks in the dry bed of the Stevens Creek Reservoir in Cupertino, Calif., on March 13, 2014. Marcio Jose Sanchez—AP

The entire state of California is suffering the most intense drought since the federal government began monitoring drought levels in 2000. Wildfires in the south have burned down at least 30 homes, in an “unprecedented” intensity, climatologist Mark Svoboda said

The entire state of California is facing a “severe” drought or worse for the first time since tracking began in 2000, according to the federal U.S. Drought Monitor.

The level of drought in the state, where wildfires in the south have burned down at least 30 homes, is “unprecedented” over the past decade and a half, climatologist Mark Svoboda, from the National Drought Mitigation Center, which runs the monitor based out of Nebraska, told USA Today.

Nearly a quarter of the state is facing an “exceptional” drought, the worst possible categorization, including the entire Bay Area. Another half of the state, including Los Angeles and San Diego, is in the midst of an “extreme” drought, while the remainder of the state is in the midst of a “severe” drought, the third most dire category.

[USA Today]

TIME weather

Wildfire Rages Near San Diego

California officials have battled double the average number of blazes so far this year. This latest fire spurred the evacuation of 20,000 homes in and around San Diego

TIME weather

20,000 Homes Evacuated as Wildfires Burn Near San Diego

More than 20,000 homes in and around San Diego were evacuated after more than 700 acres were torched by wildfires, which officials say have been brought on by an extended period of drought and high temperatures

Unseasonably warm temperatures and boisterous winds triggered evacuation orders in San Diego on Tuesday, where more than 700 acres have been torched by wildfires.

Authorities called for the evacuation of more than 20,000 homes in and around San Diego earlier in the day, but officials allowed many to return to their homes on Tuesday night as temperatures dropped in the area.

“We believe we have a pretty good handle on it,” said San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar. “We hope to do some more work through the night and into tomorrow, but I think the largest part of the emergency has passed.”

An extended period of drought in tandem with unusually high temperatures has left large swaths of the state’s landscape ripe for burning.

“Fire season last year never really ended in Southern California,” Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told the Associated Press.

California officials have responded to more than 1,350 fires since the beginning of January, which is double the average number of blazes at this time of year.

[AP]

TIME weather

The Scariest Picture You’ll See All Day: A ‘Firenado’

FIRENADO TEARS THROUGH MISSOURI FIELD
A 'firenado' tears through a field in Chillicothe, Missouri on May 3, 2014. Part fire, part tornado this blazing twister was spotted by Missouri native Janae Copelin while out driving. Janae Copelin—Barcroft Media/Landov

Bill Paxton never could have predicted this

You thought the highly underrated 1996 action movie Twister taught you everything there was to know about tornadoes, but you were wrong. Meet the firenado, which is exactly what it sounds like: a tornado that sucks up surrounding fire, creating a swirling, burning cone of disaster. The above firenado was captured on Instagram by Janae Copelin in Chillicothe, Missouri. No injuries were reported.

TIME weather

Massive Spring Storms Bring Tornadoes to Colorado, Minnesota

AP10ThingsToSee Severe Weather Colorado
A tornado touches down in a field in Akron, Colo., during a severe-weather outbreak on Wednesday, May 7, 2014 Matt Detrich—AP

Two tornadoes touched down in Colorado on Thursday and at least three twisters were spotted in Minnesota as the latest spring storms bring high winds and heavy rains to the American heartland and meteorologists warn or more severe weather today

Severe weather broke out across the Great Plains again on Thursday as boisterous winds rocked North Texas and tornadoes were spotted in Colorado and Minnesota.

Multiple twisters touched down in both Colorado and Minnesota late on Thursday afternoon while a tornado watch was issued in more than 50 counties in Iowa after heavy storms caused power outages that affected thousands across the state. No deaths or serious injuries have been reported.

Farther south, wind gusts blew as hard as 70 m.p.h. in Dallas, bringing down trees and ripping massive holes in warehouse roofs, according to the Associated Press.

Meteorologists forecast more severe weather for Friday, with thunderstorms expected to inundate large portions of the Mississippi Valley from Arkansas to Indiana.

Thursday’s storms come more than a week after 75 tornadoes touched down across the American Southeast killing 35 people.

[CNN]

TIME Environment

National Climate Report Is a Study in Extremes

A car sits in dried and cracked earth of what was the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir on Jan. 28, 2014 in San Jose, California.
A car sits in dried and cracked earth of what was the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir on Jan. 28, 2014 in San Jose, California. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

The newly released National Climate Assessment grimly shows that warming is already upon us and extreme weather could become the norm

The White House pulled out all the stops for today’s rollout of the new National Climate Assessment (NCA), including making President Obama available to talk to local and national weather people about global warming. The report itself — download the whole 839-page paper here — is an incredibly impressive piece of work, detailing the current impacts and projected effects of global warming in the U.S. across a range of geographic regions and economic sectors. Even better is the government website dedicated to the NCA, which offers fascinating interactive and multimedia tools to help anyone see how climate change will affect their life, their community and their country. The entire document is much easier to understand — and much bolder — than the increasingly antiquated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments. If the U.S. were as good at stopping climate change as we are at studying it, we’d have nothing to fear.

But we’re not—and we do. It’s worth exploring the NCA on your own — start with the highlights — but what struck me is this: to understand what climate change has done and will do to the U.S., you need to understand the extremes. There’s something about the very term “global warming” that makes it seem as if climate change is something that will happen gradually and uniformly, like boiling a pot of water. The NCA finds U.S. average temperature are expected to rise 2°F (1.1°C) to 4°F (2.2°C) over the next few decades, which on the face of it can seem easy to adapt to. The difference between an 83°F (28.3°C) and an 87°F (30.6°C) summer day is barely noticeable.

But those averages can hide dramatic changes in extremes. Heat waves have become more frequent across the U.S. in recent decades, with western regions setting records in the 200s, while the number of extreme cold waves has reached the lowest level on record. The number of record low monthly temperatures has declined to the lowest level since 1911, while the number of record high temperature days has increased to the highest level since the 1930s. And that’s expected to worsen — by the end of the century, what would have previously been once-in-20-year extreme hot days are projected to occur every two or three years across much of the country.

That’s true for precipitation as well. On average, precipitation is expected to increase across the country, which makes sense — warmer air can hold more water. But increasingly that rainfall is coming in very heavy precipitation events. (That’s a once-in-20-year day of rainfall.) In the Northeast, Midwest and upper Great Plains, the amount of rain falling in very heavy precipitation events is more than 30% above the 1901–60 average. If carbon emissions keep growing, those extreme precipitation events could occur up to five times more often. Even in regions where total precipitation is expected to decrease — like the parched Southwest — what rain that does fall is more likely to fall in heavy events. “It’s not the average changes we’ll notice,” said Jerry Melillo, the chairman of the National Climate Assessment Committee, at the White House event this afternoon. “It’s the extremes.”

That’s because it’s extreme weather that really tests our resilience. A prolonged heat wave leads to a spike in electricity demand as people turn up their air conditioning, which in turn can stress out our vulnerable electrical grid, leading to brownouts and blackouts. Those who don’t have access to cooling—especially the elderly and the poor — are at direct risk for heat-related health conditions. Extreme precipitation events — like the one that struck much of the Southeast last week — can lead to devastating floods, which have been on the increase in the eastern Great Plans, parts of the Midwest and much of New England. The inland floods from Hurricane Irene were devastating for much of the Northeast, destroying farms and infrastructure. Those costs will compound over time as we keep adding greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The red-carpet rollout of the NCA wasn’t by accident — later this year Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will put forward regulations designed to curb carbon emissions from existing power plants. It’s in his interest to make the scientific threat of climate change crystal clear — and the NCA does that. But the science is the easy part. “We all have to come together and turn these words into actions,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Kathryn Sullivan at the White House event. That’s the tough part.

TIME

Southern California Blaze Kicks Off What Could Be Especially Dangerous Wildfire Season

A fire crew uses their deck gun to cut down an aggressive branch of the Etiwanda Fire in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., on April 30, 2014.
A fire crew uses their deck gun to cut down an aggressive branch of the Etiwanda Fire in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., on April 30, 2014. David Bro—Zuma Press

Rising temperatures and a prolonged drought have prepped the Golden State for what could become one of the most severe and dangerous wildfire seasons on record, beginning with the Etiwanda Fire that firefighters have about 53 percent contained

As he looks ahead to summer, firefighter Steve Abbott is worried about the down and dead. The term refers to the dry, lifeless leaves and branches that are explosive fuel for wildfires and which are more abundant in California this year thanks to an unprecedented drought that has gripped the state. “The combination of temperatures and fuel adds to our concern,” says Abbott, one of more than 500 firefighters now battling what’s known as the Etiwanda Fire in San Bernardino County east of Los Angeles.

The fire, which started on April 30, has burned about 1,600 acres and was 53 percent contained by Thursday evening. In addition to the drought conditions and temperatures that climbed above 90 in Southern California this week, fierce Santa Ana winds helped propel the blaze and prevented fire crews from fighting it from the air. Although the fire has not yet destroyed any structures, Etiwanda is effectively opening night for a wildfire season that fire officials say could be one of the most severe and dangerous on record—and a preview of what life in a hotter and drier world could be for Californians.

That’s because the Golden State is primed to burn. California is suffering through its most severe dry spell in decades, with the entire state now in some category of drought. At the beginning of May the snowpack level in the Sierra Nevada mountains—a key source of stored water—was just 18% of normal. This winter, meanwhile, was the warmest on record for the state. The drought and the heat mean that plants and trees haven’t grown as many green leaves as usual. Those leaves help trees maintain moisture—and without them, the plants are that much more likely to ignite in a blaze. And it might not even take a fire to kill some of these parched trees. “If you don’t have the vegetation receiving water, not only do you have lower humidity levels in the plants, but some of the trees will actually die,” says Carlos Guerrero, a Glendale, Calif. fire captain and a spokesman for the multi-agency unified command battling the Etiwanda Fire. Dead trees means even more fuel on the ground as the height of the summer wildfire season approaches.

Guerrero and his fellow firefighters are getting the Etiwanda blaze under control—the mandatory evacuation orders announced after the fire began on Apr. 30 were lifted by the next day. But the changing climate means that the threat from wildfires is likely to only increase in the months and the years to come, in California and in much of the rest of the West. A study published last month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters found that the number of large wildfires in the West had increased by a rate of seven fires a year from 1984 to 2011, while the total area had increased at a rate of nearly 90,000 acres a year. Since 2000 more than 8 million acres have burned during six separate years. Before 2000, no year had seen 8 million acres burned. The authors connected the increase to climate change, as did the researchers behind a 2012 study in Ecosphere that predicted that global warming would likely cause more frequent wildfires in the Western U.S. within the next 30 years. Even the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, considered the gold standard for climate science, concluded that there was high confidence that global warming was already intensifying wildfires in the West.

Climate change isn’t the only factor behind the increasing wildfires in California and the West. Successful firefighting in the past has allowed some forests to grow beyond their natural limits, ironically providing more fuel for megafires. And the number of people who have moved to areas that border wild land has increased as well. Given that most wildfires are begun by human beings—either purposefully or by accident—more people near a forest means more chances for forest fires.

For people like Mia Hidayat, who lives in a housing development near the border of the Etiwanda Fire, that means the simple sight of dry brush and bushes in her neighborhood has taken on a new danger. “I’m afraid,” says Hidayat. As California’s wildfire season grows, many others are sure to feel the same.

TIME weather

Record-Setting Rain Ravages Southern and Eastern Coasts

An emergency worker walks on the other side of the street where one car still rests precariously after a retaining wall collapsed beneath a row of vehicles in Baltimore, Maryland, April 30, 2014.
An emergency worker walks on the other side of the street where one car still rests precariously after a retaining wall collapsed beneath a row of vehicles in Baltimore, Maryland, April 30, 2014. Karl Merton Ferron—Baltimore Sun/Reuters

Rainfall connected to storms that wrought deadly tornadoes in the Midwest and South this week has tested the Gulf Coast, where some areas saw the most precipitation on record since the National Weather Service began tracking rainfall totals in 1880

Updated 12:45 p.m. ET

Record-setting rainfall pounded the East and Gulf Coasts of the United States on Tuesday and Wednesday, with even more rain looming for some parts of the Eastern Seaboard. Florida was hit particularly hard, and by Thursday afternoon, people in the Panhandle region were cleaning up as floodwaters receded.

The National Weather Service warned Wednesday of a “complex storm system” that will continue to rain down on the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast into Thursday.

In parts of the Gulf Coast, hurricane-tested residents faced unprecedented rainfall that flooded highways and washed away parts of homes. Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency and warned residents to expect more flooding.

The NWS said up to 18.9 inches of rain fell over a 24-hour period in Alabama and Florida, CNN reports. The airport in Pensacola, Florida recorded 15.55 inches of rain, the highest rainfall total in a single calendar day since the NWS began tracking rainfall totals in 1880.

The rainfall in the Gulf Coast was connected to a storm system that fueled tornadoes and severe storms across the south and midsection of the country earlier this week. Those violent storms were linked to the deaths of 36 people.

The bad weather spread east as nighttime fell on Wednesday. Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport recorded 5.18 inches of rain on Wednesday, breaking a daily record, the Washington Post reports. New York City’s Central Park saw the 11th heaviest daily rainfall according to the New York Times. Flood warnings were in effect for New York City early Thursday morning.

There’s a chance of rainstorms Thursday in cities from Jacksonville, Fl. to Portland, Maine, Accuweather forecasts, while residents in the Southeast are in for even more trouble as more rain is expected Friday.

[CNN]

TIME States

Gas Explosion at Pensacola Jail Kills 2, Injures More Than 100

A gas explosion ripped through a Florida correctional facility after severe rains deluged the southeast, killing two and injuring more than 100 inmates and staff. More than 400 other inmates were transferred to jails in neighboring counties

A gas explosion at a Pensacola jail killed at least two and injured more than 100 inmates and correctional staff Wednesday night — one day after historic floodwaters devoured roads and ruined homes across the panhandle.

The explosion reportedly erupted at about 11 p.m. local time near the facility’s book center, causing part of the structure to collapse, according to the Associated Press. There’s no word if the accident was caused by the week’s heavy storms, which did flood portions of the jail.

The injured were taken to hospitals and more than 400 uninjured inmates were transferred to jails in neighboring counties.

On Wednesday, Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in 26 counties and called on state and local agencies to respond rapidly to the needs of affected families.

“We’re continuing to work with local leaders on the ground to give them the support they need to keep families safe and get them back on their feet,” he said in a statement.

“To support our local leaders, early this morning I instructed the National Guard to deploy 24 high-water vehicles to the impacted counties to assist with rescue and recovery operations.”

At least one woman in Pensacola, Florida, died after her car was swept into a drainage ditch, according to authorities.

On Tuesday night, more than 15 in. of rain fell before midnight at Pensacola Airport — setting a new record for the rainiest single day in the area.

“We’ve seen flooding before, but never flooding that washes the back of a house away,” said CNN iReporter Matt Raybourn of Pensacola. “There are no words for what we are seeing here.”

Elsewhere in Escambia County, local officials responded to 281 emergencies while fire rescue teams answered more than 266 pleas for help on Wednesday. According to the county’s official website, the local 911 dispatch received more than 4,000 calls between the start of the emergency at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

The behemoth three-day storm system cut through large swaths of the Great Plains and South as tornadoes, hail and floods left more than 30 people dead.

TIME weather

Monster Storm Brings Record Rainfall to Southeastern U.S.

A truck is stuck in the middle of flooded Piedmont Street in the Cordova Park neighborhood after it washed out due to heavy rains on April 30, 2014 in Pensacola, Fla.
A truck is stuck in the middle of flooded Piedmont Street in the Cordova Park neighborhood after it washed out due to heavy rains on April 30, 2014 in Pensacola, Fla. Marianna Massey—Getty Images

The system that wrought devastating tornados in the Midwest and South over the last few days, leaving at least 35 people dead since Sunday, is unleashing record rainfall further east as forecasts project severe weather up to Virginia

The massive weather system that has wrought devastating tornados in the South unleashed record rainfall across the region overnight Tuesday, with forecasts projecting more severe weather in states from Florida and Alabama to Virginia.

Pensacola, Fla. reportedly suffered more than two feet of rain in a 26-hour period, according to a rain gauge owned by a local resident, as bridges were washed away and miles of highways shut across the region, stranding hundreds of drivers. About 6,000 lightning strikes were recorded in the region in just 15 minutes, NBC reports. Local officials called it the worst flooding the region had seen in 30 years.

Much of downtown Mobile, Ala. was flooded and water levels near Fish River, near Silverhill were at their highest levels in 60 years. Tuesday was Mobile’s fifth-wettest day in 143 years.

Tornado warnings were issues early Wednesday in several states, as the gargantuan weather system brought high winds and thunderstorms across the Deep South. Georgia, Alabama and Florida faced tornado alerts, with forecasters predicting the gravest tornado risks from South Carolina to Virginia.

At least 35 people have been killed in six states since Sunday.

[NBC]

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