Did Climate Change Cause the 2012-2014 California Drought?

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 5:30 PM
Yixin Mao1, Elizabeth Clark2, Mu Xiao1, Bart Nijssen1 and Dennis P Lettenmaier2, (1)University of Washington, seattle, WA, United States, (2)University of California, Los Angeles (effective Nov., 2014), Dept. of Geography, Los Angeles, CA, United States
California has experienced severe drought over the last three years, with especially deficient winter precipitation and mountain snowpack in 2013-2014. While the severity of California’s water crisis this year is not in question, the causes of the drought are less clear, and there has been debate as to whether human-induced climate change is at least in part a cause of anomalously low winter precipitation (P) and snow water equivalent (SWE) this year, or whether the conditions are simply the result of natural variability that has been manifested in previous severe droughts in California. To provide more scientific insight to this question, we reconstructed, using the Variable Infiltration Capacity (VIC) hydrologic model, SWE and runoff from 1920 to 2014 at a spatial resolution of 1/16 degree over the Sierra Nevada range of California. We forced the VIC model with a temporally consistent set of index precipitation and temperature stations that are also used in the University of Washington’s Drought Monitoring System for the West Coast Region (http://www.hydro.washington.edu/forecast/monitor_cali/index.shtml). We carried out trend analysis and examined cumulative probability for accumulated winter precipitation, SWE on Apr 1, annual, spring and winter runoff, average winter temperature (T) and SWE/P fraction. We also did correlation analysis between SWE and P as well as SWE and T. In addition, we used detrended temperature data to force the VIC model in order to analyze the role of climate change in SWE and runoff. Our results show that while the decreasing trend in SWE and earlier runoff peak in the year are related to long-term warming climate, there is no significant trend in winter P and there are lots of variability in the record of all variables. While this year’s anomalously warm weather might have exacerbated the ongoing 3-year drought (and winter 2013-14 in particular), we conclude that natural variability is the main cause.