California's remarkable December weather

While Miami and much of south Florida experienced the coldest December on record, the “other sunny state”, California, has been getting blasted with snow. My family and I experienced this firsthand yesterday on the drive back from Southern California to home on Interstate 5. I kept pushing to “leave now” on Sunday morning, knowing we had a very short window of opportunity left. We made it, but within 20 minutes after we passed the summit,  I-5 was closed to traffic, and remains closed now.

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Above  are some photos (click the arrows) of our trip though the Grapevine and analysis of December weather from one of the leading forecasters in California. These were taken by my lovely wife who was riding shotgun and helping me navigate while photo documenting the trip.  Not only was I-5 snowy and high winds over the Tejon Pass, when we reached the base of the mountain in the San Joaquin Valley, we were greeted with gale force+ winds that did some damage by knocking down a stoplight and some small trees in rain soaked ground, and rendered the service area, gas stations and restaurants at Laval Road without power. It also kicked up a dust storm on 99 on the way to Bakersfield too. Snow level was down to 1000 feet by my vehicle altimeter.

Even Las Vegas got snow – more from NWS LV here

My friend Jan Null, former lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in SFO, and now a Certified Consulting Meteorologist running his own service (Golden Gate Weather) has some thoughts on December:

By Jan Null CCM

On a number of fronts, the December weather across California was quite remarkable.  Not only was it very wet (duh!), but temperatures were generally quite mild.  Both were the result of a prolonged period of a strong low latitude jet steam far enough south to bring the state warm and very moist air from the subtropics. See http://ggweather.com/calif/dec2010.htm

Rainfall anomalies ranged from a paltry 127% of normal for San Jose to a whooping 536% of normal in Los Angeles.  The City of Angels ended the month with over 10 inches of rain and locations in the surrounding mountains nearly tripled that amount.  Statewide season to date amounts range from near normal to 150% of normal in the north to in excess of 200% of normal over most of the southern half of the state.  See:  http://www.cnrfc.noaa.gov/awipsProducts/RNOWRKCLI.php .

Note that many locations south of the Tehachapis are within a couple inches of having normal rainfall for entire season, even if another drop did not fall!

In the mountains the Northern and Southern Sierra Nevada Indices and the Snow water content are at or near record values for the end of December.  See http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cgi-progs/products/PLOT_ESI.2011.pdf , http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cgi-progs/products/PLOT_FSI.2011.pdf and http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cgi-progs/products/PLOT_SWC.2011.pdf .

This is also reflected in the phenomenal snowpack that ranged from over 150% of normal in the northern Sierra Nevada to over 200% in the south.  http://www.water.ca.gov/news/newsreleases/2010/122810snow.pdf .

The low latitude trajectory of the jet stream also contributed to mild monthly temperatures statewide.  This was exacerbated by the extensive that kept average overnight monthly minima mostly in a range from 3 to 6 degrees above normal.  The warmest minima anomalies were at Redding and Fresno which were 6.2 and 7.1 degrees above normal respectively.

A WORD ABOUT LA NINA

The past month also serves as  precautionary reminder that all La Ninas (and El Ninos) are not created equal.  While the long term averaging of California rainfall from various warm and cold tropical Pacific Sea Surface Temperature can give a composite look at past events, there are NO absolutes for any given year.

This is true with the current moderate/strong event which doesn’t fit the La Nina stereotype.  This was also the case with December 1955 and December 1964 which both saw extensive flooding over much of the state.  See http://ggweather.com/enso/2009%20enso/ca%20enso.htm .

UPDATE: Watch this video from AP. fortunately, we got way ahead of this mess!

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42 thoughts on “California's remarkable December weather

  1. No disrespect however, I do laugh when I see people try to drive in/on snow/ice unprepared (And untrained). Like my wife, a new driver, experienced her first “slippery” drive yesterday in the rain after dry conditions. Its, almost, as bad as snow…

  2. The Laval road coffee stop is exactly one hour from my house in Lancaster and a frequent stop on northbound trips. No power there would be a problem. My daughter is in process of moving to San Diego. She was here Saturday evening to get a last load of items and borrow my small pick up to drive south Sunday. Watching the weather, I packed truck early, double tarped the load, got her up much earlier than she wanted, and got her on her way. Her path would be east on 138, with a 4000′ pass near Wrightwood, then onto 15 south through Cajon pass, which I don’t think closed yesterday. However, before 8 PM here in Lancaster, we had about 5 inches of snow…not completely unusual, but somewhat rare. Local authorities are not well prepared for this, other than to wait out the melt. For example, today is trash pick up, and recycle truck is usually long gone by now, but has yet to make an appearance at 11 AM.
    I’m well aware WX is not climate, but northern hemisphere seems a bit chillier of late.

  3. We did the same thing coming from Oregon to the Bay Area, got through just in time before it was shut down last week.

  4. This La Nina has been a bit odd for us in TX too. While we have certainly been very dry (up until the past week and half), the temps seem to be quite a bit cooler overall. Yes, we’ve had some warm days, but also extended periods of cooler than average. In addition, models are pointing to an arctic blast coming down in the next couple weeks that could linger for around a week.

  5. Here in the coastal mountains of SoCal, south of LA, at 2400 ft elevation, my backyard rain-gauge measured 22 inches of rain for the week before Christmas. For international readers, that’s ~560 Liters per square meter. In one week. Normal for the entire year in my backyard is about 27 inches total.

  6. Edit question: “This was exacerbated by the extensive ^?^ that kept average”
    Extensive what? I can’t quite guess the missing word …

  7. Tell me about it. I am finding the weather is SoCal and een other parts around the world colder than ever….I hope your travel in the snow went safe though

  8. Hmmm…and not a word about the Madden-Julian Oscillation and all the subtropical moisture that poured into S. California? Very incomplete analysis without mentioning the MDO…

  9. So do these anomalies represent cyclical phenomena oscillating about a post-LIA uptrend from c. 1890, or mere episodic fluctuations in context of essentially random temperature events? If the former, one could give predictive odds; in the latter case, meteorologists would be constrained to say that PDO and other medium-term effects do not result from orbital, solar, or other exo-planetary influences but from complex dynamic systems whose chaotic aspects render even major outcomes unpredictable.
    In face of shortening cyclical wavelengths, climate-associated amplitudes and frequencies increase. By about 2030, Earth’s global thermostat –yes, Virginia, there is such a thing– will face a long-term crash, shaken to pieces by simultaneously turning on-and-off. Absent the Younger Dryas “cold shock” which reset the post-glacial clock back some 1,500 years c. 10,700 years-before-present (YBP), our present Holocene Interglacial Epoch would likely have ended coincident with the Roman Warm of c. AD 450.
    As it stands, Earth’s “long summer” has noticeably faded from about AD 1950. Generations later, climate hysterics’ “climate vs. weather” rants are immaterial. In light of reality, by 2100 Luddite sociopaths’ extraordinary malfeasance in sabotaging global energy economies over decades will be seen for the survival issue that it is.

  10. I’m a transplanted Seattleite in Orange County and my only question is this: When is it gonna stop raining? It doesn’t rain this hard in the NW.

  11. Well, my above comment should have said: “I now live in Tampa, and our headline is Tampa Bay cities break records for frigid December. I just can’t seem to escape global warming ….”
    And that is after the UHI effect!

  12. I’ve just been looking at the apocalyptic images coming out of Queensland, NE Australia where an area the size of France and Germany combined is under water; apparently these weather conditions there are due La Nina. It’s utterly devastating.
    Meanwhile the UK has experienced its coldest December since records began… with more to come shortly

  13. December in Ca is not usually that wet. I live in the Sierra foothills and it has been raining or cloudy most of the month and we are at about double the amount of rain to date. This accounts for the “warm” temperatures. The storms that have come through are not warmer than usual, snow levels have been about average (altitude). But it gets cold here when the nights are clear, we have had very few clear nights the last several weeks. Last night was in the mid 30’s and rainy, tonight will be clear in mid 20’s.

  14. I’ve driven I-5 through Los Padres maybe a dozen times. Never seen it closed. Had a buddy that moved up there to a cabin for several years. He saw a lot of snow. I lived halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego and usually headed more east to Angeles National Forest for skiing at Big Bear & Baldy or out to the Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree National Park, the Colorado River, Mammoth Lake up in the Sierras. Palm Springs and Las Vega is right along that track too.
    I do miss living near the Pacific ocean on one side and within an hour’s drive be either in the high desert or mountains. Mt Palomar observatory has a great campground too. I saw the most incredible Perseids meteorite display in the high desert (Joshua Tree National Monument) back in the 1970’s Never forget it. Climbed up on top of a huge rock and watched laying on my back in a sleeping bag. They were like a flashbulb in the sky every few seconds and lasted for hours.

  15. Vuk etc
    Here is the UK’s December through ages.
    Interesting…it looks like there was a larger temperature increase for the 18th & 19th centuries but nearly flat for the 20th century.
    MikeEE

  16. I measured 5 inches of snow this morning in the town of Mojave at the western edge of the Mojave Desert. When I-5 closes, its traffic gets rerouted through here via 14 and 58. But 58 goes over the Tehachapi pass and that was closed last night. So there was a 6 mile parking lot of cars waiting for the road to open again. This usually happens once or twice per year, but not this early in the season.

  17. Up until the last few days, Anchorage has typically been around 5 deg F below average since Sept, following the (SFAIK) about the coolest and wettest summer on record.

  18. Jakers, I remember back around 1976/7 that it snowed in N. Florida while the news services were showing pictures of people wandering around Alaska in their shirt sleeves. As the Igors say: “What goes around, comes around.”

  19. Warmists will dwell on the fact that so far this fall and winter it has been quite warm here in Northern CA. While this is true, they will conveniently forget that the summer was quite cool (at times even cold). A few years ago I would have to walk the dog around midnight sometimes to be in temperatures under 100. Last summer many nights actually required a jacket. I kept telling my kid that this is what spring/fall is really like.

  20. Sam the Frist says:
    January 3, 2011 at 11:34 am

    I’ve just been looking at the apocalyptic images coming out of Queensland, NE Australia where an area the size of France and Germany combined is under water; apparently these weather conditions there are due La Nina. It’s utterly devastating.

    I’ve just come back from there, and it is quite something. I recall 20 years ago the rains came in February and it was really late, and very, very hot. This year they have come really early and look like staying for the duration.
    My mate has been living there for nearly 25 years. This has happened about every 10 years or so, and probably has/will for ever. One December they had 3m of rain in 3 weeks.
    I have absolutely no doubt that this will be attributed to CO2 by the greenwits, whatever the facts are and history shows, however.

  21. As to whether climate or weather is climate?
    Climate, like sentences are made up of smaller parts…words. Words, like weather are made up of even smaller parts…letters. Books, are made up of small sections…parts, chapters, paragraphs, and sentences, words, and letters.
    Sentences, like climate are made up of smaller parts…weather. Weather, like words is made up of even smaller parts like days. The global climate is made up of small sections… ice ages, interglacials, Jurassic period, and warm periods, cold snaps, drought, flood, and today’s average temperature.
    So as we can not have books without pages, pages without paragraphs, paragraphs without sentences, sentences without words, and words without letters. It stands to reason that even though letters are not books, books would cease to exist without them, and that letters are an integral part of books. And that…I… though just a letter, is also a word, and can be; in answer to a question, a sentence, or as a thought; an entire paragraph.
    So, true then would be, we can not have a climate without decades, decades without years, years without months, months without weeks, and weeks without days, and days without weather. It stands to reason that even though weather is not climate, climate would cease to exist without weather, and that weather is an integral part of climate. And that… a below freezing day in July…though just a day, can be a significant event describing a climatatic event, or in a line of similar days climate.
    In conclusion: weather is climate in the same way a quark is an atom, a leaf is a tree, your brain is you. Think of fractal geometry…if you start at a billion years and then look at a million then to a thousand then ten then a day and even down to an hour its all just weather.
    at least that is how I see it
    Ben

  22. It is good to have a real weather guesser in the crew. 🙂
    Snow in warm areas of California is not really unheard of, just rare. I once saw snow down to “100ft” elevation in Death Valley, early spring of 1959. It melted and evaporated before it hit the valley floor. Snow on the Joshua trees of the Mohave Desert was quite a sight.
    My people have been in California nearly 200 years. They describe the central valley as, at times, desert or swamp often in the same year. That is why they dammed the rivers to create flood free valleys and irrigated garden fields. Massive floods were once the rule from Red Bluff to Bakersfield as wet season storms ran up against the Sierra Nevada. The snow on the mountains and grasses on the hillsides reminds me of the 1950s of my youth. Thanks to my grand parents for building the great dams that make the floods of my youth very rare. pg

  23. John Blake says, “Luddite sociopaths’ extraordinary malfeasance in sabotaging global energy economies over decades will be seen for the survival issue that it is.”
    The Left are interested in reduction of the human population. Reducing the availablility of energy is one way to do it. It isn’t funny. They are dangerously sick.

  24. Cool video.
    If those palm trees could talk they would be saying “what the hell?”
    Chris
    Norfolk, VA, USA

  25. Ah, Tejon snow, been there done that many times and it usually closes behind me also. But I do recall having to wait for it to open one time. I really just want to get to Wauneta, Nebraska to see how wet the mountains of uncovered corn got… seems they ran out of bin storage again this fall.

  26. Ron Dean:
    Gotta love this comment on your linked article:
    “You cannot make conclusions from a short time period like one month when you are talking about averages of years and decades.”

  27. At least regional droughtists, like Gavin Smith will take a literary holiday while their hell-fire drought literature is being remaindered at $1.00 or so a copy.

  28. I ran into snow on the Tejon Pass last year at an unexpected time. This year looks even worse. FWIW, in South America they are having some lower snow levels as well. I did some looking and it looks like the ‘freezing level’ is lower now than in the last few decades.
    Are there any similar ‘freeze level’ data for the USA / Europe?
    http://chiefio.wordpress.com/2011/01/03/freezing-level/
    FWIW, now that the rain and constant cloud cover has left, I awoke this morning to a nice thick layer of frost on the car…
    “Down you got me going, going round you got me going… down dow-dow-down, dow-dow-down…”

  29. Well when Hiway 5; sorry “the five”, closes over the grapevine, I have just about always been able to make it through over the Tehatchapi. This Christmas I was in Glendale; and we waited till monday to head home in just beautiful weather over the five.
    It is on that transit, that I have often encountered some rains, and automobile vapor trails; due to the Bernoulli effect in the saturated air, as cars pass through, and create their own clouds. For eons I thought they were kicking up water off the roqad, untill I obseved it on a dry road.
    So I’ve never been trapped on the five or Hiway 5 either; but mostly just good luck.

  30. I notice that you use Yosemite as one of your precip sites. The station is a joke. It is like a RAWS station and subject to all sorts of errors. The reliable 8″ standard gage is rarely read as no one will walk to the weather yard and read it. Amazingly the people doing the weather now are the Search and Rescue Team. Apparently they can’t find it very often.

  31. We went to Phoenix between Christmas and New Year. By the time we got to Phoenix the roads were flooded. The next morning we had snow flurries and the kids were just going nuts outside trying to catch snowflakes on their tongues.
    It was nice getting home to the warmer weather in Northern California.

  32. Oh, and we made it up 58 on the way back through Tehachapi ahead of the storm. Took 223 over through Arvin to 5 and noticed that some of the cross roads were closed due to flooding from the previous rains. We hit rain at about Lost Hills and it stayed with us all the way home. It is a cold and soggy winter this year … to go along with a mild summer of 2010.

  33. Snow along I-5 in the Grapevine is not unusual. I remember driving though the pass in snow several times back in the 70’s. That’s the pre-GW Ice Age.

  34. bobbyj0708 says:
    January 3, 2011 at 11:18 am
    “I’m a transplanted Seattleite in Orange County and my only question is this: When is it gonna stop raining? It doesn’t rain this hard in the NW.”
    I lived in Orange County for almost 20 years. The rain will stop and stay away so long you’ll wish it back.
    Have you had your first experience with the Santa Ana Winds yet? Or had your first good shaking from an earthquake?
    Orange County was also my closest encounter with a tornado but it was a baby one by tornado alley standards. Left a ground track about a quarter mile long and 50 feet wide. Took down a few fences and trees and arbor roofs, relocated a few cars, and that was it. It was rain shrouded so I couldn’t see it though I was only a half mile away (daytime) driving on road bisecting orange groves at about 5mph in zero visibility with wipers going full speed in Irvine back when there were still orange groves in Irvine.
    Actually saw a lovely rope tornado here in Texas from a distance of about 5 miles. It didn’t touch down but came close and lasted for less than a minute. About 13 years ago I was here for the F5 Jarrel tornado which was about 40 miles away. Several F2 to F3 twisters touched down within 3-10 miles of me that day.
    Funny thing is people from California are deathly afraid of tornados but not earthquakes and people from Texas are deathly afraid of earthquakes but not tornados. Having lived 20 years in both places I remain more fearful of tornados. I think it’s because I watched the Wizard of Oz one too many times in my early childhood. Intellectually I know earthquakes are worse – no warning and nowhere to run.

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