Dispatch From the Sierra – This Year’s Snowpack

September marks the final month of California’s water year, and our state has certainly had an unusual one.  Much of our anomalously high precipitation came in a series of atmospheric rivers, often called “drought busters.” ARs are powerful westward-driven channels of water vapor that move fluidly, high in the atmosphere. This vapor often changes upon landfall, producing large volumes of rain or snow.

At home in Santa Clara County, we were cleaning up after each storm in ways we’d never before: clearing 20 palm fronds the roof, repairing a screen door ripped from its frame. By the end of February, statewide precipitation totals were at a 122-year high. Evacuations and failure risk at the Oroville Dam made national news, sparking discussion on California’s aging water infrastructure and development in floodplains. These same issues played out locally, as I watched Coyote Creek crest the Anderson Dam in my hometown for the first time in 11 years. It swelled as it flowed northward, closing U.S. 101 and flooding the Rock Springs neighborhood in San Jose.

News from the mountains was equally eventful. It seemed that years of seeing dire, winter-brown LANDSAT images of the Sierra Nevada in the news, and at scientific conferences, were suddenly erased. Sierra snowpack reached 164% of long-term averages by the end of March, and then it was 190% on May 1. Ski lifts were buried. Yosemite National Park’s Tigoa Road stayed closed until the end of June. In the lulls between storms, I joined crowds on parks and trails to see incredible displays of wildflowers. It was a superbloom you could see from space. California, it seems, does everything in extremes.

In April, I came to live and work in Sequoia National Park. With Kings Canyon, the two parks (known together as SEKI) encompass ~1350 mi2 and nearly 14,000 feet of relief. Our wet winter was something I could no longer monitor digitally; it became part of my everyday. Training and housing those initial weeks were based in Three Rivers, CA, while we waited for the snow to clear from the more established housing community at higher elevation. The forks of the Kaweah River run through and define this landscape, and Three Rivers is their convergence point. The Wukchumni people were the first occupants of the region, and up to 600 once occupied Hospital Rock year-round. Located on the Middle Fork of the Kaweah, Hospital Rock is situated among buckeye and oak trees – by all counts bountiful, and sacred. This spring, it was on the front lines of snowmelt.


Marble Falls | April 30, 2017

Always driven to hike new trails and seek the highest altitude possible, I was restless and on edge those first weekends in SEKI. The weather didn’t cooperate with this goal when mist descended on the park, obscuring higher elevations with yet more snow. Trails around the Foothills section of the park were often hot, and dusty. Hiking to Marble Falls, I daydreamed of a lazy wade at my destination, perhaps some mist to wash sweat and sunscreen from my eyes. Instead, I discovered what it was like to see higher elevation snowmelt coalesce downstream, into torrents. It was powerful and dangerous in a way that didn’t invite lingering.

Hours later, an 18 year-old man drowned downstream. The local news seemed full of such drownings, and high flood alerts were issued for the equally dangerous Kern, Merced, and Tule Rivers. My hiking attempts always led to water; even the slightest creek traces were too risky to cross.

We finally moved to housing at 7000 ft in mid-May, and again I hit the trails, in hopes of quieter streams at higher elevation. I was wrong; streams were equally impassible, and late-season, hummocky snow was an added obstacle. Pooling water, downed trees, and getting turned around easily made for difficult terrain to navigate.

There was no choice but to wait it out. Nighttime temperatures dipped below freezing, and heaters smelled of last winter’s dust as they ran throughout the night. Among the staff, we spoke of longer days, swims in alpine lakes, hiking nearby summits. After experiencing warm weather and superblooms on hikes in Santa Clara and Monterey Counties all of March, it felt strange to watch and wait for spring to come again. It snowed yet again in June, the week before summer solstice.


Lodgepole | June 12, 2017

Warmer temperatures and open trails did come at last, with brilliant displays of flowers that made the year seem like an endless superbloom. Snowmelt, meanwhile, never seemed to abate. Any discussion of Sierra ecology often mentions the dependency of flora and fauna on snowpack as a “water bank” that melts gradually throughout the summer. This season brought record-breaking heat waves, forcing melt that seemed anything but a slow release.

Tokopah Falls, Sequoia NP | May 13, 2017

Mist Falls, Kings Canyon NP | July 5, 2017

South Fork of the Kings River, Kings Canyon NP | July 19, 2017

John Muir once spoke of sourcing awe and energy from alpine places and weather. I understood this a little more as I watched the land drain its massive snowpack. But the words of NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis on climate change were with me, too: that “the reality of change seems to shout from the land.” As summer progressed, the news among staff and on park radio included more drownings in streams, and search and rescue resources stretched thin. Several record-breaking events were converging in SEKI: nearly double the snowpack, summer heat waves, high visitor numbers.  People died, many on vacation or their day off, while seeking beauty and respite in a national park.

It was about halfway through the water year that the state’s drought emergency was lifted. In Drought Monitor terms, no part of the state is in “exceptional drought” right now, compared to last year’s 21%. But one wet year doesn’t cancel out the dry ones that came before, or guard us against those to come. We may well be in a new climatic normal of deep drought, then deluge, in California. Is this how the land shouts the message? I now have one season of observations in a mountain community, just the start of understanding the answer to that question. I do know that bearing witness to the landscape during this water year has strengthened my storytelling, and resolve as a climate scientist.


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