California drought: The state’s snowpack is a new record low, by far.

This Is What a Megadrought Looks Like

This Is What a Megadrought Looks Like

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April 3 2015 11:12 AM

This Is What a Megadrought Looks Like

Phillips, CA: Snowpack and Drought
California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks to reporters at the site of a manual snow survey on April 1, 2015, in Phillips, California, near Lake Tahoe. The recorded level there was zero, the lowest ever measured.

Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images

Humans living in California have struggled with drought for millennia, but this year’s drought is different.

Snowpack measurements taken this week were far lower than anything ever measured before—containing about 80 percent less water than last year’s peak, which at the time was also a record low. More than half of all locations surveyed this week in the California mountains had no snow on the ground at all—139 out of 225 measurements, as of Friday morning.

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The photo slider below compares California’s current snowpack with the last near-normal year, 2010. (Most of the white in the 2015 image is clouds, especially over Nevada.)

before
after

On Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown enacted the state’s first mandatory water restrictions, though they apply primarily to cities, not the water-intensive agriculture industry. The state normally draws about 30 percent of its water resources from summertime snowmelt, but not this year.

Many scientists now believe a megadrought—an intense drought lasting longer than two decades—has already begun. Eleven of the last 15 years have been abnormally dry across the West. With the added boost of global warming, parts of California are slowly being transformed into a desiccated wasteland.

If this year’s snowpack is any indication, California’s water woes are just beginning.

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist and a contributing writer at Grist. Follow him on Twitter.