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Upcoming Storms Expected To Boost Sierra Nevada Snowpack, Help Combat Drought

Snow near Mount Islip. (Photo by SteveWillard via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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We may be making some big progress in our fight against a six-year-drought, as snow levels in the Sierra Nevada snowpack have reached 126% of the average for this time of year, reports the L.A. Times.

You may have noticed that the past couple months have been fairly wet. And while rain is indeed a welcome thing, a lot of it becomes runoff that goes back into ocean. So one of the true measures of drought recovery come from the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides about 30 percent of the state's water, according to The Mercury News. What happens is that the snowpack acts like a giant water cooler; when the snow melts during the warmer months, we're treated to a stream of useable water. As noted at The Washington Post, the snowpack holds particular significance for California's agriculture industry; the resulting water replenishes reservoirs that farmers rely on to water crops during the summer months.

The snowpack may get even stronger in the upcoming days, as impending storm systems are expected to bring up to 7 feet of snow to higher elevations. The Weather Channel says that elevations above 7,000 feet may see as much as 10 feet. By the end of the week, the year's total may reach up to 20 feet. "We haven’t seen an event of this magnitude in at least a decade,” state climatologist Mike Anderson told the Times.

One thing to note is that these upcoming storms are expected to be cold, which is vital, as warmer storm systems bring snow that melts too quickly to help replenish the snowpack. For example, even though we'd encountered a steady series of storms in December, snowpack levels were still 30% below normal for that time of year, according to the Mercury News. This time around, we're get plenty of the white stuff. Mammoth, for example, saw up to 84 inches of snow in a three day period last week. These storm systems are helped along by what is called an "atmospheric river"—a column of moisture in the atmosphere—that formed near Hawaii and ambled its way over to the West Coast.

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But does this mean we're on the verge of escaping the drought? Considering that the snowpack level is above average when, just a couple years ago, it had hit a 500-year (!) low, the answer is probably not. As noted at National Geographic, beating the drought isn't just a matter of replenishing reservoirs, it's also about dealing with the lingering effects of historic dryness. Researchers will have to see if the the state’s groundwater aquifers are refilling with water. There's also the matter of our 62 million dead trees, many of which wilted under drought conditions. Considering the array of issues we're dealing with, “it can take more than a single good year of snowpack for a drought to truly end,” Frank Gehrke, who oversees snow surveys for California's Department of Water Resources, told National Geographic.