With only hours remaining in 2014, government forecasters said California is set to have its warmest year in 120 years of recorded data.
“We are virtually certain that 2014 will be record warm for the state,” said Jake Crouch, a climate scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center.
That statement comes as unusually frigid temperatures have hit Southern California, bringing with them a snowstorm that stranded more than a hundred motorists on mountain roads.
However, the recent cold snap isn’t likely to be enough to change the state’s trajectory towards historic warmth. Climate data for the month of December will be released after the first week of January, but Crouch said that the first 11 months of 2014 were warm enough to practically guarantee the year will have been California’s hottest.
“For California not to have its warmest year on record, December 2014, would have to rank as the coldest on record and by quite a large margin,” Crouch said.
He said that the margin would have to be about a degree Fahrenheit – not likely to occur, as December has been warmer than average.
The 11-month period averaged 62.8 degrees Fahrenheit in California, 4.1 degrees warmer than last century’s 58.7-degree average. The next-warmest January-November period in the state’s record occurred in 1934. That came in at 61.1 degrees.
“Not only did we break a record for the warmest year in California history, we smashed the record,” said Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Crouch said the planet is also facing its warmest year yet. The United States, though, is set to have an average temperature year due to colder temperatures in the eastern part of the country, which balanced out California's heat.
Patzert said that the unusual warmth is due to natural variability and not global warming, which he said occurs at an average rate of 0.012 degrees Fahrenheit per year.
“This shows you that natural variability can definitely give us a wild ride — big year-to-year, decade-to-decade changes,” Patzert said. “Of course, in the long run, in the next century, all this will be swamped by global warming.”
As for precipitation, the first 11 months of the year were California’s 23rd-driest on record.
Recent storms in Southern California triggered damaging mudslides and concerns of flooding in recent burn areas. Despite the storms, Patzert said that Los Angeles is only slightly above normal rainfall for the year-to-date. Wednesday's storm dropped up to a third of an inch of rain in some foothill areas and up to eight inches of snow in the eastern San Gabriel Mountains.
“So it seems like we’ve had a lot of rain, especially in comparison with the previous three years, but in fact, we’re only at normal at this point,” Patzert said.
He said that the amount of rain that has fallen is far from enough to remove the state from its historic drought and that current precipitation is no guarantee of wet weather during the rest of the winter.
“A wet December is not a good predictor of a wet January, February and March,” Patzert said.
Eleven of the past 16 years have seen lower-than-average rainfall in California. The past 36-month period has been the driest on record for the state.
“The last three years really put the nail in the coffin for the drought,” Patzert said.
Though this winter has seen normal rainfall to date, the added warmth this year has exacerbated California’s historic drought.
“The drought by itself is painful enough, but when it’s coupled with an exceptionally hot year like we had this year, the evaporation – what we call the evapotranspiration – is accelerated,” Patzert said. “It makes the drought even worse.”