The Weather May Change, but Drought Technology Stays the Same

It was during the Dust Bowl era that the technology used to detect high-pressure drought-causing systems was developed.

by / January 15, 2014
In northern California, Folsom Lake has dropped to near-record lows; in December 2013, it was below 20 percent capacity. At the same time in 2012, it was at 80 percent of capacity. Flickr/Amber Tsuchida

Many researchers and journalists are calling the high-pressure system causing California’s historic drought the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge,” a weather phenomenon identified using technology developed in the 1930s. 

For the past 12 months, California has been drier than a sandbox in the Sahara thanks to a stubborn high-pressure system perched over the Gulf of Alaska since December of 2012. This system has kept rainfall in the Golden State at historic lows, with precipitation 10 inches lower than average in most places across the state. 

California Gov. Jerry Brown has described it as a “mega-drought,” while California’s Catholic bishops have asked the public to pray for rain. The state has even attempted cloud seeding, where the clouds are sprayed with silver iodide in an attempt to squeeze out every last drop.

But for meteorologists, the solution is simple: that high pressure system over the Gulf of Alaska needs to weaken so precipitation from the Pacific Ocean can make its way to California.  

The problem is that system has stayed strong for the past 13 months.  

“Given the remarkable persistence and distinct structure of this high-impact feature of recent atmospheric circulation, I would argue that it’s now worthy of a proper name,” wrote Daniel Swain, a Ph.D. hopeful in the Environmental Earth System Science Department at Stanford University, about the high-pressure system.

“With this in mind,” Swain continued, “here’s a visual reminder of the spatial and temporal character of the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge of 2013.” 

That phrase proved to be just catchy enough for weather experts and the journalists that cover them. “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” has now become the accepted name of that high pressure system, which is more than 4 miles high and 2,000 miles wide.  

“I first heard about the name a few days ago,” said the National Weather Service’s (NWS) Dr. Warren Blier. “It’s alliterative, it’s relatively accurate, but it’s not the term I would use. It doesn’t sound particularly scientific.”

Of course, weather events are often named for the benefit of informing the public. For example “Dust Bowl” may not have sounded scientific either back in the 1930s, but it accurately explained the widespread drought conditions that crippled the country. 

And it was during the Dust Bowl era that the technology used to detect the so-called Ridiculously Resilient Ridge was developed. 

“The [NWS] uses radiosondes technology to get a large-scale picture of atmospheric conditions, just as they did in the 1930s,” Blier said. “Radiosondes attached to weather balloons helped us identify this persistent warm front.”

Radiosondes evolved from temperature and pressure gauges hung from kites and balloons in the 19th century. Since the 1950s, radiosonde technology has been relatively stagnant. 

“It’s not complicated stuff,” Blier added. “The radiosonde package is more sophisticated, but the idea is still the same as when they were first invented.”

When released, the Radiosondes use electronic signals to relay information back to researchers and meteorologists around the world to measure pressure, precipitation and temperature. Radiosondes helped identify a high-pressure system in 1976-77 that caused similar drought conditions in California. 

New Technologies Help With Rapidly Changing Conditions

While the radiosondes are important, Blier was quick to note there have been significant technological advances since then that have greatly improved the accuracy of NWS forecasts in the short-term.

For example, commercial airliners have been equipped with data-gathering instruments so researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have a constant stream of information used to forecast. Blier credited that system, known as AMDAR, along with improvements in radar and satellite technology, with helping save lives before tornadoes and other quick-forming weather phenomenon. 

“We can predict five to six days out now, where as back in the 1970s, we could only predict two to three days out,” Blier said. “We didn’t have a way to issue a tornado warning until someone saw a tornado touch down.”

Technology that detects rapid changes is also very important to California water monitors. David Rizzardo heads the new snow survey section of the California Department of Water Resources. He said a vast network of monitors and sensors surround lakes, reservoirs and other watersheds throughout the state. These monitors use microwave and satellite signals to dispatch real-time information to water monitors in Sacramento. 

“It is our first line of defense for emergency response if there’s a flood,” Rizzardo said. “It’s vitally important because it’s a dam safety issue, and we can make real-time adjustments based on the data.”

Yet, like the NWS, Rizzardo said for big-picture data gathering, old techniques and technologies are often deployed. For example, the Department of Water Resources still uses manual water surveys, where people measure samples with buckets. 

“It’s the best climate record we have,” Rizzardo said. “It’s been used to measure snow levels in the Sierra Nevada since 1909.”

In fact, researchers know that this current drought is historic, in-part, because of those bucket measurements. 

“Older technology can be incredibly useful for the big picture,” said the NWS' Blier. 

John Sepulvado

John Sepulvado is from Southern California. He enjoys writing, reading and wants to take up fishing. He wrote for Government Technology for a short time in 2014.

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