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Atmospheric River May Lessen California Drought

mt. shasta from space
The Southern, Eastern and Western Slopes of Mt. Shasta were almost bare in January. (Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Robert Simmon, using Landsat 8 data from the USGS Earth Explorer)

Finally, storms are bringing some desperately needed rain to California, which is suffering from one of the worst droughts in centuries.

The storms, which began today (Feb. 6) and should continue through the weekend, may provide California with 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters) of rain and blanket the Sierra Nevada mountains with as much as 2 feet (0.6 meters) of snow. Some areas of the state can expect between 4 and 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters) of rain over the next week, and the rains are gracing the driest portions of the state — Northern and Central California, Climate Central reported.

The storms are fueled by an atmospheric river: a narrow, moisture-laden airstream that snakes across the Pacific. A December 2013 paper in the Journal of Hydrometeorology found that even big droughts in California have ended thanks to this atmospheric phenomenon. But most meteorologists think a complete end to the drought is unlikely, as the state needs more than 1 foot (0.3 meters) of rain before the wet season ends on March 31, Climate Central reported.

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Tia Ghose
Tia has interned at Science News, Wired.com, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and has written for the Center for Investigative Reporting, Scientific American, and ScienceNow. She has a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California Santa Cruz.