The region’s typically temperate and wet winters create vast tracts of verdant green grass and other plant life from the Pacific coast to the Central Valley. This, while the Sierra Nevada mountains and higher foothills are blanketed in snow.
It’s only during the dry and hot summers that unirrigated lowlands turn straw brown while the mountain terrain becomes mainly green. But a winter with virtually no rainfall or snow has seen that pattern reversed.
The image to the right uses observations from NASA’s MODIS sensors orbiting aboard the Terra and Aqua satellites to show how far above or below normal plant growth was between January 17 and February 1, 2014.
The prevailing shades of brown show that most plant life had been stunted by drought from the wine-growing regions of Napa-Sonoma, southward to the vineyards around Santa Maria and Santa Barbara.
The vast farmlands of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys can also be seen to be mainly barren.
Noteworthy exceptions to the parched landscape were high in the Sierra Nevada foothills above about 5,000 feet in elevation to the meager snowcap of the high Sierra.
The light teal shading for those areas indicates a somewhat above-normal amount of vegetation for terrain that would have been covered by snow during a typical late January. Lack of snow cover and above freezing nights during late January allowed early spring growth to emerge in this narrow corridor of the state.
But conditions rapidly changed immediately after this study period. A series of Pacific storms, which began on February 2, has since brought more extensive snow cover to the Sierra.
It also made soil in lower elevations moist enough to allow a lush carpet of grass and wildflowers to emerge.
But despite the short burst of winter storms, farmers and even homeowners are faced with severe water-use restrictions should ample late-season rains fail to arrive.