The landscape of Northern California is especially diverse. From the Pacific Ocean beaches to the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada, there’s a little bit of everything in NorCal.
Over the past decade, our diverse landscape has experience particularly extreme weather. We’ve had droughts, firenadoes, bomb clycones, flash floods and howling winds. Storms and extreme wildfires have caused billions of dollars and damage, all in the past 10 years. It’s been one heck of a ride.
Let’s revisit the top 10 weather events of the past decade in Northern Calfironia:
Carr Fire Firenado (2018)
It was around 8 pm on July 26, 2018 when the Carr Fire moved like no wildfire we’d ever seen before. In just hours, the fire burned across the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area and into west Redding, claiming thousands of homes and numerous lives in the process.
From a weather perspective, the historic fire also produced a historic “firenado” which moved at incredible rates through the area. The massive tunnel of fire and smoke created winds up to 143 mph, lifting trees out of the ground and destroying entire homes with just its fierce wind. According to director of San Jose State University’s Fire Weather Research Laboratory it might have been “the strongest fire-induced tornado-like circulation ever recorded.”
According to scientists, in order to create this “firenado” phenomenon, flames have to become so intense that it created its own weather system. When the fire sucks the oxygen out of dry plants, the force of that suction creates strong gusts of winds. When the fire gets so intense, the winds pick up around the flames, creating a self-sustaining tornado of flames and destruction.
The 7-Year Drought (2011-2017)
On December 20, 2011, officials made the proclamation that California had entered a drought. That drought wasn’t lifted until until March 14, 2019, ending one of the most severe droughts ever recorded in California’s history.
While 2012 had moderate drought signifiers, the lack of precipitation fell to 34 percent of normal in 2013, illustrated with roughly 95 percent of the winter salmon run being killed. That lack of water was seen heavily in 2014 when water levels became dire on NorCal waterways. Old relics of towns buried under Shasta Lake began to see daylight for the first time in decades and the agriculture industry was operating at 50 percent their usual water. According to NASA, the twelve months prior to January 2014 were the driest since record-keeping began in 1885.
Today, drought remains on the mind for water officials in the state, allocating only enough for downstream tributaries in case another dry period rears its ugly head again. It’s hard to imagine a drought of that proportion in the coming decades.
Tuolumne County Flash Flood (2019)
When the 7-year drought ended, boy did it end with a bang in Tuolumne County.
In the early months of 2019, torrential rain blasted the region non-stop. In the rural region just north of Yosemite, that caused flash floods that sent a wall of muddy water down the streets. Sonora Creek, which runs through downtown Sonora, rose so quick that workers at nearby businesses barely had enough time to escape the wall of mud and water.
Luckily, no one was injured in the flood but the water brought plenty of damage to buildings and homes in the area.
Record Hail in Tehama County (2016)
On January 5, 2016, a storm moved over Tehama County in a seemingly normal way. By the end of it, residents were fleeing from the largest hail ever seen in California.
The Saturday storm produced hail measuring up to 3 inches, matching the previously held record from in San Diego in 1960. A photo (above) provided by Jeff Boyce of the the National Weather Service showed the enormous size of the fallen ice.
Upon research, it’s unclear what damage was created by the hail. But it’s easy to imagine it did its fair share.
Supercell Thunderstorm Over Redding (2019)
It was the night of Friday, May 24th, 2019, when the clouds began to build over Shasta County in an eery fashion. While the smart took shelter from the rare-May storm, some brave photographers headed outside to see the golf ball-sized hail and insane cloud cell that looked more like Mordor than NorCal.
The size of the hail was absolutely shocking:
Sandy Trent took this picture in Redding Friday evening. These are golf ball to egg sized hailstones, the biggest I’ve ever seen in the North State… definitely bigger than the October 5, 2011 Chico hailstorm. pic.twitter.com/zcDS6E75AR— Kris Kuyper (@Weather1224) May 25, 2019
But it was the cloud formation that hovered over Redding that truly turned heads:
It was a stormy night we’ll never forget. When many people had grand plans to spend their Memorial Day weekend in the great outdoors, Mother Nature had different plans. Here’s to one of the most iconic storms we’ve ever seen in NorCal.
5 Tornadoes Over Chico (2011)
The Sacramento Valley isn’t completely devoid of tornado activity. In fact, around four tornadoes occur each year in California, mostly around Tehama and Butte counties.
But the tornadoes of 2011 were different as they brought with them 120 mph winds and millions of damage to local crops.
On May 25, 2011, a series of tornadoes formed over Butte County. The tornadoes occurred in the Hamilton City, Durham, Ord Bend and Paradise areas, an area largely dedicated to agriculture. According to locals, the wind was so fierce it began tossing around trees like popsicle sticks.
It wasn’t the first time we’ve seen tornado activity in Butte County, but it was the strongest we can remember in a long time.
Record Water Year (2017)
If the drought of Northern California began in 2011 (and peaked in 2014), it needed a lot of precipitation to rebound the region from a water crisis. That’s exactly what came in 2017.
Over the 2016-2017 water year, the eight stations in the Sierra Nevada recorded precipitation averages of 94.7, the highest ever recorded, beating out the the previous record set in the 1982-1983 year. The exceptionally wet La Nina winter, coming in the form of non-stop precipitation in January, single-handedly rebounded NorCal from a 7 year drought.
The precipitation was so robust it actually caused serious issues throughout NorCal. Flooding was prevalent during January. In February, the Oroville Dam needed to use its spillway for the first time in 50 years. The spillway famously collapsed, forcing hundreds of thousands of nearby residents to flee their homes and caused over a billion dollars in damage.
As much of a pain as the 2017 water year was, it put us in a much better place for water storage throughout the state.
Redding’s Largest Snowstorm in 50 Years (2019)
On February 13, 2019, a rare snowstorm descended on Redding, leaving with it the biggest snowfall to hit the area in 50 years.
The storm caused significant problems for the community that isn’t the most adept at dealing with snow accumulations. Downed trees and power lines caused power outages to over 20,000 residents.
The traffic was vicious in town, with closures to Interstate 5 delaying big rig traffic through the I-5 corridor. The Shasta County Sheriff even declared a state of emergency due to the ill-effects of the storm.
With most schools and businesses closed, and power outages for most of the city, it was a snow day for the ages in the town at 500 feet elevation.
Bomb Cyclone 2019
On November 26, 2019, a “bombogenesis” storm hit NorCal, with its low pressure becoming the one of the most rare seen in the state.
A bombogenesis storm, or “bomb cyclone,” is a rapidly intensifying weather system of low pressure that occurs when cold air collides with warm air over the ocean, which strengthens the system. The storm recorded pressures of 28.69″ in Crescent City, which is the lowest ever recorded in California.
So what does low pressure mean?
“It means that this storm is extremely powerful, though low pressure by itself does not mean this is the ‘worst’ storm impact-wise,” said the National Weather Service. “Other storms in our region have produced higher wind gusts & heavier rain & snowfall, by carrying more moisture, energy, and other factors.”
A little #GOES17 satellite eye candy for you on this Tuesday evening! An impressive low pressure system is moving onshore near the Oregon/California border and is bringing very strong winds and feet of snow the mountains! #orwx #cawx #BombCyclone pic.twitter.com/eeG5hqfxK7— NWS Seattle (@NWSSeattle) November 27, 2019
The storm brought heavy winds, cold temperatures and heavy precipitation, with more than 2 feet of snow falling in the mountains. But it was the pressure, and the unseasonable November timing, that made this storm truly rare.
California Wind Record 2017
On February 20, 2017, winds reached 199 mph on Ward Peak in Alpine Meadows. It was the largest non-tornado gust ever recorded in California.
Although the record is astounding, that number is actually disputed. On February 9, 2020, a sensor atop Kirkwood recorded winds of 209 mph, but that number was questioned by the National Weather Service, claiming a faulty sensor. According to the NWS, the records remains at 199 mph.