A newly released NASA satellite image taken from space shows the extent of California’s worst drought since record-keeping started in 1885 and potentially the region’s driest period in 500 years. The data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites vividly displays green areas that are supposed to be white with winter snow cover and brown areas that are supposed to be green with plant growth this time of year.

Green Halo - New NASA Satellite Image Shows California DroughtThe evergreen vegetation near the Sierra Nevada mountain range is usually covered with snow in a normal year. Most of the rest of the state — from the San Joaquin Valley to San Francisco to Los Angeles and beyond shows areas suffering from drought stress or left fallow because of lack of water to grow crop seeds.

“If you showed me this image without the date, I would say, ‘This is California in early fall after a long, hot summer, before the fall and winter rains and snows arrived,’” said Bill Patzert, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This is no California winter postcard.”

While recent rainfall and snowfall have brought temporary relief to parts of the state, it is not enough to mitigate the worst effects of the drought that is now in its third year. David Miskus of the NOAA Climate Prediction Center wrote that “even though this storm was welcome, the central Sierra still needs 3 to 4 more copious storms to bring this wet season close to average. Unfortunately, little to no precipitation fell on southern California and the Southwest.”

On a recent visit to California to tour the damage, President Obama pledged $183 million in federal aid and blamed the drought on climate change, saying “we’re going to have to stop looking at these disasters as something to wait for. We’re going to have to start looking at these disasters as something to prepare for.” The president added that “we have to be clear. A changing climate means that weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms, floods, are potentially going to be costlier and they’re going to be harsher.”

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