Almost 95% of the state of California remains in a drought, the same as last week.

El Nino makes a return to the Pacific OceanThe storms that walloped California last week slightly eased the state’s epic drought, but the state is still drastically short of moisture, the U.S. Drought Monitor reports.

“Short-term benefits from the storms were mostly offset by still-large, three-year precipitation deficits, low reservoir levels and a sub-par snowpack,” according to this week’s Drought Monitor, a federal website that tracks drought across the country.

The monitor shows that 94.56% of the state of California remains in a drought, the same as last week. However, the area of “exceptional” drought — the worst category, in dark red on the map — dropped from 26.21% to 22.37%.

The “blockbuster” storm last week and weekend did avert a record-breaking season for dryness in California, according to meteorologist Brad Rippey of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, author of this week’s monitor. The storm brought “drought-easing rainfall to coastal areas and beneficial snow in the Sierra Nevada,” Rippey wrote.

One spot in the central Sierra picked up 4 feet of snow from the storm, while reports of 2-3 of snow were common across much of the central and southern Sierra, according to the National Weather Service.

“In addition, rain in California’s agricultural regions temporarily eased irrigation requirements and aided drought-stressed rangeland and winter grains,” he said. The storms accounted for more than 75% of the season-to-date precipitation in cities such as Burbank (which picked up 4.78 inches) and Los Angeles (4.52). On Feb. 28, Los Angeles — with 2.24 inches — experienced its wettest day since March 20, 2011.

“However, spring and summer runoff prospects improved only slightly, as pre-storm snowpack values were near record lows and because drought-parched soils soaked up most of the available moisture,” Rippey reported. “In addition, the storm moved too far south to provide optimal amounts of moisture in California’s key watershed areas, with the heaviest precipitation occurring in coastal and southern California rather than the Sierra Nevada.”

While the worst of the drought is in California, much of the rest of the West and a large part of the Plains also are enduring some level of drought. Almost the entire USA east of the Mississippi River remains drought-free.

Looking ahead for the next week or so, the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) predicts that most of the western USA, including California, will experience warm, mostly dry weather.

Long-term, the CPC also predicted Thursday a “50% chance” of a weak El Nino climate pattern developing later in the year. El Nino, a warming of tropical Pacific Ocean water, affects weather in the USA and around the world. Impacts in the U.S. sometimes include a calmer Atlantic hurricane season and additional precipitation for the West and South.

However, an El Nino was predicted in 2012, yet never formed. Also, as noted by meteorologist Jan Null of Golden Gate Weather Services, El Ninos don’t automatically deliver more precipitation to California:

“Historical records for the past six decades for central California, including the Bay Area, show that during the 18 El Nino events, the rainfall has been above normal half the time and below normal the other half.” Null wrote on his website.

Giant Virus Resurrected from Permafrost After 30,000 Years

Giant Virus Resurrected A mysterious giant virus buried for 30,000 years in Siberian permafrost has been resurrected.

The virus only infects single-celled organisms and doesn’t closely resemble any known pathogens that harm humans.

Even so, the new discovery raises the possibility that as the climate warms and exploration expands in long-untouched regions of Siberia, humans could release ancient or eradicated viruses. These could include Neanderthal viruses or even smallpox that have lain dormant in the ice for thousands of years.

“There is now a non-zero probability that the pathogenic microbes that bothered [ancient human populations] could be revived, and most likely infect us as well,” study co-author Jean-Michel Claverie, a bioinformatics researcher at Aix-Marseille University in France, wrote in an email. “Those pathogens could be banal bacteria (curable with antibiotics) or resistant bacteria or nasty viruses. If they have been extinct for a long time, then our immune system is no longer prepared to respond to them.”

(A “non-zero” probability just means the chances of the event happening are not “impossible.”)

Giant viruses

In recent years, Claverie and his colleagues have discovered a host of giant viruses, which are as big as bacteria but lack characteristic cellular machinery and metabolism of those microorganisms. At least one family of these viruses likely evolved from single-celled parasites after losing essential genes, although the origins of other giant viruses remain a mystery, Claverie said.

In the researchers’ hunt for more unknown pathogens, they took a second look at permafrost samples collected from Kolyma in the Russian Far East in 2000. Because the permafrost was layered along steep cliffs, drillers could extract samples from 30,000 years ago by drilling horizontally into the ice, thereby avoiding contamination from newer samples.

An ultrathin section of a Pithovirus particle in an infected Acanthamoeba castellanii cell observed  …

The team then took samples of this permafrost and put them in contact with amoebas (blob-like single-celled organisms) in Petri dishes. The researchers then waited to see what happened.

Some of the amoebas burst open and died. When the scientists investigated further, they found a virus had killed the amoebas.

The ancient virus infects only amoebas, not humans or other animals. This pathogen belongs to a previously unknown family of viruses, now dubbed Pithovirus, which shares only a third of its genes with any known organisms and only 11 percent of its genes with other viruses. Though the new virus resembles the largest viruses ever found, Pandoraviruses, in shape, it is more closely related to classical viruses, which have an isocahedral shape (with 20 triangular-shaped faces), Claverie said.

Pathogens reawakened?

The findings raise the possibility that other long-dormant or eradicated viruses could be resurrected from the Arctic. As the climate warms and sea ice and permafrost melt, oil and mining companies are drilling many formerly off-limit areas in Russia, raising the possibility that ancient human viruses could be released.

For instance, Neanderthals and humans both lived in Siberia as recently as 28,000 years ago, and some of the diseases that plagued both species may still be around.

“If viable virions are still there, this is a good recipe for disaster,” Claverie said. “Virions” is the term used for the virus particles when they are in their inert or dormant form.

But not everyone thinks these viruses spell potential doom.

“We are inundated by millions of viruses as we move through our everyday life,” said Curtis Suttle, a marine virologist at the University of British Columbia in Canada, who was not involved in the study. “Every time we swim in the sea, we swallow about a billion viruses and inhale many thousands every day. It is true that viruses will be archived in permafrost and glacial ice, but the probability that viral pathogens of humans are abundant enough, and would circulate extensively enough to affect human health, stretches scientific rationality to the breaking point.”

“I would be much more concerned about the hundreds of millions of people that will be displaced by rising sea levels than the risk of being exposed to pathogens from melting permafrost.”

The findings were published today (March 3) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.