The California drought as seen from the edge of space [Photos]

California’s water problem is so bad you can see it from the edge of space.

In the images in the above gallery, some taken at an altitude of 100,000 feet, you can see just how little snow the Sierra Nevada have this year, even though we are halfway through the winter season.

On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared a drought emergency in the state, and asked residents to reduce their water use by at least 20%.

California braces for water rationing as reservoir levels fall


The simultaneously gorgeous and disturbing images were captured by a group of high school students from Bishop, Calif., who have been launching large, helium-filled balloons up into the stratosphere on a regular basis for three years.

(If you click all the way through, you will get to see an image of a balloon at the moment it popped.)

The goal of these flights is to learn more about the top of the Earth’s atmosphere -- how it is affected by solar activity, and what microbes live up there, for example. But on a flight earlier this month, video cameras attached to the balloon also caught images of the Sierra and Death Valley in the midst of one of the worst droughts in the state in decades.

“We had a flight almost exactly a year ago, and at that time the mountains were almost completely covered in snow,” said Amelia Phillips, 17. “In the recent images very few mountains were covered with snow. We knew we were in a drought, but it wasn’t clear to us before we saw the pictures how bad it is.”


Michael White, 17, another member of the balloon-flying club called Earth to Sky Calculus, said he found the images troubling. “Given that last year was also a low snow year, it is very disconcerting,” he said.

The student group is lead by Tony Phillips, an astronomer who runs the website

In one of the images above, you will see a picture of the balloons’ launch pad -- a site about 15 miles southwest of Bishop. “For those of us who have been doing these balloon flight for years that is a really striking drought photograph for us,” said Phillips. “Those mountains should be covered in snow by now.”

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