SAN DIEGO – Driving around California, it’s hard not to notice just how lush and green vegetation has become after the overwhelming amount of rain the state has gotten.

Some residents have taken to social media to express their bewilderment at the state’s vibrant landscape: “Growing up here I have never seen California this green in my life!” one resident said in a tweet.

“The rain this year has been crazy. I have never seen California grass this healthy and green before,” another said.

The series of storms this winter has eased nearly half of the state out of drought conditions, and for some, the especially green landscapes is the physical manifestation of that change.

But experts say that the state’s lands still have a long way to go to mend from years of drought: what residents are seeing after this particularly wet winter is considered fairly normal growth for the Golden State given the dynamics of the region’s climate.

  • Photo of Palos Verdes, Calif. at sunset earlier this March. (Courtesy of Zachary Ellison/Twitter)
  • Photo of hills along Interstate 5 near Camp Pendleton in San Diego. (KSWB/FOX 5)

California has what is called a Mediterranean climate, NASA ecologist Dr. Chris Potter said to Mediterranean climates are characterized by hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. 

For the state, that means that the weather that facilitates vegetation growth generally occurs during the winter months, when storms bringing most of the rain and other precipitation to the region roll through.

What’s unique about this year, he explained, is that the early storms gave California a bit of a head start in regards to vegetation growth, which is why some residents are seeing extra green in places like those along the hills. 

“I know at this time of the year, it seems very green,” Potter said. “(Growth) is queued to the rain and the more rain you get early in the season, the faster it gets started.”

Satellite imaging from NASA’s Landsat Program that uses color to detect vegetation growth indicates that the state’s vegetation cover has begun to recuperate from lows in coverage last year, but it has not fully rebounded.

Around San Diego, for example, the region had about 25% green cover in 2022. Several months into the year, the area is back up to 30% cover, which, according to Potter, is where the area should be in order to have a good year of growth.

Chart showing green cover along the Southern California coast from Los Angeles to San Diego during the period of 2019 to present, captured by the NASA Landsat image record. The vertical axis shows the percentage of green cover, with some variability due to cloud cover. (Courtesy of NASA)

Despite this early growth that makes it appear that the state is on its way to an exceptional year, vegetation is still in a period of recovery right now after the last few years’ drought. This might hamper green cover from getting to a level that would be considered “exceptional.”

“We got a long, bad period to recover from,” Potter said. “The drought affected everything up and down the state and is making recovery of our green cover even during these intense rainstorms slower than we would like it to be.”

In order to recover from the damage the last few years of drought did, he explained that it would likely take another really good year of rainfall, particularly if the soil moisture does not continue to sustain plant growth as the state moves into its dry season.

This is where color can be a little deceiving: the overall health of the state’s vegetation is linked to soil moisture and how that is contributing to the kinds of plants that are growing.

“(Color is) good if what’s there is our native cover, but (it’s) not so good if it’s attributed to weedy plants that we don’t want up there in the hills,” he said. 

These kinds of weeds, or noxious plants, are tricky. According to Potter, they generally stay green for much longer than some native plants. 

Most native plants will likely die around early July, if the snowpack melts at an ideal pace. Noxious vegetation, on the other hand, could still be fairly vibrant by August, even if they’re growing in areas that have drier soil.

Weeds also take up a good deal of water from the environment, stifling growth of native plants, but are simultaneously easier to burn. This kind of growth can contribute to a heightened wildfire risk during periods of growth after a wet season.

So while California’s particularly wet winter has helped create some spectacularly green views, it doesn’t necessarily indicate that the state’s ecosystem is back to full health – there’s still a long way to go for vegetation to recover from the particularly devastating last few years.