California, the land of drought, fire… and flood?

Extreme Weather

California, the land of drought, fire… and flood?

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New research shows that climate change is not only making droughts more intense, but that floods are more likely and more dangerous.

California is known to be one of the most liveable climates on earth. Year-round moderate temperatures is what attracts people to California from places like New England, Wisconsin, Mississippi and Washington, D.C. But as climate change impacts become more severe, and more quickly than expected, California residents are on the front line of extreme weather, facing drought, fire, and now floods.

California has historically been known for having two seasons: wet and dry. Now it has three: wet, dry and fire. The cycle goes something like this: in the fall and winter, parts of the state such as the San Francisco Bay Area region get a few rain showers until March or April. From May to November, not a drop. The lush, green, rolling hills turn brown, or “golden,” if you’re feeling generous. That’s what the cycle used to be. 

Now, starting around August, Californians are glued to their phones, checking fire maps to see if they’re in danger’s way. For context, at the end of last year, 7,667 wildfires were recorded, covering approximately 363,939 acres (147,281 hectares) across the state. That’s the equivalent of almost 570,000 tennis courts. Nine people died due to wildfires and more than 800 structures were destroyed or damaged. The fires in 2022 followed on from two previous years that saw the highest and second highest number of acres burned in the state’s historical record.

The drastic swing between extreme drought and unprecedented flooding has been dubbed “weather whiplash”

Almost all experts agree that California is seeing more fires because it has suffered through three of the driest years on record and drought is a major contributing factor to fire. The drought was so bad that in 2021 Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a drought emergency declaration. By September 30, 2022, nearly 95% of the state remained in extreme, exceptional or severe drought, the three worst categories under the U.S. Drought Monitor

A new study published in March 2023 in the journal Nature Water confirms that global floods and droughts are worsened by climate change. The study from data obtained by a pair of satellites known as GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment), were used to measure the sum of all water on and in land including ice, snow, surface and groundwater. Scientists say the data shows that parched ground is less able to absorb water and increases the risk of dangerous flash floods, something Calforinia has been experiencing first hand.

GRACE researchers looked at 1,056 events from 2002–2021 using a novel algorithm that identifies where land is much wetter or drier than normal. A drastic swing between extreme drought and unprecedented flooding, dubbed “weather whiplash,” is becoming common in some regions. Prolonged periods of drought change the nature of soil, hampering its ability to absorb water.

“Soil starts to act like concrete or tarmac,” said British hydrologist Hannah Cloke. “When we get any rainfall on it at all [after extended drought] it just runs straight off — it’s classic soil physics.”

Her research shows that the way water molecules stick together to form droplets may make them too big to filter through the gaps in dried-out soil. Plus, the gaps between dry earth soil particles are full of air that has no way of escaping, blocking the water from moving into the earth. Soil particles themselves can become hydrophobic — repelling water — as microbes close to the surface release waxy substances when they die off from heat or lack of water. The combination of these factors makes extremely dry soil unable to soak up rainfall.

“These things we thought would be once in a lifetime… may in some instances become commonplace…”

California has always been prone to drought but what the state has been experiencing recently is of much greater intensity. State Climatologist Michael Anderson told the State Water Resources Control Board in September: “These things we thought would be once in a lifetime, once in a career, are now going to be episodic and may in some instances become commonplace, which will truly be challenging.”

For the past few months, California has been slammed with rain, rain and more rain. In early March, the snowpack on some California mountains was 177% above average, and in other places, 190% above average. At lower elevations in some places, rain storms have been dropping water 400–600% above historic averages. In addition to threats to human life and environmental habitats, all that water is forcing mass evacuations, closing highways, disrupting power supplies and destroying property.

The U.S. National Integrated Drought Information System says that 20% of the annual economic losses from extreme weather events in the U.S. are from floods and droughts.

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California isn’t the only place battling extreme drought and floods. East Africa and the Horn of Africa are experiencing some of the driest years on record with 11 million livestock and iconic wildlife species dying due to drought. Many families are worried about being able to make a living. How will they support themselves? Beyond that, how will they survive if there’s no water?

If only these parts of Africa could share some of the incredible amounts of water further south. Africans in Madagascar, Mozambique and Malawi are experiencing the opposite problem: major floods leading to landslides due to tropical cyclone Freddy. Meteorologists were astounded by Freddy’s longevity, with rain, floods and aftereffects that killed more than 220 people. In Malawi — where in some places, 16–20 inches of rain fell in a short window of time — at least 88,000 people were displaced as houses slid from their foundations. The cyclone was close to breaking two world records for its duration and strength. 

As deadly impacts grow exponentially, nations such as the U.S., Australia, China and India continue to approve new coal, oil and gas projects…

The weather in Africa is in line with findings from the UN weather agency, which has said climate change is worsening cyclones and drought by making them longer, more intense and more severe. Experts say there is a clear link between warmer oceans and the intensity and number of cyclones. 

This is playing out in the Pacific where not one but two cyclones hit the nation of Vanuatu in early March. Coupled with two earthquakes, these natural disasters are causing widespread destruction across the country. Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Office reported that an estimated 80% of the country’s population of 320,000 has been affected, including 125,500 children. 

As deadly impacts grow exponentially, nations such as the U.S., Australia, China and India continue to approve new coal, oil and gas projects despite clear recommendations by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that to ensure liveable temperatures in the future, there should be no new fossil fuel projects. In a video address to UN delegates in mid-March, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said speeding up the phase-out of fossil fuels is, “tough but essential.” 

Meanwhile, President Biden just approved a new Alaskan oil drilling project. Allowing new fossil fuel projects to go ahead while grappling with the human and economic costs of greater and more frequent extreme weather in states such as California, and even more vulnerable nations in Africa and the Pacific, shows the stark contrast between good climate intentions and the very real and deadly cost of failing to deliver them. 

Featured image credit: Monterey County

Written by

Rebekah Moan

Rebekah Moan is a freelance journalist, editor, content writer and ghostwriter with a focus on science and health.