Mostly Sunny with a (High) Chance of Storms – What Does it All Mean?
With summer quickly approaching, many on the West Coast are left wondering things like, “Was that extremely wet winter an anomaly?”, “Are our communities equipped to handle all this water?” and “Is the drought over?”
Turns out, atmospheric rivers are by no means new to California’s primarily Mediterranean climate. In fact, atmospheric rivers provide between 30 to 50 percent of all precipitation on the West Coast. That said, these questions are valid. I’ll do my best to shed light on the risks and benefits that come with winter storms that are only getting wetter and more intense with climate change.
What is an atmospheric river?
According to Jake Bittle, climate writer for Grist Magazine, an atmospheric river is a long, narrow ribbon of moisture that carries vapor from the tropics towards the poles. The term atmospheric river originated in the 1990s, with the “Pineapple Express” shuttling a large volume of precipitation from Hawaii across the Pacific to the West Coast, resulting in heavy snow and rain. Imagine, each of these events carries up to twice as much water as flows out of the mouth of the Amazon River!
Is the drought over?
After the back-to-back-to-back storms that struck the West Coast starting around Christmas 2022 and lasted all the way through the spring equinox of this year, you’d think the clear and simple answer would be “yes!” Well, according to Jose Pablo Ortiz Partida, Senior Water and Climate Scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, the answer is actually closer to “it depends.” Partida’s opinion on this matter, which I whole-heartedly agree with, is that the drought won’t end until all communities have access to drinking water.
As climate equity advocates, Partida and I agree that all climate and natural disasters are a devastating reminder that these events are experienced disproportionately across communities. While your community might be able to manage flooding, thanks to prioritized investments, others face prolonged water issues, due to a lack of investment. It will unquestionably benefit us all if water management and disaster response are carried out in a comprehensive and equitable way. If vulnerable populations are prioritized in the planning and decision-making process, this will result in more accessible and affordable solutions for all.
Advocacy soap boxes aside, the science on the drought in California is mixed, since there are different kinds of droughts. As far as precipitation measurements are concerned, yes, we are currently out of the drought. And while the winter storms refilled reservoirs with over 30 trillion gallons of precipitation, based on soil moisture and stream flow measurements, almost half of the state of California is still abnormally dry. So, with the latter approach to measuring drought, which arguably is the more important measurement of the two, since stream levels and soil moisture are critical for fish to thrive and farmers to grow our food, the answer would be “no.”
If you’re interested in learning more about why we’re not out of the drought, I recommend checking out the blog article Droughts, Floods, and the Future of California’s Water Challenges, where Partida emphasizes the need for a holistic understanding, and changes to our water use and conservation practices.
Is every winter going to be as wet as the last one?
While this is uncertain, research does suggest that with further planetary warming, atmospheric river events will account for an exponentially increasing amount of the total water budget on the west coast. Yet, the answer is not as cut and dry as that. Tom Corringham, a researcher at Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California puts it, “Across the globe, some places are gonna get wetter, and some places are gonna get drier, and for California, it looks like we’re gonna get both.” If warming trends continue in the direction they’re headed, these storms will only get wetter and more intense, likely leading to even more dangerous floods.
Can our infrastructure handle all of this rain and flooding?
Even in communities with the most advanced flood management infrastructure, we might still have not planned for this level of severity. Historically, there was a somewhat reliable balance of periods with snowfall, which would gradually melt its way down rivers and streams to ensure healthy habitats through the summer. Climate change is upsetting this balance in numerous ways, including reduced snowpack being replaced by increased rainfall.
This leads to overflowing rivers and dams, and in some cases, broken levees, flooding nearby communities and farmlands. In March 2023, a decades-old levee burst along the Pajaro River near Santa Cruz, CA, leaving many homes uninhabitable, and families unhoused. Farmers’ and farm workers’ experiences with these unexpected rainfall and flooding events are magnified tenfold. Flooding from this past winter completely devastated a whole season of crop production in the San Juaquin and Sacramento valleys. The financial and product losses endured by farmers will also be felt by the consumer, if you haven’t felt them already.
So, unfortunately, another “no” here…
The main takeaway I’d like to leave with you is that as a society, we need to be adaptive. We must support policies and plans that respond to the need for a coordinated and equitable approach to the diverse impacts that will continue to worsen as long as climate change continues to be a reality.
By Nahal (Ghoghaie) Ipakchi, Senior Director Water & Climate Equity at Kearns & West and benefyd advisor