“Global warming” morphed into “climate change” which now seems inadequate to describe the weather chaos we are experiencing on planet Earth.* The recent “atmospheric rivers” which have drenched California have been a catastrophe causing an estimated $1 billion in property damage and at least 17 deaths. As of this writing, overflowing river waters could cut the Monterey Peninsula off from the rest of the mainland.
The terrible rains that have hit California since December 26 have also been a bit of a blessing to the drought-ravaged state. Just as the storms began, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported that 28 percent of the state was considered to be in “extreme drought” and 45 percent was considered to be in “severe drought.” But, even after an estimated 24.5 trillion gallons of water have dropped on California since December 26, 46 percent of California remains in “severe drought” and 49 percent is considered to be in “moderate drought.”
So intense has been a drought which began in 2020, that the state is still not out of danger when it comes to water supplies. While California is prone to droughts, droughts are getting more severe and developing more quickly. This might be explained by something called the Clausius-Clapeyron relationship. For every degree Celsius of warming, there is 7 percent more moisture in the air. That is driving extreme downpours around the world as average temperatures have risen 1.1 degrees Celsius since 1880. But the flip side of this relationship is that warming temperatures and the greater capacity of the atmosphere to hold water can cause drying to occur more quickly.
California faces extreme rainfall and serious drought at the same time. That’s chaos.
Part of California’s problem is its water infrastructure. Most of it was built when the population was half what it is today. And, the way it was built also matters. Dams control floods which is good. But this is also not so good because floods cover the floodplains where floodwaters can seep underground and replenish aquifers that much of California depends on for its water.
Another problem is that the California rains did little to affect one of California’s major sources of water, the Colorado River, which continues to dwindle due to a drought that has spanned more than 20 years. In fact, the southwestern United States has seen the driest 22-year period in 1200 years according the journal Nature.
Climate change isn’t just about temperature and it isn’t just about moisture. It’s also about how well our current infrastructure will function as climate change turns more and more into climate chaos. The answer from California recently is not very well.
*For a brief explanation of the differences in meaning between “global warming” and “climate change,” see here.
Photo: Russian River flooding in Monte Rio, California. 14 January 2023. Photo by Sarah Stierch (Missvain) via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Russian_River_flooding_in_Monte_Rio_-_January_2023_-_Sarah_Stierch_01.jpg