13 october 2017

California’s new normal? Ever more-intense heat, fires, droughts and floods

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy October 13, 2017

As portrayed in novels, the California of the future is barely habitable. Brutal storms alternate with crushing droughts. Mudslides and wildfires create waves of climate change refugees.

Fiction, right? Perhaps less so after the last week.

The wildfires in northern California created scenes from a sci-fi horror movie: Obliterated neighborhoods; thousands evacuated or made homeless; fire authorities stunned by fast-moving blazes and tinderbox conditions that, as Gov. Jerry Brown said, “we’ve never seen.”

“It is pretty frightening,” said T.C. Boyle, author of “A Friend of the Earth,” a 2000 novel that depicted a California ravaged by extreme weather and environmental devastation in the year 2025.

“People say I was prescient by what I predicted for 2025,” he said in an interview Thursday. “The sad joke is I should have said 2015. It is frightening how quickly we got here.”

California is no stranger to extreme weather. Throughout its history, it has endured natural disasters, ranging from floods to heat waves. But many scientists say the wildfires of the last week are not completely natural. Park Williams, a Columbia University research scientist, said the fingerprint of climate change “is definitely there.” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, agrees.

“Increasing temperature plays a significant role in making these fires more explosive, and covering ground more quickly,” Swain said.

From April to September across northern California, mean temperatures were the warmest in 123 years, according to John Abatzoglou, a University of Idaho geography professor who grew up in California and specializes in wildfires and climate change.

“Climate has enabled fire activity across the West this summer (and now fall),” he said in email. First the wet winter spurred robust vegetative growth. Then the record temperatures dried out that brush faster than in a “normal year,” he added.

What is the new normal? For California, it is reflected in the weather patterns of last several years. Six years of drought was followed by record winter snow and rain, followed by record heat from April through September. Santa Rosa hit 110 degrees on September 1, a record high for the date. Five weeks later parts of the city caught fire, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses.

Worse extremes can be expected in coming decades. Droughts, heat waves, reduced snow pack, winter storms, sea-level rise – all are expected to intensify, say scientists who monitor climate change. How much will involve both natural weather patterns and levels of greenhouse gas emissions that are building in the atmosphere, warming the planet.

Sacramento and the Central Valley face risks on several fronts. The number of extreme heat days – 104 degrees or higher – is expected to rise anywhere from sixfold to tenfold by end of the century in cities such as Sacramento and Fresno, according to, a data collaboration involving UC Berkeley, the California Energy Commission and other partners.

This year, the northern California city of Redding baked under 72 days of 100 degrees or higher, surpassing the previous record of 69 days set a half century earlier.

Studies of past heat waves in California show they can cause hundreds of deaths in a single month. A 2009 state study of the July 2006 heat wave found that as many as 500 Californians may have died that month, and that each 10-degree increase in temperature from day to day led to a 9 percent increase in daily deaths.

Swain, the UCLA scientist, notes that not every summer in the future will produce record heat, just as every winter will not necessarily be dry. Sacramento’s delta breeze will still make a regular summer appearance, just as San Franciscans will bundle up in the June fogs.

“We will still have natural climate variability. Some years will be hotter than we are used to, and some years cooler,” he said. “But the hot years will be outside the realm of our previous experience.”

Under most climate change projections, the Sierra Nevada will receive less snow than in the past, particularly at lower elevations. That will result in wildfires starting earlier in the season and extending longer, a pattern already documented. It also will heighten the risks for California’s mountain communities, such as Lake Tahoe and Mammoth.

Sacramento and the San Joaquin Valley also confront the prospect of stronger winter storms, with more precipitation falling as rain instead of snow, increasing the flood threat. Projections show that Sacramento faces a ten percent increase in storm size, with the San Joaquin receiving storms 50 percent larger, according to Joe Countryman, a retired U.S. Army Corps engineer and flood control specialist.

Countryman cautions that runoff could be moderated by big storms falling on ever-drier watersheds, where the dry ground could absorb much of the rainfall. But bigger storms striking already saturated slopes of the Sierra could create serious flooding, especially in the San Joaquin Valley, which doesn’thave the levee system to handle big flows.

In T.C. Boyle’s “A Friend of the Earth,” the government has mostly disappeared and Californians resort to survivalist tactics to cope with a climate that careens from drought to powerful storms.

In real life, California has engaged. It has enacted the nation’s most aggressive laws to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and government and non-profit groups are collaborating how ways to adapt to the new normal. One of these is the Resilient by Design challenge, an effort in and around San Francisco to respond to sea-level rise and other expected impacts of climate change.

Yet sea-level rise is one of the most challenging aspects of climate change to forecast. As Swain puts it, “It is one of these insidious things where uncertainty is not our friend.”

Until recently, scientists expected that the Bay Area and coastal California would face gradual sea-level rise of 2 to 3 feet by century’s end. But ice sheets in Greenland and Antartica are melting faster than expected. “It is possible we could see 6, 7 or 8 feet (of sea-level rise) by 2100,” said Swain.

With that kind of sea rise, Bay Area airports would be underwater, unless fortified with expensive sea walls. Freeways, residential neighborhoods and some Silicon Valley campuses would be threatened. Saltwater would intrude deeper into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley, rendering current water supplies undrinkable for more than 20 million Californians.

Swain and other scientists say it is already too late to prevent impacts of climate change, given the level of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. But there is still opportunity to avoid the most serious consequences projected if emissions continue to climb ever higher, he said. That would involve retooling of the international carbon economy beyond what is envisioned in the Paris Agreement, which President Trump has threatened to abandon.

Boyle, the novelist, said he expects that California will some day resemble the dystopian landscape he wrote about in 2000. He lives in Montecito, an affluent enclave in Santa Barbara County that is generally gorgeous, when not threatened by wildfire, droughts and coastal storms.

Boyle said his family tore out their lawn to limit water usage, but have no real protection against wildfires. “We are completely vulnerable to those winds blowing and burning everything to the sea,” he said.

This year’s hurricanes, flooding and wildfires should serve as a wake-up call, said former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who leads the Panetta Institute at California State University, Monterey Bay.

In an interview Thursdsay, Panetta said he could smell the smoke from the North Bay fires, despite being more than 150 miles south of Santa Rosa. Because of the drought and other impacts of climate change, he said, “It’s a new normal...what we are witnessing today.”

McClatchy’s Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

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