Climate Change Could Leave Californians With Weather Whiplash

Posted: Apr 24, 2018

California is known for its Mediterranean climate. Dry summers and wet winters providing the perfect conditions for a robust agricultural economy, world-renowned wineries and idyllic weather make it the top tourist state in the country.

But these same factors leave California vulnerable to shifts in climate, and the weather patterns that traverse the region are conducive to dramatic swings between drought and flood, a sort of "weather whiplash."

Unfortunately, those dramatic swings are becoming more common and will continue to do so in the coming decades thanks to manmade climate change, according to a study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

These climate extremes have significant impacts on society, and swinging rapidly from one extreme to the other only makes mitigation and adaptation that much harder.

Drastic swings from extremely wet to extremely dry and vice versa will be nearly twice as likely, occuring on average once every 25 years, by 2100.
 The study used an ensemble of computer model simulations known as the Community Earth System Model Large Ensemble and analyzed how future precipitation behaved as the climate warms in response to continuing levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

The researchers tested whether it could simulate California's historical precipitation and reproduce known weather patterns that lead to drought and floods, which it did.

This gives the scientists confidence in the projections that come out of running the model many times under different scenarios.What they found was that, though overall precipitation average is not expected to change much, the variability between the amount of precipitation and when it falls will vary significantly more than it does now."If you only look for shifts in average precipitation, you're missing all of the important changes in the character of precipitation," Swain said.

A house in Montecito, California, submerged by a mudslide in January.

"This is a very important step forward in the climate community," according to Jason Furtado, an assistant professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma who reviewed the study but was not a part of the research.

"We are recognizing that the impacts of climate change are not just on long time scales but are also present in short-term, high-impact weather events," Furtado said.

More wet, more dry and 'weather whiplash'

Extremely wet years, such as what we saw the previous two years in California, are expected to become 2.5 times more likely by the end of this century.

These types of seasons cause major infrastructure problems for the state, with frequent mudslides and damage to dams and levees such as in Oroville. Currently, they occur about once every 25 years, but that rate is increasing to more like one in 10 years by 2100.

The paper also found significant increases in the number of dry years, a trend that is already being observed. Extreme dry years (one-in-100-year events), which occurred in 1976-77 and in 2013-14, will occur 80% to 140% more frequently by the end of this century.
Though both of these findings are important on their own, there was an even more interesting result out of the data: a frequent wild swing from an extremely dry year to an extremely wet one, which the authors dubbed a "precipitation whiplash."

After being in drought during the winter of 2014/2015, Northern California experienced a dangerous flooding situation in February 2017.


These abrupt transitions were found to occur 50% to 100% more in the future, with the most frequent swings in Southern California.
Weather whiplash from wet to dry can make for explosive fire conditions, as enhanced vegetation from above-average rainfall years becomes parched during an exceedingly dry year. Toss in regular Santa Ana winds to fuel the flames, and the result is devastating wildfires.

Santa Rosa Fire Department's Fire Station 5


On the flip side, when extremely wet seasons follow exceedingly dry ones, the result can be deadly mudslides. Just last year in Montecito, intense rainfall caused a mudslide in the burn scars from recent wildfires, killing 20 people.

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