This past year, California has experienced an extremely wet winter. The state known for being in a perpetual drought was met with torrential downfall. As a result, the California drought has been significantly reduced. It is also likely droughts across the United States will be reduced further if this level of rainfall persists. It is expected that drought conditions across the Great Plains will be significantly reduced and in Florida be eliminated entirely in the next three months.
This rainfall has also led to a more unexpected benefit in the form of super blooms across California’s grasslands. Wildflowers are blooming in large quantities across the state’s countryside, creating beautiful fields of purple phacelia, yellow goldfields, hillside daisies, and tidy tips. These fields of wildflowers are so expansive the Operational Land Imager on NASA’s Landsat-9 took images of them from space.
However, this winter has also been exceptionally destructive. The increased rainfall has led to flooding throughout the state, knocking out power for tens of thousands of people. In total, the amount of damage caused approximately $7 billion in economic losses. Over 700 landslides were recorded in the aftermath and levees and dams were destroyed by the unrelenting torrent of water.
Additionally, the beautiful fields of wildflowers actually hold a significant risk of starting wildfires. As the newly replenished water sources begin to deplete, these fields will dry out, making them perfect kindling. This has a historical precedent, in 2015-2016 there was an increased snowfall of approximately 40%. The resulting fire season included wind storms that blew wildfires over 1.5 million acres.
California has a history of catastrophic floods, most notably being the Great Flood of 1862. The flood was caused by weeks of non-stop rain and snow in Oregon from November of 1861 to January of 1862. During the flood, over 4,000 people died, one third of property was destroyed, 25% of the state’s total cattle population was wiped out, and the state went bankrupt.
However, climate change poses a significant threat of even worse flooding, as a future warmer climate increases the risk of flooding. In 2022, ARkStorm, a flood scenario devised by scientists from USCS, the University of California, and Desert Institute, was designed to predict the worst-case scenario of flooding. This model found large increases in mountain runoff due to warming storms, and that climate change has already doubled the risk of another California megaflood, and more than tripled this risk relative to a century ago. This level of flooding would cause immense destruction, and likely lead to loss of life in areas hit the hardest by the flooding.
While climate change remains a highly discussed topic, it is worth mentioning that the effects of climate change do not lie in some distant future, they are happening in the present. The increased risk of flooding and subsequent wildfires in California is only one example of how climate change has already impacted the planet, and the consequences of it are only bound to worsen unless significant action is taken to prevent it. For the effects that have already been deemed irreversible, new solutions must be designed to adjust to this increased risk. The researchers behind ARkStorm propose one possible solution being a massive overhaul of California flood management policies and infrastructure to prevent destruction and loss of life. This would involve a redesign of current water storage and distribution systems to work in tandem with flood management systems. One proposed solution is a flood-managed aquifer recharge (FloodMAR) in which flooding would be used to recharge underground aquifers to aid the California water supply during times of drought.
Climate change has created environmental situations that have significant benefits and dangers. For the future, it seems that unless more action is taken to reverse its effects, new engineering solutions are required to adapt to the changing climate and prevent destruction and loss of life.