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California: Is the Worst Yet To Come? by Barnard Blogger Melody Tai

Recently, I was showing a friend a photo of my dog, and she half-jokingly commented that my dog looked as if he were standing in the middle of a deserted wasteland. That wasteland she referred to was actually the parched grass and cracked dirt of my Southern California backyard, once a lush green color but now completely dried out from the last five years of drought. Unfortunately, the death of my backyard is among the least significant of the laundry list of casualties of the California drought, of which include dwindling populations of native fish, and what the Los Angeles Times calls a “trail of death” in the Sierra pine belt. Although recent wet weather and Governor Brown’s announcement of the end to one of the worst droughts in California history on April 7, 2017 may have prompted a collective sigh of relief from the west coast, the worst may be yet to come. As reported by Think Progress, University of California, Santa Cruz Professor Lisa Sloan, who co-authored the paper that used computerized models to predict the California drought back in 2004, warns that the situation facing the west coast in the coming decades could be significantly more alarming.

In their study, “Disappearing arctic sea ice reduces available water in the American west,” Prof. Sloan and graduate student Jacob Sewall examine the “direct climate response” to a loss in concentration of sea ice in the Arctic. Using computer modeling, the pair found a link between this change in sea ice cover and a reduction of rain and snowfall in an already drying American west. Sewall explains, where the sea ice is reduced, heat transfer from the ocean warms the atmosphere. In turn, this creates columns of warm air that have given rise to an unusually high-pressure zone, forcing the jet stream northwards and blocking the usual Pacific winter storms. The unprecedented persistence of this zone has even inspired the moniker, “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge,” dubbed by Stanford University Ph. D student Daniel Swain. According to Swain’s most recent research published in Science Advances, the Triple R, coupled with other large-scale atmospheric conditions, will lead to more extreme patterns of both wet and dry weather in the future. As a result, this finding suggests that California should be preparing to endure not only harsh droughts, but also prolonged periods of excess rains in the future. Between Sloan, Sewall, and Swain, the combined research already points to a bleak future, but Sloan also mentions that the situation will likely be worse than what she and Sewall modeled, given that they did not account for other greenhouse gases besides CO2, they could have been more liberal in the amount of ice melted in the model, and they also did not account for possible changes in land use – all of which are factors that affect precipitation patterns around the globe. Thus, California may have survived this drought, but if climate change continues to progress at the magnitude and pace it has been in the past few decades, then later battles may not be as easily won.

All of this begs the question: what can be done to prepare for and adapt to these increasingly extreme climate conditions? All-in-all, the answer boils down to a statement emphasized by Gov. Brown after he announced the end of the emergency state of the drought:  “Conservation must remain a way of life.” Given these recent scientific findings, such a sentiment could not hold truer, and in this respect, Californians seem to have the right idea pertaining to both the drought and climate change as a whole. According to Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of California’s Water Resources Control Board and “water czar”, a large part of California’s resilience in the face of the drought was the willingness of the California people to change their mindsets and participate in wise use of the diminishing resource. The New York Times calls Californians “experts in conservation”, citing the simple yet effective ways individuals have been saving water, including shorter showers, embracing native plants in favor of traditional lawns, and washing cars less, among others. In regard to climate change adaptation, California also leads the pack, maintaining strict air pollution rules in defiance to the Trump administration and pledging to uphold Paris Accord goals despite Trump’s intent to withdraw. The future is uncertain, and it is clear that California certainly has its work cut out in regard to environmental concerns, but between a pro-environment state government and the cooperation of individual citizens, you can bet that California will be weathering any storms to come.


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One Response

  1. Thanks for the interesting read, Melody! I appreciate that you incorporated the physical processes underlying climate change in California. Also, while many tend to focus on drought conditions in California as a result of climate change, I like that you looked at increased storms/precipitation that are also anticipated. How do you think potential future wetness in California will influence the culture of conservation that Californians currently practice?

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