When we returned to school this fall, the biggest headlines were about the fires in Northern California. Everywhere I went, a Californian shared their fears. My friend from San Francisco told me her family was forced to stay inside, due to the extremely low air quality. Another friend called to tell me her dad’s house in Santa Rosa had burned down. I have never lived in California, but I’ve always heard it’s idyllic. Friends from California, whom I know because they’ve relocated to cold, dirty New York, always ask each other, “Why did we ever leave?” Although it’s always felt like paradise, with beaches and big trees, in the past few years, California has been hit by climate change—hard.
We learned about the drought in pieces, when things like the almond shortage would pop into the news. When I visited my cousins in California, they pointed out a sign in the median of the highway, where men were watering flowers with hoses: “Flowers Watered with Gray-Water”. My cousins explained they weren’t allowed to water with drinking water. Although it had been in the back of my brain, I never realized that in the past 10 years, California has experienced record-breaking levels of drought. In 2014, a state-level “drought emergency” was declared. This drought was not caused by climate change alone. The three-year drought that began in 2012 came from the same source as most California droughts historically: a ridge of high pressure in the Pacific Ocean preventing storms from reaching California. However, the impacts of this drought have intensified due to higher global temperatures; water evaporates quicker and soils dry faster.
In his paper on the California droughts, A. Park Williams calculates that climate change is responsible for 15 to 20 percent of the soil moisture deficit. When talking about the fires from this October, Californians do not agree on causes. In an article from Scientific American, multiple residents of Northern California are quoted, some see climate change as a factor in the fires, some who do not. The fires are extremely recent, and scientists have had little time to draw firm conclusions on the cause of the wildfires. However, it’s clear that the fires were influenced by the high temperatures and drought California has seen in the 21st century.
Lily I found your piece very topical given the recent state of Ventura County, California. Many people claim that droughts/fires have always happened in California and it has nothing to do with climate change. But to me it seems as they are more frequent and severe. Your blog does an excellent job explaining how climate change may not be fully responsible for the record breaking drought but how it may have potentially intensified the effects. It is important to note, as you said, that soil moisture is affected by climate change and climate change itself has increased temperatures.
Being from California, I have seen these problems first hand. I have watched my yard slowly dry up over the years and been told by my dad that there’s nothing we can do about it because the revival of our lawns would require an amount of water usage that would result in large fines. Despite the disasters happening right now, I think it is also notable to mention that California is definitely leading the pack in terms of being proactive about adapting and mitigating climate change. California may have been hit hard by environmental disasters as of late, but it is also certainly fighting back hard.
Thanks for the post, Lily! It was interesting that you mentioned the gray water on the highway. For a state experiencing a drought, it seems unwise that even gray water would be diverted for decorative use on a highway, where folks can’t even stop to appreciate the flowers. Do you think the vegetation was planted for another purpose, such as absorbing pollutants from car exhaust? Interestingly, the concept of human modification of the landscape seems relevant in the forest fire issue as well. I attended a lecture by Park Williams (the author you cited), and he mentioned that a contributing factor to the forest fires has been conservation of timber forests by the National Parks Service. Without these conservation efforts, forests might experience smaller, natural fires, but instead fuel is able to build up for the giant fires California is now experiencing.
I never realised how intense the droughts could be in California to the extent that they needed to use grey water to water the plants rather than fresh water. Especially due to the recent wildfires in California, this post is as relevant as ever and it is important for those like me who hadn’t an idea of the extent of climate change to understand why California may be more susceptible to natural disasters such as those. Do you believe that the government should prioritise certain areas in the US where environmental disasters may hit hard in terms of sustainable development and state policies to improve mitigate climate change?
This article reminds me of the film “Chinatown,” which dramatized how the California droughts affected the local government manipulating the dam and water source for their own profit. It’s true that the topographic and pressure zones of the Pacific Ocean are as they have been, but now climate change is causing temperature increases that exacerbate droughts. The recent wildfires are truly saddening — now more than ever, global cities and states must cooperate to combat climate change.