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.