Drought, fires, floods: Californians manage amid ‘weather whiplash’


In a surprise pummeling, the new year has brought an unusually large number of powerful, back-to-back atmospheric rivers to California. They have flowed the length of the state – and blown destruction eastward across the United States. In the Golden State, they’re dumping rainfall that’s 400% to 600% above average in some places, forcing mass evacuations, closing highways, shutting down power, and killing at least 19 people.

“California is a land of extremes,” says Julie Kalansky, an extreme weather expert at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It stands out for having the greatest annual variation between wet and dry years in the continental U.S. These acute conditions, as well as intense wildfires, feed on each other, making the next extreme weather event possible, she says. 

And yet, California is “very forward-thinking” in ways that are making a difference in this vast and populous state, she and other experts say. That includes what the California Office of Emergency Services says are record investments over the past four years in things like planes, helicopters, and firetrucks. The readiness includes more first responders, law enforcement, and technology, too. 

Why We Wrote This

California’s recent floods come atop other extreme events including fire and drought. Officials and residents are grappling with the wild swings in weather – and some adaptations may be helping.

As Wallace Stegner, “the dean of Western writers,” once observed, California is like the rest of America, only more so. It’s a reference to the state’s character, but it could just as easily apply to its weather.

Extreme wildfires. Prolonged drought. And now, massive rain and flooding. In a surprise pummeling, along with the new year has come an unusually large number of powerful, back-to-back atmospheric rivers: narrow bands through the atmosphere that carry water vapor. They have flowed the length of the state – and blown destruction eastward across the United States. In the Golden State, they’re dumping rainfall that’s 400% to 600% above average in some places, forcing mass evacuations, closing highways, shutting down power, and killing 19 people.

“California is a land of extremes,” says Julie Kalansky, deputy director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It stands out for having the greatest annual variation between wet and dry years in the continental U.S. Drought sets up conditions for intense wildfire, which sets up conditions for dangerous mudslides and flooding when heavy rain falls. Such cascading events make more extreme weather events possible, she says.

Why We Wrote This

California’s recent floods come atop other extreme events including fire and drought. Officials and residents are grappling with the wild swings in weather – and some adaptations may be helping.

And yet, California is “very forward-thinking” as it transitions to greater preparedness for extreme weather and climate change, observes Dr. Kalansky. That’s no easy task considering the variety of weather challenges, the size and geographic variation of the state, and its 40 million residents – the largest state population in the country. “They have to plan for all these different extremes,” she says. “But it is very complex to be able to do that all at the same time.”

Wind whips embers from a burning tree during a wildfire near Hemet, California, Sept. 6, 2022. Wildfires are exacerbated by drought, and contribute to conditions for dangerous mudslides and flooding when rain falls.

Emergency prep: “record investments”  

Brian Ferguson, deputy director of crisis communication at the California Office of Emergency Services, says the state has made “record investments’’ in emergency management over the past four years, with more planes, helicopters, and firetrucks than at any point in California’s history. The effort includes more first responders, law enforcement, and technology, too, he says. “We’re better prepared for these disasters because of that.”

Some of the investments do double duty. New planes with infrared capability to detect wildfires and their spread are also being used to fly over this year’s floods and identify the most dangerous areas.



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