Extreme Weather in California: Prolonged Drought and Record Rain

Changing climate patterns are increasing the risks of floods and mudslides.,

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ImageGranite Garbiel, 4, played in fresh snow with his dog, Doc, in Hope Valley on Monday.
Granite Garbiel, 4, played in fresh snow with his dog, Doc, in Hope Valley on Monday.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

This week has been one for the history books.

Battered by a major storm, Sacramento on Sunday logged its wettest day since record-keeping began in the 1800s.

Eight days prior, Sacramento broke a different record — the longest dry spell in the city’s history, with 212 days without rain.

It’s a study in contrasts playing out across California. San Francisco, Redding and a handful of other cities have shattered rainfall records in recent days, during a year that has overall been one of the driest and hottest in California’s history.

Experts say the takeaway from the past few days should not be that the drought is over — we would need far more rain for that — but that this is a glimpse into the future of California.

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Santa Barbara residents dealt with steady rain on Monday as an atmospheric river moved from the California coast to the Sierras.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

The total precipitation California receives each year is unlikely to change significantly this century, but we will probably experience longer dry seasons and shorter, but more intense, wet seasons because of global warming, according to a 2018 study in the journal Nature Climate Change.

These bursts of rain can be highly destructive.

In the winter of 2016-17, an extreme rainy season in California caused mudslides, the collapse of a major bridge in Big Sur as well as flooding that forced more than 100,000 people near Sacramento to flee their homes.

Though rain is usually welcome in a state prone to drought, downpours immediately after dry spells can be particularly damaging, even deadly.

Droughts parch the land and contribute to more severe fire seasons. So when rain comes, vegetation that would typically hold the soil in place has been either charred or dried out, allowing water to wash the land away.

The deadliest mudflow in recorded California history was in January 2018, when rains slammed a region of Santa Barbara County that had been devastated by a large fire the month before.

Mudflows as high as 15 feet carried branches and boulders through Montecito. Twenty-three people were killed.

Already, this week’s storm has led to a debris flow that closed a highway in a region destroyed by the Dixie fire this year. People living close to the burn scars of the Alisal fire, which broke out near Santa Barbara this month, have been issued mandatory evacuation orders.

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Jonathan Schwartz, from the United States Department of Agriculture, checked soil loss in the Alisal burn area, west of Santa Barbara, after rains swept through on Monday.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

Scientists call these rapid shifts from extreme dry to extreme wet conditions “precipitation whiplash.” And by the end of the century, they’re expected to increase in frequency by 25 percent in Northern California and to double in Southern California, the study found.

As Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the study’s lead author, said on Twitter this week: “It is worth noting that this exact situation–an extremely strong atmospheric river bringing brief period of record rainfall in midst of severe and temperature-amplified drought–is what we expect to see in California with #ClimateChange.”

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South of Lake Tahoe, the South Fork of the American River flowed through the snow-covered Caldor fire burn scar in Phillips on Monday.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

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Smoke from the Alisal fire shrouded the sky near Goleta earlier this month.Credit…David Mcnew/Getty Images

Can California tourism survive climate change?


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A Skyryse helicopter takes off on a demo flight in Camarillo, Calif.Credit…Ryan Young for The New York Times

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

  • Immigration reform: For California’s first Latino senator, citizenship for undocumented immigrants is personal, The Washington Post reports.

CENTRAL CALIFORNIA

  • A new medical school: During a visit to the University of California, Merced, on Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom voiced his support for a medical school at the campus, The Fresno Bee reports.

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

  • Drought: One of California’s wealthiest counties could run out of water, Bloomberg reports.


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I recently wrote about the rise of TV shows set in Los Angeles.

Tell us your favorite shows set in California. Email me at CAtoday@nytimes.com.


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Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Birthday dessert (4 letters).

Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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