championship game between the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants, pouring through the night and into the next day. It was one of the most notorious California weather events of the 20th century, reports the Western Regional Climate Center (WRCC), a repository of historical climate information which uses data from the National Weather Service. The center reports that the ’82 storms brought “high wind, heavy rain and heavy snowfall across all of California. This led to direct wind damage, higher tides, immediate ﬂooding to coastal and valley locations, mudslides in coastal mountain areas, record snowfall in the Sierra mountains, and resulting
spring snowmelt river ﬂooding.” The ’82–83 El Nino left lots of wreckage, along with record rains and snowstorms: “Thirty-six dead, 481 injured, $1.2 billion economic losses, including 6,661 homes and 1,330 businesses damaged or destroyed,” reports the WRCC. They still talk about the weather events down in hard-hit Santa Cruz, especially scientists in the South Bay who beheld its wrath. “All you saw were trees sticking out and cars and pieces of houses, and it was right after Christmas, so there were Christmas decorations, and there were 10 people buried under it all,” says Gary Griggs, professor of earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz, where he’s
and continue through January and February, periods of active storm development at the same latitude as Central and Southern California have sent storms barreling into the West Coast, says Mantua. This happened in the ’82–83 and ’97–98 El Niño years, but we have also had lots of storms like this in some non–El Niño years, he points out. One concern is that the ominous warm blob could potentially add fuel to storms as they develop in their breeding ground between Hawaii and the Aleutians. “When we have big storms that do develop and move across that water,” Mantua says, “they’re going to have strong winds and they’re going to evaporate a lot of water off that surface. They’re going to cool that warm blob, but in the process, they’re going to fuel themselves up. So I do think that our storms are going to be warmer and stronger than they otherwise would be without that vast area of warm water.” Coupled with elevated sea levels typical of a warmer ocean, the more direct westerly wave approach of El Niño winters delivers an extra blow, and potentially vast ﬂooding.
Thirst for Rain El Niño isn’t synonymous with rain, though four out of the last six strong El Niños brought wet winters to California, Mantua says. But NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is calling for “increased odds” of a wet winter in Northern California; there’s a one-in-three chance, and a less than one-in-three chance for a dry winter. And while the odds for a wet winter increase in Southern California, the Gulf Coast and Florida, there’s just a 5 to 10 percent shift in the odds for a wet winter for the central and northern coast, Mantua says. “It’s pretty subtle,” he says, “but that is the nature of climate forecasting.” Would a wet winter end the drought? “While the precipitation outlook suggests good news for California, one season of above-average rain and snow is unlikely to ) 18 erase four years of
17 N O RT H BAY B O H E M I A N | D EC E M B E R 9 -1 5, 2 0 1 5 | B O H E M I A N.COM
HIGH WATER EVERYWHERE If the deluge comes, Russian River communities will likely feel the brunt of the storms.
taught since 1968. He was the ﬁrst geologist on the scene the morning after the storm. “One woman survived,” recalls Griggs. “She grabbed onto a tree as it went through her house at one in the morning.” More recently, in the winter of ’97–98, massive ﬂooding claimed 17 lives in California. East Palo Alto was one of the hardest hit cities in the Bay Area, as the San Francisquito Creek overﬂowed and damaged a reported 1,700 homes. Many were trapped inside, as all that surrounded the exteriors were lakes of muddy water after a steady month of rain. Those were El Niño years, which is a level this winter doesn’t need to create dire consequences. “You don’t have to have an El Niño year to have a really devastating winter,” says Griggs. According to a study published in the Journal of Coastal Research, about 76 percent of the storms between 1910 and 1995 that caused signiﬁcant erosion and structural damage along the California coast occurred during El Niño years. We still don’t really know why it happens, but when the trade winds—which normally blow toward the equator from the northeast and southeast—die down, it allows the warm water in the western Paciﬁc to ﬂow back toward the coast of South America and then up the coast. “The ﬁrst thing it does is change the climate on opposite sides of the Paciﬁc,” says Griggs. That means drought in places like the Philippines, New Guinea and parts of Australia, as well as heavy rainfall in the eastern half of the tropical Paciﬁc. Some of these shifts are already happening, according to Mantua. “Right now, the Atacama Desert in southern Peru and northern Chile is blooming,” Mantua says. “They’ve had lots of rainfall the last couple of months, and that’s a part of the world that has some of the driest deserts on earth in the absence of these El Niño periods. It can go years without any appreciable rain at all.” Mantua notes that the same is true for the Galápagos Islands. During El Niño winters, which typically peak in December
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