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What Is Causing California's Wet Winter?

First Posted: Mar 29, 2019 09:10 PM EDT
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California is not a place well-known for its abundance of water. In fact, as NBC Los Angeles reports, drought has been a constant struggle in The Golden State for decades. The wet winter that California is currently experiencing is not completely unheard of but it's a significant enough event that it's getting widespread coverage. Over the last decade, California has been suffering droughts far more frequently than in the past, with Science News stating in 2014 that that year's drought was the worst one the state had faced in twelve hundred years. The wet winter that California currently has to thank for the end of its 2018/2019 drought is a uniquely interesting atmospheric phenomenon that shows how dynamic the world's climate system can be.

The Curious Case of the Atmospheric River Storm

Everyone knows what rivers are - those long bands of fresh water that stretch from mountain or hillside straight down to the sea. What fewer people are aware of is that rivers of water vapor also existing within the atmosphere. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an atmospheric river is a band of water vapor that is narrow, sort of like a river within the sky, along which water vapor from the tropics is transferred. Atmospheric rivers bring much-needed moisture to a region like California in the form of rainfall or snowfall (as is the case this winter), with estimates of the amount of moisture contained within the atmospheric river at approximately fifteen (15) times that of the entire Mississippi River, according to Vox.

How the Atmospheric River Affects Weather

Weather within a localized system is the short-term state of the atmosphere at any given time. Atmospheric rivers are a regular occurrence in California, with the state experiencing one to two of them a year which brings the water within the state to a level which will support the population. The absence of these atmospheric rivers is likely to bring about drought just as much as the presence of one is likely to end a drought. However, as with any sort of intense weather system, these atmospheric rivers can lead to adverse conditions for residents. Heavy rainfall or snowfall can lead to extensive flooding and property damage. Loose soil resulting from the death of trees through the drought or through man-made fires that California is also prone to, can easily be eroded, leading to mudslides that can cause serious injuries and claimed 26 lives in 2016.

Predictability of Atmospheric Rivers

Meteorologists have managed to predict the formation and path of hurricanes, but not atmospheric rivers. Some years, California may experience two, three, or even more atmospheric rivers, while other years have one or none. It's in these lean years that drought is likely to affect the state more than usual and lead to tunnel collapse and work place injuries. But that's not the only problem facing the collection and storage of water in the state. The influx of rain from these atmospheric storms, if properly managed, could potentially offer solutions to drought in those lean years. Sadly, based on reports by the LA Times, it's estimated that as much as 80% of the water from these atmospheric river storms are diverted to the Pacific and never get caught and stored for later use.

Water Management in Desert Regions

California, being a desert region, needs to be more proactive with its water management. There is no reason why such a wet winter should be mourned when the state inevitably descends into drought again. Better care should be taken to capture rain or snowmelt as it occurs to store it for those non-rainy days. While this is a major concern, especially in the recent years where droughts have increased in their intensity, it would require a lot of sacrifice by the residents of the state to conform with what needs to be done. In the end, people's necessity for water may eventually drive them to take advantage of wet winters when they occur to stave off the drought that will inevitably follow. Steps have already been taken by some local bodies within the state to reduce runoff, but those measures need to be more widespread to truly make a difference.

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