How has January’s extreme weather impacted the state?


Intense precipitation from late December to mid-January tore apart the California coastline and ravaged forests. Weather activity from what meteorologists call an “atmospheric river” swamped cities, submerged farmland and buried the Sierra Nevadas in snow. Amidst silver linings and storm damages, the state, like the rest of the world, is grappling with the harsh realities of a warming planet more than ever.

Scientists do not attribute the recent surge of rain and snowfall to climate change. 

“The unexpected onslaught of rain and snow after three years of punishing drought appears akin to other major storms that have struck California every decade or more since experts began keeping records in the 1800s,”experts said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. 

While January has reflected natural, long-term weather patterns in the state, the severity of future cycles will be exacerbated by climate change. During the longer portion of drought, temperatures rise, fire danger heightens and soil becomes parched, all byproducts of burning fossil fuels, pollution and human-caused aridification. When the system shifts to sudden storms, excess moisture locked in a warmer atmosphere holds the potential for catastrophic events. 

Historically, the state has experienced greater rainfall in even shorter amounts of time. California has seen worse natural disasters, too, despite 22 dead and over $1 billion in damages this January. Still, climatologists warn that the recent weather is a preview of the future, a grim glimpse of the worst, which is yet to come.

A month ago, 7.2% of California was experiencing “exceptional drought,” a classification determined by desolate farmland and extensive ecological problems. 35.5% of California was considered an area of “extreme drought.” After this recent period of rain, both categories are down to 0.0%, though much of the state remains severely to abnormally dry.

Recent storms have exposed gaps in the state’s infrastructure. Los Angeles was able to collect 8.4 billion gallons of rainfall in the past month, but it’s estimated that tens of billions flowed into the Pacific Ocean. Failure to collect this water jeopardizes California’s $50 billion agricultural industry and the rainfall’s potential to produce green energy. Many scientists and government officials agree that 2023 is a decisive time for climate action and an opportunity to build back better.

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