CA Drought: New research links extreme events to climate change

Known as attribution science, climatologists can link climate change to specific events like drought and California wildfires.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Minor improvements can be found in the state’s drought situation, according to the latest Drought Monitor.

Data from the early November storm that dumped up to 5 feet of snow in the Sierra and brought torrential rains to the Valley is included in this week’s monitor. Although the storm system did not significantly improve conditions, it is a good start to what is a critical year for California’s water resources.

Although dry conditions have since prevailed, there are signs that wet weather may return after Thanksgiving. The two most widely used weather models, the GFS and the Euro, are beginning to agree that a wet pattern could take place in the last days of November and into December.

Californians understand the importance of atmospheric rivers and the role they play in combating drought. Last December, the Sierra saw 18 feet of snowfall over a three-week span of December, giving false hope that the drought was over. Of course, that was not the case.

The snowiest December on record was followed by the driest start to the calendar year in California history. Hot, sunny conditions dominated the state under what was called a “ridiculously tough ridge” by climatologists.

This kind of precipitation volatility, or “climate whiplash,” is what we can expect as climate change takes a bigger hold of California’s already feast-or-famine rainfall patterns.

Research over the past decade has proven that extreme events, such as California’s record wildfires and ongoing drought, can be scientifically linked to climate change.

“Over the past decade, the field of so-called attribution science, where we can look at individual weather events and unravel the role of climate change, has advanced significantly,” said Bernadette Woods Placky, Chief Meteorologist and Program Director Climate Matters at Climate Central, fresh from her visit to Egypt for this year’s Conference of the Parties (COP).

The COP is an annual conference that brings together delegates from 190 countries to create policies and address issues related to climate change. This year’s COP highlighted the importance of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius with an aspiration of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The rapidly evolving field of attribution science enables scientists to analyze the role that climate change plays in extreme events and to understand the future impacts of a changing climate.

A specific COP study linked the Nigerian floods to climate change and found the event was 80 times more likely due to atmospheric warming, according to Woods Placky.

Here in California, the past decade has seen the largest and deadliest wildfires in history and two separate droughts. The severity of forest fires and droughts is directly linked to climate change.

Climate change is a dark and mentally draining subject, but the last COP left Woods Placky with hope and the feeling that there was still time to right the ship.

“I feel full of energy,” Woods Placky said.

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