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A tale of two California droughts: Lessons amidst record warmth and dryness in a region of complex physical and human geography

Daniel L. Swain | November 19, 2015
Summary

The state of California has experienced the worst drought in its historical record during 20122015. Adverse effects of this multi year event have been far from uniformly distributed across the region, ranging from remarkably mild in most of Californias densely populated coastal cities to very severe in more rural, agricultural, and wildfire-prone regions. This duality of impacts has created a tale of two very different California droughtshighlighting enhanced susceptibility to climate stresses at the environmental andsocioeconomic margins of California. From a geophysical perspective, the persistence of related atmospheric anomalies has raised a number of questions regarding the droughts originsincluding the role of anthropogenic climate change. Recent investigations underscore the importance of understanding the underlying physical causes of extremes in the climate system, and the present California drought represents an excellent case study for such endeavors. Meanwhile, a powerful El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean offers the simultaneous prospect of partial drought relief but also an increased risk of flooding during the 20152016 wintera situation illustrative of the complex hydroclimatic risks California and other regions are likely to face in a warming world.

Description

The state of California has experienced the worst drought in its historical record during 20122015. Adverse effects of this multi year event have been far from uniformly distributed across the region, ranging from remarkably mild in most of Californias densely populated coastal cities to very severe in more rural, agricultural, and wildfire-prone regions. This duality of impacts has created a tale of two very different California droughtshighlighting enhanced susceptibility to climate stresses at the environmental andsocioeconomic margins of California. From a geophysical perspective, the persistence of related atmospheric anomalies has raised a number of questions regarding the droughts originsincluding the role of anthropogenic climate change. Recent investigations underscore the importance of understanding the underlying physical causes of extremes in the climate system, and the present California drought represents an excellent case study for such endeavors. Meanwhile, a powerful El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean offers the simultaneous prospect of partial drought relief but also an increased risk of flooding during the 20152016 wintera situation illustrative of the complex hydroclimatic risks California and other regions are likely to face in a warming world.

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Swain-2015-Geophysical_Research_Letters

Keywords:

climate change, disadvantaged communities (DACs), drought, flood management, water supply forecasting