Vast swaths of forest are so brittle and bone-dry they burn up in an instant. A vicious wildfire, whipped up by hot, arid winds and moving faster than anything in recent memory, consumed tens of thousands of acres in a matter of hours. Hundreds of homes and at least one person have been lost in the inferno that’s still barely contained.
That’s in California’s north.
Drive south on Tuesday, and you would have found darkened skies and heavy sheets of rain pounding the parched earth around Los Angeles. By noon, the city had received 2½ inches of rain — in the course of a morning, that’s 10 times the precipitation the area usually gets in the entire month of September. The city has only seen two other storms like it in the past 150 years.
Rather than relief, the water brought chaos. Thousands lost power and hundreds of cars crashed on flooded roads, according to the Los Angeles Times. More than 200,000 gallons of stormwater surged from San Gabriel sewers, contaminating the river and beaches dozens of miles downstream. At least one home plunged down a hillside as the earth beneath it was suddenly washed away. Ten people had to be plucked from rushing, rain-swollen rivers by rescue crews.
For months — for four years, really — California has been dying for a drink. Repeated dry winters and scorching hot summers have depleted reservoirs and river systems and set fire to much of the landscape.
But now that the rain might finally be coming, carried along by an El Niño that promises to be one of the strongest in recent history, the land isn’t ready to absorb it. The same drought that makes the state so desperate for water has also baked the earth and denuded the landscape. Forests that once strengthened the soil and soaked up rainfall have been obliterated by fire.
“El Niño is a cruel system,” Australian climatologist Roger Stone, a University of Southern Queensland professor and a program chair the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization, told The Washington Post. “They bring relief, but they bring too much rain too quickly. That’s when you get mudslides, landslides, topsoil washed away.”
Poor California. When it’s not “extraordinarily hostile” fires, as veteran firefighter Kevin Rosado described the Valley Fire north of San Francisco, it’s the “Godzilla” El Niño forecasted in a few months.
For a while, they’ll both be happening at once. September and October are usually the “largest and most damaging months for fires,” Cal Fire Chief Information Officer Daniel Berlant told Wired. Meanwhile, stronger than usual storms are starting to arrive.
“You have the leftover intense drought patterns lingering in the system and now here comes the El Niño effect,” Stone said. “You’ve got both pummeling you at the same time, or it feels that way.”
Climate change isn’t necessarily causing these phenomena, but it makes them both worse, he added. Periods of scorching heat and drought are natural in California, but global warming has exacerbated them, scientists say. In El Nino years, the warmer air over the oceans makes storms slightly more fierce — a difference that can mean a lot by the time the rain reaches the ground.
Tuesday’s storm was a remnant of Hurricane Linda, which fizzled out over the Pacific last week. It’s not quite the big El Niño storms weather scientists have been talking about — those won’t come until the winter. But it got a boost from the notorious climate pattern, which tends to strengthen hurricanes in the eastern Pacific (like Linda). And, experts say, it’s a sign of what’s to come.
“It has the El Niño footprint,” though it wasn’t an El Niño storm, climatologist Bill Patzert with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory told the L.A. Times. The storms expected for this winter will resemble Tuesday’s — huge doses of concentrated, heavy rain — but likely even more intense. In the winter of 1997 to 1998, California’s most severe El Niño on record brought 18 foot waves and 80-mile-per-hour winds. The resultant floods and mudslides killed 17 people and caused more than half a billion dollars in damage.
There’s no question that winter rain will be a welcome reprieve from four years of drought. A study released this week found that the snowpack the state relies on for most of its moisture is lowest it’s been in 500 years. NASA says that California’s “rain debt” for the past three years is about 20 inches — equivalent to an entire year’s worth of rain. Water, wherever it comes from, can only help.
But it can also hurt, and it will likely hurt worse because of the catastrophic effects of four years of drought. Long stretches without rain change the landscape, stripping away vegetation and clogging dams with sediment. In Texas this May, where sudden extreme rain brought five years of drought to an abrupt, tragic end, thousands of people were forced to evacuate and dozens killed. Entire homes were swept away, taking their inhabitants along with them.
“The headlines that you’re writing today about Texas and Oklahoma, you could be writing about California in January,” Patzert told the L.A. Times in May, after the floods. “There’s something to remember about El Niño — he’s a good boy and he’s a bad boy because he can deliver drought relief that’s much-needed. But all that water coming so fast is like trying to catch water out of a fire hose with a champagne glass.”
There’s also a question of where all that rain falls. El Niños usually drop their contents over southern and central California, where it floods rivers and swamps the streets and then runs off into the ocean, making only a small dent in the state’s vast water deficit. What the state really needs is snow over the mountains, the source of most of its water. When the snow melts in the spring, it will slowly feed the state’s rivers and reservoirs, rather than deluging them all at once.
But even in an ideal situation, climate scientists warn, one good El Niño year is unlikely to solve California’s water woes. Last week, NOAA meteorologist Tom Di Liberto estimated that every region of the state would need to have record-shattering rain years in order to recoup its precipitation debt. Southern California alone would require three times as much rain as usual — and nearly 15 more inches than its wettest year on record — to have any hope of returning to normal.
“What happens this winter is definitely going to be interesting,” Stanford University climate scientist Daniel Swain told the Times this summer. “And it’s not entirely clear whether California wins or loses.”