Shit Is About to Get Real in California, El Niño Report Predicts

El Niño storms caused California's Russian River to flood in 1998. Scientists predict that this year's rains will rival those of the 1997-98 season.FEMA


After four years of drought, Californians are bracing for another potentially destructive weather event: El Niño. Earlier this week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, released a disaster plan including what to expect from the upcoming rainy season. Here are the key takeaways:

  • This may be the strongest El Niño on record. Weather reports indicate that this year will be warm and wet—perhaps even more so than the winter of 1997-1998, which is currently the strongest recorded El Niño. That year, California evacuated 100,000 people.
  • The dry conditions mean more flooding. The lack of soil moisture has made the soil “harden and act like cement,” making it, paradoxically, less likely to soak up the rain. The chance of flooding is far higher than usual, especially in the productive farm country of the Central Valley and the surrounding area—including the state’s capital. “The primary risk areas are in populated areas mostly notably in Sacramento,” the report reads—and because of that, “a major flood situation would have significant impact on the economic, cultural, and political life of California.” Additionally, a catastrophic levee failure in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta would jeopardize a major source of water for 60 percent of California homes and for a portion of the state’s agricultural industry.” One in five Californians lives in a flood zone.
  • Wildfires in the summer mean more landslides in the winter. The wildfire season this year was devastating in California, scorching more than 300,000 acres. Mudslides are common in these scorched areas, called “burn scars,” because water quickly runs off and there aren’t trees to keep the soil, rocks, and other debris in place. Southern Californians got a little taste of what this might look like when rain led to severe landslides in October.
  • King Tides, El Niño, and the Blob mean higher sea levels and more potential damage. Sea levels typically rise a few inches during El Niño, but this winter, scientists predict that the giant swath of warm water off the West Coast—dubbed the Blob—will lead to a rise of between 8 and 11 inches. State officials are particularly concerned about the potential damage caused by storms toward the end of both December and January, when the highest tides of the winter, called King Tides, are expected.
  • The rains may ease the drought but won’t solve it.  All this water will certainly ease the drought and raise levels in the state’s depleted reservoirs. But because the state is so behind on precipitation, it’s very unlikely that it will make up for the state’s now four-year water deficit.

More MotherJones reporting on Climate Desk

THANK YOU.

We recently wrapped up the crowdfunding campaign for our ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project, and it was a smashing success. About 10,364 readers pitched in with donations averaging $45, and together they contributed about $467,374 toward our $500,000 goal.

That's amazing. We still have donations from letters we sent in the mail coming back to us, so we're on pace to hit—if not exceed—that goal. Thank you so much. We'll keep you posted here as the project ramps up, and you can join the hundreds of readers who have alerted us to corruption to dig into.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.