The reality of extreme weather: Part 2


By Lynne Friedmann

Note: On Dec. 13, a public forum was held at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) where climate experts discussed California’s vulnerability to extreme weather events. Part 1 of the report on the meeting (printed in the Jan. 12 issue of La Jolla Light and online at examined the range of extreme events predicted to impact the state. Part 2 considers: What can be done?

Catastrophic, extreme weather events — floods, droughts, heat waves, high winds, and associated wildfires – will be more prevalent this century in California as a result of climate change.

“Climate describes a system with a set of possible outcomes,” said Tony Westerling, a UC Merced researcher who received his doctoral degree at SIO. “How we view the outcome depends on how we’ve placed our bets.”

Hedging those bets calls for “adaptation planning,” a combination of proactive measures at the community, state, and federal level to slow the progression of climate change together with reactive measures to mitigate property damage, the risk to life, and the economic effects of an extreme event.

“The important thing is, we aren’t trying to model just one particular future,” Westerling said. “We are trying to understand a very broad range of possible futures, so that we can see where outcomes are very certain, work on reducing critical uncertainties, and help people make smart choices for the future.”

Proactive measures begin with rigorous scientific research along with which have come technology advances leading to insights into major weather events. Take for example, winter storms fueled by moisture-laden “atmospheric rivers” (ARs), a key source of the rain and snow in the Western states. ARs often deliver the majority of California’s precipitation in intense storms causing flooding in coastal regions and inland mountains having devastating effects on people and property.

“These storms are now better understood,” said Marty Ralph, a climate researcher at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). “There are prospects for several days’ lead time to know when these events are going to hit California.”

This means that emergency measures already undertaken by government agencies and citizens for earthquake preparedness – laying in emergency food and water, shelter preparations, regional communications networks, mutual aid agreements – would be useful in preparing for a severe winter storm.

Sea-level rise and associated coastal flooding and erosion will also become more acute in the future. Current responses include “hard” technical solutions (concrete and steel seawalls) as well as “soft” solutions (SANDAG beach-sand replenishment). But are they the best solutions?

There are gaps between adaptation need and action, according to Susanne Moser, a research fellow at Stanford University and consultant, whose work focuses on adaptation to climate change, climate change communication, social change, and the interaction between scientists, policy makers, and the public.

Moser conducted a survey this year of California Coastal Managers and found that 10 percent have not undertaken any climate change adaptation planning, 40 percent understand the need, 41 percent have begun planning, and only nine percent are implementing an adaptation plan.

In ranking factors that motivated coastal managers to develop a plan, surprisingly having experienced a recent extreme event was at the bottom of the list. More motivating were state and federal legislative mandates, undertaking adaptation planning as part of a general plan update, or available funding for the planning process.

Barriers to adaptation planning, as perceived by local coastal professionals in California, include insufficient staff resources to analyze and assess relevant information, current pressing issues are all consuming, no funding to prepare a plan, and lack of public demand to take adaptation action.

Interestingly, “technical issues” and “science is uncertain” are not seen by managers as barriers to planning, according to Moser.

What about tackling climate change itself? If there is a bright spot to the dire news about the state’s climate future, it’s that California has taken the lead in U.S. efforts to combat climate change. For example, Assembly Bill 32 (the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006) was enacted into law to establish a comprehensive program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sources throughout the state.

The SIO extreme-climate forum was held at the behest of Gov. Jerry Brown as part of a series of events on climate change that the State of California is undertaking over the next several months with the goal of guiding contingency plans for extreme-weather disaster response. PDFs from the individual presentations are available at

extreme_climate. Workshop videos have been posted on the SIO website.

— Lynne Friedmann is a science writer based in Solana Beach.