California’s past megafloods – and the coming ARkStorm

Summary: To boost our fear, activists and journalists report the weather with amnesia about the past. Ten year records become astonishing events; weather catastrophes of 50 or 100 years ago are forgotten. It makes for good clickbait but cripples our ability to prepare for the inevitable. California’s history of floods and droughts gives a fine example — if we listen to the US Geological Survey’s reminder of past megafloods, and their warning of the coming ARkStorm.

” A 43-day storm that began in December 1861 put central and southern California underwater for up to six months, and it could happen again.”
— “California Megaflood: Lessons from a Forgotten Catastrophe” by B. Lynn Ingram (prof of Earth Science, Berkeley) in Scientific America, January 2013.

Inundation of Sacramento in 1862
Lithograph of K Street in Sacramento, CA during the 1862 flood. From Wikimedia commons.

One of the key events in California history has disappeared from our minds. For a reminder see this by the US Geological Survey.

“Beginning on Christmas Eve, 1861, and continuing into early 1862, an extreme series of storms lasting 45 days struck California. The storms caused severe flooding, turning the Sacramento Valley into an inland sea, forcing the State Capital to be moved from Sacramento to San Francisco for a time, and requiring Governor Leland Stanford to take a rowboat to his inauguration. William Brewer, author of Up and Down California in 1860-1864, wrote on January 19, 1862, ‘The great central valley of the state is under water — the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys — a region 250 to 300 miles long and an average of at least twenty miles wide, or probably three to three and a half millions of acres!’

‘In southern California lakes were formed in the Mojave Desert and the Los Angeles Basin. The Santa Ana River tripled its highest-ever estimated discharge, cutting arroyos into the southern California landscape and obliterating the ironically named Agua Mansa (Smooth Water), then the largest community between New Mexico and Los Angeles. The storms wiped out nearly a third of the taxable land in California, leaving the State bankrupt.

“The 1861-62 series of storms were probably the largest and longest California storms on record. However, geological evidence suggests that earlier, prehistoric floods were likely even bigger. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that such extreme storms could not happen again. However, despite the historical and prehistorical evidence for extreme winter storms on the West Coast, the potential for these extreme events has not attracted public concern, as have hurricanes. The storms of 1861-62 happened long before living memory, and the hazards associated with such extreme winter storms have not tested modern infrastructure nor the preparedness of the emergency management community.”

For an account of the flood from that time see this by J. M. Guinn; an excerpt from Exceptional Years: A History of California Floods and Drought (1890).

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Lessons learned from the end of California’s “permanent drought”

Summary: The “permanent drought” in California, like the now ended “permanent drought” in Texas, is ending. But like the panic about Texas, it is rich in lessons about our difficulty clearly seeing the world — and the futility of activists exaggerating and lying about the science. Of course, they should have learned this after 29 years of trying (starting from James Hansen’s 1988 Senate testimony).

California drought

Warnings of a permanent drought in California

Remember all those predictions of a “permanent drought” in California? Those were examples of why three decades of climate alarmism has not convinced the American people to take severe measures to fight anthropogenic climate change: alarmists exaggerate the science, and are proven wrong — repeatedly. When will the Left learn that doomster lies do not work?

Wired, May 2016: “Thanks El Niño, But California’s Drought Is Probably Forever“. “California is still in a state of drought. For now, maybe forever.” The article gives no support — none — for this clickbait claim. In January Wired attempted to weasel away from their claims by defining drought to mean needing more water than nature provides (“A Wet Year Won’t Beat California’s Never-Ending Drought“). Orwell nodded, unsurprised.

The NYT did no better in “California Braces for Unending Drought“, May 2016. The closest the article comes to supporting their headline is an odd statement by Governor Brown:  “But now we know that drought is becoming a regular occurrence…”  Drought has always been a regular occurrence in California. The governor also said that “California droughts are expected to be more frequent and persistent, as warmer winter temperatures driven by climate change reduce water held in the Sierra Nevada snowpack and result in drier soil conditions.” That is probable. But it is quite mad for the NYT to call more frequent droughts “an unending drought.”

Status of the California drought

“During the past week, a series of storms bringing widespread rain and snow showers impacted the states along the Pacific Coast and northern Rockies. In California, the cumulative effect of several months of abundant precipitation has significantly improved drought conditions across the state.”
— US Drought monitor – California, February 9.

Precipitation over California in the water year so far (October 1 to January 31) is 178% of average for this date. The snowpack is 179% of average, as of Feb 8. Our reservoirs are at 125% of average capacity. See the bottom line summary as of February 7, from the US Drought monitor for California.

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Our response to California’s drought shows America at work to enrich the 1%

Summary: The California megadrought shows America’s public policy machinery at work. Dysfunctional for us; highly functional for the 1%. It’s the price we pay for our apathy and passivity. Today we review California’s latest response to this crisis.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

California drought


  1. Summary
  2. How Growers Gamed California’s Drough
  3. “California Goes Nuts”
  4. Apocalyptic Schadenfreude
  5. Updates
  6. For More Information

(1)  Summary

Here’s the tale in brief, told by journalist Mark Hertsgaard in “After Warmest Winter, Drought-Stricken California Limits Water But Exempts Thirstiest Big Growers“:

There are a lot of Californians who are suffering right now, especially farm workers. There are communities out in Central Valley, the poor communities where a lot of farm workers live, that literally don’t have water coming out of their household taps anymore. That is not the case for Mr. Stewart Reznick {billionaire} and a lot of bigger farmers. In fact, my story in The Daily Beast started with a conference that Mr. Reznick and his pistachio company, Paramount Farms, held just last month, where they bragged, literally bragged and celebrated about the record profits that they are making on pistachios, on almonds, and not only the profits, but the record production levels, and the record acreage levels, which means that as the state has been going into drought, nevertheless agricultural interests are planting more and more acreage, new almond trees — we are growing alfalfa here which is a very thirsty crop and gets exported over to China.

There are all kinds of examples of this. But, the pain is not being felt equally here. The growers at that conference, they literally trooped out of that conference listening to Louis Armstrong saying “it’s a wonderful world,” and I think the mood was captured by one grower who said, “I’ve been smiling all the way to the bank,” and they played a clip from that Tom Cruise movie, “Jerry Maguire” where Cruise yells out “show me the money.” Well, they are making plenty of money, some of the big farmers here, and that’s largely because they are still getting plenty of water, and, as I say, the experts say that this water is underpriced. If that if we did price it properly, which means a little bit higher, that there is enormous strides that California could be taking with water efficiency.

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Key facts about the drought that’s reshaping California.

Summary:  California’s drought might be to us what the dust bowl of the prairies was to the 1930s (irony: California was the big beneficiary of that drought). This post answers most of your questions about the drought, cutting through the media chaff of misinformation (but does not discuss its effects). This is an update of a November post

“We don’t even plan for the past.”
— Steven Mosher (member of Berkeley Earth; bio here), a comment posted at Climate Etc.

California drought


  1. The California drought: it’s bad.
  2. Climate Science gives us worse news.
  3. About our water stocks.
  4. Causes of these droughts.
  5. California’s mad water use.
  6. Useful Sources of Information.
  7. For More Information.
  8. The Hydro-Illogical Cycle.

(1)  The California drought: it’s bad.

It’s bad, with no end in sight. We get most of our water from the winter rain, which has been below- average so far (85% of average; rank 57 of the past 120 years; the past 12 months numbers are similar). Not what we need to refill the reservoirs. See the story in pictures below; click all images to expand.

Precipitation this winter in California
From the California Climate Tracker website.

How bad is it? Let’s look at the past year (the California “water year” runs from October to September). The average is 23″; 1924 was the driest year at 9″; 6 of past 8 years were dry. The previous “water year” (ended Oct 2014) was 12″ (3rd driest in the past 119). Jan and Feb were especially bad this year.

It can get much worse.  The 1917 – 1934 drought ran 17 years with only one year of above-average rainfall (including the record low year of 1924)!

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Everything you want to know about California’s drought (except when it will end).

Summary: For decades scientists warned us that the American southwest had experienced long brutal droughts. We did nothing to prepare. Now we reap the consequences, as California experiences the worst droughts of the past century. With no end in sight, we must mobilize to mitigate the damage. Which might prove severe. This can become a blessing, if we learn from it. While we bicker about the climate change in 2100, which depends on innumerable and unknowable factors (how much coal will we burn?), scientists warn us that we’re unprepared for the inevitable occurrence of past extreme weather.  Katrina and Sandy were normal, as is this drought. More exciting weather is coming.

Click here to see the updated version of this post as of 14 March 2015!

“We don’t even plan for the past.”
— Steven Mosher (member of Berkeley Earth; bio here), a comment posted at Climate Etc.

Preparing for Extreme Weather
From the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center


  1. The California drought: it’s bad
  2. Climate Science gives us worse news
  3. About this & past California droughts
  4. Useful Sources of Information
  5. For More Information
  6. The Hydro-Illogical Cycle

(1)  The California drought: it’s bad.

It’s bad, with no end in sight.

  1. California Facing Worst Drought on Record“, NOAA, 20 January 2014.
  2. California breaks drought record as 58% of state hits driest level“, Los Angeles Times, 31 July 2014.
  3. Groundwater: California’s big unknown“, NOAA, 27 August 2014 — We’re in trouble if that starts to run out.

How bad is it? Let’s look at the past year (the California “water year” runs from October to September). The average is 23″; 1924 was the driest year at 9″; the last 12 months was 12″. Six of past 8 years were dry. The new “water year” started in October a little dry: 0.7″ vs average of 1.2″. But not as bad as 1917 – 1934: a 17 year-long period with only one year of ab0ve-average rainfall (including the record low of 1924)! Click all images to expand.

California: Annual precipitation
From the California Climate Tracker website. Click to expand.

Do we all share the pain? Not equally. California is like that.

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Droughts are coming. Are we ready for the past to repeat?

Summary: This post by Prof Curry has something for everyone, at all levels of interest and knowledge. It discusses one of the more timely and serious subjects in the climate debates. If you would like more information after reading these selections (or are still confused, or more confused) see the links at the end of the post.  Bottom line: while we bicker about anthropogenic effects on climate, we remain unready for the return of past droughts.

California drought in context

by Judith Curry (Prof Atmosphere Science, GA Inst Tech)
From her website Climate Etc
10 March 2014

Posted here under her Creative Commons license

Texas Drought
Photo by AP


  1. The NYT gives a rebuttal to Obama
  2. Anthropogenic global warming and droughts
  3. Past California droughts
  4. The Dust Bowl Returns
  5. California’s drought is due to politics
  6. Judith Curry’s reflections
  7. For More Information

(1)  The NYT gives a rebuttal to Obama

A changing climate means that weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms [and] floods are potentially going to be costlier and they’re going to be harsher.
Speech by President Obama, 14 February 2014

Justin Gillis of the NY Times responded to the statements made by President Obama in his February 14 visit to California to discuss the drought: “Science linking drought to global warming in dispute“. Excerpt:

In delivering aid to drought-stricken California last week, President Obama and his aides cited the state as an example of what could be in store for much of the rest of the country as human-caused climate change intensifies.

But in doing so, they were pushing at the boundaries of scientific knowledge about the relationship between climate change and drought. While a trend of increasing drought that may be linked to global warming has been documented in some regions, including parts of the Mediterranean and in the Southwestern United States, there is no scientific consensus yet that it is a worldwide phenomenon. Nor is there definitive evidence that it is causing California’s problems.

(2)  Anthropogenic global warming and droughts

(a)  The main arguments being put forward regarding AGW making the drought worse seem to be put forward by John Holdren and Joe Romm. John Holdren has prepared a document entitled Drought and Climate Change:  A Critique of Statements Made by Roger Pielke Jr. The existence of this document is astonishing in itself (Holdren is Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) – it was written in response to tweets and blog posts by Pielke Jr (Prof Environmental Studies, U CO-Boulder).

Pielke responds to Holden with “John Holdren’s Epic Fail“, 1 March 2014.

(b)  Joe Romm (Center for American Progress) has a follow on post “Climatologist who predicted drought 10 years ago says it may become even more dire“.  He lays out the arguments in support of global warming influencing the drought. The arguments aren’t  strong, an excerpt:

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American States on the brink of financial catastrophe

In the third year of the worst recession since the 1930’s many States totter on the brink of catastrophe, after generations of imprudent management.  Ahead lie even greater challenges, as employees cash in on their insanely generous pensions.  A few charts tell the tale — showing America’s most profligate states — from “The State of California – the road ahead”, Barclays Capital, 17 February 2010:

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