What happens when the drought ends?


By Emma Pearson

From car wash closures to five-minute showers, Californians have been forced to learn every water conservation practice known to man in the years of inadequate rainfall and a subsequent drought that had everyone dreaming of downpour. In a day when that has finally come, the entire United States experiences the effects of extreme winter, and the fact that we never truly believed the drought would leave has exposed how climate change and the extreme weather that follows it will test California residents, as well as the rest of the nation.

This is not just a California issue. It is not just wimpy Californians who do not know how to handle intense weather patterns. This past winter is one that has been labeled a nationwide freeze, “once in a generation”, by climate scientists, and is one caused by an enormous atmospheric river (of which another–bigger–storm is expected to follow) that has moved out of the Pacific, leaving its destructive path from the heavy snowfall and tornadoes in the Midwest and South to dumping more snow and freezing rain on New England and the Northeast. 

More than 30,000 customers in New Hampshire and more than 13,000 in New York have experienced power outages, according to PowerOutage.us, which gathers data from utilities across the country. Maine had about 38,000 residents without power, according to PowerOutage.us.

These winters demand a vocabulary lesson in meteorological terms so one can understand how a vortex leads to a cyclone to an atmospheric river and pineapple express all to leave us wondering why we wanted water so bad in the first place. 

What scientists label a “polar vortex”, a mass of cold Arctic air that moved southward into Canada and the United States, is what the original late December extreme nationwide drop in temperature has been attributed to. The intrusion of masses of warmer air upon collected cold air caused temperature and air pressure to plunge dramatically. This drastic drop in temperature then triggered a deep freeze across the US and strong winds due to air pressure change. The next relevant weather phenomena, bomb cyclone, which is a rotating, intense storm that brings heavy snow and/or rain along with tidal surges on the coast followed these winds and clashing air masses.

Finally there is the atmospheric river, a meteorological phenomenon that carries condensed water vapor from other parts of the world and a storm that gets its name from its long, narrow shape and the considerable amount of water carried. These are the storm series that we are most used to in California, as a study last year found that in nearly four out of five years between 1981 and 2019, half or more of all atmospheric rivers that affected the state were part of an atmospheric river “family,” or a rapid parade of storms. 

The seemingly comical term for the next storm in the succession of atmospheric rivers that has descended upon the Pacific coast is a “pineapple express.” No, I’m not kidding. The Pineapple Express is a narrow region of atmospheric moisture that builds up in the tropical Pacific (where pineapples come from).

Fog and intermittent drizzle categorize most of my wintry memories of Northern California, the annual 24-hour storm that gave everyone false hope, the hypocritical bragging to relatives and friends who experienced true seasonal change as my mom yelled at me about leaving the faucet running. The most I remember were two storms, or what I have learned to be “atmospheric rivers,” that actually threatened power or school cancellations per calendar year.

The series of atmospheric rivers that continue to rain down on California, evoking evacuation orders, warnings, and declarations of regional emergency in the state, and persistent pleading from safety officials for people to stay off the roads as much as possible. There has been constant high surf and flood warnings and, thus far, five people were left dead from the first atmospheric river in California (the storm’s death toll currently sits at 19). These atmospheric rivers, when they come in a rapid-fire procession the way they have been since December, provide a dangerous exposé to what happens when our drought finally ends.

The jarringly upbeat in-time Tweets courtesy of the National Weather Service San Francisco Bay Area provide a story of what the state has experienced since the beginning of 2023.

Jan. 2: “Here we go again, but this time with lots of wind. #PineappleExpress heading our way for midweek. Checkout the plume of moisture peeling off the tropics, just NW of the Hawaiian Islands.”

Jan 3: “As we prepare for the incoming weather let’s take a moment to pause and look at the visible imagery and marvel at what Mother Nature is sending our way.”

Jan. 5: “The wettest 10 day period for Downtown San Francisco since 1871!  Downtown San Francisco received 10.33″ Dec 26 – Jan 4 (yesterday). All time 10 day record was 14.37″ in  Jan 1862.”

Jan. 5: “Week over week drought classification/improvement. Area in D4 (Exceptional Drought) is no longer on the map. The drought monitor class change map also helps show where there was 1 class (category) improvement.”

Jan. 6: “Here we go again! The next few days will feature multiple rounds of rain. Flood watch begins for the North Bay Saturday morning, expanding area-wide Saturday afternoon, lasting through Tuesday.”

The view past “Here we go again!” and celebrations of the wettest day seen in over a century is pretty grim from where I am standing. The reality is that California has long been plagued by constant and looming threats of drought and water levels so low that water conservation became a skill that many California residents had to implement into daily lives. Now, with the extreme storms hitting the state, we are seeing what happens when our seemingly endless drought comes to a potential (albeit temporary) close. 

We are not just seeing that Californians do not know how to drive in this weather. We are seeing that our roads are not built for it. That our power lines are not. That our housing floods easily. We are seeing that we did not build infrastructure for this weather. Climate change exposes that, although the drought might be over, we are unprepared for any sort of extreme weather when it is so rare within an area. The areas most affected, those that lose power and those that put people’s lives at risk, are areas that have fallen victim to under-funded infrastructure. These are areas that are often dominated by low-income housing, areas that house people who are already victimized by climate discrimination.

The reality is the climate is changing. Weather like this proves it. If we do not act to change our infrastructure, change our policies, and combat extreme weather, the drought will become the least of our problems.