One of the little joys of being Californian is the opportunity to taunt folks back East about their terrible winter weather. Hey, Boston, how does it feel to have been colonized by Eskimos?
But this winter, we seem to be overdoing it, sending out a blizzard of social media postings of palm trees and blue skies. It’s enough to make you wonder if all our taunting merely masks our fears about our own weather.
Horror film directors will tell you that nothing is more frightening than what you can’t see. By that logic, California has never had a scarier winter than this one. Where is all the snow that should be in the mountains? How could San Francisco possibly go all of January without any rainfall? And what happened to the February frosts on cars, lawns, and rooftops that gave Angelenos something to talk about over their morning lattes?
The paradox of the California climate is that, precisely because we seem to have so little weather, the weather is more important here than just about anywhere else. According to a new poll, 69 percent of us say the climate is their favorite thing about living in California (and we love the weather more than we love our families). Our regional economies, our lifestyles, and our culture all rely on predictably pleasant weather. And so we are profoundly sensitive to slight changes in the weather. We talk ceaselessly about the variations in microclimates within our regions, and many of us can offer instant analysis on what we consider to be the vast differences between 77, 80, and 83 degrees.
This hypersensitivity is one big reason why Californians have taken climate change more seriously than people in other states. The threat is not merely to our coastline (sea levels could rise nearly 2 feet by 2100) or our water supplies but to our very sense of ourselves. It is unsettling to see one of our shared home’s most fundamental and enduring advantages in flux.
The fools back East, of course, think that we don’t have seasons. But of course we do, even in L.A.—the rains of January through March, the June gloom, the triple-digit heat wave that hits as school gets started in early September, the chillier nights around the holidays.
What’s so frighteningly weird is that the seasons seem to have gotten all mixed up, an unwelcome California fusion. This past February felt like July. Smaller ski resorts around the state closed mid-winter—not for lack of snow (that’s happened before) but because it wasn’t cold enough to make snow. The wildfire season, once confined to late summer and early fall, is now a year-round affair. Was that snow or hail on the ground the other day in Huntington Beach? And the past two Southern California summers were weirdly humid, with warm and sticky nights as subtropical moisture headed north. (Hot air is the only Mexican invasion we should be worried about these days.)
What’s scarier than today’s weather? Tomorrow’s forecasts. Even cautious government studies are bloodcurdling: more extreme weather, and far less predictability. Again, it’s the fear of the unseen: The state’s official climate assessment says pointedly that we “lack critical information,” especially about the impacts of climate changes in our different regions. And while we know we need to mitigate climate change with our own behavior, we’ll also have to adapt—but we don’t understand terribly well how to do that, or how we’ll pay for adaptation.
I don’t know about you, but I find myself confused by what weather I’m supposed to be rooting for. First, I’m told that the state needs big winter storms that produce lots of rain and snow to replenish our water supplies. Then, I come across a U.S. Geological Survey study, released in 2013, suggesting that a massive winter storm could devastate our state.
The study describes a potential storm serious enough to make you think twice about sending your snowed-in New York friends photos of your blooming January garden. The ARkStorm, as they call it, would feature heat and moisture from the tropic Pacific forming a series of “atmospheric rivers” (the AR in ARkStorm, with Noah’s biblical flood providing the “k”) that would bring hurricane-force storms to California for weeks. The result: biblical flooding, the evacuation of 1.5 million people, damage to one quarter of all California buildings, inundation of cities, and the degradation of the state’s water supply.
“Megastorms are California’s other Big One,” the study says, with one such megastorm capable of wreaking an estimated $725 billion in havoc, on par with the massive earthquake we all fear. Storms of this power have occurred six times in the past 1,800 years, and another one is inevitable, according to the study.
Responding to this and other climate challenges will be costly, which is why the weather is likely to be the most divisive issue in California politics. The costs will go far beyond taxes or regulations to mitigate climate change. Instead, we face the more fundamental questions of who will have to shoulder the burden of adapting our homes, our businesses, and our economies to different weather. Given the sorry state of our civic life and the weak connections between regions, it’s a safe bet that, if anything ever splits our too-big state, it’ll be the weather.
Weather also may put more distance between California and the rest of the country. The Southwest is heating up faster than the rest of America, and we are likely to get bigger droughts (even with predictions of the ARkstorm) as the north and east get wetter. And the day may come when this dry, sunbaked state won’t be much to brag about.
So let’s get in our taunting of Easterners now, while we still can.
Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor of Zócalo Public Square.