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California Faces a Future of Droughts Alternating with Floods

Climate change is expected to increase drought and floods in California. Credit: Ray Bouknight via Flickr

Climate change is expected to increase drought and floods in California. Credit: Ray Bouknight via Flickr

A warming climate coupled with more intense El Niño and La Niña events could cause twice as many droughts and three times as many floods in California by 2080, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications.

The findings come while California suffers its most severe drought in recorded history, a four-year disaster that has caused an estimated $2.2 billion in economic loss from 2013-14 alone.  At the same time, heavy rainfall––which triggered mudslides last week in Southern California––is anticipated through the winter from a strong El Niño event predicted by many climate forecasters.

The findings provide a more detailed understanding of how the region’s climate will respond to global warming in the coming decades. Prior studies predicted a slight increase in rainfall for California over the 21st century. These studies, however, looked at mean rainfall over periods of a decade or more. They failed to take into account increasing variability from extreme El Niño and La Niña events, changes in surface water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that affect rainfall patterns across the globe.

“Mean is one thing, but the changes, the extremes are really another thing that we need to pay attention to,” said Jin-Ho Yoon, an earth systems scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratories and the study’s lead author.

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