By now just about everyone knows about the California drought. The future remains uncertain, but hope is beginning to fade as an El Nino that many hoped would bring relief has not materialized, and an unwelcome weather feature in the North Pacific has reemerged.
Today Daniel Swain, author of the excellent and now deservedly popular weather blog Weather West, described some of the results of a peer-reviewed study he co-authored. While much uncertainty exists in the world of climate prediction, the results are not good. There may be a link between human-caused climate change and the aforementioned weather feature – which Swain has labeled the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge.
Ridges, otherwise known as high pressure zones, bring dry weather. Like many but not all ridges, this one is warm. Unlike nearly all ridges, however, this one is mostly stationary. It sits south of Alaska for months at a time, like a boulder in a river, and creates effects downwind. Downwind is California. Over the last two years the ridge has stopped nearly all winter storms from reaching California. If the ridge is linked to climate change, it MIGHT (and that is a big might)… be here for quite some time, and may even get stronger. Swain isn’t making any direct forecasts of that sort, and is just doing an excellent job of reporting the science. I won’t say much more about this science here because it’s best read on his blog linked above.
I will, however, speculate on possible implications if the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge is going to be around for the next few decades. While we don’t know if the ridge has formed in the more distant past, we do have a good idea about what California’s climate was like over the past 10,000 years – and it isn’t a pretty picture. It has been very well established that droughts lasting MANY DECADES have come through the area, drying up lakes to the point that trees grew to mature size in their lakebeds, and possibly causing various civilizations in the Southwest to collapse. It’s certainly possible that the Ridge or something like it played a role in those droughts.
There are a few things to consider here. California’s water crisis is magnified by… well, stupidity, to be frank. Anyone who has read this blog is familiar with my opinion on the value of lawns and swimming pools in Los Angeles… but improper crop selection and use of water in agricultural areas plays an even bigger role. Destruction of wetlands, floodplains, and other natural ecosystems have worsened the problem, and even the removal of beavers over 100 years ago from many areas is probably a factor. Not all of this can be reversed, but some of it can. This would buy us some time if we can get past the politics. Whether it would be enough depends on the severity of the drought.
The agriculture of the Central Valley is almost entirely watered by irrigation water from the Sierras and other mountains to its north. Without these flows, much of the agriculture would cease or at least be changed very dramatically. Most of the Central Valley would probably become a dust bowl. During one of those past megadroughts the Mojave Desert extended across the Central Valley nearly to the Bay Area, but now that we have salted up and pillaged the soils it is unclear if the desert vegetation could return. California has also experienced ridiculous sprawl over the last few decades, in no small part due to the subsidization of cheap water. If the drought continues, many of these may become unlivable. Desalination, dwindling aquifers, and the remaining flows in rivers and streams will keep some urban areas going… but desalination poses a lot of problems, especially if people finally wise up and realize we need to drastically cut down on our fossil fuel use. Desalination uses a lot of energy. On the plus side, maybe the dusty ex-fields and abandoned suburbs would provide better locations for solar and wind plants than intact desert ecosystems (remember, we need intact desert ecosystems for those plants to be able to move and stabilize what is left of our soil if it gets too dry for other species in the Central Valley!). However, I suspect we would turn to nuclear plants. I still believe that this can be done well, but whether it will be done well in the throes of desperation is anyone’s guess.
And here’s where it starts to get even scarier. A lot of people are going to need to leave California. But… they can return to the Rust Belt and the Northeast, right? That’s where much of the big swell of people came from in the mid 20th century to start with. And, with climate change it will only get warmer and wetter there, great conditions for agriculture and recolonizing Detroit, right? Well… maybe not.
The Ridiculously Resilient Ridge is a bit like a boulder in a river. If you’ve watched water flow behind a boulder, you see that you get an eddy spinning in one direction, and just behind it another eddy spinning the opposite direction. California will be much, much warmer and drier – warmer than the few degrees of GLOBAL warming overall. The Arctic is also warming, and the loss of sea ice greatly accelerates this trend (It’s mentioned in the Swain article). But, away from the newly open ocean waters, northern Canada still sits in sunless blackness all winter. Even if the climate warms 10 degrees, northern Canada is going to be COLD. It’s going to be really cold. And because of a variety of factors that have been described by meteorologist Jeff Masters and even in a blog post I made in 2010… the extreme cold may end up being pushed south and east. Into the eastern United States and southern Canada.
Last winter was a brutal one here in Vermont, and even more so to our west in the Upper Midwest – the type of winter the old timers talk about. This was due to what many were describing as the ‘Arctic Vortex’ – basically the equal and opposite reaction to the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge. That’s right… the cold winter may have actually been linked to ‘global warming’. Meanwhile, in the third eddy, Greenland would warm, which would dump fresh water into the northern Atlantic, possibly disrupting the Gulf Stream and making things in New England even colder. This was the scenario (inaccurately) portrayed in the movie “The Day After Tomorrow”. There is even a slim possibility that these factors would combine in an extreme way, along with increased precipitation, and lead to massive amounts of snow falling in parts of Canada. Enough that the summer doesn’t have time to melt it all, and it starts building up. That’s right… that path leads to another Ice Age. I’m not saying it is likely, and it may not even be possible, but I don’t think anyone knows for sure. Kind of ironic since a lot of climate change denialists like to comment on how scientists supposedly thought in the 1970s we’d soon enter an ice age. That’s a debunked argument, but oddly enough there may have been some truth to it.
So climate refugees leaving California due to extreme drought may face deep piles of snow and subzero cold. Heating costs would skyrocket especially if we are trying to reduce our use of fossil fuels. Agriculture would become less viable in many of the areas we would use as alternatives to California. Increased summer precipitation might also make agriculture in some floodplains impossible, and we might even see a continuation of the odd trend last summer that sent tornados much further north and east than they typically occur in significant numbers. Drought on one coast, blizzards, floods, and tornadoes on the other.
So where does that leave us?
Hope we don’t find out.