Ridiculously Resilient Ridge: Possibly Dismal Climate Scenario for California and Beyond

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.

6 thoughts on “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge: Possibly Dismal Climate Scenario for California and Beyond

  1. Mike Maguire

    You are obviously an intelligent person that cares about the environment.

    You only have to go back to the Winter of 76/77 to see a similar pattern……….when we were in the same part of the natural 30 year cycle.(It warmed us in the 80’s/90’s but has flipped to cold again for the next couple of decades)

    The drought was not as severe in California in 76/77(as no drought is exactly the same) but the Polar Vortex paid a visit numerous times with extreme cold and snow in the same places that had extreme cold and snow. Use this link to see the weather maps from that Winter.


    What caused this to happen 30+ years ago? Why are we constantly making statements that extreme weather has been increasing……….when most measures of extreme weather have not increased?

    Strong to violent tornadoes are down during the last 3 decades:


    Tropical cyclone energy is down:


    Global drought is down:


    The worst US droughts were in the 1930’s


    Heavy downpours have increased. Along with the mostly beneficial/modest global warming of .8 C over the last 100 years, a warmer atmosphere, holds more moisture. All things being equal, a bigger sponge that is saturated, when squeezed, will yield more water.

    The earth is greening from the key role in the proven law of photosynthesis:
    20% of the increased growth from this years record soybean crop for instance came from the increase in CO2 from less than 300ppm to 400ppm.


    Cognitive bias is preventing alot of people way smarter than me from seeing all this and political agenda is driving many others.

    An operational meteorologist for 33 years, using global weather patterns to forecast crop yields and energy use(for residential heating and cooling).

    I have a front row seat viewing the authentic science and empirical data first hand and get frustrated with all the people repeating the same speculative theories, often the complete opposite of the realities because they are NOT using the scientific method and have already made up their minds, without even looking objectively at the profound evidence which contradicts what they think they know.

    I am also an environmentalist and realist like you. Humans really do alot of dumb things.Water management is at the top of the list. Let’s stop one of the dumbest, which has been to waste resources and money to cut beneficial CO2 emissions .


  2. slowwatermovement Post author

    Hi! I don’t really want to get into a global warming denialist discussion but since there are some interesting things in here…

    Absolutely, the link between extreme weather and human caused climate change, especially when attributing individual events, can be sketchy. I don’t consider watts up with that to be a reputable source, but certainly Jeff Masters has had a lot of great posts on the subject. I stand behind the science of a possible link between the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge and human caused climate change, but of course there are other factors as well. California’s climate is ridiculously fickle by nature, even if you don’t consider human effects. One thing that we can say with pretty high confidence is that arctic sea ice was much more abundant in the 70s than it is now.

    Many places are getting wetter, including here in Vermont. Vermont is dramatically wetter than it was 100 years ago but this trend appears to also be related to natural factors. The exact amount the earth has warmed so far may be debatable, but I don’t think there is much question that it is warming. It’s pretty tenuous to call such a thing ‘benecificial’ though. What does that mean? A warming (or cooling or wetter or drier) climate will benefit some and harm others. As a whole we are adapted to conditions as they have been over the last 200 years or so. Of course, even setting aside human effects natural changes will happen as well. I don’t see any justification to call either of them beneficial as a whole, though to one person or region maybe. Change overall will harm us, moreso if we don’t prepare for it.

    As for CO2 and crop yields… well, the Cornell link you posted has very mixed results. It doesn’t show a clear increase in all crops, just in soybeans, which could be due to a lot of different things. CO2science.com appears to be an Exxon-funded propaganda site (though not a delianist site but a pro-warming site? odd…) so I am going to ignore it. I don’t see this an an issue with ‘sides’ to consider, there is good science and biased bad science. There’s enough good science to discuss without getting into the bad stuff.

    My blog post is, of course, speculation. I don’t really know what is going to hapen. I think there is an interesting link and that this winter will tell us a lot. NOAA predicts a warmer than average winter for much of the US so if that happens I guess this ridge and cold feedback won’t be happening.

    Agreed that our use of water as a species and culture is a disaster. However I take issue again with the idea that it is ‘beneficial’ to dramatically alter the chemical composition of our atmosphere. It will benefit some and harm others. Ecologically, weeds are usually more able to jump on excess resources than other plants, so perhaps more CO2 will benefit weeds. Some crops are also ‘ruderals’ like weeds so it may benefit them. However, the CO2 is absolutely acidifying the oceans which may kill off reefs and cause all other kinds of problems. if your home is destroyed by a hurricane because the reef that used to protect it from storm surges is gone, I don’t think you are going to be that excited about 2% more soybeans. And ocean acidification isn’t a climate change thing, it’s a seperate result of the CO2.

    Fossil fuels are a finite resource, in addition to climate probles they cause a whole host of other environmental, social, political, economic problems. And they will run out at some point and are getting harder and harder to produce. I don’t see how reducing their use is a waste of anything. You know what is a waste? Lawns in LA. Getting into another war in the Middle East. Tax cuts for the wealthy. Buying plastic crap from China. While I will agree that some of the push towards ‘renewable’ energy, in particular huge utility scale solar and wind, is problematic in a variety of ways, I don’t see how anyone can imagine reduction of fossil fuel use as anything but a good thing, unless you are in the business of selling oil. Even then, in the long term…

  3. slowwatermovement Post author

    And on another note… I forgot to post about this before, but the Eel River site that some have found this blog from indicates that Chris Clarke wrote this blog post, but he did not. I’m Charlie Hohn, an ecologist from Vermont.

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