Increasing climate whiplash in 21st century California

Thursday, December 14, 2017 - 08:15
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Temperate “Mediterranean” climate regimes across the globe are particularly susceptible to wide swings between drought and flood—of which California’s rapid transition from record multi-year dryness between 2012-2016 to extreme wetness during 2016-2017 provides a dramatic example. The wide-ranging human and environmental impacts of this recent “climate whiplash” event in a highly-populated, economically critical, and biodiverse region highlight the importance of understanding weather and climate extremes at both ends of the hydroclimatic spectrum. Previous studies have examined the potential contribution of anthropogenic warming to recent California extremes, but findings to date have been mixed and primarily drought-focused. Here, we use specific historical California flood and drought events as thresholds for quantifying long-term changes in precipitation extremes using a large ensemble of multi-decadal climate model simulations (CESM-LENS). We find that greenhouse gas emissions are already responsible for a detectable increase in both wet and dry extremes across portions of California, and that increasing 21st century “climate whiplash” will likely yield large increases in the frequency of both rapid “dry-to-wet” transitions and severe flood events over a wide range of timescales. This projected intensification of California’s hydrological cycle would seriously challenge the region’s existing water storage, conveyance, and flood control infrastructure—even absent large changes in mean precipitation.

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