A young man walking through a flooded city street wearing a backpack

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What is an atmospheric river? How are they affecting California’s weather? Will California’s weather get more or less extreme in the coming years?

A record-breaking storm hit California in early February 2024, causing widespread flooding in major cities. Researchers predict that as global temperatures continue to rise, California will experience more intense storms with increased dry spells between them.

Continue reading to learn what’s behind the severe weather in California and the challenges it creates.

California’s Weather Is Becoming More Extreme

In early February 2024, a storm system battered California with record-setting rainfall; the state saw as much rain in two days as it usually gets in six months. Large regions, including Los Angeles and San Diego, experienced widespread flooding and mudslides, leading to washed-out streets, trapped cars, and extensive property damage. The storm cost California billions of dollars in damages and economic losses, and state officials have confirmed the deaths of nine people.

The storm broke rainfall records, but some experts say that extreme weather like this is becoming the state’s new normal. Natural phenomena called atmospheric rivers, strengthened by climate change, mean that the severe weather in California is likely to continue. 

What Are Atmospheric Rivers?

Atmospheric rivers are long bands of water vapor that form over an ocean. They start in the tropics (near the Earth’s equator) and from there, carry massive amounts of water either north or south. When an atmospheric river reaches land, the moisture-laden air cools, resulting in heavy rain or snow.

Atmospheric rivers are natural and are, in fact, a vital part of the water supply for the US’s West Coast; in an average year, atmospheric rivers account for anywhere between one-third and one-half of all precipitation in that area. They only become problematic when they’re swelled to an extreme—as was the case here. 

Experts believe the strength of this particular atmospheric river was caused by a combination of El Niño and climate change:

El Niño

Researchers say that El Niño conditions, which occur when the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean gets unusually warm, also contributed to the extreme weather that California faced in early 2024. Unlike human-driven climate change, El Niño is a natural phenomenon that occurs regularly—but, since El Niño conditions raise temperatures around the world, they worsen many of the problems that climate change causes. 

Climate Change

Since atmospheric rivers are made of evaporated water, rising temperatures make them stronger—not only because higher temperatures send more water vapor skyward, but also because as air gets warmer, it can hold more moisture. Climate scientists estimate that the Earth has heated up by an average of 2°F since the Industrial Revolution. This allows atmospheric rivers to carry up to 8% more water than they used to.

Looking Ahead: Rainfall Will Be Less Frequent but More Extreme

Researchers at the UCLA Center for Climate Science are studying the effects of climate change on California’s precipitation, with a particular focus on atmospheric rivers. They predict these storms will evolve in two important ways: They’ll become more intense, and they’ll develop longer dry spells between them. Both of these changes acting together will mean less predictability and increased difficulty in managing California’s water supply.

The Cause of the Severe Weather in California

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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