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Researcher says climate change is driving the mega storms and prolonged droughts hitting California

A satellite image of the massive atmospheric river fueled storm system as it hit the Tri-Counties Sunday.
A satellite image of the massive atmospheric river fueled storm system as it hit the Tri-Counties Sunday.

Some scientists believe they are the new normal for the region.

Dangerous, life threatening, record setting. Those are some of the ways meteorologists have described the big storm hitting the Tri-Counties.

But, the massive storm which drenched the region less than two months ago, the one which dumped three inches of rain in Oxnard and Port Hueneme in less than an hour, was called a thousand year extreme storm.

A leading climate expert says we are finally seeing some of the long predicted impacts of climate change on our weather, in the form of more extreme weather.

"The swings from wet to dry have become more pronounced in the last ten years or so, and that's essentially what has been predicted by climate models for some time," said Dr. Marty Ralph. He's Director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at the Scripps Institution of Oceanographyat UC San Diego.

"In a way, we're seeing in front of our own eyes what has been predicted for some time," said Ralph. 

"The climate models are showing us clearly that we should expect for California in particular longer dry spells, interspersed with short, brief, but heavier precipitation events due to stronger atmospheric rivers."

He said the storm hitting us now, the one in December, and the 1998 storm which hit Santa Barbara hard are prime examples of what some have predicted. But, there’s another factor with the current storm, in the form of El Nino. The warm weather it created set the stage for increased rainfall totals.
Having an atmospheric river help feed a storm isn’t that unusual this time of year. But, Kristen Lund, who’s a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said what make this system such a big deal is that it’s parked itself in the region.

"It is kind of uncommon to see this long of an event, and this much moisture," said Lund. "It's similar to the storm we had last year, in January of 2023."

Does Ralph think the swing between drought and floods will become even more extreme? "Because the model projections have indicated that we should see more extreme swings, and it's happening already, I think we should expect that to continue."

Ralph said what some call “weather whiplash” has led to the state having some of the wettest and driest years every record in the state during the last decade.

But, the researcher said despite the problems it's caused, there is something good coming out of this monster storm He said the extra rainfall, and snowfall will help get the state's water season back on track. Up until now, the numbers have been well below average.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.