“The short answer is we’re doing pretty
much nothing globally,” says Victor, in re-
sponse to how various changes are likely to
impact the future world, from rising sea lev-
els to increased precipitation.
In a controversial Nature editorial coauthored with Scripps Director Emeritus
Charles Kennel, Victor suggests that widely
accepted success metrics for mitigation are
a large part of the complacency problem. For
a decade, the general consensus has been
to limit the global surface air temperature
increase to 2 degrees Celsius ( 3. 6 degrees
Fahrenheit). The fact that temperature
growth has flatlined since 1998 has encouraged a dismissive attitude among the public and policymakers, never mind the many
possible explanations. Scripps researchers
have linked the flatline to the last major El
Niño warming event, for example.
“Scientifically, there are better ways to
BOOTS On THE gROunD,
measure the stress that humans are placing
on the climate system than [this] growth,”
argue Victor and Kennel. “It’s allowed gov-
ernments to ignore the need for massive ad-
aptation to climate change.”
The researchers suggest using other
indicators, or “vital signs,” such as study-
ing the ocean, which absorbs 93 percent of
Earth’s excess heat, and a greater scrutiny
of areas that are more sensitive to climate
change, such as the Arctic, which has rap-
idly warmed since 1998.
EyES in THE AiR
Atmospheric rivers are corridors of concentrated moisture that deliver as much as
half of the precipitation received by California and the West during short, intense
bursts that last only a matter of days. They
drop rain and snow that is crucial to water
supplies, especially in parched areas like the
Southwest. But their promise does come at a
price, as the largest, strongest atmospheric
rivers can cause extreme rainfall and devastating floods.
Climate scientist Marty Ralph is director
of the new Center for Western Weather and
Water Extremes at Scripps. His research
is focused on atmospheric rivers and their
role in the global water cycle, including water vapor transportation, precipitation and
runoff. He was also an integral part of the
multiagency CalWater 2015 campaign in
February, which included one of the largest
projects ever devoted to an individual atmospheric river event.
Ralph says adequate forecast accuracy for
atmospheric rivers could perhaps give water
reserve managers more flexible control over
resources, while at the same time offering
more protection from flooding.
Ralph’s colleague at Scripps, Mike Dettinger, described what such a flood might
look like in a prominent Scientific American feature, “The Coming Megafloods.” The
piece opens with an ominous reference to
1861, when rain started pounding the state
on Christmas Eve and didn’t abate for 43
days, turning California’s Central Valley
into a 300-mile-long inland lake. Thousands of people died in the deluge, along
with a quarter of the state’s 800,000 cattle.
Raging floodwaters washed away everything in their path, including entire communities. The state went bankrupt.
“If such a storm hit today, we’d experience something like $500-700 billion in
damages and economic destruction,” says
Ralph. “Those are huge numbers compared
to [Hurricanes] Katrina ($100 billion) and
Sandy ($200 billion). It’s a major challenge.
These types of storms are out there, and
they will happen eventually.”
Climate change has come to affect nearly
every facet of human life—from
economics to public health and safety.
Mike Dettinger, research hydrologist at Scripps Institution
of Oceanography, has cited historic precedent for potential
“megafloods” in California.
Scripps climate scientist Marty Ralph is an expert
in atmospheric rivers, a vital water resource.