California Forum

With climate change upon us, where’s the safest place in California to live?

Wildfires torch dry forests throughout Western U.S.

The Eagle Creek Fire has burned more than 33,000 acres of forest near Portland, Ore., but it's just one of many wildfires blazing through the West at the tail-end of 2017's dangerous fire season.
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The Eagle Creek Fire has burned more than 33,000 acres of forest near Portland, Ore., but it's just one of many wildfires blazing through the West at the tail-end of 2017's dangerous fire season.

Last week, as Los Angeles burned, San Francisco baked, Houston reeled amid biblical flooding and the Florida Keys braced for Hurricane Irma, David W. Titley picked up his phone on the other side of the country and cut to the chase.


“Forty north,” the Penn State University meteorology professor of practice told me, almost before I’d asked the question. “I’d basically look at being north of that.”

My query was one many of us are wondering about in this age of mounting natural disasters: If climate change is a given, what’s the best place to live? Or, maybe, the least-worst?

Count Los Angeles (34.05 degrees north) and Sacramento (38.58 north) out as sweet spots. Even Mendocino (39.31 north) isn’t quite far enough north to be above the cutoff.

It’s not an easy question. Just asking it feels somehow simultaneously obvious and alarmist.

There’s no place to hide from global warming, by definition. And until recently climate change wasn’t supposed to be a given.

If you were on the right, it wasn’t supposed to exist. If you were on the left, it was supposed to be something humanity could put the brakes on. If you were in the middle, it was one of those things to worry about later, like your 401(k) or North Korea.

Alas, later has arrived. Houston may be naturally moist, but not to the tune of trillions of gallons of freak rainfall. San Francisco may occasionally get hot, but the mercury there hasn’t topped 106 degrees since Ulysses S. Grant was in the White House.

And California may have always had wildfires, but 15 major infernos over Labor Day weekend? Last Friday night, the flames in the Verdugo Mountains overlooking Burbank airport were so orange and ferocious that passengers stepping off a Southwest Airlines flight just stood on the tarmac in the crazy heat, gawking. When we flew back to Sacramento two days later, Los Angeles smelled like smoke and the air was white.

So where to outrun the coming catastrophe? And is it possible for a Californian to outrun it and still be in California? Titley, who has lived in Monterey and San Diego, but now lives in climate resilient Pennsylvania, was one of several climate scientists who generously shared their perspectives with me.

He started with temperature. Because climate change amplifies existing patterns, it is making hot places hotter. That means the subtropics will dry out over time and the so-called “horse latitudes” – currently between 30 and 38 degrees north and south of the equator – will expand, widening that belt of the planet where the trade winds fail and the rain doesn’t fall. (Think Sahara Desert).

But north of 40 degrees north latitude, he said, modeling shows the climate will become wetter rather than dryer: “North of 40 for at least the next century will have about the same amount of water. It’s just that more of it will fall as rain, rather than snow.”

So count Los Angeles (34.05 degrees north) and Sacramento (38.58 north) out as sweet spots. Even Mendocino (39.31 north) isn’t quite far enough north to be above the cutoff.

And rain has its own issues. More rain means more foliage, which fuels more intense wildfires. And more rain means more flooding: “If you own a house,” Titley said, “there’s now about an 8-in-10 chance that what used to be a 100-year flood will happen to you in the course of your 30-year mortgage.”

So, north of Mendocino, away from the woods, with flood insurance.

But wait – other climate scientists say some more southerly parts of California might still be OK. The Pacific Ocean, for instance, will keep California’s coast from heating up as acutely as inland California, said Solomon Hsiang, chancellor’s associate professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, and a lead author of a recent major study on global warming’s economic impact.

So San Francisco might not get so unbearably hot, though maps show sea level rise could inundate its airport, wastewater treatment plants and other low-lying infrastructure. Speaking of which, Hsiang says, shoring up that retaining wall might be a wise investment.

“People don’t think about it this way,” he said, “but how quickly a mountain erodes is directly related to the amount of water falling on it.” Landslides could worsen, threatening hillside homes and closing roads not just on the coast, but in mountain communities with limited access.

So, north and away from wildfires, or on the coast but not at sea level, and nowhere without good roads and alternate escape routes. And not without more human engineering than we have now.

The good news is, California knows how to do this, Frances C. Moore, an assistant professor of environmental economics at UC Davis told me. The whole state is already engineered, and rich enough to double down, if needed.

“As relatively wealthy places, the United States and California are in a better position to manage the adverse consequences of climate change,” Moore reminded. California’s grid is set up to supply air conditioning to hot places. Infrastructure is a core competency in this state. And, most crucially, policymakers get its importance.

“We know we have a problem, and we know that we can reduce greenhouse gases that are a primary driver,” Moore said. “California has shown a lot of ambition and policy to back it up, and seems likely to keep that up to show the world it can be done in a way that improves communities and economic prosperity and opportunity.”

That can-do spirit, of course, carries with it its own difficult questions. How much more will we be willing to spend, for instance, to maintain agriculture if the Central Valley becomes a pre-heated oven? Will hundreds of miles of greenhouses flank the I-5 of the future?

How much more will we pay to move water when we can no longer rely on frozen reservoirs of Sierra snowpack? What about the redwood-lined switchbacks that pass for roads along much of the north coast?

It’s enough to make you yearn for the good old days, when Californians just worried about earthquakes. Still, I’m developing a whole new interest in Humboldt County.

Good weed, fresh salmon, colorful Arcata, historic Eureka – and all about the same latitude as New York City, Pittsburgh and Boulder? I’ll cut to the chase: A California climate refugee could do worse.

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger slammed Donald Trump's retreat from the world climate stage and challenged fellow Republicans to accept the science that spurred him to push cap-and-trade legislation.

Shawn Hubler: 916-321-1646, @ShawnHubler