Joe Mathews: Get ready for weirder weather in California

The highway is cleared of snow in Soda Springs last December, but snowfall has been relatively rare in the Sierra this winter.
The highway is cleared of snow in Soda Springs last December, but snowfall has been relatively rare in the Sierra this winter. The Associated Press

One joy of living in California is the opportunity to taunt folks back East about their terrible winter weather. Hey, Boston, how does it feel to have been colonized by Eskimos?

But this winter, with Californians sending snow-bound Easterners a blizzard of photos of our palm trees and blue skies, all our taunting may be masking our fears about our own weather.

Horror film directors will tell you that nothing is more frightening than what you can’t see. So California has never had a scarier winter than this one. Where is all the snow in the mountains? How could San Francisco go all of January without any rainfall? What happened to the February frost that once gave Angelenos a hint of winter?

The paradox of California’s climate is that because we seem to have so little weather, the weather is more important here than just about anywhere else.

According to a new poll, 69 percent of us say the climate is our favorite thing about living in California. Our regional economies, our lifestyles and our culture all rely on predictably pleasant weather. And so we are profoundly sensitive to slight changes. This may be why California has taken climate change more seriously than other states. The threat is not merely to our coastline or water supplies but to our very sense of self.

The fools back East, of course, think that we don’t have seasons. We do, but what’s so frightening is that the seasons have gotten all mixed up. This past February felt like July. Smaller ski resorts around the state closed midwinter – not for lack of snow (that’s happened before), but because it wasn’t cold enough to make snow. The wildfire season, once confined to late summer and early fall, is now a year-round affair. And the past two Southern California summers were weirdly humid, as subtropical moisture headed north.

What’s scarier than today’s weather? Tomorrow’s forecasts.

Even cautious government studies are bloodcurdling – more extreme weather and far less predictability. The state’s official climate assessment says pointedly that we “lack critical information,” especially about the impacts of global warming in our different regions. And while we know we need to mitigate climate change with our own behavior, we don’t understand terribly well how to do that, or how we’ll pay to adapt.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself confused by what weather I’m supposed to be rooting for. First, I’m told that the state needs big winter storms that produce lots of rain and snow to replenish our water supplies. Then, I come across a 2013 U.S. Geological Survey study suggesting that a massive winter storm could devastate our state.

The study describes a potential winter storm serious enough to make you think twice about sending your snowed-in New York friends photos of your blooming January garden. The ARkStorm, as they call it, would feature heat and moisture from the tropical Pacific forming a series of atmospheric rivers (the AR in ARkStorm) that would bring hurricane-force storms to California for weeks. The result: biblical flooding, the evacuation of 1.5 million people and damage to one-quarter of all California buildings.

“Megastorms are California’s other Big One,” the study says, with one such megastorm capable of wreaking an estimated $725 billion in damage, on par with the massive earthquake we all fear. Responding to this and other costly climate challenges could end up making weather the most divisive issue in California.

Weather also may put more distance between California and the rest of the country. The Southwest is heating up faster than the rest of America as the north and east get wetter. The day may come when this dry, sun-baked state won’t be much to brag about.

So let’s taunt Easterners now, while we still can.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.