Mar 23, 2018

See Everything Bad About Climate Change in a Single California Town

Montecito, CA
USA
by
Megan Molteni
,
WIRED
Rain continues to fall on the flood-damaged area in Montecito, CA where many residents have evacuated. Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Rain continues to fall on the flood-damaged area in Montecito, CA where many residents have evacuated. Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Montecito is coming back to life this morning. The 9,000 person town to the east of Santa Barbara has been empty since Tuesday, when mandatory evacuations forced residents out of their homes for the fifth time in four months.

This week it was a channel of tropical moisture called the Pineapple Express, dumping bands of intense rain and triggering flash floods throughout Southern California. In January it was a once-in-a-200-year storm that dropped half an inch of water in five minutes, unleashing massive mudslides that ripped houses from their foundations and killed 27. In December it was the deadly Thomas Fire that incinerated 280,000 acres—the largest wildfire in California history.

To some, Montecito might just seem like a town hit by a string of superlatively bad luck. But to people crunching the numbers it looks less like an outlier and more like an inevitability of climate change. If you want to see what California looks like in the future, you don’t need a crystal ball. You just need to hop on the 101 and drive until you hit Montecito.

Of course, you’ll have to wait until the weather clears up. For the last few days, a plume of tropical moisture carrying as much water as the Mississippi River has been wringing out between four and nine inches of water along the coast and in the foothills. According to Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California Los Angeles, that’s nothing unusual. In fact, it’s what he would call a “textbook “atmospheric river. So why all the fuss? “It’s not the strongest atmospheric river we seen in a long time,” says Swain. “But it’s aimed directly at these burn scar regions which are incredibly vulnerable to flooding and debris flows.”

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When the new round of evacuation orders came, the town was still recovering. On Thursday Montecito sent an excavator out to clear areas where debris was still piled up from the last flow, to prevent creeks and other outflows from sending it further downstream. With the National Weather Service predicting this storm to be even worse, local officials went door to door to make sure people got out and stayed out until the flash flood and mudslide risks subsided. But the question evacuees were asking each other Thursday night wasn't “when can I go home?” But, “how many more times is this going to happen?”

Obviously no one can know for sure. But the science suggests that every aspect of California’s drought-to-deluge cycle is intensifying in the face of climate change. Even the Pineapple Express.