Drought, record heat, wildfires and now maybe floods

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Californians are sweating amid a record-breaking heat wave that entered a 10th day Friday that helped fuel deadly wildfires and pushed power supplies to the brink of daily power outages.

Relief is in sight as the remnants of a typhoon approach that will drop temperatures over the weekend but could bring another set of challenges: heavy rains that will be welcome in the drought-plagued state but could trigger flash floods.

Climate change is making the planet warmer, scientists say, and weather-related disasters more extreme. The heat that the colored weather depicts dark red for more than a week in California is only a preview of the sights to come.

“We’re going to see these heat waves continue to get hotter and hotter, more and more plagued by wildfires,” said Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability.

California is just the latest casualty in a year of sometimes deadly heatwaves that began in Pakistan and India this spring and swept through parts of the northern hemisphere, including China, Europe and other parts of the U.S.

Climate change has also worsened droughts, dried up rivers, made wildfires more intense and — conversely — led to massive flooding around the world as moisture evaporated from land and water is held in the atmosphere and then redeposited by heavy rainfall. .

Scientists are reluctant to attribute any specific weather event to global warming, but say heat waves are exactly the kind of changes that will become more common.

The so-called heat dome that cooked California was stuck in place by an extraordinary high-pressure area over Greenland, of all places, that essentially created a meteorological traffic jam, said Paul Ullrich, a professor of regional climate modeling at the University of California, Berkeley. Davis. This prevented the high pressure system that was forcing the warm air over California to move.

Temperatures hit an all-time high in Sacramento at 116 degrees (46.7 C) on Tuesday. Many other locations set record highs for September, and even more are setting daily highs.

In the 1970s, Sacramento, the state capital, had five days of “extreme heat” a year, Ullrich said. Today, it has about 10 and will double again by the middle of the century.

“That’s pretty much going to be the story for much of the Central Valley and much of Southern California,” Ullrich said. “This kind of exponential increase in the number of extreme heat days. If you put it all together, then you end up with heat waves like we’ve been experiencing.”

For nine days through Thursday, the vast energy grid that includes power plants, solar farms and a network of transmission lines has been strained by record demand driven by air conditioners.

“If we’re going to build a statue of anyone in the West, it’s going to be a Willis Carrier,” Bill Patzert, a retired climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said of the inventor of the air conditioner. “Really large areas of Southern California would be virtually unlivable without air conditioning.”

Air conditioning puts the biggest strain on power sources during a heat wave, and power grid operators called for conservation and warned of the threat of blackouts as usage hit an all-time high on Tuesday, surpassing a record set in 2006.

The state may have prevented a repeat of the blackout two summers ago by sending an initial text alert heard on 27 million phones urging Californians to “take action” and turn off non-essential power. Many turned up thermostats, turned off lights or unplugged appliances to avoid power outages, though thousands of customers lost power at various times for other reasons.

The West is in the throes of a 23-year drought that has nearly drained reservoirs and put water supplies at risk. This, in turn, has led to a sharp decline in the hydropower that California relies on when power is in peak demand.

“Part of the country that gets hit the hardest is the southwest and western United States,” Overpeck said. “It is a global poster child for the climate crisis. And this year, this summer, it’s really just that the northern hemisphere was just an unusually warm and fire-plagued hemisphere.”

The extreme heat helped fuel deadly wildfires at both ends of the state, as the flames fed grass, brush and timber already “primed to burn” from the drought and were then pushed by the heat wave, Overpeck said.

Firefighters scrambled to control large wildfires in Southern California and the Sierra Nevada that erupted, forced thousands to evacuate and produced smoke that could affect solar power and further disrupt power supplies.

Two people were killed in the wildfire that broke out last Friday in the Northern California community of Weed at the base of Mount Shasta. Two others died trying to escape in their car from a wildfire in Riverside County that threatened 18,000 homes.

What remains of Hurricane Kay, now downgraded to a tropical storm, is expected to bring heavy rainfall and even flash flooding to Southern California from Friday night into Saturday. Strong winds could initially make it difficult and dangerous for firefighters trying to contain the flames, Patchert said.

Heavy rains could also trigger landslides on mountainsides charred by recent fires. While several inches of rain could fall, much of it will run off the arid landscape and not make a dent in the drought.

“It comes at you like a hose of fire and you’re trying to fill your champagne glass,” Patzert said. “Everybody’s kind of excited, but on Saturday night a lot of people will say, ‘Yeah, we could have done without that. .”

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