California is often celebrated for its stunning landscapes, technological innovation and cultural diversity. It is also a state that bears the brunt of devastating disasters. From wildfires that ravage vast areas of pristine forests to prolonged droughts and heavy rain that threaten agricultural communities, the Golden State is increasingly feeling the impacts of a changing climate.
Climate change-induced disasters like wildfires, drought and floods continue to impact communities statewide. The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) continues to monitor the intricate relationship between climate change and disasters statewide, shedding light on the pressing need for mitigation and adaptation to emergency response and preparedness strategies.
WILDFIRES: A COMPLEX THREAT
California’s wildfires, in recent years, have been making headlines worldwide. Their frequency and intensity continue to increase, primarily due to climate change. Higher temperatures, prolonged droughts and changing precipitation patterns have created the perfect conditions for wildfires to flourish.
- Higher Temperatures: Rising temperatures have dried out vegetation, turning forests into tinderboxes. Hotter weather also increases the evaporation rate of moisture from the soil, exacerbating fire risk.
- Prolonged Drought: California has experienced more frequent and severe droughts, leaving forests and grasslands parched and highly susceptible to ignition.
- Changing Precipitation Patterns: Shifts in precipitation patterns have led to a decline in the frequency of rain, further contributing to drought conditions.
WILDFIRES: IMPACTS ON COMMUNITIES
Wildfires that are fueled by the changing climate, like the 2019 Camp Fire, 2020 Glass Fire, the 2022 Mosquito, McKinney and Mountain Fires and many more posed a significant threat to Californian communities:
- Loss of Lives and Property: Wildfires have caused tragic loss of life and destruction of homes, displacing countless residents and leading to financial distress.
- Air Quality: Smoke from wildfires can result in hazardous air quality, posing health risks to residents, especially those with respiratory conditions. It also affects surrounding communities, not just in the immediate area.
- Economic Impact: The economic toll of wildfires is staggering, with billions of dollars spent on firefighting, property damage and long-term recovery efforts.
HEAVY RAIN: ANOTHER WATER CRISIS
California’s agriculture is also affected by heavy rain caused by multiple atmospheric rivers. Climate change-induced atmospheric rivers cause flooding, mudslides and debris flows which not only threatens agriculture but can also cause heavy damage to private and public properties:
- Increased Snowpack: During winter months with multiple atmospheric rivers, snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains will increase causing mountainous communities to get trapped or buildings to be crushed under the weight of snow. Additionally, because of the increased snowpack, snowmelt can lead to more flooding for communities in the valley.
- Overflowing Reservoirs, Rivers and Streams: Prolonged winter storms and heavy rain have caused overflowing reservoirs, leaving water levels dangerously high for surrounding communities. Similar to reservoirs, overflowing rivers and streams can also pose a risk for those choosing to recreate due to cold fast flowing water was well as underwater debris.
- Impact on Agriculture and Communities: Flooding also has a direct impact on agriculture, with flooded fields, owners and workers are unable to cultivate the necessary crops for communities across the state.
DROUGHT: SAVE OUR WATER
California’s agriculture, a critical component of the state’s economy, relies heavily on water resources. However, climate change-induced droughts have disrupted the delicate balance between supply and demand:
- Decreased Snowpack: Reduced snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a critical water source, has led to less water runoff during the dry season.
- Depleted Reservoirs: Prolonged droughts have depleted reservoirs, leaving water supplies dangerously low.
- Impact on Agriculture: Droughts have a direct impact on agriculture, leading to reduced crop yields and increased water costs.
Climate change also affect California’s coastline, making it more susceptible to disasters like sea-level rise and storm surges:
- Sea-Level Rise: As global temperatures rise, polar ice caps melt, causing sea levels to rise. This threatens coastal communities, leading to erosion, flooding and saltwater intrusion.
- Storm Intensity: Climate change can intensify storms, increasing the risk of coastal flooding and erosion.
- Infrastructure Damage: Critical infrastructure, including roads, buildings, and utilities, are at risk due to coastal disasters.
MITIGATION AND ADAPTATION STRATEGIES
To mitigate the impacts of climate change, Cal OES continues to work with state and local partners to invest in resilient infrastructures, preposition resources across the state during imminent threat and continue public outreach efforts to prepare all Californians for future disasters.
Cal OES recognizes the urgency of addressing climate change impacts and continues to monitor its impacts:
- Resilient Infrastructure: Cal OES offers public organizations and communities the ability to apply for a variety of grants for Hazard Mitigation projects, 2023 Winter Storm Relief, Preparedness and more, which supplies funding to increase resilient infrastructures in at risk communities.
- Mutual Aid System: This system is an extension of the concept of “neighbor helping neighbor.” It is the systematic mobilization, organization and operation of necessary personnel which is pre-positioned across the state to more quickly react and respond to natural or man-made disasters. This includes firefighters, search and rescue personnel, or law enforcement who assist with fighting climate-induced major disasters, like wildfires, earthquakes or floods.
- Public Outreach: Cal OES also continues to invest in multiple programs to raise awareness around major disasters, including planning, preparedness, response and recovery messaging for communities statewide.
California’s story serves as a reminder that climate change is not a distant threat but a pressing reality. With the dedication and commitment to preserve and protect communities statewide, Cal OES will continue to work with state and local partners and communities to be prepared for, respond to and recover from all climate-induced disasters.