California Has Struggled With Drought Conditions For Years. Are Floods Next?

Historical precedent meets climate change

Burned trees stand next to the creek where a recent flash flood swept through in the burn scar of the 2021 Inyo Creek Fire.
David McNew/Getty Images

For numerous good reasons, drought conditions are cause for alarm. They affect agriculture, can lead to restrictions on water use and ramp up the risk of wildfires. Any of these things on their own would be worrying; taken together, they’re even more unsettling. Did we mention that California’s current drought has lasted for the last three years?

It begs the question: could it get worse? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. The reason for that might seem contradictory at first, though — scientists are presently raising warning flags over the prospect of flooding wreaking havoc on the state.

That’s the central takeaway from a recent Washington Post article by Matthew Cappucci. The event known as the Great Flood of 1862 began in late 1861, culminating in a series of floods that submerged Sacramento and destroyed several small communities. Could something similar happen again? Some scientists who have studied the matter feel that it can.

Regarding this kind of flooding, UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told the Post that “[i]t already has happened in 1862, and it probably has happened about five times per millennium before that.”

Swain is the co-author of a new paper published by Scientific Advances which argues that climate change has increased the odds of a megaflood. “[C]limate change has already doubled the likelihood of an event capable of producing catastrophic flooding, but larger future increases are likely due to continued warming,” write Swain and co-author Xingying Huang. It’s one more reason to make sure that buildings and infrastructure are prepared for the full effects of climate change.

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