New Video: California Drought – Natural, Man Made, or Both?

March 13, 2014

I was asked weeks ago to do an update on the California drought situation – which seemed pretty straightforward at the time – but it turned into one of the most challenging assignments I’ve taken on.
Not only has the weather situation continued to morph, but the political dialogue heated up as well, when the President travelled to the state and mentioned climate as a contributor to the drought conditions.  Hysteria  ensued.

Aside from the predictable political fallout from this very critical, very visible, and potentially crippling weather event, there is a very real ongoing debate in the science community as to when an event can be attributed to climate change, and how much.
I spent a lot of time interviewing a range of scientists, both in and outside California, on the history of drought cycles in the state, as well as the effects of the slow but persistent signal of climate warming on that variable cycle.  Dr. Kathleen Johnson of UC Irvine shared with me her research on the central California paleo-climate, derived from cave geology.
One confounding factor is the exponential population growth that has occurred during an era when the state has been, historically speaking, relatively lush with water – a condition that the paleo-record warns, is temporary under the best scenario, as I was reminded by Dr. Bill Patzert and Dr. Tom Painter, both of NASA JPL.
But, even given that, it is impossible to ignore the emerging exploration in the science literature for possible changes in atmospheric dynamics that may be part of a warming climate.  We’ve become used to the cycles we know, such as El Nino/LaNina, Pacific Decadal Oscillation, North Atlantic Oscillation – but as Dr. Richard Rood of the University of Michigan, and Dr. Aradhna Tripati of UCLA told me, there is no guarantee that these are set in stone.
Finally I talked to Dr. Jacob Sewall, whose computer modeling of a decade ago forecast that declines in arctic sea ice might mean future circulation  pattern eerily similar to the stubborn, “ridiculously resilient ridge” that has produced the spectacularly variable weather from the arctic, to North America, to Europe, this winter.

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40 Responses to “New Video: California Drought – Natural, Man Made, or Both?”


  1. […] tackled this difficult topic with an excellent video and informative blog post. The blog post is here, and I’ve pasted the video […]

  2. redskylite Says:

    Thanks Peter I found this Yale Forum video interesting and informative, more on the study undertaken 10 years ago:-

    Back in 2004, Sloan, professor of Earth sciences at UC Santa Cruz, and her graduate student Jacob Sewall published, “Disappearing Arctic sea ice reduces available water in the American west” :-

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/03/07/3370481/california-drought/#


  3. Human warming amplifies the natural cycle. So the extreme is man-made.

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      I won’t concede even that.

      Droughts in the past may have been caused by transient conditions which have absolutely nothing in common with present conditions. Without supporting evidence, why should we assume that the current drought is merely an iteration of former conditions made worse by man-made elements?

      The other question (which I raised a few days ago and to which there was no response) is:

      How long do the experts feel this polar vortex deal is going to last – 1 year, 10 years, 100 years, 1000 years?

      And if the answer is “Nobody knows” – I can accept and understand that. Unlike Omnobabble, I am not going to recline on silk cushions, scoop onion dip out of my navel, and carp about how since the world’s best climate minds could not predict some unpredictable shit beforehand, it means they are incompetent.


      • As the Arctic Ocean warms, it will drive cold over the continents. For a time, that cold will be described as polar vortex collapse events and we will witness an extreme warming of the Arctic Ocean and environments during winter.

        Then, the polar vortex will eventually shrink toward Greenland even as Greenland melt increases. This will drive very severe weather in the northern hemisphere as melt cools the north Atlantic in the region of Greenland and human driven warming amplifies heat at the tropics.

        This temperature differential will generate storms that will make this winter’s barrage of storms hitting England seem like child’s play.

        Weather will generally trend toward this new regime until it is established within the next few decades. Meanwhile, the extremes will continue to worsen.

        We already see an increase in weather extremes by 500% for many areas. Both droughts and floods grow worse. The new weather normal is extreme and still you quibble.

        No one knows?

        How about this… Since no one knows, why don’t you buy some land in lying regions of Miami or the Maldives or the Philippines? Then you can see how much impact your self-imposed ignorance has on you as it relates to your closing your eyes to plainly visible human-caused climate change?

        • Gingerbaker Says:

          Wow, you have misread me.

          Please try again.


          • Clearly you don’t understand English.


          • Ginger…

            My apologies. I did misread your statement. I’ve been getting hit by a troll on my main page and its gotten me a bit more out of sorts than it should have. So saw the bit about Obama and, unfortunately, that colored my perception.

            You’re probably right in that there’s certainly a potential the entire drought was caused by human factors. That said, La Nina tends to support the kind of trend we saw in California in past years and the PDO was negative for at least the past 14 years which would have tended to support the long term drought. That said, the climate models do show an increasing drought pattern due to climate change.

            When PDO switches to positive, we’ll have to see how the drought pattern holds. That pattern would support more moisture for the region.

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            No prob’s, rc.

            btw – that wasn’t “obama”. It was “Omno” whom I was tweaking! LOL! :D

  4. redskylite Says:

    A bit off topic and I’m sure Omno will say it’s just sensationalism by the press, we have just had Christchurch N.Z flooded by a freak event (our local denialist rushing to explain below) and now yet another “by far the heaviest rain ever recorded” event this time in Eritrea –

    http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-26576613

    http://nz.news.yahoo.com/opinion/post/-/blog/21848475/christchurch-is-a-water-city-like-venice/

    • dumboldguy Says:

      It sounds like Ring is saying it’s not the water coming up but the city sinking that’s the real problem. Just raise your furniture and all will be well. Where does Ring get his data from to make his predictions? It sounds like what we get in The Farmer’s Almanack in the U.S. Do you have wooly bear caterpillars in NZ?

      And that water that is not going to California must be going somewhere, since the atmosphere is holding more and more—-why not Eritrea? I wonder if we can find a video of a “cute” Eritrean climate scientist talking about it? And if she has a “lion defense rifle” slung over her shoulder, I will really pay attention, because cute girls with brains and guns are flat out sexy..


    • redsky – keep em coming. We want everyone to share whats going on all over the globe. We need your input. And thanks. Sorry to hear of your troubles there.


  5. […] was a teaser for one of Peter Sinclair’s best videos to date, but it in some ways goes a little deeper into some expectations that people who have played around […]


  6. […] ridges off the coast, pushing rain storms around California. Research suggests that there may be a connection between these ridges and the decline in Arctic sea ice, although this connection is debated among climate […]


  7. […] ridges off the coast, pushing rain storms around California. Research suggests that there may be a connection between these ridges and the decline in Arctic sea ice, although this connection is debated among climate […]


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