February 2023

Deadly Storms Hit California


The Salinas River overflows its banks.

Starting in late December 2022, a series of storms hit the state of California. In a short period of time, the state received about 4 times its normal amount of annual rainfall. In fact, in some areas more than 10 inches of rain fell within a 24-hour period.

The storms were brought to the state by atmospheric rivers. An atmospheric river is basically a river of clouds in the sky. These long, wispy cloud rivers form over oceans and can stretch for hundreds of miles. They hold as much, or more, water as an actual river. When they reach land, all of this water falls in the form of rain or snow.

Normally, atmospheric rivers are a welcome sight for California and other western states. They are usually mild and bring much needed rain and snow. This time, however, a series of nine atmospheric rivers hit California in just a three-week period.

The rainfall caused massive flooding. Homes, cars, and roadways were covered by the rising waters. Bridges were washed away. Flash floods were an even bigger danger. When lots of rain falls in a really short period of time, like it has in California, it gives people little time to escape. Rising waters can trap people in homes and cars.

Massive rainfall also soaked the soil across the state leading to mudslides. When soil on a hill gets soaked, it creates mud. This mud literally slides downhill burying everything in its path. Mudslides can even pick-up homes and move them from their foundations. Up to 15 feet of snowfall in some mountainous areas also increased the threat of avalanches. An avalanche is a fast-moving mass of snow.

These atmospheric rivers and the dangerous conditions they brought with them led to more than 20 deaths. More than 2 million people lost power at some point during the storms. Experts estimate that the damage to farmland alone will cost more the $50 million. With 40 of California’s 58 counties impacted by the storms, total damage estimates will likely be more than $1 billion.

Despite the devastation, the massive rainfall has brought much needed water. California has been suffering through a drought for many years. A drought is a long period of time with little or no rain. Due to climate change, experts predict that atmospheric rivers in the future will be longer and wider and carry even more water. It seems like California, and other western states, might be swapping one problem—drought—for another—flooding.

Photo Credit: ©Noah Berger/AP Images
Question 1
What is an atmospheric river?

Question 2
What is one positive from the storms?

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