Study: Southern California Slammed By Weather Disasters

October 2007 wildfires in California and Baja California | Photo: NASA

Twenty California counties have endured weather-related disasters since January 2007 that were damaging enough to merit 41 Federal disaster area declarations, and two-thirds of Californians live on counties struck by those disasters. That's according to a report released today by Environment California.

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The report, entitled "In the Path of the Storm," crunches numbers acquired from FEMA disaster declarations to assess the frequency of extreme weather events and related disasters across the country. Environment California has made the results available in the form of an interactive map which makes it clear that California has gotten off relatively easily compared to some regions, such as central New England and the states in the Mississippi River basin.

A look at the stats for California shows that those 41 county-level disaster declarations actually stem from just five nearly state-wide disasters:

  • A devastating cold spell on January 11, 2007, that affected 16 counties from Stanislaus County to the low desert in Imperial and Riverside counties;
  • A rash of wildfires in October 2007 -- including the devastating Witch Fire in San Diego County -- which led to disaster declarations in seven counties;
  • Another outbreak of wildfires across the southern state on November 13, 2008, leading to declarations in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Orange, and Riverside counties;
  • A storm system that passed through the state on January 17, 2010, causing statewide flash flood warnings and evacuations, and;
  • Post storm flooding on December 17, 2010 that led to disaster declarations in 10 Southern California counties.

Other disasters such as the 2009 Station Fire, which burned 251 square miles in the San Gabriel Mountains over the course of a month and a half, were not included in the tally. Even so, that's five statewide disasters in six years, a sobering average considering the occurrence of other disasters that just missed federal designation.

While it's next to impossible to squarely place the blame for any single weather disaster on human-caused climate change, it's undeniable that ramping up global temperature will increase the frequency and average severity of storms, droughts, and other weather events -- somewhat counterintuitively including hard freezes.

"Twenty-five million Californians have endured extreme weather, causing extremely big problems for Californians' health, environment and economy," said Michelle Kinman, clean energy advocate with Environment California Research & Policy Center, in a press release. "Given that global warming will likely fuel even more extreme weather, our leaders at the state and federal levels need to cut dangerous carbon pollution now."

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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