Climate change leads discussion at Operation Sierra Storm
While we bask in the recent abundant snowfall, meteorologists warn that these white winter wonderlands are disappearing.
According to Cal Fire, California has had 283 wildfires since New Years Day.
This is a trend that climate researchers say is the new normal with more exaggerated, intense, wet winter storms and dry summer months in the near future.
Lake Tahoe’s annual Operation Sierra Storm, a national weather conference usually held at Stateline, was streamed online Monday from Hard Rock Lake Tahoe’s showroom.
The conference featured experts from UCLA, California Department of Water Resources and California Tahoe Conservancy along with a keynote presentation by Al Roker from the NBC’s Today Show.
Daniel Swain, Ph. D, Climate Scientist at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said that while changes are still to come regarding climate change, predictions strongly suggest a less snowy, more rainy and drier future.
Sudden transitions in weather will bring a drier autumn, a rainier, wetter winter, and drier spring.
Swain said that “precipitation whiplash” or see-sawing of weather patterns will continue reducing the presence of shoulder seasons.
“We are losing the cushion we had for wildfire risks,” he said.
This dramatic swing from seasons has implications on wildfire risk, snowpack, ecosystem stress and agriculture.
This type precipitation will be harder to manage and with less snowpack, there will be more evaporation, he said.
In consequence, more severe weather patterns will increase the amount of droughts and floods.
“As climate warms and atmospheric water vapor holding potential increases exponentially that increases the ceiling on how intense these rivers can be,” said Swain.
He suggested that in turn could cause historically unprecedented atmospheric rivers that could potentially cause major damage, even with current dam structures in place.
He suggested that there is a 50/50 chance of a repeat of California’s Great Flood of 1862 over the next 40 years which would be “devastating for modern California.”
Swain is working in collaboration with others in ARkStorm 2.0 which builds off an extreme storm contingency plan, now factoring in climate change and scientific advances.
With the constant threat of wildfire to the basin, Swain delved into why climate change is making wildfire more destructive and severe.
While climate change isn’t creating more ignition sources, the increasing temperatures are allowing more water to evaporate causing landscapes to burn more intensely.
“Climate science tells us that California and Nevada will face more severe floods, droughts and wildfires in a warming world,” he said. “But, there is a lot we can do to prevent ever-worsening disasters stemming from these extremes.”
He recommends flexibility in the way water and wildfire are managed, reducing carbon emissions and adapting.
“The future is here, climate change has arrived and California and Nevada are already different places than when the 20th century policies and infrastructure were developed,” Swain said. “Science shows us we need to adapt, worse disasters are not inevitable and will take sustained efforts to prevent them from becoming so.”
Dorian Fougères, Ph.D., acting deputy director for the California Tahoe Conservancy also warned that snow will shift primarily to rain at the lake level with an increased flood risk in the basin that would affect low lying areas and around the shoreline of the lake, that could possibly overtop the Tahoe City Dam. He also discussed that Lake Tahoe would have an increase in temperature of 3.6 – 9 degrees by 2100.
Summers in Tahoe might resemble those in San Jose, which is extreme heat for the lake and it’s sensitive soils and biodiversity.
Increasing temperatures from longer summers and warmer winters, will reduce sediment mixing and effect the world renown clarity of the lake. Fougères said that Lake Tahoe could be another green lake by the end of the century.
A warmer climate will create ample challenges for the lake regarding watersheds, groundwater, meadows, riparian areas, ecosystems, terrestrial and aquatic species.
There will be an increased amount of aquatic invasive species while minimizing native species while wildlife could lose habitats and plant and animal biodiversity would severely decrease.
By 2100, the decreased snowpack will also affect the basin monetarily by cutting the winter recreation season in half which will create a loss of $268 million every year by the industry.
Regarding wildfire and public health, the heat coupled with wildfire smoke is expected to have major health impacts and could threaten property valued at $12 billion.
“We are not just worried about wildfire, but also concerned about flooding,” he said.
Fougères stressed the importance of protecting neighborhoods and the public while restoring forest health.
The Lake Tahoe Forest Action Plan, established in 2019 outlines the need for protecting communities and restoring vital landscapes and is part of this mission.
Investing in green projects, tribal agreements, biodiversity conventions, and nature based solutions are some of the top ways Fougères says are important steps.
The Tahoe Conservancy has several conservation projects underway to restore some of the basin’s most vital meadows and wetlands.
Fougères says partnerships, like with the Washoe Tribe at Meeks Bay, will be key at properly managing critical landscapes from its original caretakers.
The project will reintroduce cultural burning while creating an opportunity for tribal knowledge to be passed from elders to younger generations.
Fougères says the amount of tourists will dramatically increase as people search for cooler temperatures and stresses Tahoe needs to have a plan.
Michael Anderson, Ph.D. P.E. State Climatologist, Senior Engineer, Water Resources says that we are trading out cold years for warm years.
“We are entering a space we haven’t worked in,” he said.
Anderson said finding paths to adaption and collaboration are key factors.
Keynote Speaker and NBC’s Today Show’s meteorologist, Al Roker, spoke about his first hand experience traveling around the world, covering and witnessing climate change first hand. He answered questions from attending TV meteorologists including The Weather’s Channel’s Jim Cantore.
“People are tuned into this [climate change], it’s the politicians who aren’t,” said Roker regarding a question how reporting on climate change is difficult due to climate change deniers. “People have got to realize they are going to be whipsawed by weather events for the foreseeable future.”
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Under new rules proposed by California’s insurance commissioner, home and business owners will have open access to their wildfire risk scores that companies use to determine rates and renew coverage.