January 17, 2011
USGS California ARkstorm Disaster Scenario

Enough of hum drum partisan political fights, recession, debts, and deficits. Time for a novel disaster fantasy. The U.S. Geological Survey has released a report on what the most severe storm for California, a once in 500-1000 year event, would do to the state.

This document summarizes the next major public project for MHDP, a winter storm scenario called ARkStorm (for Atmospheric River 1,000). Experts have designed a large, scientifically realistic meteorological event followed by an examination of the secondary hazards (for example, landslides and flooding), physical damages to the built environment, and social and economic consequences. The hypothetical storm depicted here would strike the U.S. West Coast and be similar to the intense California winter storms of 1861 and 1862 that left the central valley of California impassible. The storm is estimated to produce precipitation that in many places exceeds levels only experienced on average once every 500 to 1,000 years.

The 1861 and 1862 storms show what is possible. The 19th century featured much more drastic disasters than the 20th. See my previous post about the 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquakes (Mississppi river changed course), the 1815 Mount Tambora VEI 7 volcanic eruption, the 1859 solar Carrington event and other awesome displays of nature's power. I made the argument that if the 21st century features disasters more like the 19th century then we are in some some tough times. But I missed out on the California storms of the early 1860s. With nearly 40 million people living in Cal such a storm would do far greater damage.

Picture a 300 mile long lake in the Central Valley and hurricane-force winds.

Extensive flooding results. In many cases flooding overwhelms the state’s flood-protection system, which is typically designed to resist 100- to 200-year runoffs. The Central Valley experiences hypothetical flooding 300 miles long and 20 or more miles wide. Serious flooding also occurs in Orange County, Los Angeles County, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay area, and other coastal communities. Windspeeds in some places reach 125 miles per hour, hurricane-force winds. Across wider areas of the state, winds reach 60 miles per hour. Hundreds of landslides damage roads, highways, and homes. Property damage exceeds $300 billion, most from flooding.

The economic damage would go far beyond the property damage as the economy would experience an extended disruption. Of course, if this storm does not arrive soon then by the time the big storm arrives we (or perhaps the robots that replace us) might just send a massive fleet of robotic aircraft out into the Pacific ocean to seed the storm and drain it of much of its power.

Weather engineering could prevent massive weather disasters. I'm more worried about volcanoes. A VEI 8 eruption (just as earthquakes have a Richter scale volcanoes have a severity scale) would so cut into photosynthesis that it'd cause massive hunger.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 January 17 09:14 PM  Dangers Natural General

Kudzu Bob said at January 17, 2011 9:59 PM:

Volcanoes are scary, no question about it. We might manage to blow up a giant asteroid, but if one of those calderas really lets loose, then not even the acting skills of Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck could save us.

back40 said at January 17, 2011 11:58 PM:

"I missed out on the California storms of the early 1860s"

There have also been some serious droughts in California in the past on similarly long cycles, and we haven't seen one since the Spanish missionary days. There was a 28-year drought ending in 1810.

Fat Man said at January 18, 2011 6:42 PM:

God's burning judgment on that slough of depravity.

Mike Smith said at January 19, 2011 3:46 PM:

The media's coverage of this has been terrible. It has NOTHING to do with 'global warming.' http://meteorologicalmusings.blogspot.com/2011/01/california-super-storm.html

richard40 said at January 19, 2011 3:52 PM:

Any storms in CA will probably be blamed on global warming/climate change. Those people seem to have forgotten the old saying, shit happens.

Dave said at January 19, 2011 3:53 PM:

California politics will destroy it before the storm does.

DonM said at January 19, 2011 4:26 PM:

Rather odd. Growing up I heard multiple times about the eruption of Vestuvius in Italy, destroying Pompeii and Herculeum. It wasn't until last year that I heard about the same volcano erupting during WWII. That time the US Army was in town, and there were few casualties, with the US able to truck people out of harms way.

In like manner, the great storms of yesteryear would be of minor effect today, avoided with plenty of time to spare by automotive technology, with satellite weather warning.

Shannon Love said at January 19, 2011 4:38 PM:

Don't forget 1816, "the year without a summer" presumably caused by a sunspot minimum combined with a series of large volcanic eruptions.

One reason I am opposed to "alternative" energy like solar and wind is that they are so susceptible to disruption and destruction by extreme weather events, earthquakes and volcanoes. While wind and solar might make good survival tech for individual homes in some emergencies, it's easy to see how they would be the achilles' heel of a grid if they provided the grids baseline power. Imagine what would have happened after Mt Saint Helen's erupted if the northwest and north plains states had relied on solar or wind. The ash would not only have crippled solar power but would have most likely fouled the wind turbines as well.

We should really require some kind of disaster or extreme event study before we put to many eggs in the "alternative" basket. I find it, I guess ironic, that people propose to deal with climate change by relying on a technology highly sensitive to changes in climate.

Talnik said at January 19, 2011 5:30 PM:

Blaming uncontrollable disastrous events on global warming or climate change is no longer in vogue as thinking, sophisticated people have caught on to the scam. Let's put the blame where it rightly belongs, on Sarah Palin.

PacRim Jim said at January 19, 2011 10:07 PM:

The Sacramento flood of about 1850 was so high that the city ordered building owners to fill up to the second floor, which became the street.
Much of California's Central Valley was a tule lake until the Americans arrived.

Randall Parker said at January 19, 2011 11:05 PM:

Mike Smith, richard40,

I think the masses naively think that we've conquered nature and it can't do us much damage any more. They do not know just how severe natural events have been in previous centuries. My own post about some big 19th century natural disasters was written to try to get people less complacent.

The world has seen much more severe earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and solar activity before the 20th century than anything we've seen in the 20th and so far the 21st century. It is just a matter of when will nature really let loose.

Phillep Harding said at January 21, 2011 4:21 PM:

Randall, I told people who asked me why I was a "survivalist" that "Good times are never permenant, and neither are bad times. It's a lot easier to live through good times without preparing, but anyone who refuses to use good times to prepare for bad times is just asking for trouble."

Sort of strange, but I'm not getting asked that these days. (Try to find some freeze dried food in bulk.)

MrJest said at January 21, 2011 8:00 PM:

What Californians need to remember is that the Central Valley was once an inland sea - that's why it's so fertile.
There's no particular reason why it can't become one again...

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