Monday, July 5, 2021

Drought, fire, and mudslides in California, a story I tell my students

Now that July 4th is over, even though today is the official observance, I'm returning to the topic of Western drought likely worst in a millennium and may be the beginning of 'aridification', the most read entry both last month and so far this blogging year with more than 2,000 raw page views and counting. That video concentrated on the arid Southwest, particularly Arizona and Nevada. Today's video from PBS NOVA Official examines the situation in my former home state, explaining How California's Droughts Lead to Other Disasters.

Each year, California and the Southwest break new records for droughts and high temperatures, leading to heat waves, wildfires, and even flooding. Learn how these catastrophes operate together—and how engineers are working on new technologies to help us survive.
This video describes a cycle I grew up with and explain to my geology students nearly every semester. Dry years lead to fires, which remove the ground cover that holds hillsides in place. Eventually, a wet year will follow the fires, which trigger mudslides (technically debris flows) causing even more death and destruction. Climate change is making the situation worse, as PBS Terra described when the channel asked Catastrophic Landslide in California: Can We Stop the Unstoppable?

Landslides occur in mountainous areas all over the world. One of the most devastating in US history struck on January 9, 2018, when 1,000,000 cubic tons of mud, boulders, and uprooted trees barreled into the sleeping town of Montecito, CA, claiming 23 lives and causing around $1 billion in damage. But as shocking as this event was, it was not an anomaly. They occur in every US state, killing dozens and costing around $4 billion each year. And the hazard is growing as we increasingly build in risky areas and climate change makes triggering events, like fire and heavy rain, more common.

For this episode of Weathered, we traveled to Montecito to speak with experts and survivors about what they’ve learned following the tragedy as well as the lessons we can all apply to be more prepared for these common hazards.
I just added this video to my online classes, so I haven't heard or read my students' reactions to it. That written, nearly every time I lectured about this cycle during in person classes, at least one student asked how Californians live under such conditions.* I tell them that for 364 days a year, the weather is beautiful and the people are, too, so everyone ignores the day every year when things go to Hell. My punchline is that there is a reason the region's nickname is La La Land and it isn't just because Los Angeles's initials are L.A. For a fantasy depiction of that attitude and accompanying coping mechanism, I present Another Day of Sun - La La Land Opening Scene.

I couldn't resist an entertainment angle to this post, especially after skipping it yesterday. Now, back to reality.

*All that is before I lecture about earthquakes, which really freak my students out. I have a video to share from PBS NOVA about that risk, too. Stay tuned.

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