w e e k , I followed three different stories about California
and its current struggles with weather.
The first story is of the “atmospheric river” that is repeatedly clobbering California, causing much damage and some death from flooding. The term “atmospheric river” (ab – breviated “ar”) has been around for 30 years, but most of us are only now becoming familiar with the concept.
It means that a very long band of moisture is direct- ed at a fairly focused part of Earth’s surface, resulting in heavy rains and deep snows. The impact is not widespread, but instead is regional or even local.
If an “ar” rains or snows itself out over the ocean, it doesn’t affect humans much. But when it hits land, well, that’s different.
People on the west coast have for generations called the local example a “Pine –
apple Express”, because it originates north of Hawaii, and streams northeast to strike the Pacific Coast. This particular “ar” is created in part by a cer – tain position that the jet stream takes up. As the jet stream slows and gets more erratic, it appears that happens more often, and such atmospheric rivers are becoming more common and destructive. It’s like turning a firehose on California. The winter storms we’ve been getting in Utah are simply the tattered remnants of this atmospheric river.
Why is this happening? The second story is of the recent findings published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which show that 2022 had the highest recorded average ocean temperatures, another marker of climate change. Along with the fluctuating jet stream, these tempera tures increase atmosphere rivers in the following way: “A watched pot never boils” is a scientific saying that refers to the VERY high heat capacity of water. That means that
water can absorb a massive amount of energy without the temperature budging upward much. Anyone who makes pasta knows this.
The water that dumps on California comes from that absorbed heat in the Pacific Ocean. Water vapor is always present in air; what is changing is the AMOUNT of water in the air.
Warmer water pumps more water molecules into the atmosphere. In addition, water vapor is another greenhouse gas, which creates a positive feedback loop. A vicious circle/cycle is created, like feedback from an amplifier being picked up by the microphone and sending even more energy for more “amplitude” from the amplifier, and so on. The result is a devastating blast.
The third story was a novel idea for absorbing these massive flood events into California’s ground water. Sixteen thousand years ago, massive glaciers draining west into central California created huge “paleo-valleys,” which are buried water courses
of coarse sand and gravel. Some hydrologists rea son that if the current flooding from atmospheric rivers could be somehow diverted into these un – derground aquifers, the flooding would be abated and the groundwater recharged at the same time.
Which would, of course, be a gigantic win-win.
That last story gave me an idea (which may already be a research proposal from someone at Utah State University). Everyone in Utah knows by now that Great Salt Lake (and most other in – terior lakes of the Great Basin) may dry up com – pletely, and very soon. To study and address this, Congress passed in December of 2022 the “‘Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act.” Could there be a way to channel the occasional atmospheric river that hits the west into these exist- ing, natural reservoirs, and save them?
If anyone from USU ac – tually DOES read this and tailor their PhD around the idea, I want a finder’s fee.