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California: Atmospheric River and Misguided Climate Fear

Steve Goreham's picture
Speaker, Author, and Researcher,

 Steve Goreham is a speaker, author, and researcher on environmental issues and a former engineer and business executive.  He is a frequently invited guest on radio and television and a freelance...

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  • Jan 23, 2023

Originally published in The Washington Examiner.

For more than three weeks, California has been pummeled by a series of storms arriving one after another from the Pacific Ocean. Torrential rains, mud slides, power outages, and floods plague state residents from north of San Francisco down to Los Angeles, four hundred miles to the south. Scientists attribute this event to an “atmospheric river” condition in the Pacific Ocean. Many also claim that this phenomenon is due to human-caused climate change.


According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an atmospheric river is a long, narrow region in the atmosphere that can transport large amounts of water vapor, roughly equivalent to the average flow of water at the mouth of the Mississippi river. When atmospheric rivers make landfall, they release this water vapor in the form of rain or snow. An atmospheric river that forms in the tropics near Hawaii, sometimes called the Pineapple Express, can deliver large amounts of water to the U.S. West Coast.


This winter’s atmospheric river has been catastrophic. Ten different storms have stuck the California coast in the last three weeks. More than 20 people have died, thousands have been forced to evacuate their homes, and 25 million people are under a flood watch. The state averaged more than 11 inches of rain from late December to mid-January. The series of flooding storms were unexpected, following several years of severe drought in California.


Government leaders and some scientists blame human carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. In commenting on the flood damage, Governor Gavin Newsom said California was “proof that the climate crisis was real and that we have to take it seriously.” When touring damaged areas last week, President Joe Biden stated, “if anybody doubts the climate is changing, they must have been asleep for the past couple of years.”


But this has happened before. Geologic evidence shows that massive floods occur in California every century or two. A historic cataclysmic event was the great flood of the winter of 1861-1862. During December and January of that winter, a series of massive storms slammed, one after another, into the west coast of the state. This occurred after two decades of drought during 1840-1860. The event would also be called an atmospheric river by today’s scientists.


During the great flood of 1861-1862, a train of storms dumped record amounts of rain on California. Sixty-six inches of rain fell on Los Angeles, more than four times the yearly average. In early January, the capital city of Sacramento was submerged under ten feet of water. Governor Leland Sanford moved the legislature to San Francisco on January 22 to wait for the floods to subside. Sacramento remained flooded for months.


William Brewer toured California’s Central Valley at the end of January 1862 by boat. He wrote that the entire valley was a lake from the mountains in the east to the coast range hills on the west up to the tops of the 20-foot-high telegraph poles. One-quarter of the state’s estimated 800,000 cattle drowned during the flood.


Of course, the 1861-1862 event could not have been caused by to human-made global warming. There were no coal-fired power plants or Sport Utility Vehicles and only a few wood- or coal-burning locomotives. Most transportation was by horse and horse-drawn wagon. World carbon dioxide emissions at that time were less than a million times smaller than today’s emissions from industry. The flood of 1861-1862 demonstrated the power of natural weather events in Earth’s chaotic climate.


The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides one definition of superstition as “a false conception of causation.” The current California atmospheric river event is very similar to the 1861-1862 occurance, which could not have been caused by human emissions. There is no evidence that the current atmospheric river event is caused by human emissions either, but those afraid of human-caused climate change are claiming that this is the case.


It’s remarkable that so many intelligent people profess that the current California disaster is due to human-caused climate change. University professors, government officials, and the news media are among the believers. They seem to call every weather event “extreme.” They may also tell you that if we all drive electric cars and build wind turbines everywhere, we can eliminate atmospheric river events. This can best be described as modern superstition, on the level of past beliefs that witches caused crop failures. Instead, Californians must adapt to weather as they have throughout history.


Steve Goreham is a speaker on the environment, business, and public policy and author of the book Outside the Green Box: Rethinking Sustainable Development.



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