Magazine article Risk Management

A Superstorm in the Forecast

Magazine article Risk Management

A Superstorm in the Forecast

Article excerpt

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Californians have long been awaiting the "Big One." Perched precariously atop the volatile San Andreas Fault, the state has endured devastating earthquakes and inspired Hollywood blockbusters about the end of the world as we know it. Portrayed as a quake large enough to bring the state to a standstill, the Big One has always loomed ominously, promising damages of up to $200 billion and conjuring images of toppled buildings amid piles of rubble. However, recent studies by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) point to something much worse--a giant superstorm with the potential to eclipse any earthquake's destructive forces.

While this superstorm scenario is hypothetical, it is not without precedent. Between 1861 and 1862, storms battered California's Central Valley for 45 days, flooding up to 300 square miles and submerging entire towns. The flooding was so severe that California's capital was temporarily moved from Sacramento to San Francisco, and the governor was forced to row a boat to his inauguration. As the largest storms in California's history, they left lakes in the middle of deserts and livestock swimming in search of dry land.

The catastrophe was also the inspiration for the USGS Multi-Hazard Demonstration Project's (MHDP) latest natural disaster scenario. The goal of the project is to alert residents, policymakers and emergency service personnel to the implications and necessary precautions required for a storm of this magnitude. Geologists studying sediment layers in the San Francisco Bay Area have found compelling evidence that indicates a pattern of extreme storms hitting California about once per century--meaning that the storm of 1861 was not an anomaly. If history is any indication, we might be overdue for another one.

USGS scientists refer to these superstorms as "ARkstorms," named after atmospheric rivers, or streams of warm, moist air located above the northern Pacific Ocean that, once over California, transform into precipitation. Rising temperatures in the atmosphere have been contributing to the increased formation of atmospheric rivers, which cause greater volatility in weather patterns and increase the likelihood for catastrophic storms. …

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