California History: A Topical Approach

By Gordon Morris Bakken | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Weather and History:
The Climate of
Nineteenth-Century
Southern California

Wayne N. Engstrom


INTRODUCTION

In sharp contrast to a five-season-long drought that ended in 1991– 1992, heavy precipitation drenched southern California during much of the rest of the 1990s. Indeed, a severe El Niño generated conditions that made the winter of 1997–1998 the sixth wettest winter since 1877–1878, with more than 31 inches of precipitation falling in Los Angeles, more than double the annual average of 14.77 inches for 1961–1990. El Niño is the name given to episodes of important sea surface temperature increases that occur off the equatorial coast of Peru and Ecuador. Typically, these events ultimately lead to the presence of warmer sea surface temperatures off the Pacific coast of North America and a strengthening and southward shift of the northern hemisphere jet stream. This brings increased storminess and wetter winters to southern California. Precipitation peaked in February 1998, the third wettest single month on record at Los Angeles, as 13.68 inches fell.1 Accompanied by wind gusts of up to 70 miles per hour, four separate storms made landfall in southern California that February, bringing heavy rain at lower elevations and snow in the mountains. Highway closures, flooded homes, and storm-related deaths occurred: a robbery suspect drowned in the swollen Los Angeles River; a snowboarder perished from the effects of exposure in the local mountains; and falling trees and washed–out roads claimed the lives of three travelers.2

On the positive side, in some ways the exceptionally wet winter of 1997–1998 benefited California. Statewide, roofing companies and homerepair firms reported additional income in excess of $100 million and ski areas reported doing a much better than average business. Another positive outcome was that meteorologists had made highly accurate predictions of that winter's weather events, forecasts that state officials used to embark on a sweeping program to prepare for the coming bad winter. Consequently, the state suffered roughly half the losses ($1.1 billion in 1998

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