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Environment & Science

What does a changing climate mean for California's infrastructure?




Boulders carried down nearby hillsides from the overnight rains remain beside a broken fence in Carpinteria, California on January 9, 2018. 
Mudslides unleashed by a ferocious storm demolished homes in southern California and killed at least 13 people, police said Tuesday. / AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J. BROWN        (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
Boulders carried down nearby hillsides from the overnight rains remain beside a broken fence in Carpinteria, California on January 9, 2018. Mudslides unleashed by a ferocious storm demolished homes in southern California and killed at least 13 people, police said Tuesday. / AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

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The recent fires and rains in Southern California have led to mudslides, debris flows and rock falls along the Santa Barbara County coast. At least 17 people have died, dozens of homes have been destroyed and, in the coastal village of Montecito, the water system was severely damaged.

With extreme weather becoming the norm in California, Take Two reached out to Stanford University earth science professor, Noah Diffenbaugh, to learn more about the state's infrastructure and its level of preparedness for natural disasters.

A man wades in a flooded section of the US 101 freeway near the San Ysidro exit in Montecito, California on January 9, 2018.
A man wades in a flooded section of the US 101 freeway near the San Ysidro exit in Montecito, California on January 9, 2018.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Why is the weather becoming more intense?

The United States is seeing more extreme weather events due to climate change -- including heavy precipitation, large storms and drought conditions, Diffenbaugh says.

"The one degree Celsius of global warming that's already happened is already increasing the frequency, and in some cases severity, of [weather] extremes."

Diffenbaugh says this change also applies to California specifically.

"We're seeing increasingly, whether it's the Oroville crisis in 2017 or these recent wildfires, that we're getting combinations of events that were less likely earlier in California's climate history."

What does this new norm mean for our infrastructure?

Diffenbaugh says California's infrastructure may not be able to handle our new climate reality because it was designed and built when extreme weather patterns were not a factor.

"In California, our water resource infrastructure, for example, that was mostly designed and built 50 or even 100 years ago, and what we are seeing with climate change is that increasingly the climate that existed when that infrastructure was designed and built is outdated."

The new climate cycle here in California goes something like this:

What can California do?

Diffenbaugh is part of a state Climate-Safe Infrastructure Working Group formed in 2017 to help integrate climate change data into future infrastructure projects.

"California is showing tremendous leadership in integrating our best understanding of climate change into infrastructure decisions."

Diffenbaugh said the state is setting a good example of how to consider our changing climate when we invest in infrastructure.