Despite a couple of devastating earthquakes, this past century has been pretty calm compared to its historical norm. Recent climate data suggests that over the past thousand years, California has gone through droughts that lasted ten or twenty years. Others lasted well over a hundred years. It appears that the millions of people who moved here, arrived in one of the tamest climates of the millennium, and it may become pretty much impossible for the state to sustain this population in the near future.
Though, it isn't just droughts we should be worried about. Looking through the geological and climate history of the state reveals an environment very different from the one we recognize today, and one that was prone to extremes. While Californians have been well aware of the “the big one” that is expected to hit the state someday, very few residents are aware of some of the other threats to their lives. If anything, earthquakes may be the least of our concerns. After all, earthquakes aren't nearly as devastating to developed nations as they are to third world countries. While our infrastructure is in fact crumbling, it is still miles ahead of countries that often face thousands of deaths from an earthquake, compared to the small handfuls of casualties we usually face.
While the potential for massive devastation is still there, Californians shouldn't be losing sleep over earthquakes, or droughts, or forest fires. They should be concerned with something a little more biblical in nature.
In November of 1861, Oregon and California were experiencing a lot more rainfall than usual. This deposited a heavy layer of snow in the Sierra Mountains, but probably wouldn't have been remembered if not for what happened next.
In December of the same year, a new rain storm moved in. This one was unusually warm, and it melted the heavy snow in the mountains, causing a series of devastating floods across Oregon and California. Before anyone could pick up the pieces, they had to wait for the rain to cease.
The rain didn't stop.
For the next 40 days, it continued to pour down on the Western United States, California in particular. When it was all said and done, the state was facing the single greatest disaster in its history, rivaled only by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
The entire region had been soaked, and some areas had received as much as 8 feet of rain. Sacramento had been so badly flooded, that the state legislature had to be moved to San Francisco for 6 months while the capital dried out. The entire central valley had turned into an inland sea that was 20 miles wide and 300 miles long, and a lake had formed in the middle of Death Valley. No one is sure just how many people were killed, but it's estimated to be in the thousands, along with at least 200,000 cattle that drowned in the deluge. A quarter of California's taxable land had been destroyed, driving the state government into bankruptcy.
The event is now known as the Arkstorm by modern climatologists, and according them, it occurs roughly every 100-200 years, so we're just about due for another one. If it were to occur again, it could spell the end of California as we know it today.
Financially speaking, it's estimated that it would cause anywhere from 300-750 billion dollars in damage, and would probably bankrupt the state once again. Casualties would be unimaginably higher, now that the state has nearly a hundred times more people than it did in 1860. The Central Valley would be completely devastated, and the price of produce would rise to ridiculous levels, possibly worst than what we've been seeing with the current drought. However, damage to California's levees in the delta region would probably prove to be the golden state's coup de grâce:
Much of Central California's water supply and agricultural areas are protected by an antiquated and poorly maintained set of levees along the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers that are in serious danger of failure during an extreme flood or major earthquake. The 1,600 miles of levees protect 500,000 people, 2 million acres of farmland, and structures worth $47 billion. Of particular concern is the delta at the confluence of California's Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, about 80 miles inland from San Francisco Bay. The Delta Region receives runoff from more than 40% of California, and is the hub of California's water supply system, supplying water to 25 million people and 3 million acres of farmland.What this event could do to our water supply would be absolutely devastating. Just imagine 25 million people with no access to fresh water. If those levees fail and are not repaired in time for the dry season, sea water from the San Francisco Bay would creep into the fresh water we rely on to survive. It could take months for the levees to be rebuilt, and if millions of people were to go without water for even a few weeks, it would be nothing short of apocalyptic.
Between the fiscal irresponsibility of California's political leaders, the unsustainable shift in the climate, and the upheaval that will be caused by natural disasters, this state is on the road to ruin. If you live in California, and don't have any long term plans on leaving, then stock it, cock it, and buckle up. It's about to get pretty crazy out here.
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