El Niño: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Root + Fettle
For those of you who live in Los Angeles, you may have noticed that the sky has taken on an unlikely tone of grey. Some of you may be saying “finally.” Actually, most of you are probably quite happy to see our parched landscape given a much needed drink. Dry weather takes a toll, similar to that of seasonal affective disorder. Your body is on guard, it senses you’re in a landscape not easily livable. You become used to dry heat and all that accompanies it– chapped lips, dry hair, brown land. An urgency for water, a vague reminder of brown death wherever you go, a catharsis when rain comes.
It rains, and you can feel a change in the entire mood of the region. Angry drivers, yes, this is LA of course, but there’s a buzzing euphoria in the air present in every living thing. The plants perk up their leaves and grow a deeper green almost immediately. The smog clears. Birds sit dripping on telephone wires, feathers fluffed against the cold, others sit sipping at puddles. The ground here– hard-packed and dry, rarely lets loose a slew of worms, as it does in the East, but it does release the scent of a thousand missed rains. (Okay, exaggeration, but you can’t quite understand the potency and power of that scent unless you’re not accustomed to smelling it.) People look more alert, walk a little quicker. Men in suits at the historic core of Angeles take calls from office steps to look at the greying sky.
If you’re lucky enough to be in public when the rain begins you get to witness the phenomenon of hundreds of people having the same thought at once, for the first time in months– “It’s raining”. It’s as if time freezes– people stop in their tracks. A city of wet foreheads looking upwards, a city of hands rolling down car windows to reach out and catch cold droplets, a city of people opening patio doors to the rain, a city grows further lush by thousands of houseplants put outside, a city suddenly muffled of its sound and transformed. I’ll stop waxing poetic now, but thank you for bearing with me.
Aside from the emotional response to rain in a drought-ridden landscape, there are other, far more pertinent, physical, and social impacts that it brings. And this isn’t just any old rain. This El Niño. This isn’t even any El Niño– this is the largest in two decades. Which, for said drought-ridden landscape, means big changes, and fast.
If you’re like me, now is the worst time to realize that you don’t own an umbrella and you left your raincoat in Westchester, New York. Why? Because today it rained 1.6 inches in downtown LA. Which is 19% of what fell between July 2014 and June 2015 (8.52 in). Because today the LA river threatened to flood. Because today a small tornado touched down in Vernon, CA.
AKA “Vinci”, a la True Detective.
said every Angelino, ever
After a couple of hours of rain, reality begins to settle in. Things seem straight-up apocalyptic out there. And again, a collective reaction– houses spring leaks, cars hydroplane, basements flood, retaining walls break, exits close. And we’re expecting two more days of similar rains, all kicking off the biggest El Niño in two decades.
So what happens next? What happens between now and Friday? Between now and next month? Between now and next year, when this El Niño will come to pass? What will change, how the heck do we adjust? We’re desert people now, we can’t deal with this shit. Well, it’s going to be good, bad, and ugly. Unfortunately for us, we’re going to get all three at once. These storms aren’t just drought-busters (actually, they’re not drought-busters either), they can be downright catastrophic.What to expect from 2016’s “Godzilla”El Niño (The Bad and the Ugly):
In the short term:
As much as 14″ of rain in 1 month- like February of 1997
Dead diseased trees and plants (bacteria like wet wood– stanky trees)
Fallen trees and branches
Mudslides- dry ground suddenly saturated can be incredibly unstable
Potholes and flooded roads meaning….
Upwards of 40 storms in one season
Increased storm-water runoff, and thus, increased coastal pollution
In the long-term:
Uneven heating in the ocean could cause the collapse of fisheries, and algal blooms
Loss of homes and parts of the environment due to short-term effects
El Niño’s occur roughly once every 2-7 years, according to the NOAA, and the environmental effects typically only last about a year. Other impacts, however, can be long-standing.
While physical problems range from minor inconveniences to disasters, we also need to take into account the social impacts. Los Angeles proper is home to some 44,000 homeless– 70% of which sleep outside almost daily. When nighttime temperatures drop below 45 degrees and you can expect 2″ of rain in a 24 hour period, where can they go? LA severely lacks homeless shelters, and inclement weather raises the already high risk of disease, starvation, and hypothermia in the chronically homeless. According to a report release by the LA County Civil Grand Jury, the county is inadequately prepared and “preventable outcomes, such as great suffering and possible loss of life in an already unhealthy segment of our population, will likely occur.”
And what about the drought? Will it end? Won’t this help?
Sure. It will help. More rain= more crops, less drought, more fresh water. It means our reservoirs will be somewhat replenished, our stream-beds flowing. But it’s no saving grace. Fact of the matter is, when you’re living in a concrete jungle, there are few places for the water to go. While LA has an advanced flood mediation and storm-water disposal system, this doesn’t translate into a storm-water recapture system. Thus, most of the water dumped on LA by this Godzilla El Niño will be swept directly into the ocean, having little impact on the water table. There simply aren’t enough measures in effect to utilize what is being given to us.
Despite this, the wide public perception considering the drought still seems to err on the side of optimism. Which is great– we don’t want people to think of California as a dying land. We need more people moving here, more people contributing to the economy in order to put necessary measures in place, including storm-water retention and homeless shelters. What’s tough is preventing this optimism from causing people to slip back into wasteful water habits because the drought is seemingly over.
If you look at my lists above, you’ll see the short-term catastrophic effects seem much more dire than the long-term. The same can be said for the benefits. El Niño is a short-lived and intense anomaly. It will turn our lives upside-down for a period of time, and humans are quick to adjust. But a winter of rain cannot, and will not reverse the effects of climate change, of a decade-long drought, of increased air pollution and fossil fuel consumption. So, before you get lost in daydreams of endless hot showers and a backyard reminiscent of a rainforest, check your water privilege.