Study says climate change could cause megaflood across Central Valley


A new study conducted by Science Advances, a multidisciplinary scientific journal, said in the next four decades, a megaflood in California could bring at least eight feet of water to certain parts of the state.

Scientists involved in the study also predict the chances of a megaflood have doubled due to climate change, even as California enters its worst drought in decades.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and a researcher for the study, said the megaflood could potentially turn California’s lowlands into a vast inland sea, impacting millions. The flooding could persist for consecutive weeks.

Swain described a megaflood as a severe event across a broad region that has the potential to bring catastrophic impacts to society in the affected areas.

Climate change increases the amount of rain the atmosphere can hold which causes more water to fall as rain. This increases heavy rain events, and makes flash floods more frequent.

The extreme rainfall and flood events have the ability to cause catastrophic damage to California’s geography, ecosystems and population.

Although the megaflood could hit most parts of California, the study said the area most affected would be the Central Valley, including cities such as Sacramento, Fresno, Stockton, Modesto and Bakersfield. These areas are more susceptible to damage especially during the spring because of the snow that melts from the High Sierra.

Junior AP Environmental Science student Kaitlyn Abbasi said considering California experiences recurring droughts and other natural disasters such as fires, the state needs to prepare itself for such an event.

“It’s scary to think about, especially knowing it could be as destructive as an earthquake and definitely leave a big impact on communities and agriculture,” Abbasi said. “If this happens, it could be a wake-up call that we need to try harder to lessen the impact of climate change.”

AP Environmental Science teacher Alicia Szebert said it is important for people to understand the long-term consequences of climate change even if they are not currently affected.

“My mom owns property in Huntington Beach, and she sold her property because she knows that in the next 30 years, it’s going to be underwater,” Szebert said. “They’re already dealing with their power lines being flooded along with other issues.”

However, while many are thinking ahead, Szebert said the danger is people will not change their lifestyle in time.

“The government has to step in and create the changes for people because I don’t think the wake-up call is going to happen until it’s too late,” Szebert said.

The flood has the potential to be the most expensive geophysical disaster to date, potentially causing $1 trillion in losses — five times the cost of Hurricane Katrina, the study said.

Junior Sophia Lee said it’s frustrating to see politicians and communities not taking action to protect the environment from severe climate disasters that will likely become more common.

“Especially in California, the state that provides almost 14 percent of the nation’s produce and agriculture, I don’t see why people are not doing everything they can to protect the environment,” Lee said.

Lee said people in Palo Alto should be more mindful of the environment and do more to protect the Earth now to prevent natural disasters.

“Especially in Palo Alto, where people have enough money to spare to make their lives more energy efficient, (they should consider) driving electric (cars), installing solar panels and conserving water,” Lee said.

However, Lee said despite efforts to combat climate change, future climate disasters cannot be avoided. Lee said it’s important to stay careful and prepare as much as possible against any possible future climate events.

“Even if we cut all carbon emissions this second, I know that six feet of sea level rise is given, on top of an increase in flooding,” Lee said. “We need to start preparing for these kinds of disasters.”

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    Rebecca EisenbergOct 12, 2022 at 8:57 pm

    This is such an important article, and I appreciate your hard work and excellent reporting!

    I just wanted to add that another factor that contributes to floods is the lack of groundcover of native plants and soil on the ground. Without that groundcover, water cannot seep into the earth and recharge the underground water sources including aquifers. When it cannot seep into the earth, the water has nowhere to go but out, contributing to these floods that wash away whatever may be in their path.

    That is one of the many reasons that it is essential for us to invest in regeneration of native plants and forests. We need to stop taking away wildlife habitat and start – massively – giving it back. This impacts all of our choices. For example, when we think about making room for increasing populations, instead of building out and creating more sprawl, we must build up instead, allowing higher buildings into our neighborhoods. Many scientists say we must give back *at least 50%* of all of earth’s land to native ecosystems if we hope to keep our level of sea rise over the next century under 30 feet. That is a worthy goal.

    The good news among all these unpleasant realities is that, if things continue to go as planned (e.g. if climate change deniers do not take back the White House), then there are likely to be a lot of jobs in the near future for people to do the hard work involved in replanting and regenerating native ecosystems and forests! This work involves more than just planting trees, although that almost certainly will be part of it. We’ll need civil engineers, computer programmers, project leaders, planners, biologists, and economists (among other professions) — along with artists, dancers, and musicians to document and celebrate our progress! It’s nice to imagine that kind of future.

    I strongly believe that this planet belongs to our youngest generations, and it will stand a much better chance of survival once the older generations get out of the way (and stop damaging it).

    Thank you again for this great article!

    Rebecca Eisenberg — Paly Mom and
    Candidate for District 7 Director, Santa Clara Valley Water District