One half of the image shows flooding in California, the other shows a sign for a the ConocoPhillips oil company in Alaska.
Parts of California are underwater, and the Willow oil project has been given the green light. (Flood photo: AP Photo/Noah Berger; ConocoPhillips sign photo: AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File.)

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California Trades Fire for Flooding

More wet weather has taken over the West, including California, where snow is piling up in the Sierras at rates never-before-seen, and rivers in the middle of the state are overflowing, forcing people to evacuate from this normally dry region. Even southern California has gotten snow  – photos of snowflakes swirling around Los Angeles’ Hollywood sign went viral recently. 

This weather was brought on by another atmospheric river similar to the weather system in January that inundated the state with flooding and snow, and it serves as a stark reminder of what a changing climate actually means for the most vulnerable communities, especially rural ones. 

Two record-breaking rain and snow storms, occurring within two months of each other, in the same state that usually suffers from too little water, not too much. Instead of drought and wildfire, California’s facing a different problem. One that comes from the same cause.

Climate change doesn’t always mean warming, although globally, that is the cumulative result of greenhouse gas emissions. Regionally, however, climate change can look different: extreme weather events – unusually hot and cold temperatures, the latter of which often brings snow or rain – are both indicative of climate change. In September of 2021, research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration linked warming temperatures at the Arctic Circle to severe cold weather events in North America and Asia. 

The Arctic polar vortex is an area of circulating winds at the Earth’s north pole that usually keeps cold air inside its vortex. But when those winds weaken, that cold air can dip south into the continents below. The strong winds that keep cold air at the north pole are decreasing, according to the 2021 research, and cold winter storms like the one that devastated Texas in February of 2021 are becoming more frequent because of it. 

Weather models suggest a similar situation is taking place in California, and it’s harming some rural areas whose infrastructure cannot withstand so much extreme weather all at once. 

In the central part of the state, thousands of people from small agricultural communities were forced to evacuate last Friday as the Pajaro River overflowed. The same happened to the Salinas River. The flooding has left people stranded, and many of them are migrant farmworkers who don’t qualify for federal assistance. 

A levee breach covers a rural road and trees surrounding it, illustrating the devastation caused by flooding in California.
Water flows through a levee breach near the Aromas community in Monterey County, Calif., on Monday, March 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Noah Berger.)

Disaster money is only accessible if you are a “non-citizen national” (born in a place that the U.S. has outlying possession of, like American Samoa) or a “qualified alien,” which requires long-term residency in the U.S. with a green card, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This excludes people working on farms on a short-term basis with an H-2A visa, which is the situation of many farm workers in California.

More emergencies are underway to the east of this flooding in the snow-covered Sierras, where there are 560 miles of roadway that are largely impassable, according to reporting from the Guardian.

Many folks are lending helping hands to one another – “everyone sets their differences aside and really help[s] each other out,” said Nevada county deputy sheriff Conrad Ball in an interview with the Guardian. 

But if you don’t have anyone to help you, “it is not survivable,” Ball said. This dark message is true not only for rural California but other remote areas as well. 

Rural communities are known for their ability to innovate, take matters into their own hands, and help their neighbors when it’s clear the government won’t. But there’s only so much work you can do before it becomes clear that more resources are needed to build resilient rural communities. This requires state and federal investment in rural communities before – not after – disaster happens. 

And in California, which now seems to face disaster year-round, this investment will be necessary to prepare rural communities for a reality where extreme temperatures in unlikely times of the year could have emergency officials yo-yoing between shoveling people out from several feet of snow and hosing houses down with water to protect from wildfire in the fall. Mapping evacuation routes, providing better snow equipment, and giving people the assistance they need will be vital to building resilience. 

But reducing greenhouse gas emissions at a national and international level will need to go hand-in-hand with these local efforts, and unfortunately, that’s not going to be a quick fix.

On Another Note: Biden Greenlights Oil Drilling in Alaska

Last week it was a lithium mine in Nevada, this week it’s oil extraction in Alaska. 

The Willow oil project proposed for a remote area of the northern Arctic coast of Alaska was greenlighted by President Biden on Monday, and critics say it complicates his history as the first “climate president” who just last summer passed the most sweeping climate legislation in U.S. history (included in the Inflation Reduction Act). 

A ConocoPhillips sign, representing the oil company responsible for the recently-approved Willow oil project, is adorned with frost. A glimpse of the background behind shows snow.
An ice-covered ConocoPhillips sign is displayed at a drilling site on Alaska’s North Slope, Feb. 9, 2016. On Monday, the Biden administration approved ConocoPhillips’ Willow project, even as scientists urgently warn that only a halt to more fossil fuel emissions can stem climate change. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File.)

The project, which would extract 600 million barrels (approximately 71 million tons) of oil from Alaska over the next 30 years, extends the use of fossil fuels far longer than necessary, according to project critics. It also wipes out any carbon cuts the Inflation Reduction Act put in place, according to the Center for American Progress, weakening that legislation.

Ultimately, the ripple effects of yesterday’s decision remain to be seen.

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