Study suggests flooding could reach never-before-seen levels in Sacramento, Central valleys

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — While wildfires and droughts dominate California weather, residents have to prepare for another kind of disaster — flooding.

Sacramento is no stranger to seeing flooding of epic proportions. It happened during the Great Flood of 1862 that completely submerged Old Town, and the evidence is still right below our feet. 

Floodwaters have plagued the Central Valley several more times before, happening again in 1986, 1995, 1997, 2006 and 2017, but new research by the organization Climate Central suggests that in 100 years, flooding in the Sacramento and Central valleys could reach levels never seen before.

“As you heat up the ocean, the ocean tries to take up more space because hot water is going to expand so that’s what’s driven a lot of the sea level rise that we’ve seen so far,” said Andrew Pershing, director of climate science at Climate Central.

Global warming has caused 94% of the hottest years on record since 2000 and as the melting of enormous ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica increase, so do the risks for coastal regions across the nation.

“We’re looking at 10-20 extra feet of extra seawater that we have to deal with,” Pershing explained.

Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the largest climate package in U.S. history, worth $15 billion with $5 billion going to wildfire recovery and $1.5 billion going to drought resiliency in California.

So how is it possible for California to have one of the worst drought periods on record with the prediction of only getting drier and to be under the threat of major flooding?

“It all comes down to the fact that a warm atmosphere just really wants to suck up water and move it around in different places,” Pershing explained. “So a lot of time it’s just going to be sucking water out of the soil in California and drying things out, but it’s also going to be occasionally bringing a lot of moisture and dumping that onto California. So you get this potential for both dry conditions and really extreme rain.”

Using data of the earth’s temperature trajectory, Pershing and other scientists have created renderings of what major cities like Sacramento will look like a century from now if current carbon emissions remain unchanged, resulting in a global warming effect of 5 degrees Fahrenheit. The results could be catastrophic.

“What we’re depicting in that image is sea-level rise out a century or two in the future under a high CO2 scenario,” Pershing said. “And 20 feet of sea-level rise pushes a lot of water into places where you just don’t think of it right now and one of them is potentially the capital in Sacramento.” 

“The extremes are getting more extreme,” said University of California, Davis planetary sciences professor Nicholas Pinter. “We’re getting larger floods and bigger, more frequent droughts.”

Judging from a hectic fire season and ongoing drought, Pinter said another extreme weather event like this is not out of the realm of possibility.

“The Sacramento area has been identified as one of the most risky places in terms of flooding in the country,” Pinter said. “For those of us who own real estate or live in the area, we should be remembering that because the trend is that and worse in the future.”

Yet, the Sacramento-area flood control agency remains skeptical of this kind of dire prediction, as does City Councilman Jeff Harris.

“That study did not take into account our levee system, which would protect us from sea level rise, as well as freshwater coming down our rivers,” Harris said.

Millions of dollars of federal funding have gone into bolstering Sacramento’s levees as part of a 200-year flood protection plan. Harris said the immediate focus should instead be on the dire drought conditions at the Folsom Reservoir.

“This is the first year that anybody can remember where we didn’t get pretty reliable runoff from the snowpack into our reservoir,” Harris said. “And if it gets a whole lot lower, we’re going to run into problems.”

Whether it’s extreme droughts, raging wildfires or historic floods, climate change is at the forefront of the minds of scientists and politicians.

Sea level rise will likely be a major topic of discussion amongst world leaders at the United Nations’ climate change conference in the coming weeks.

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