Can It Happen Again?
And what was it anyway?
I figured I’d get a jump on the inevitable stories to come about how this is extreme weather and therefor caused by Global Warming!!!
(We really need a sound effect whenever AGW is mentioned, like in Young Frankenstein when the horses would always sound off at Frau Blucher being mentioned. Perhaps thunder or a ‘dun duun Dun DUUNNN’ on the piano… )
At any rate, we’re going to get rain. LOTS of rain. I’m on the lower edge of it, so hopefully will just get modest rain. Crosspatch in T8 deserves a h/t for the pointer.
Really, though, this has happened before. Far worse has happened before. There was something called The Great Flood of 1861, it was a whopper. There is a free complete book about it that you can download here:
Nice comparison charts and pictures and all. Down at the bottom there are some colored charts, about Figure 10 to 12, that have impressive impact. Showing things like the average flow at Marysville and Smartville for representative groups of days for various historical flood events.
There are many shorter descriptions, and even a wiki about it.
December 1861 and January 1862 Floods
The Sacramento Valley experienced four floods from December 1861 through January 1862. These floods are legendary in newspaper accounts from the time. The historic descriptions and pictures from these floods continue to hold fascination today. Can these floods happen again? This is the question covered in “Lake Sacramento” — Can It Happen Again? [PDF*, 8MB] by Leon Hunsaker with Claude Curran (2005).
The authors’ approach to answering this question was to research the available historical data. After conducting field trips to libraries, newspaper offices, historical societies, and various public and private sources, Hunsaker and Curran concluded “… a realistic assessment of the runoff potential can be made for each December 1861-January 1862 flood event.” (p. 2) Their publication describes their journey, what they found, how they used the data, and their conclusions.
Estimate of American River Peak Flow on January 10, 1862
In 2005 Leon Hunsaker and Claude Curran completed their book, “Lake Sacramento” — Can It Happen Again? They decided to continue their look into the historic 1862 flood.
“During the summer of 2006, we decided if our results were going to be conclusive we needed to demonstrate numerically that the flood peaks of January 1862 were greater than any that occurred in the 20th century. We chose the American River because of its early history of flooding the city of Sacramento. Then it was decided that a peak flow estimate would be made for January 10, 1862 at Folsom — the recognized date of the all-time record high flow on the American River at Folsom (Fair Oaks).”
They chronicle their reasoning behind estimating the American River peak flow on January 10, 1862 in Step by Step Development of Peak Flow Estimate on the American River @ Folsom for Record Flood: 1/10/1862 [PDF*, 273KB] (2011).
Now that date seemed kind of familiar to me. So I looked up a chart:
Hmmm…. comes right at one of those Sleepy Sun solar angular momentum times… After the Dalton Minimum, but with a modest ‘kink’ in the graph and a green arrow. Also of note is that in the ‘book’ above, the graph shows 1964 as a big flood year too, and it has a ‘kink’ in the solar graph just starting. (In fairness, we’ve had other floods in years without kinks too).
But that’s sort of the point. California gets drenching flood causing rains. 1907 and 1909, then 1955 and 1964 (which I remember), followed by 1986 and 1997.
In 1952 the snow was so deep that a train got stranded and buried in it.
Donner Pass was named for the Donner Party that got whacked by an extremely heavy snow about 100 years earlier… It happens…
A few year later there was another heavy snow and it was about 18 feet deep along the highway. My Dad drove us up in a 56 Chevy to look at it. It was amazing. Snow WAY over the car, driving in a deep trench. Every year I’ve gone back I’ve remembered that drive, and wondered when that snow would return again. IMHO, we’ve got a chance at it now. The PDO has swapped and we’re back in the ‘Early 1950s pattern’. So I’m hoping to finally ‘scratch that itch’ and get to see 18 foot of snow above the road again ;-) Though maybe over the TV this time, warm tea in hand…
Also in that prior article is an interesting ‘summary’ of even earlier conditions:
Rainfall and Stream Run-off (1769-1931)
Rainfall and stream run-off data from California’s Spanish Mission period, beginning in May 1769, through 1930, the date this was written, are analyzed in Rainfall and Stream Run-off in Southern California Since 1769 [PDF*, 9.2MB] by H. B. Lynch (1931). The data apply to Southern California. Ten conclusions are reached (summarized and paraphrased here):
There had been no material change in the mean climatic conditions for 162 years
The 40 years from 1890-1930 had fewer fluctuations from average conditions than did earlier years
A 28-year drought ending in 1810 was about as severe as, and more protracted than, the drought occurring when this paper was written
Both 1810-21 and 1883-93 had rainfall surpluses more intense than 1890-1930
Rainfall deficiency from about 1822 to 1832 was more severe than anything experienced up to 1930
The longest rainfall deficiency occurred from 1842 to 1883, though it was not as acute as other periods
The drought occurring when this paper was written (1930) could not be considered a major shortage
Water yield of the areas under consideration closely approximates run-off from principal streams
Run-off fluctuations generally track rainfall fluctuations, but are larger
Useful water yield for Southern California has been 50% of average for a period of ten years, and 70% for a period of 28 years (within the dates studied)
This paper may be useful for students of historical water yield in California.
I’m especially interested in that “28 year drought”. Can you imagine the hysterics if we had a 28 year drought NOW? Worse even that the drought in 1930?
But back at The Great Flood
Was this Great Flood just a local thing? Some added water in Marysville rushing down to “Lake Sacramento”? Nope.
The flood of 1861-62 has been called the “great Flood” and the Noachian deluge of California Floods.” Beginning on December 24, 1861, it rained for almost four weeks but for two brief interruptions. (Friis 52)
In San Bernardino, Riverside, and Orange Counties, the Santa Ana River became a raging torrent during the flood of 1862. The prosperous colonies along the banks of the river were completely inundated, and vineyards, orchards, and grain fields became a barren waste. (OC Flood Control District)
Storms in 1862 accounted for a peak flow of 320,000 cubic feet per second in the upper river and created an inland sea in Orange County. Lasting about three weeks with water standing four feet deep up to four miles from the river, this disaster almost equaled a 200-year or worst possible flood. (City of Huntington Beach Flood Study 1974)
For those who might not know, Sacramento and Marysville are in Northern California, while Huntington Beach, San Bernardino, Riverside, etc are all down not far from Los Angeles in Southern California.
California is rather like Australia in that we can have many years of being a dry desert, then be under a few feet of water after torrential rains. (When not burning in brush fires or having landslides moving mountains… or the earthquakes rearranging things… Great place to live if you have “boredom issues” ;-)
There are many more SoCal floods listed in that link.
For completion, here’s the wiki:
Just to note that the L.A. flood history is a bit more complete than the Sacramento. It only ‘got rolling’ after gold was found in 1849, but L.A. was an old city by then. (San Jose, near San Francisco, was founded in 1777 and Los Angeles was about the same at 1781 for the formal founding) So we have a record of what happened during the Dalton, then.
Los Angeles Flood of 1825
Changed the course of the Los Angeles River from its western outlet into Santa Monica Bay following the course of Ballona Creek to a southern outlet at San Pedro Bay near where it is today.
You have likely seen the Los Angeles River. It is that large concrete trench that has had many chase scenes filmed in it, with a small dribble of water in the bottom. “Terminator” has a nice ‘crash bang’ chase in it, for example. During major floods all that empty becomes water… but due to the concrete it no longer ‘wanders around’ as much ;-)
December 1861 – January 1862: California’s Great Flood
Beginning on December 24, 1861, and lasting for 45 days, the largest flood in California’s recorded history was created, reaching full flood stage in different areas between January 9–12, 1862. The entire Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys were inundated for an extent of 300 miles (480 km), averaging 20 miles (32 km) in breadth. State government was forced to relocate from the capital in Sacramento for 18 months in San Francisco. The rain created an inland sea in Orange County, lasting about three weeks with water standing 4 feet (1.2 m) deep up to 4 miles (6 km) from the river. The Los Angeles basin was flooded from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, at variable depths, excluding the higher lands which became islands until the waters receded. The Los Angeles basin lost 200,000 cattle by way of drowning, as well as homes, ranches, farm crops & vineyards being swept-away.
And it rained for 40 days and 40 nights… oh, wait, 45 days…
Can you imagine if the State Capital had to relocate to San Francisco for a year and a half NOW? (Maybe drowning the Capital is not such a bad idea… at least they would stop spending money they don’t have…)
While it is unlikely to be as bad, since we now have loads of damns on the major rivers, it will tend to depend on how full they are when the rains come, then don’t leave for a few months.
Some folks even like to reference Noah when they talk about this flood. WUWT points out it was followed by a humdinger of a drought:
Guest post by Dr. Ryan N. Maue (using my AB History from Michigan)
The catastrophe modeling of the USGS extrapolates current damage$ based upon the scenario of the California floods of 1861-1862. Quoting directly from the Southern California quarterly Volume 1 (1884) [Google Books is awesome]: “During the months of December, 1861, and January, 1862, according to a record kept at San Francisco, 35 inches of rain fell, and the fall for the season footed up nearly 50 inches.”
For folks in England that 50 inches may not sound like much, but realize two things:
1) It comes in a monsoonal pattern – all in a drench – not spread out over nearly every day of the year as in the UK.
2) In more normal years we may get 5 inches to 11 inches all year.
So getting all that in one go is something the land is just not going to take well. Small creeks become rivers and ponds turn into lakes. Then it all drys up again…
This storm will be a big one. We will get a LOT of rain. Yet rather like that perfectly NORMAL storm now called “SuperStorm Sandy” (that was weaker than the real hurricanes of the 1950s and 1800s that hit the same places); this perfectly normal rain will likely be called “super” or extreme or catastrophic or ANYTHING hysterical. Anything, that is, except to call it exactly what it is. Perfectly normal.
I’ve lived through the floods of 1955 and 1964, marveling at them. In one, the bridge over the Feather River near my home town washed out. We went out to watch it being rebuilt and look at the river about 3 feet below overtopping the banks. That kind of thing leaves an impression on young minds.
But more than that…
My home town had very high curbs. Built with a ‘step’ in them. The town was raised about 2 feet so that the floods, when they came, just stayed in the streets and not in the buildings. Every home was on a tiny rise. Didn’t happen often, but the town knew they would eventually come again. It was after some flood in the 1800s that the town was ‘raised up’. Don’t know how late, but there were metal rings in the downtown sections of curb to tie up your horse. So “It’s flooded before”.
December 9, 1861 – American River Levee failed east of 30th street, flooding what is now known as River Park. The water then overran the City’s levee built to protect it. To relieve the building water levels, the levee at R & 5th Streets was cut to drain the “lake” but houses were swept away in the current in the cut in the levee.
January 10, 1862 – Due to flooding, newly elected Governor Leland Stanford had to travel to his inauguration at the Capital in a rowboat.
Sacramento Streets Raised: In response to floods of 1861-1862, streets east of the Sacramento River to about 12th Street were raised as much as 14 feet.
So unless Governor Moonbeam is commuting to work in a Row Boat and folks are talking about adding a dozen feet of fill in the low spots, well, it’s just not anything new, or unusual, or extreme. It’s just normal life in California…