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July-August 2011

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Weather Front

California Could Get One-Two Punch

California's next “big one” may be a storm, not an earthquake. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reports the possibility that a superstorm could wipe out much of the West Coast and cause the most costly disaster the United States has ever seen. The USGS Multi-Hazards Demonstration Project (MHDP) addresses potential natural disasters and works with government agencies, businesses, and scientists to improve hazard readiness and response. In 2008, MHDP published a scenario depicting a potential 7.8 earthquake in Southern California.

The new super storm scenario presents a potential weather event based on the winter storms that devastated California in 1861 and 1862. Such storms are expected to strike on a 200-year cycle. They have called it ARkStorm, which stands for Atmopsheric River 1000 and refers to the river of moisture transported to the U.S. West Coast from the equatorial Pacific.

The ARkStorm scenario begins with data such as rainfall and soil saturation from three recent West Coast storms to produce preconditioning information. The researchers then modeled wind speeds, rainfall, flooding, and other meteorological and hydrological inputs that would realistically accompany two large storms similar to the 1861–1862 events. Other experts then modeled the physical, social, and economic effects of the hypothetical storm.

KIMBRA CUTLIP is a freelance writer and former assistant editor for Weatherwise.

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