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Climate

California Isn’t Ready for a Megaflood. Or the Loss of Daniel Swain.


Powerful storms drenched California last week, as massive rivers in the sky unleashed destructive downpours and winds that caused widespread flooding and mudslides, toppled trees that killed four people in Northern California, cut power to nearly 900,000 people statewide and dumped record-setting rainfall on Southern California, which is under a state of emergency

The governor’s Office of Emergency Services confirmed nine fatalities statewide as of Thursday, including a 90-year-old woman who died in a San Luis Obispo County hospice during a power outage.

Last month, leading up to the meteorological onslaught, anxious Californians hoped to allay fears amplified on social media about an impending megaflood by checking in with the man they rely on to deliver the unvarnished facts. Hundreds logged on to the online “office hours” of Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with joint appointments at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, where he’s based. Swain, the rare climate scientist with training in meteorology, has become the Carl Sagan of extreme weather, translating highly complex science into plain language. 

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“If you’ve been on TikTok, or if you’ve been following certain Twitter accounts, you might well believe that California is gonna get washed off the map in the next seven to 10 days,” Swain told his audience in late January. He quickly set the record straight.

“There is not currently any indication whatsoever of an extremely severe statewide catastrophic flood event,” Swain said, referring to rumors of an impending ARkStorm, a hypothetical but plausible megastorm and flood scientists originally estimated could occur on average once every 500 to 1,000 years. The project describing the storm was intended to be used by experts for disaster preparedness. 

An outpouring of thanks from relieved viewers filled the chat comments. But Californians may soon find themselves without a trusted scientist willing to spend thousands of hours a year helping them understand and prepare for potential disasters. “I am approaching what could be a bit of a cliff this summer in the ability to continue to do the kind of job that I’ve been doing for years,” he told viewers. 

Communicating science to the public, it turns out, even science relating to existential threats from climate change, is not a high priority for institutions that fund science in the United States. There’s no model to support scientists who excel, or hope to excel, at engaging the public in the science around one of the most consequential issues of the modern era.

Climate scientist Daniel Swain. Credit: UCLA

“Doctor Swain is a hero for his super-human efforts to help the people of California, and Americans more broadly, better understand and manage the risks of climate change,” said Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.

Dozens of other climate scientists take “similarly heroic” measures to help communities make informed decisions in responding to the dangers of climate change, Maibach said. 

They’re heroic, he said, because, with few exceptions, they do this work on top of their already demanding day jobs.

Swain refers to himself as a “climate scientist-communicator,” reflecting the fact that he’s deeply involved in research. He deliberately chose to forgo the typical academic path of tenure and teaching in favor of public outreach and communication. 

The trouble is, the institutions that fund scientific research don’t place a premium on making the results of that work broadly accessible. Funding institutions like the National Science Foundation prioritize funding high-impact science. They often encourage public communication as a “broader impact” but don’t allocate funds to support that work as a core part of the research—even though the need has arguably never been greater. 

That means young scientists like Swain (he’s in his 30s) must cobble together funding on the fly to support thousands of hours spent engaging the public. He spends 70 to 80 percent of his time on “public-facing work,” he said. On any given week, he might spend at least 40 hours on outreach on top of the 50 to 60 hours he spends on his research position, which is the only thing his salary covers. When the atmospheric rivers start pummeling the state, as they did last week, he often gets little sleep. 

Swain said he’s had more than 200 conversations with heads of federal agencies, university deans, venture capitalists and others who all initially expressed interest in supporting a scientist-communicator. “Ultimately, it’s been 200 dead end conversations.”

And it’s not just Swain who is deeply involved in climate research yet faces high hurdles to inform the public of impending risks. 

“There’s a lot of amazing scientist-communicators out there who we could help if there was interest in doing more,” he said, including many who already face barriers to becoming a scientist. Many come from disadvantaged communities who “we should be engaging proportionally more,” Swain said, because they face disproportionately more climate impacts. 

The demand for skilled scientist-communicators from the media, policymakers, federal and state agencies, companies and NGOs is “almost infinite,” he said. “But nobody wants to pay for it.”

Time for a Cultural Shift

The lack of funding to support communication of climate science to the public dates back to the birth of the field, said Susan Joy Hassol, director of the nonprofit Climate Communication. “It’s been a perennial problem.”

Thirty years ago, climate scientists were not only not taught how to communicate science, Hassol said, they were actively discouraged from talking about climate science. Academic performance is judged based on the number of papers published and grants secured, and communication activities are seen as a distraction.

Those who worked in government agencies also faced political constraints, as politicians who rejected the science of climate change took office and famously muzzled scientists like James Hansen. 

Government and academic scientists had little money or support to communicate science while fossil fuel interests and rightwing think tanks waged a well-funded disinformation campaign, Hassol said, which many scholars have documented. 

Science-based groups, including Hassol’s, tried to fill the gap by teaching scientists how to talk to the media, the public and policymakers about climate science.

But universities, government agencies and research institutes should be willing to have the climate scientists they employ spend some of their time doing outreach as part of their job, she said.

Maibach believes public universities should recognize scientists’ efforts to help people and policymakers manage the risks of climate change as a public service. Climate scientists do much of this work on their own time, he said, but it should be part of the job of being a climate science professor. 

Science communication should be systematically integrated into the training of future scientists, said Anthony Dudo, program director of science communication in the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement. 

“Science communication should enable the building of relationships and trust between scientists and societal stakeholders,” Dudo said. “And meeting that goal requires more than what a handful of intrepid individual scientist communicators can realistically deliver.”

Hassol thinks some philanthropies would be willing to fund a number of science-communication fellowships half-time, especially for early- to mid-career scientists, with the rest of their salary picked up by a university. 

“And here we are, 30 years later still saying the same things.”

But it’s not realistic to count solely on such funders, Hassol said. She believes academia needs to play a role, which will mean upending the traditional focus on bringing in grants and publishing high-impact papers.

Ultimately, that will require changing the culture of academia, Hassol said, acknowledging the herculean nature of the challenge.

She recalled how the late Stephen Schneider, a pioneering climate researcher and Stanford University professor who shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change team with Al Gore, “really got out there” to help the public understand the threats of climate change. Public outreach was “usually a kiss of death,” Schneider told the journal PNAS, and he worked to revamp an archaic academic system that failed to reward young scientists who excelled at outreach and communication.

“And here we are, 30 years later still saying the same things,” Hassol said.

“But we’ve got to do something,” she added, because the disinformation machine has moved beyond just attacking climate science and scientists to attacking climate solutions. “That’s all stuff that has to be combated in real time in the marketplace of ideas.”

And that’s what Californians count on Swain to do, as he did when he debunked rumors that a flood of biblical proportions was fast approaching.

He was also careful to note that although Californians don’t have to brace for an ARkStorm this month, it is a real thing that theoretically could happen in any given year. “We are not as prepared as we should be for the risk of an extremely severe flood event,” he said.

“Hugely Underprepared”

California has long cycled between periods of drought followed by heavy rains, with megafloods occurring fairly regularly, on a millennial timescale, that is. Scientists know this from reading the paleoclimate record—information derived from geological sediments or botanical evidence like tree rings—which suggests they happened on average five to 10 times per 1,000 years. 

This historical evidence along with the devastating Great Flood of 1862 inspired the original ARkStorm scenario (AR stands for atmospheric river, “k” for 1,000, not coincidentally invoking the biblical ark). 

A series of fierce storms lasting 45 days hit California over the winter of 1861-1862, turning the Central Valley into an inland sea, washing away homes, crops and vineyards, and killing unprecedented numbers of livestock. A huge interdisciplinary team led by the U.S. Geological Survey used the 1862 flood as a starting point to simulate what a similar magnitude flood might look like today.

A megaflood would unleash cascading disasters and economic catastrophe across the state, costing more than $725 billion and disrupting lifelines for days or weeks, the authors reported in 2011. Floodwaters could reach 10 to 20 feet in some regions, requiring the evacuation of 1.5 million people and substantial loss of life among those left behind. 

Swain and a colleague worked with original ARkStorm team members and others to generate a new scenario, ARkStorm 2.0, to reflect the latest science, including evidence that climate change is likely increasing the risk of extreme precipitation and flooding along the Pacific Coast. Climate change has already doubled the risk of a modern day Great Flood, they reported in Science Advances in 2022, with the odds increasing as global temperatures rise.

“Climate change is dramatically upping the odds of a very high magnitude flood event happening in our lifetimes, specifically,” Swain wrote on his blog

California’s Department of Water Resources, or DWR, helped fund the underlying meteorological scenario in ARkStorm 2.0. But neither the original nor the updated ARkStorm scenario had the budget to run the sort of statewide hydrologic models that predict where and how much flooding is likely to occur throughout California, Swain said. 

That sort of flood-modeling tool would give DWR a real-time statewide inundation model to identify those most at risk. But the project involves partnerships with federal and state agencies and has been stalled for years, Swain said. “We do not currently have the ability to do that. Everything is ad hoc and piecemeal and localized.”

DWR and the state of California are ”extremely aware” of the importance of this research, said Michael Anderson, who has long worked for DWR as the state climatologist. 

DWR is working to finalize a partnership with the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory that will bolster state flood emergency preparedness and planning, Anderson said. The next phase will involve applying the extreme rainfall scenarios to California’s complex hydrology and topography, he said, “so we can understand in detail what this volume of precipitation would do to California’s landscape.”

The West’s readiness for the consequences of atmospheric rivers is akin to Midwest flooding preparations back in the mid- and late 1900s, said Josh Dozor, former deputy assistant administrator of FEMA and now general manager for medical and security assistant services at International SOS, a risk mitigation company.

Historically, concerns about major seasonal flooding were concentrated in the Midwest, Dozor said. That led to massive investments in flood risk mitigation measures such as levees and, critically, land-use planning, which determined where and at what elevation to build. With climate change, the risks have shifted to California and the West Coast, he said.

“I see the West Coast needing to adapt to and invest in land use planning, like we saw in the Midwest,” Dozor said. And with the increased frequency of major storms with climate change, that will require accounting for population growth in high-risk areas, he said. “The degree of consequences is much greater than it ever was before.”

San Diego dealt with some of these consequences this past week, after record-breaking rainfall flooded communities with raw sewage, leading to an outbreak of gastrointestinal illness, as Inside Climate News reported.

Swain thinks the state is “hugely underprepared” for an extreme flood event and fears that many municipalities are at the same stage of emergency preparedness for such deluges as they used to be with wildfires, where the catastrophes arrived before the emergency planning.

“Imagine if the whole state were experiencing flooding as bad or worse than what occurred in the most inundated parts of San Diego, all at once and for almost a month,” he said during one of his office hours. “That’s sort of what we’re talking about with ARkStorm.” 

Emergency planners from the federal to local level need to start doing “tabletop” flood disaster exercises just like they do for earthquakes, where everyone from counties to schools and pipeline operators have emergency response checklists, Swain told Inside Climate News. “That’s what we need to be doing with ARkStorm.”

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With the proper funding and commitment, the flood simulations and disaster planning could be finished within a year, Swain said. “But there’s no real momentum at this point.”

He believes that one of the challenges in California is a prevailing notion that climate change means it’s going to get warmer and drier all the time. “And that is just not actually what we see,” he said. “It will get warmer, of course, and it will get drier some of the time. We’ll see worse droughts and worse wildfires. But there is the wet side, the flood risk side that I think has been widely underestimated.”

It doesn’t help that, even now, some news stories quote scientists saying climate change couldn’t have influenced the extreme precipitation that just happened, Swain said. That’s because there haven’t been any studies yet and many scientists feel like they can’t make the connection yet, he explained.

And that’s where it’s so critical to have scientists who can help the public understand the growing body of evidence on climate change-driven precipitation increases in California, he said. As a good example, he said the best quote he’s heard on the recent storms from another scientist came from Alex Hall, who Swain used to work with at UCLA. “He said, ‘climate change has actually affected every weather event in California now, it’s a question of how much.’”

Climate Communication’s Hassol is training the next generation of scientists to make sure the responsibility to communicate accurate climate science does not fall on the shoulders of so few experts. “We are relying on a handful of people,” she said. “It shouldn’t be that way.”

As for Swain, he’s actively exploring options to ensure that he can keep performing the public service so many Cailfornians have come to depend on. The next six months will be critical, he said. Just in time for wildfire season.





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