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Who'll Stop the Rain?

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Earthquakes and mudslides: Check. Rain, tornadoes: Check. Thunder and lightning: Very very frightening. Welcome to the new LA: We've finally got it all. It's the wettest year on record, and while the rest of Red America flips through the Book of Revelations and sagely nods its head, it seems that our little corner of the planet is undergoing rapid, radical climate change. Remember that '80s joke about how LA would slide into the sea? Now that it's finally coming true, who can even pretend to be surprised? Hollywood's own apocalyptic mythos seems enough to convince plenty of people that we're living in end times.

Mind you, if this meteorological mayhem is caused by global warming, LA itself can hardly be held blameless: Many's the hotshot assistant producer who's cut us off in his Hummer these past few weeks, slicing through the ponds and puddles of the 405 like a sooty, hell-bound torpedo. And as the water streams off the rivets of our tanks, LAist looks to the heavy sky and ponders the possibility that the rain may never stop.

It's been raining hellishly on the LA basin since October. According to Dr. Steve Ou, a researcher at the UCLA Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, the cause is an irregularity in the jet stream leaving a nearly stationary low-pressure trough west of us that "continuously pumps moisture into Southern California." Normally, says Ou, that low pressure system would be sitting out over the midwest, and all the moisture would be dropped on the east coast. But this year, a "warmer climate caused less snow on the ground," in the fly-over states, and "more solar energy was absorbed by the land/atmosphere system, so that the middle part of the U.S. is warmer than usual, and the low pressure was forced to stay over the west coast."

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Ou is quick to point out, however, that this sudden shift in the jet stream is not necessarily caused by either global warming or by El Niño's warming of the tropical Pacific. Nor is it permanent. "Global warming is a long-term process," he asserts. "Things like the plot of The Day After Tomorrow are purely fiction."

Ou has a different theory. LA's bizarre weather since October, he says, "might be tied up to the exceptionally active Atlantic hurricane season last summer. So, it is possible that...if we have another active hurricane season, we might have more rain in California in the following winter."

According to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, El Niño events in the Pacific actually have the effect of suppressing Atlantic hurricanes. Since the mid-'90s, though, the Atlantic has seen above-average activity every year with the exception of the '97/'98 El Niño year. And the Pew Center points out that "higher ocean temperatures [in the Atlantic] also appear to influence the track of hurricanes, increasing the likelihood of hurricanes tracking through the Caribbean or making landfall on the U.S. east coast."

Ou contends, however, that it would take centuries for global warming to affect ocean temperatures that significantly, and the current warming of the Atlantic was caused by other, unknown factors, likely temporary.

So is it reasonable to extrapolate from all of this that LA is doomed? Will we have wet years during El Niños and even wetter years when El Niño doesn't suppress the increasing Atlantic cyclone activity? Long-term projections diverge wildly, but the Pew Center certainly doesn't rule out the possibility that climate change will lead to ever-more-severe weather in the future. Ironic, right? The Bushies pull us out of the Kyoto treaty, and it just so happens it's the blue states that slip under the waves. But will Arizona turn blue too, once Phoenix boasts scenic beach-front property? Only time will tell.

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***Dr. Ou's scientific comments given in this article are purely based on personal insight, not necessarily reflecting academic consensus.