Sign In or Create an Account.

By continuing, you agree to the Terms of Service and acknowledge our Privacy Policy

Climate

Requiem for Los Angeles’ Perfect Weather

It never rains in Southern California, especially not in August.

A man inspecting Hilary storm damage.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The whitecaps are back. Outside my window on Sunday, the rains of Tropical Storm Hilary raged down the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River. A riverbed that was barely more than wet 24 hours earlier swelled like choppy seas during Hilary’s peak, producing waves and whitewater a kayaker would envy. Locals in ponchos braved the footbridge for Instagram.

This scene happens anytime serious rain comes to Southern California. The L.A. River’s paved surface, made famous in Grease and Terminator 2, does exactly what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers meant for it to do nearly a century ago: It reduces flooding risk in the city by sending stormwater out to sea. It’s just not supposed to happen in August.


When we moved four years ago to my wife’s home city, I was floored not only by the fabled sun, but by L.A.’s unwavering commitment to the mythology of its meteorology. It really is sunny every day. In the Midwest and Northeast, where I had lived most of my life, a lovely day is a possibility rather than an expectation. At first I couldn’t get used to the endless blue sky. And then, when I did, any change from the norm carried the feeling of gloom, like the November day when the cloudless streak broke and the first winter gray rolled in.

California’s clockwork climate makes any deviation from the natural order especially noticeable. August is a time for barely checking the phone’s weather app, unless you need to know whether it’s going to be hot or very hot. It is not a time for precipitation — rainy season is the winter, thank you very much — much less the first tropical storm warning in Southern California. The Dodgers don’t get rainouts, to say nothing of nature temporarily reclaiming their parking lot (which, upon further review, was just a little rain and a lot of reflection).

This year’s bizarre happenings can be attributed to the El Niño oscillation, which has thrown odd wet weather Southern California’s way countless times in the past. Last winter it brought freakish rainfalls that replenished the mountains with snowpack, pushing back against years of dire, severe drought. But deliverance brings disaster, too. Not enough water becomes too much very quickly, because Southern California is not built for a sustained downpour.

Homes in the hills are under threat from erosion, and even with the draining power of the L.A. River, flooding is a common problem. The rains of February 2023 came through the drywall in my ceiling because this old apartment building wasn’t made to reroute Poseidon’s complaint quite so quickly. Nobody else’s house was ready, either, so roofers were in short supply in the months to come.

The threat of major home repair and the grim realities of climate change take the fun out of Los Angeles’ rare storms. I used to root for rainy days as a break from routine, as a small victory against the West’s eternal drought worries, as a little something to refill the depleted city reservoirs I walk past every day. Now I hope the ceiling will hold, and I cringe as I watch the water roar down its paved embankment, knowing that, in the hot, dry years to come, we’ll wish we could keep more of it from washing out to sea.


The sinking feeling of “this is not normal” reached its Hilary apex on Sunday afternoon. Right in the middle of L.A.'s first tropical storm in over 80 years, an earthquake rattled the city. The shake wasn’t powerful enough to cause damage, but was big enough to make itself noticed and add psychological insult to injury.

“Hurriquake” sounds like an ill-conceived plot point from the absurd climate change thrillers of decades past, such as The Day After Tomorrow or 2012. Now, like the collapse of the North Atlantic current, it feels suddenly, depressingly possible. The price of living in California’s perfect climate used to be the looming threat of the Big One, the overdue quake that just might break everything. Now the state’s signature natural disaster drops in to remind us of its omnipresence, even as exotic catastrophes migrate to the Golden State.

While Hilary’s clouds clear, floodwaters recede, and patches of blue re-emerge, things still feel out of sorts. As the calendar turns to September and October and the rest of the country begins to think about the rites of autumn, California normally worries about the peak of wildfire season, which arrives alongside fall because it hasn’t rained for months. This year, the bizarre effects of a changed climate have led to an inversion, with the central and eastern U.S. beset by wildfire smoke this summer before SoCal flooded.

California’s climate remains an outlier from the rest of the nation’s, and remains a big part of its enduring charm. But what is obvious in Texas and Vermont is true here, too: No place is immune to climate change, and the weather rules of the past aren’t so hard and fast anymore.

Green

Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read More

Read More
Electric Vehicles

AM Briefing: Tesla’s Big Test

On low expectations, global EV demand, and heat domes

What to Expect From Tesla’s Earnings Report
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Current conditions: A cold front brought an enduring heat wave in Mexico to an end • Northwest Texas could see large hail this afternoon • It will be 60 degrees Fahrenheit and rainy in Ottawa, where delegates are gathering this week to hammer out a global plastics treaty.

THE TOP FIVE

1. Investors wait anxiously for Q1 Tesla earnings

Tesla will report first-quarter earnings today after the markets close, and expectations are pretty low. Analysts think the EV maker will report at least a 4% drop in revenue compared to Q1 last year. In the earnings call, CEO Elon Musk will probably be keen to talk about his big plans for the robotaxi, but investors will want him to elaborate on more pressing issues, like waning demand, steep price cuts, the Cybertruck recall, and whether plans for a $25,000 Tesla have really been scrapped. They’ll be looking for Musk to be “the adult in the room,” said Dan Ives, a Wedbush Securities analyst. As well as setting out a clear vision for the company’s future, investors may want Musk to acknowledge his recent missteps as a sign he’s ready to turn things around. But as Nick Winfield wrote at The Information, “expecting the truculent Tesla CEO to admit his mistakes is probably too much to ask for.” Tesla’s stock is down 41% this year. The company frantically cut prices on several models in the last few days and announced a round of big layoffs, which apparently included the entire U.S. marketing team and part of the design team.

Keep reading...Show less
Yellow
Politics

Are Pollsters Getting Climate Change Wrong?

Why climate might be a more powerful election issue than it seems.

A pollster on an ice floe.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Climate change either is or isn’t the biggest issue of our time. It all depends on who you ask — and, especially, how.

In March, as it has since 1939, Gallup asked Americans what they thought was the most important problem facing the country. Just 2% of respondents said “environment/pollution/climate change” — fewer than those who said “poor leadership” or “unifying the country” (although more than those who said “the media.”) Pew, meanwhile, asked Americans in January what the top priority for the president and Congress ought to be for this year, and “dealing with climate change” ranked third-to-last out of 20 issues — well behind “defending against terrorism,” “reducing availability of illegal drugs,” and “improving the way the political system works.”

Keep reading...Show less
Blue
Politics

AM Briefing: Earth Day Edition

On expanding solar access, the American Climate Corps, and union news

Biden’s Big Earth Day Agenda
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Current conditions: Torrential rains forced Mauritius to shut down its stock exchange • “Once in a century” flooding hit southern China • In the Northern Hemisphere, the Lyrid meteor shower peaks tonight.

THE TOP FIVE

1. Biden kicks off Earth Day with $7 billion for expanding solar access

Today is Earth Day, but President Biden and his cabinet are celebrating all week long. Senior members of the administration have scheduled a national tour of events and announcements related to the president’s climate and environmental record. It starts with Biden’s visit to Prince William Forest Park in Triangle, Virginia, today, where he will announce $7 billion is being awarded to 60 state and local governments, tribes, and national and regional nonprofits through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Solar for All initiative, which aims to support solar in low- to moderate-income communities. The average grant size will be more than $80 million, and the funding will be used to design new programs and bolster existing ones that subsidize the cost of rooftop solar installations, community solar projects, and battery storage.

Keep reading...Show less
Yellow