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 MoreRead More
Requiem for Los Angeles’ Perfect Weather
It never rains in Southern California, especially not in August.
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.