Waiting for the Big One: Part 2
The Sierra Storm King came through in the nick of time this year. Back to back storms dumped about 3 feet of fresh snow last week, which guaranteed great skiing conditions at local resorts, just in time for the all-important Christmas holidays. And even though skiers and snowboarders want more powder, most people hope the stormy weather takes a short break to allow safe and easy traveling for the thousands of tourists visiting the region this week. This winters weather pattern may be influenced by the moderately strong La Nia event in the Pacific Ocean. La Nias occur when cooler sea surface temperatures spread over the equatorial zone of the Pacific. These temperature anomalies often increase the likelihood of a wet winter season in the Pacific Northwest and are noted for often causing serious floods in California. Now that there is a decent snowpack on the mountains, the chances for a major flood have increased. Historically, virtually all winter flood events in California and Western Nevada are caused by heavy rain falling on, and melting, the Sierra snowpack. It is a potentially very destructive combination.The far West has changed dramatically in the last century and a half: dikes and dams control our rivers and lakes, channels have been contoured and obstacles cleared. It seems that levees and upstream reservoirs will save us from all but the worst rain events. But 146 winters ago, a relentless series of powerful storms slammed the Pacific Coast, and caused the greatest floods ever recorded in California. Residents in Los Angeles endured 28 consecutive days of rain, while San Francisco was deluged with 28.25 inches in 30 days which represents a rainfall event that occurs once every 37,000 years!Our western climate is often characterized as extended drought broken by flooding rains, and the winter of 1861-62 was no exception. Dry conditions had ranchers and farmers begging for rain in the fall of 1861, and it seemed their prayers were answered when storms began rolling in out of the Pacific in December. But the rain didnt stop and Northern California was pounded for nearly 60 days straight. Streams and rivers swollen by the heavy rain rushed into the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. The rampant floodwaters washed out bridges and drowned thousands of cattle. Rivers draining the Sierras west slope grew to huge proportions, washing dozens of communities away. On the Yuba River, 100 Chinese men were drowned when floodwaters swept through their encampment near the river. When the levee broke near the city of Sacramento, the town was flooded with 10 feet of debris-laden water. On January 22, after enduring weeks of discomfort and accomplishing little, Californias legislature decided to abandon Sacramento for the safety of San Francisco.The winter of 1861-62 began inauspiciously with near-normal precipitation in the first few weeks of November, but the months of December and January were remarkable for exceptional precipitation that generated incredible floods and widespread inundation in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. In his contemporary journal that was later published under the title, Up and Down California in 1860-1864, Professor William Brewer wrote that the heavy rain and snowmelt produced a lake in Californias Central Valley that was 250 to 300 miles long and 20 to 30 miles wide, an area estimated at 5,000 to 6,000 square miles!In one compelling eyewitness account, William S. Jewett took a steamer from San Francisco to Sacramento and described the disaster in a letter: Our State has been sorely afflicted this winter by a dreadful flood such as has never been known here by the oldest Spanish inhabitant. It completely drowned Sacramento, the capital of our State. I found the town lying about from 15 to three feet under water some of the wooden houses had sailed off down the river and others floated into the middle of the streets in all manner of positions. I hired a small boat and was rowed through the streets where I had so often walked. I sailed up to some of the houses of my friends and left my card to show them that I did not forget a friend in trouble. On my return I could see from the deck of the steamer only water water as far as surface was visible until the eyes reached the mountains 50 miles away. In California, January rainfall totals exceeded 300 percent of normal in many places. All rivers along the Pacific Coast, from Klamath in the north, to San Diego in the south, were at extreme flood stage. Whole communities were swept away, and the loss of people and livestock was tragic. Edwin Waite wrote, The Sacramento Valley is today a vast inland lake. All is a waste of waters, now and then relieved by the top of a tree rising above the flood, or the deserted inhabitants of man. In some places we saw sheep on scaffolds only a few inches above the surface of the water, where they have been for weeks, fed occasionally by men in boats. The loss is not so much in the destruction of property as confidence. The people of the lowlands have lost all confidence in the large valleys as places for permanent homes.
The recently arrived Anglo settlers may have been caught unaware by the rampaging torrents of muddy water, but Californias indigenous Indians understood. On January 11, 1862, the Nevada City Democrat reported: We are informed that the Indians living in the vicinity of Marysville left their abodes a week or more ago for the foothills predicting an unprecedented overflow. They told the whites that the water would be higher than it has been for thirty years, and pointed high up on the trees and houses where it would come. The valley Indians have traditions that the water occasionally rises 15 or 20 feet higher than it has been at any time since the country was settled by whites, and as they live in the open air and watch closely all the weather indications, it is not improbable that they may have better means than the whites of anticipating a great storm.In the west slope foothills, the onshore flow of moist Pacific air translated into heavy precipitation with fluctuating snow levels. Nearly 42 inches of precipitation were recorded at Grass Valley in November and December, including 18 inches of rain that fell in just one week. Nevada City would eventually total more than 9 feet of precipitation for the season (most of it rain). The heavy rain spilled over the Sierra Nevada and drenched western Nevada. Weather records from Nevadas Fort Churchill indicate that the fort picked up nearly 9 inches of precipitation in December 1861 and January 1862 about twice what the normally arid area receives in a whole year. Cold snaps between the warm rainstorms made the winter miserable for misplaced residents and stranded livestock. When the rain finally stopped in late January, polar air invaded the West Coast. On January 28, a cold wave extended from the Pacific Northwest to southern California. The Columbia River was frozen over and the observer at Fort Vancouver, Washington, reported ice 30 inches thick. Ice formed around Alcatraz Island in the Bay Area, while snowfall blanketed the northern Sacramento Valley. A killing frost surged as far south as San Diego and Fort Yuma.San Francisco endured subfreezing temperatures six times over the course of that winter including a chilling 22-degree reading on January 28 and a nippy 32 degrees on May 11. Cold waves froze rivers in Oregon and Washington and frigid temperatures infiltrated San Diego. But Californians are used to challenges and westerners look for the bright side. The Red Bluff Independent noted: January 28 was the coldest night of the season, ice is an inch thick. On Wednesday there was 2 inches snowfall. People are wondering if winter would ever quit. There were 15 inches of snow on the ground and people were ice skating, and a lawyer in Red Bluff gave his wife a sleigh ride on a rocking chair. When describing the weather events of 1861-62, California State Climatologist Bill Mork has said, It was just an astounding year. Its highly unlikely well ever see anything like that in our lifetime. We better hope so. The deadly combination of episodic subtropical storms interspersed by periods of very cold weather made the 1861-62 winter the worst in Californias modern history.Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books “The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm” and “Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe Vol. 1 andamp; 2” and “Western Train Adventures: The Good, Bad andamp; the Ugly,” are available at local stores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at email@example.com.