Commentary

August 9, 2013

ARkStorm – California’s hypothetical other “big one”

Bob Kaschak
452 AMW Emergency Management technician

Over the past several weeks, we have discussed high temperatures, wild fires and resulting heat related issues. For now, I would like to put the “hot stuff” on the “back burner” so to speak and discuss something totally different, but relevant to Californians; ARkStorm, California’s other “Big One”. Since this may be the first time you have heard this concept, permit me to give you some background on this subject.

An ARkStorm (for Atmospheric River 1000 Storm) is a hypothetical but scientifically realistic “superstorm” scenario developed and published by the United States Geological Survey, USGS, Multi Hazards Demonstration Project. The name was created as a way of quantifying the magnitude of west coast storms. It was also meant to be drawn as a parallel to the biblical Noah’s Ark story. It describes an extreme storm that may impact much of California. The event would be similar to previous California storms which occurred in 1861 and 1862.

The USGS made a statement that a phenomenon called atmospheric river caused disastrous high winds and rains in northern California in October 2011 triggered a flare-up of fear among anxious residents about massive natural calamities waiting in the wings. What perhaps spooked the people was a piece of history in a USGS press release, which suggested that storms of proverbial magnitude might technically recur.

The Survey’s ‘ARkStorm’ scenario has given rise to fears of a plausible super storm that researchers say would damage one-fourth of the state’s buildings and houses, if it happens. The storm scenario says such a super storm has the potential to move water, equivalent to 50 Mississippi Rivers, into the Gulf of Mexico, causing massive floods and devastation in California.

The scenario storm then will be an AR 1000, and other US West Coast storms will be scaled in comparison. USGS has said one of the purposes of the creation of the ARkStorm scenario was to address storms of this magnitude and help prepare emergency responders and resource managers. For emergency planning purposes, scientists unveiled a hypothetical California scenario that describes a storm that could produce up to 10 feet of rain, cause extensive flooding, in many cases overwhelming the state’s flood-protection system, and result in more than $300 billion in damage.

The USGS, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the California Emergency Management Agency convened a two-day summit, (Jan 13-14, 2011), to engage stakeholders from across California to take action as a result of the scenario’s findings, which were developed over the last two years by more than 100 scientists and experts.

“The ARkStorm scenario is a complete picture of what that storm would do to the social and economic systems of California,” said Lucy Jones, chief scientist of the USGS, MHDP and architect of ARkStorm. “We think this event will occur once every 100 to 200 years or so, which puts it in the same category as our big San Andreas earthquakes. The ARkStorm is essentially two historic storms (January 1969 and February 1986) put back to back in a scientifically plausible way. The model is not an extremely extreme event,” said Jones.

Jones noted that the largest damages will come from flooding — the models estimate that almost one-fourth of the houses in California would experience some flood damage from this storm, and cost $725 billion in damages and repair. “ The time to begin taking action is now, before a devastating natural hazard event occurs,” said USGS Director, Marcia McNutt. “This scenario demonstrates firsthand how science can be the foundation to help build safer communities. The ARkStorm scenario is a scientifically vetted tool that emergency responders, elected officials and the general public can use to plan for a major catastrophic event to help prevent a hazard from becoming a disaster.”

To define impacts of the ARkStorm, the USGS, in partnership with the California Geological Survey, created the first statewide landslide susceptibility maps for California that are the most detailed landslide susceptibility maps ever created. The project also resulted in the first physics-based coastal storm modeling system for analyzing severe storm impacts, predicting wave height and coastal erosion, under present-day scenarios and under various climate-change and sea-level-rise scenarios.

Because the scenario raised serious questions about existing national, state and local disaster policy and emergency management systems, ARkStorm became the theme of the 2010 Extreme Precipitation Symposium at U.C. Davis John Muir Institute of the Environment, attracting over 200 leaders in meteorology and flood management. ARkStorm is part of the efforts to create a National Real-Time Flood Mapping initiative to improve flood management nationwide.

ARkStorm also provided a platform for emergency managers, meteorologists and hydrologists to work together to develop a scaling system for west coast storms.

According to FEMA Region IX Director, Nancy Ward, “The ARkStorm report will prove to be another invaluable tool in engaging the whole of our community in addressing flood emergencies in California. It is entirely possible that flood control infrastructure and mitigation efforts could be overwhelmed by the USGS ARkStorm scenario, and the report suggests ways forward to limit the damage that is sure to result.”

Hopefully, the above information gives you a better understand about the concept behind ARkStorm. Next month, federal emergency mangers are meeting to discuss ARkStorm as well as earthquakes with Dr. Jones as the primary speaker. Of course, many may think we have enough to worry about and do not need to add a “hypothetical” catastrophe to the list.

However, as you scrutinize this article, you will notice a plethora of experts weighing in on this, acknowledging its credibility and working in concert with multiple disciplines to develop a plan to minimize the destruction and calamities. It is reaping the rewards of science and fact gathering to take a pragmatic and realistic approach to benefit human survival in the worst of disasters. Remember, being prepared is being aware, and being aware is being as informed as possible. That responsibility rests with all of us if we are to continue to provide for the safety and security of ourselves and our families.

More information about the ARkStorm Summit is online, http://urbanearth.usgs.gov/arkstorm-summit/. The ARkStorm Scenario, USGS Open-File Report 2010-1312, is also online: http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2010/1312/.




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