The mountain town buried by California winter chaos Story-level
Few places experience both the beauty and fury of California’s natural world like South Lake Tahoe. The quaint town of 21,000, nestled high in the Sierra Nevada mountains and famous for its ski resorts, has suffered from a bushfire, a drought and, now, dangerous amounts of snow, all in a period of about two years. .
Throughout March, high-altitude storm systems known as atmospheric rivers battered South Lake Tahoe during what climate scientists have called a winter for the history books.
Heavy snow and downpours collapsed roofs, closed supermarkets, trapped residents in their homes and made roads impassable. Parts of the region remain under flood advisories that could continue into spring as snow is expected to melt with rain and warmer temperatures.
City leaders and climate scientists say the extreme weather in South Lake Tahoe portends a dramatic future for the entire state.
“Moving to the mountains, you have a healthy respect for what that brings,” Lindsey Baker, deputy city manager for South Lake Tahoe, told BBC News.
“But the extraordinary nature of this season, the year and a half of natural disasters that we face as a community… We are dealing with the direct impacts of climate change.”
A winter for the record books
California qualified in the New Year with a series of atmospheric rivers causing historic flooding and mudslides across the state. Several people died.
Another scramble began in late February and early March, dumping record levels of snow on the state’s high-elevation mountain ranges. Snow has accumulated on peaks around Los Angeles, including at lower elevations where precipitation typically falls as rain.
Though beautiful and a relief to the state’s dwindling water supply, the storms wreaked havoc.
Multiple counties are under emergency orders. Communities in the San Bernardino Mountains, about a two-hour drive east from Los Angeles, were recently devastated by heavy snowfall that damaged structures and left unprepared residents unable to leave their homes for basic supplies.
Farther north, the Sierra Nevada mountains, home to iconic locations like Lake Tahoe, Yosemite National Park, and Mammoth Mountain, now have record levels of snowpack.
“In a longer-term context, this is not an extraordinarily cold winter, but it is an extraordinarily wet and snowy winter,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
On social media, South Lake Tahoe posted photos of snow coming in through their kitchen windows and tearing up their driveways. On March 10, a gas station canopy collapsed like a bunch of toothpicks from all the weight it had accumulated. Emergency officials frantically warned residents to remove snow from their roofs.
So much snow had accumulated at Susan Korcher’s house that her son was able to jump off the roof in a kayak. He estimated 6 feet (1.83 meters) at 8 feet total. From some angles, her house seemed completely buried.
“This hasn’t stopped,” said Korcher, a University of California forester who has lived in South Lake Tahoe for 16 years.
“Nothing but snow and rain for months. It’s much more intense, I would say, than any winter I’ve lived here.”
The Link Between Climate Change And Epic Snowfalls
One might find it difficult to imagine that a warming planet could cause such an event. But, according to Swain, that’s exactly what’s happening.
The world has already warmed by around 1.1°C since the industrial age began, and temperatures will continue to rise unless governments around the world make drastic cuts in emissions. That transformation has had a profound effect on California.
“I think the reality is that the California climate is becoming even more California-like, if you will,” Mr. Swain said. “It was already a place that saw these wide changes between the drought and the flood. But these changes have gotten bigger.”
“We’ve had some of the driest years on record, and the wettest year on record, in the same decade,” he said.
“This hydro-climatic whiplash, this rainfall variability, has always been high in California, and it seems to be increasing. And that’s something that’s clear from the predictions… of climate warming.”
Before it received record amounts of rain, Lake Tahoe was suffering from the effects of California’s historic drought.
In August 2021, the Caldor Fire tore through a parched Sierra Nevada, burning 221,000 acres and forcing the evacuation of the entire population of South Lake Tahoe.
That same year, the lake’s water levels dropped to their lowest point since 2016. Climate change has been linked to increased wildfire and drought conditions around the world, including in California.
Sudden changes in weather have tested even hardcore South Lake Tahoe residents like Ms. Korcher.
“With the fires, that has become more difficult,” Korcher said. “This year, there are also great winter seasons. It’s an extreme in the other direction.”
She feels prepared to weather harsh winters and has no plans to leave South Lake Tahoe. But for those who aren’t quite ready to deal with what Mother Nature has in store, Ms. Korcher has some hard-hitting advice.
“You probably shouldn’t live in the mountains,” he said. “I would go downhill.”