The mountain town buried in California’s winter chaos

Joey Munoz shovels snow onto a roof while he and his colleagues clear snow to prevent further damage to an evacuated building

Few places experience both the beauty and fury of California’s great outdoors like South Lake Tahoe. The picturesque town of 21,000, high in the Sierra Nevada mountains and famous for its ski resorts, has weathered wildfire, drought and now dangerous amounts of snow – all in about two years.

All March, high-altitude storm systems known as atmospheric fluxes lashed South Lake Tahoe during what climate scientists have dubbed a winter for the history books.

The heavy snowfall and rainfall collapsed roofs, closed grocery stores, locked residents in their homes and made freeways impassable. Parts of the region remain subject to flood warnings, which could last into spring as snow is expected to melt with incoming rain and warmer temperatures.

City leaders and climate scientists say the extreme weather South Lake Tahoe is experiencing portend a dramatic future for the entire state.

“When you move to the mountains, you have a healthy respect for what that brings,” Lindsey Baker, an assistant city manager for South Lake Tahoe, told BBC News.

“But the extraordinary nature of this season, the year and a half of natural disasters we have faced as a community… We are dealing with the direct effects of climate change.”

A winter for the record books

California ushered in the New Year with a series of atmospheric flows that caused historic flooding and landslides across the state. Several people died.

Another fight began in late February and early March, bringing historic amounts of snow to the state’s high mountain ranges. Snow accumulated on the peaks around Los Angeles, even at lower elevations where precipitation typically falls as rain.

While the storms were nice and a relief to the state’s dwindling water supply, they wreaked havoc.

Several counties are under emergency ordinances. Communities in the San Bernardino Mountains, about a two-hour drive east of Los Angeles, were recently devastated by torrential snowfalls that damaged buildings and left unprepared residents unable to leave their homes to get basic supplies.

Further north, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, home to famous spots like Lake Tahoe, Yosemite National Park and Mammoth Mountain, are now boasting record levels of snowpack.

“In the longer term, this is not an exceptionally cold winter, but it is an exceptionally wet and snowy winter,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Taking to social media, South Lake Tahoe posted photos of snow falling through kitchen windows and crashing through their entryways. On March 10, the canopy of a gas station collapsed like a pile of toothpicks from having accumulated so much weight. Emergency officials desperately warned residents to clear the snow from their roofs.

So much snow had accumulated on Susan Korcher’s house that her son was able to kayak from the roof. She estimated 6 feet (1.83 meters) to 8 feet overall. From some angles, their home looked completely buried.

“It was just non-stop,” said Ms. Korcher, a forest ranger at the University of California who has lived in South Lake Tahoe for 16 years.

“Nothing but snow and rain for months. I would say it’s much more intense than any other winter I’ve experienced here.”

The link between climate change and epic snowfalls

It may be hard to imagine that a warming planet would cause such an event. But according to Mr Swain, that is exactly what is happening.

The world has already warmed by about 1.1°C since the start of the industrial age, and temperatures will continue to rise unless governments around the world drastically reduce emissions. This transformation had a profound impact on California.

“I think the reality is that the climate in California, if you will, is becoming even more Californian,” Mr. Swain said. “It was already a place that experienced these big swings between drought and flood. But those swings 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.

“That hydroclimatic whiplash, that rainfall variability, it’s always been high in California, and it appears to be increasing. And that’s something that’s clear in forecasts…of the warming climate.”

Firefighters at the Caldor fire

Firefighters at the Caldor fire

The Caldor Fire Skyline

The Caldor Fire Skyline

Before receiving historic rainfall, Lake Tahoe suffered the effects of California’s historic drought.

In August 2021, the Caldor Fire swept through arid Sierra Nevada, burning 221,000 acres and forcing the entire population of South Lake Tahoe to evacuate.

That same year, the lake’s water level fell to its lowest level since 2016. Climate change has been linked to increased wildfire and drought conditions around the world, including in California.

The wild climate swings have tested even stalwart South Lake Tahoe residents like Ms. Korcher.

“It’s getting more and more difficult in the case of fires,” said Ms. Korcher. “This year there are also big winter seasons. It’s an extreme in the other direction.”

She feels ready to weather intense winters and has no plans to leave South Lake Tahoe. But for those unwilling to deal with what Mother Nature has in store, Ms. Korcher had some blunt advice.

“You probably shouldn’t live in the mountains,” she said. “I would go downhill.”

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