The mountain town buried in California’s winter chaos

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

Few places experience both the beauty and fury of California’s natural world like South Lake Tahoe. The quaint town of 21,000, nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains and famous for its ski resorts, has suffered from fire, 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 pounded South Lake Tahoe during what climate scientists have dubbed a winter for the history books.

Heavy snow and rainfall have collapsed roofs, closed grocery stores, trapped residents in their homes and made highways impassable. Parts of the region remain under flood warnings that could continue into the spring as snow is expected to melt away with oncoming rain and warmer temperatures.

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

“Moving to the mountains gives you a healthy respect for what it entails,” South Lake Tahoe deputy city manager Lindsey Baker told BBC News.

“But the extraordinary nature of this season, the year-and-a-half of natural disasters we’ve faced as a community … We’re facing the direct impacts of climate change.”

A record winter

California chimed in the new year with a series of atmospheric rivers that caused historic flooding and mudslides up and down the state. Several people died.

Another bout began in late February and early March, dumping historic levels of snow in the state’s high-elevation mountain ranges. Snow has been accumulating on peaks around Los Angeles, even at lower elevations where precipitation usually falls as rain.

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

More counties are under emergency orders. Communities in the San Bernardino Mountains, about a two-hour drive east of Los Angeles, were recently devastated by heavy snows that damaged structures and left unprepared residents unable to leave their homes for basic supplies.

Further north, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, home to such iconic spots as Lake Tahoe, Yosemite National Park and Mammoth Mountain, now have record levels of snowpack.

“In a long-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 has posted photos of snow bursting through kitchen windows and crashing through their entryways. On March 10, a gas station canopy collapsed like a pile 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 on Susan Korcher’s house that her son managed to get off the roof in a kayak. She estimated 6 feet (1.83 meters) to 8 feet total. From some angles, her house looked completely buried.

“This has just been nonstop,” said Ms. Korcher, a University of California forest ranger who has lived in South Lake Tahoe for 16 years.

“Nothing but snowing and raining for basically months. It’s a lot more intense I’d say than any other winter I’ve experienced here.”

Climate change links to epic snowfall

One might find it hard to imagine that a warming planet could cause such an event. But, according to Mr. Swain, that’s just what’s happening.

The world has already warmed by around 1.1°C since the start of the industrial age and temperatures will continue to rise unless governments around the world make drastic cuts in emissions. That transformation had a profound effect on California.

“I think the reality is that California’s climate is becoming even more like California, if you will,” said Mr. Swain. “It was already a place that was seeing these large swings between droughts and floods. But these swings have gotten bigger.”

“We had some of the driest years on record and the wettest year on record, in the same decade,” he said.

“This hydroclimatic whiplash, this variability in rainfall, has always been high in California, and it seems to be increasing. And that’s something that’s clear in the forecasts…of global warming.”

Firefighters at the Caldor fire

Firefighters at the Caldor fire

The skyline of the Caldor fire

The skyline of the Caldor fire

Before receiving historic amounts of rain, Lake Tahoe suffered from the effects of California’s historic drought.

In August 2021, the Caldor Fire ripped through a barren Sierra Nevada, scorching 221,000 acres and forcing the entire population of South Lake Tahoe to evacuate.

That same year, the lake’s water level dropped to its lowest point since 2016. Climate change has been linked to intensified fire and drought conditions around the world, including California.

The wild swings in the weather have tested even brave South Lake Tahoe residents like Mrs. Korcher.

“With the fires, it’s gotten more and more difficult,” Ms. Korcher said. “There are also huge winter seasons this year. It’s an extreme in the other direction.”

She feels ready to face intense winters and has no intention of leaving South Lake Tahoe. But for those who aren’t ready to face what Mother Nature has in store, Ms. Korcher has some candid advice.

“You probably shouldn’t be living in the mountains,” she said. “I’d go downhill.”

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