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Was the fatal thunderstorm in California a climate phenomenon?


The weather of Venice Beach, California, where I live, is for the most part stable, and almost always predictable. No sudden squalls appear out of the southwest to chase skateboarders off their concrete ramps; never do we hear the civil-defense sirens warning of an approaching tornado. Living here, swimming and surfing at the beach a few blocks from my house, I have considered many threats: sharks, staph infections, rogue rip tides. Lightning was never on the list.

I didn't go to the beach on Sunday morning, July 27. Crowds generally clog up the swells on weekends, so I escaped to the mountains in Ventura County. When I left, the weather in Venice was gloomy with a mild drizzle — not an unusual syndrome for the Southern California coast — but by the time I hiked and returned to the car at around 3 pm, it had evidently taken a dramatic turn. When I flipped on the radio for the traffic report, I heard that just a half an hour earlier, a bolt of lightning had struck the water near Venice Pier, and 13 people had been injured. Two were found face down in the water.

Frantically, I called home to make sure my husband was not among the victims. He was not; he’d been inside all day. "It was close," he told me, "and loud." On KNX 1070 News Radio, reporters interviewed volleyball players who felt an electrical current through their bodies, who saw other players' hair stand on end. Later we found out that one young man, 20-year-old Nicholas Fagnano, had been killed when he ventured into the water to wash off sand. A 55-year-old man was in the hospital in critical condition; he’d been out on his board riding waves fueled by storms far out at sea — storms he no doubt assumed would remain there, as they almost always do. I arrived home to the repetitive thwump of circling helicopters and the screams of ambulance sirens. There was not a skateboarder nor cyclist, nor beach-going tourist in sight. The surfers who daily walk our streets with their wetsuits stripped to their waists, boards under their arms, were all hunkered down indoors, or on their way back to their inland homes.

Was the bizarre weather that hit Venice Beach a climate-related phenomenon? It's dangerous to pin any one local weather event on climate change; climate, as we know, is global and measured on trend lines, not in isolated cloudbursts. Still, it’s hard not to suspect that something is up with our local weather on the West Coast, an area seized from north to south in an epic and record-breaking drought.

During the months of December and January, the sky stayed relentlessly blue, thanks to a high-pressure ridge parked for months out over the Pacific Ocean. When a storm finally did break through, a half a year's normal rainfall came all in a weekend at the end of February, accompanied by hail and high winds and weak tornadoes. It wasn't different, necessarily, than the weather the region usually gets — long periods of dry weather broken by ferocious rainstorms that flood intersections and send rivers of mud cascading through bedrooms. It was only more extreme.

But the Venice Beach lightning storm was not just a matter of degree. It was fundamentally weird for this microclimate in any time of year, and absolutely unheard of in the summer (even a trace of rain broke records for July in downtown Los Angeles). You have about as much chance as dying by lightning strike in all of California as you have of being killed by a shark anywhere in the world  — one in 7.5 million (in Montana, by contrast, the lightning-strike odds are one in 250,000). Of the seven lightning deaths that occurred in California between 2003 and 2012, according to statistics compiled by the National Lightning Detection Network, none were on the coast.

The remains of a storm at Venice Beach, California. Photograph by flickr user Sean Bonner.

“You don’t have the complex vertical structure and wind shear typically associated with lightning storms," Kevin Trenberth, a climate analyst at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said of Venice-area weather. Trenberth stopped short of making a lightning-climate connection, but a reporter at the news site the Daily Climate inched closer: “A changing climate may alter those weather patterns,” she wrote, “making such ‘freak’ occurrences more common.”

Confused, I called Bill Patzert, a climatologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Climate change is huge,” he says. “The world is warming. Los Angeles is warming. I tell my colleagues: I was talking about it before they were born.” But when you have a “normal” climate that produces one inch of rain in one year and 38 in the next, as coastal California does, “it’s almost impossible to say anything about climate change.”

What happened in Venice that Sunday was not a global warming phenomenon, Patzert insists. “It was a weather event.” Patzert went on: “Lightning strikes the surface of the earth 33 million times a day. In the United States on average over the last couple of decades, about 45 people a year are killed by lightning strikes.” They just don’t happen where I live.

“People generally have become blasé about lightning strikes in coastal California,” Patzert says. “We’re just not sensitized because they’re so unusual.”

In Florida, where lightning strikes every day, they have warning systems. “They see it coming, and they clear the beaches and golf courses, and get the kids off the playground.” Such a system may not be worthwhile in Southern California — “you have to weigh the costs versus the frequency” — but the National Weather Service in Colorado already has one in the works: The Lightning Potential Index, developed by lead forecaster Paul Frisbie. Right now, it only covers western Colorado, but it may be expanded “if it proves valuable,” Frisbie told the Christian Science Monitor.

Patzert does allow that eventually, global warming will begin to influence local weather events in a way we can’t ignore. But at the moment, he says, “I’m getting tired of watching extreme weather and global warming stories,” most of which are really about bad zoning decisions or the lack of storm shelters for Oklahoma school children. “What we should be talking about is population density and zoning and living with risk.”

So when can we talk about global climate and local weather? When do we cross the line into a world where a freak summer storm really can be called a climate phenomenon, and the tragic deaths that come with it are climate-related deaths?

“I’ll let you know,” Patzert assures me. “I’ll give you a call in a few years.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor of High Country News. She tweets @judlew.