The End of the Rain as We Know It

Say goodbye to that pleasant springtime drizzle. As the climate changes, get ready for more torrential downpours and more droughts.
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(Photo: Renata Apanaviciene/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Renata Apanaviciene/Shutterstock)

The other night I left the windows open so that I could listen to the rain, the gentle kind that only comes in the spring. It fell so steadily, so surely that it sounded like a metronome. There was no need for a clock, only an extra blanket because of the chill. I thought of that rain today while in California, where there is a severe, statewide drought.

Jack Kerouac wrote of “the myth of a rainy night,” and that is all there is in California. Weeks have passed without a drop of rain. The governor declared a state of emergency all the way back in January. They are still feeding lawns and washing cars in Los Angeles, but districts around the state are rationing water. By the end of April, 45 water agencies had already started enforcing these limits. Warnings are followed by fines, after which water agencies will restrict access or even terminate service. Some districts, like Montecito, threatened their residents that taps could run dry by the end of the summer.

The rain will soon fall at once or not at all. There will be only dryness or downpour, no more metronomic rains like the one that kept me awake the other night.

We think differently in the rain, of course, but we are learning to think differently about it, too. While California endures its drought, severe storms flooded states along the Gulf Coast, in the Mid-Atlantic, and in the Northeast. This, we are beginning to understand, is our fault: Global precipitation is affected directly by human activity. As we warm the atmosphere, it holds more moisture, which turns into rain.

Explaining last week’s flash flooding in Florida, when almost six inches of rain fell in a single hour, meteorologist Eric Holthaus wrote: “We’re supercharging the atmosphere by quickening the hydrologic cycle. In addition to causing more downpours, these enhanced evaporation rates are also leading to an increase in drought severity in places that are already dry, like California.”

We are warming the atmosphere too quickly. The rain will soon fall at once or not at all. There will be only dryness or downpour, no more metronomic rains like the one that kept me awake the other night. Like the economy, the climate is expected to change in ways that only advance inequality: The wet regions of the world will get wetter; the dry regions of the world will get drier.

Years ago, when climate change was first becoming a topic of political discourse, I suggested that we not call it “global warming,” but “climate chaos.” The overall effect is raising temperatures, but the local effects are variable, more chaotic. Anticipating the guffaws of climate skeptics whenever snows turned to blizzards or cold fronts moved throughout unexpected regions, I thought chaos might better describe the experience of living in a changing climate. And so it has, at least for me. Climate chaos is what I’ve experienced on the East Coast where I live and now on the West Coast where I am visiting.

California is still figuring out how to live with its drought. The rationing will help the current water supply last a little longer. Some parts of the state are experimenting with cloud seeding and reviving old efforts at desalination. Both solutions are costly, unpredictable, and may cause more damage than the drought itself. Desalination is not only expensive, but also energy-intensive; environmentalists say it threatens marine life in the areas from which the water is drawn. Cloud seeding cannot produce precipitation from nothing, only induce rain to fall that might have fallen later through the use of chemicals that some fear are themselves dangerous.

So what to do about the end of rain? Whether we live in the West with droughts or the East with downpours, we will have to get used to there being only extremes. “Yes, climate change is already here,” climate scientist Richard B. Alley told the New York Times, “But the costs so far are still on the low side compared to what will be coming under business as usual by late in this century.”

When President Obama talked to the morning shows about the National Climate Assessment, not even he seemed capable of articulating what any of us could do. “We’re going to have to continue to increase the solar and wind power we’re using and other renewables,” he told ABC News. The EPA has a few more pointed thoughts: nine suggestions for homeowners; four ideas for the office; six suggestions for those who drive; and even a few ideas for students, teachers, and administrators. It is good to remember that there are specific things we can each do at home and work and school to reduce our energy use, and good, too, to realize that many of them will save us money.

Doing these may not be enough, but they are some things we can do, and I suspect many of us will regret not doing anything when the seasons are no more, when the rain falls all at once or not at all. I mentioned Kerouac’s “myth of a rainy night,” but I have also long loved Ernest Hemingway’s writing about the rain. I suppose he described it so well because he observed it in so many places.

One of the most stunning examples is in A Moveable Feast, his memoir of Paris. “When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring,” Hemingway writes, “it was as though a young person had died for no reason.” Perhaps that is how we will feel when there are no seasons at all.

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