Quick Take:

More stormy weather could make landfall ahead of this weekend, with another atmospheric river hitting the Bay Area and forecast to bring up to 5 inches of rain in the Santa Cruz Mountains and up to 3 inches at lower elevations.

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Yes, you read that correctly. The winter that has drenched Santa Cruz County on multiple occasions and even brought some rare snowfall might still have some wild weather left to spare.

Early forecasts show that later this week, another atmospheric river is poised to make landfall on the Central Coast, bringing 3 to 5 inches of rain to the Santa Cruz Mountains and 2 to 3 inches to lower elevations, said National Weather Service meteorologist Jeff Lorber. Gusty winds could reach between 35 and 45 mph along the coast and in the mountains.

The system is expected to hit Thursday night and last through Friday, Lorber said, with Saturday seeing lighter rain.

“Just a couple days ago it wasn’t looking that wet for the end of the week, but it’s really changed in the last 24 hours,” he said.

Lorber said that, as with previous storms this winter, flooding, fallen trees and downed power lines are all possible this week. What’s more, there will “definitely be a messy commute” both Friday morning and evening.

Santa Cruz beaches
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

He added that the coming system will be warmer, which will melt some of the snow left over from the 8 to 12 inches that dropped in the Santa Cruz Mountains in late February, and could lead to some quickly rising waters: “People along waterways, like the Salinas River, should keep their eyes and ears open.”

Santa Cruz County spokesperson Jason Hoppin told Lookout that while local officials are having weather briefings over the next few days, there are currently no plans to relaunch the emergency operations center active during January’s storms. However, he said that could change as the county monitors the situation.

Similar to the storms in January, a low-pressure system will blow in from the Pacific Northwest and combine with moisture from a region north of Hawaii to create this week’s atmospheric river. These storms can generally be considered cyclones. That said, Lorber noted that March often marks the end of the West’s rainy season, which means that it’s unlikely to see systems like this stretch into weeks of intense weather as they did in January.

“This system could be comparable to some of those earlier waves, but the likelihood of the pattern continuing is not as strong as it would be in December or January,” he said. “That’s the real big difference there.”

Lorber points to the phenomenon of “troughing” to explain the persistent pattern of cold, wet weather. Troughing means that a large area of low-pressure air allows for cold systems from icy areas like Canada and Alaska to make their way down the coast. While troughing is not unheard of, and nor is the soaking-wet winter California has endured, it is certainly different than the past few winters.

“Many of our sites are 50% to 70% above normal precipitation amounts for the water year, so we could be looking at a winter where we’re around 200% of normal rainfall,” said Lorber. “Not unprecedented, but definitely a stark contrast to the last few years.”

That oscillation between dry and wet winters, referred to as “weather whiplash,” is seen as reason for concern among climate scientists. It can affect both surface water and groundwater because when heavy rainfall events saturate the region’s soil following extended dry periods, basins and reserves retain less water.

Noting that he is not a climate scientist, Lorber said the current trends nevertheless appear to track with that line of reasoning, but it’s probably too early to definitively say so.

“You can’t take one winter and specify that it’s due to climate change,” he said. “It’s just part of a broader pattern that you have to look at over a decade or longer.”

Max Chun is the general-assignment correspondent at Lookout Santa Cruz. Max’s position has pulled him in many different directions, seeing him cover development, COVID, the opioid crisis, labor, courts...