Christine Albano, a post-graduate researcher at UC Davis, conducts her research at the Tahoe Environmental Research Center. Courtesy photo

UC Davis

Science matters: ARkStorms can be planned for in Tahoe

By From page A1 | August 12, 2014

* Editor’s note: The Enterprise is highlighting some of the young UC Davis researchers who will be presenting at this week’s Ecological Society of America’s annual conference in Sacramento.

As a post-graduate researcher at UC Davis for the past 2 1/2 years, Christine Albano has really enjoyed her time at the Tahoe Environmental Research Center.

Albano has been in plenty of other mountain environments, since she’s originally from Salt Lake City, doing her undergraduate work at Westminster College. And from there, she attended Colorado State for a master’s in ecology.

Her fondness for high altitude brought her to UCD and Lake Tahoe, to study ARkStorms. Specifically, what is happening with atmospheric rivers over Tahoe?

“ARkStorm as in ‘Noah’s Ark,’ ” Albano explained. “It’s kind of a play on words,” indicating a storm is so big that an ark might be necessary. The “AR” comes from atmospheric river, and the “‘k’ is an indicator of storm size.”

What’s the best way to describe an atmospheric river?

“A ‘Pineapple Express’ is one form of atmospheric river,” Albano said. It’s a long corridor of water vapor transported from the tropics.

ARs are the main meteorological tropical hazard to the West Coast, she added: “They’re akin to tropical storms and hurricanes in the Southeast.”

So a team at UCD’s Tahoe Environmental Research Center — including the U.S. Geological Survey and Tahoe Science Consortium — has been working on an “extreme storm scenario. ARkStorm is essentially meant to be a plausible storm, on par with the storms and floods that happened in 1861 and 1862 in California, and destroyed the California economy,” Albano said.

The research abstract explains that “the exercise will be the first time that the scenario has been explored in a region that includes mountainous terrain with precipitation in the form of snow and large areas of non-urban land.”

Specifically, what are vulnerabilities in a community such as Tahoe, where they are cut off from surrounding cities?

“Through conversations (with various entities) we discovered a number of vulnerabilities” if a very large storm such as those in the 1860s occurred now. Public utilities, water management and infrastructure all need special attention, she said.

Albano and her colleagues were able to develop a summary report with potential actions for preparedness and recovery response.

Suggestions ranged from larger culverts for water redirection, raising dam heights without increasing water storage and improved sewage transport systems.

Additionally, more monitoring networks are needed. Albano explained that the level of preparedness and ability to respond is a valuable tool for the emergency management community and for natural resource management.

And, she pointed out, “We did this entire effort without mentioning climate change,” the politically charged subject that can derail projects with the best intentions. “An ARkStorm could happen next winter,” Albano said.

Speaking of next winter, Albano has taken advantage of her proximity to so many Tahoe ski resorts in her time up there. And the description of “Sierra Cement” is disappointingly accurate.

“It’s totally true!” Albano laughed. “Utah snow is so much better because it’s deep, light and powdery.”

Although she does concede, “Having to learn in these conditions makes you a better skier.”

— Reach Tanya Perez at 530-747-8056 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @enterprisetanya

Tanya Perez

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