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F. Martin Ralph, Paul J. Neiman, David E. Kingsmill, P. Ola G. Persson, Allen B. White, Eric T. Strem, Edmund D. Andrews, and Ronald C. Antweiler


Data from the California Land-Falling Jets Experiment (CALJET) are used to explore the causes of variations in flood severity in adjacent coastal watersheds within the Santa Cruz Mountains on 2–3 February 1998. While Pescadero Creek (rural) experienced its flood of record, the adjacent San Lorenzo Creek (heavily populated), attained only its fourth-highest flow. This difference resulted from conditions present while the warm sector of the storm, with its associated low-level jet, high moisture content, and weak static stability, was overhead. Rainfall in the warm sector was dominated by orographic forcing. While the wind speed strongly modulated rain rates on windward slopes, the wind direction positioned the edge of a rain shadow cast by the Santa Lucia Mountains partially over the San Lorenzo basin, thus protecting the city of Santa Cruz from a more severe flood. Roughly 26% ± 9% of the streamflow at flood peak on Pescadero Creek resulted from the warm-sector rainfall. Without this rainfall, the peak flow on Pescadero Creek would likely not have attained record status.

These results are complemented by a climatological analysis based on ∼50-yr-duration streamflow records for these and two other nearby windward watersheds situated ∼20 to 40 km farther to the east, and a comparison of this climatological analysis with composites of NCEP–NCAR reanalysis fields. The westernmost watersheds were found to have their greatest floods during El Niño winters, while the easternmost watersheds peaked during non–El Niño episodes. These results are consistent with the case study, that showed that the composite 925-mb, meridionally oriented wind direction during El Niños favors a rain shadow over the eastern watersheds. During non–El Niño periods, the composite, zonally oriented wind direction indicates that the sheltering effect of the rain shadow on the eastern watersheds is reduced, while weaker winds, less water vapor, and stronger stratification reduce the peak runoff in the western watersheds relative to El Niño periods.

These case study and climatological results illustrate the importance of conditions in the moisture-rich warm sector of landfalling Pacific winter storms. Although many other variables can influence flooding, this study shows that variations of ±10° in wind direction can modulate the location of orographically enhanced floods. While terrain can increase predictability (e.g., rainfall typically increases with altitude), the predictability is reduced when conditions are near a threshold separating different regimes (e.g., in or out of a rain shadow).

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