From the L.A. Times: “A total of 11.61 inches of rain was recorded in 2006 at the National Weather Service’s downtown Los Angeles weather station located on the campus of USC. In contrast, in February of 2005 just over 11 inches of rain fell during that month alone.”

Ah yes, the Mediterranean climate. It’s always annoyed me when weather forecasters talk about rainfall being below or above “normal,” because in the climate of Southern California in particular, there is no normal. There’s only average. And we hardly ever hit average, as the figures above show. Mike Davis’s City of Fear includes a rant about this very subject, and I’m sure I can’t match Davis’s rantiness, but it’s still an interesting topic.

It’s also a good example of how our preconceptions about the environment play into how we study it. It’s only been in the last few decades that climatologists have started to consider the Mediterranean climate as driven by catastrophic events, not by the concept of equilibrium that we associate with the humid midcontinental or marine west coast climates of the Eastern U.S. and Europe. Huge swings in terms of rainfall and temperature are perfectly normal for the Mediterranean climate, which is located (besides the obvious parts of Europe, West Asia, and North Africa) along the tips of southern South America, Africa, and Australia. And, of course, California, which means the Mediterranean climate has a disproportionately large share of the population in relation to the land area it covers.

Except here (and in Australia), most of the inhabitants are first- or second-generation dwellers, having come from more regular, “normal” climates. They see these extremes of rainfall as abnormal, something very strange. And they build and dwell as though average rainfalls were normal, as though the typical 11 inches a year was something they would receive every year, not an average of years of plenty and years of want. On the other hand, they do have to prepare for those years of plenty with huge flood control systems to compensate for all of the absorbant wetlands that have been paved over, kind of like having to build the mall parking lot big enough for the day after Thanksgiving, and wasting all of that asphalt the rest of the year. As I tell my classes, it wasn’t until I moved to California that I realized blue lines on the map don’t always correspond to actual water, just concrete ditches.

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