Recreating the California New Year's flood event of 1997 in a regionally refined earth system model

Alan M. Rhoades, Colin M. Zarzycki, Héctor A. Inda-Diaz, Mohammed Ombadi, Ulysse Pasquier, Abhishekh Srivastava, Benjamin J. Hatchett, Eli Dennis, Anne Heggli, Rachel McCrary, Seth McGinnis, Stefan Rahimi-Esfarjani, Emily Slinskey, Paul A. Ullrich, Michael Wehner, Andrew D. Jones

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The 1997 New Year's flood event was the most costly in California's history. This compound extreme event was driven by a category 5 atmospheric river that led to widespread snowmelt. Extreme precipitation, snowmelt, and saturated soils produced heavy runoff causing widespread inundation in the Sacramento Valley. This study recreates the 1997 flood using the Regionally Refined Mesh capabilities of the Energy Exascale Earth System Model (RRM-E3SM) under prescribed ocean conditions. Understanding the processes causing extreme events informs practical efforts to anticipate and prepare for such events in the future, and also provides a rich context to evaluate model skill in representing extremes. Three California-focused RRM grids, with horizontal resolution refinement of 14 km down to 3.5 km, and six forecast lead times, 28 December 1996 at 00Z through 30 December 1996 at 12Z, are assessed for their ability to recreate the 1997 flood. Planetary to synoptic scale atmospheric circulations and integrated vapor transport are weakly influenced by horizontal resolution refinement over California. Topography and mesoscale circulations, such as the Sierra barrier jet, are better represented at finer horizontal resolutions resulting in better estimates of storm total precipitation and storm duration snowpack changes. Traditional time-series and causal analysis frameworks are used to examine runoff sensitivities state-wide and above major reservoirs. These frameworks show that horizontal resolution plays a more prominent role in shaping reservoir inflows, namely the magnitude and time-series shape, than forecast lead time, 2-to-4 days prior to the 1997 flood onset.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2023MS003793
JournalJournal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems
Issue number10
Early online date12 Oct 2023
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2023


  • Earth system model
  • extremes
  • flood
  • hydrometeorology
  • rain-on-snow
  • regionally refined mesh

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