Californians have long feared the potential for an earthquake they call "the big one," but scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) are warning that a winter "superstorm" could be dramatically worse.

The USGS says the "ARkStorm scenario" could produce up to 10 feet of rain, resulting in massive floods, landslides, deaths and more than $300 billion in damages. The ARkStorm (short for atmospheric river 1,000) would draw heat and moisture from the tropical Pacific, forming a series of atmospheric rivers (ARs) that "approach the ferocity of hurricanes and then slam into the U.S. West Coast over several weeks," according to the USGS. Flood control infrastructures would be overwhelmed, and nearly one-quarter of the homes in California would be affected.

At a recent two-day summit, the USGS discussed the potential for the superstorm, and what emergency management agencies could do if it hit.

"The ARkStorm scenario is a complete picture of what that storm would do to the social and economic systems of California," Lucy Jones, chief scientist of the USGS Multi-Hazards Demonstration Project and architect of ARkStorm, said in a prepared statement. "We think this event happens once every 100 or 200 years or so, which puts it in the same category as our big San Andreas earthquakes. The ARkStorm is essentially two historic storms (January 1969 and February 1986) put back to back in a scientifically plausible way. The model is not an extremely extreme event."

The report on the ArkStorm was put together by a team of more than 100 scientists and experts in a process similar to the one the USGS used in 2008 to create ShakeOut, the most comprehensive earthquake scenario and the largest earthquake drill ever conducted. Here's a video about the two projects:

Even with this planning, there will always be problems. "Floods are as much a part of our lives in California as earthquakes are," Jones told the New York Times. "We are probably not going to be able to handle the biggest ones." The USGS team found that massive superstorms like this could overwhelm flood control infrastructures and other mitigation efforts.

Experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the state of California, FEMA and other agencies contributed to the ARkStorm project.

To follow the ArkStorm project, you can "like" it on Facebook.

Thumbnail tease photo: U.S. Geological Survey

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