Archive for 2014 January

Death Dust, or, why I’m on the PCT in winter

Dana Goodyear absolutely crushes the story of valley fever in last week's New Yorker. An excerpt:

The regionality of cocci is only partly to blame for the pace of research. In the lab, cocci presents a serious hazard. Early on, laboratory infections were common; a grad student would open a petri dish and, whoosh, millions of spores would go up his nose. (After farm work, lab work was considered to have the greatest occupational risk; at Stanford, a center of valley-fever research, a group of obstetrics students got it, though their classroom was two stories above the cocci lab.) At the county public-health building in Bakersfield, I saw a slide of cocci, recovered from a patient’s sputum and fed agar, potato extract, and sugar. Angled in a test tube to reduce surface area and stored in a bio-safety cabinet (air flow, straight up), the slide was covered with a cloudy gray smear, like a spiral galaxy. “Here he is,” the lab director said. “Just looks like a little bread mold. He’s making arthrospores in there, and if we opened it we’d just get a little invisible cloud of infectious particles.” Cocci researchers typically work in Bio Safety Level 3 labs: hepa-filtered air, seamless floors and ceilings, closed antechamber. Until last year, Cimmitis was listed as a Select Agent. After culturing it, lab technicians had seven days to report to the Department of Homeland Security that it had been destroyed.

In Tucson, Galgiani took me to see the university’s Bio Safety 3 lab. In the corridor, you could hear an autoclave grinding like a hotel icemaker, sterilizing every piece of lab equipment and protective gear that came into contact with the pathogenic agents inside. In addition to cocci, the lab handles monkey pox, mouse pox, West Nile, and chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus for which there is currently no treatment. On the wall was a group of manometers. Galgiani checked that the pressure in the rooms was lower than that in the hall: a containment strategy.

“In the nineteen-fifties, both the U.S. and the Russians had bio-warfare programs using cocci,” he said. “Generals can’t control agents that rely on air currents to disperse them, and it was difficult to use the vector precisely, so it fell out of favor. But terrorists don’t care about that stuff—all they care about is perception. A single cell can cause disease, and you can genetically modify it to make it more powerful.” He held up his wallet to a sensor by the door, then put his finger on a fingerprint reader. “The atrium is as far as we get,” he said as we stepped inside. “When you work like this, everything slows down, for safety reasons. It’s a harder kind of research to do.”

Because Valley Fever is endemic to the Antelope Valley, and most dangerous in fall, during windy times and after the summer's heat, I'm going to walk Section D of the Pacific Crest Trail in January. (Helps that we're in the midst of a drought, so snow is not a factor.) Will be gone for a week. Wish me luck. 


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Ridiculously Resilient Ridge to break down: NWS

Yesterday an exciting pressure chart came my way via the indefatiguable John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal. Albuquerque, which has had no perceptible precipitation to date this winter, is as interested in the so-called "Ridiculously Resilient Ridge" of high pressure that has been blocking any possible weather from the Pacific as we are here in California.

So it's exciting when that "RRR" shows signs of breaking down. John put up this chart from the National Weather Service (NWS):


Chatted about this with the helpful meteorologist John Sucop at the Oxnard office of the NWS. He said that models (available to the public here at an NCEP site — check out the loops) show the ridge breaking down by the edge of the month as low pressure systems continue to hit it. 

Of course the ridge could reform: that happens all the time. But the anomaly can't last forever. 

In the meanwhile, might as well take advantage of the anomaly and go hike the San Gabriel Mountains in the winter, when it's mild, bugless, and lacking snow. Usually those hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, section D, are told to wait until May until the snow passes — not this year. 

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“Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” explains West Coast drought

That's the meteorological explanation: a ridge of high pressure over the West Coast that has been blocking weather from the Pacific, driving it north, leaving the entire West Coast in drought. 

But what explains the so-called "Ridiculously Resilient Ridge?". 

That we really don't know yet and the climatologists are loathe to speculate. One spot of good news: Paul Rodgers for the San Jose Mercury News discusses the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge brilliantly. 



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The Titanic/global warming analogy takes a dramatic turn

Last week The New Yorker led off with an uncharacteristically labored analogy/editorial from Adam Gopnik, who pointed out that the Titanic had a twin sister, the Olympic, which sailed unharmed through the frozen northern seas for decades and (he suggested) so could we. 

"It reminds us that our imagination of disaster is dangerously more fertile than our imagination of the ordinary. You have certainly heard of the Titanic; you have probably never heard of the Olympic."

Okay, that's sweet, but doesn't it seem rather besides the point? Far more memorably last week a snarky Internet commentator not nearly as famous as Gopnik found a detail from the familiar Titanic story/metaphor that made a far bigger splash on the intertubes, because it briliantly dramatized what has become an all-too-frequent pattern among deniers. Too often the likes of James Inhofe (who wore long underwear to work at the Senate last week, to show that the evidence for global warming is "laughable") will exalt  an ephemeral detail — a cold snap — in an attempt to wave off the facts. This new metaphor fought that mockery with its own mockery.

Take it away, Nerdy Jewish Girl!  

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Polar Vortex images (from first week of 2013)

A number of publications last week published compendiums of amazing images from the polar vortex's drunken stagger, in Chris Mooney's wonderful story, across nearly all the nation save drought-stricken CA. Frozen lakes, waterfalls, etc. Here's NASA's GOES satellite picture:


Fine. But what about the vortex of public reaction? Tom Toles sketches that one:


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A national hazard map for earthquakes in SoCal: VC Star

A few days after publishing my shockingly popular story on the Ventura fault last week, and thinking of the upcoming twenty-year anniversary of the Northridge quake, the Ventura County Star followed up with a brief story on seismic risk in Southern Califonia, quoting some of the same experts I qutoed.

The new story can be found here

I'm disappointed that they didn't ask me to follow up. You know it's tough out there for a freelancer. But the paper did publish a hational hazard map of the Northridge quake, which intrigues:


If this is a map from l996, makes one wonder what the seismic hazard maps of today look like.

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Ventura stands on deep, dangerous fault system: VC Star

Several new studies funded by the Southern California Earthquake Center have identified Ventura as a hot spot for geological activity, with a fault running directly under downtown potentially far more dangerous than previously believed.

If the fault ruptures along its length and involves other faults, it could cause a major earthquake and massive damage, with the possibility of a strong local tsunami, researchers say.

Here's a story on the front page of the Ventura County Star about the "high hazard" the city and the region face from a network of earthquake faults.

My editor at the paper gave me a go-ahead to attend a scientific conference last month, and added a pretty wonderful graphic, and made this story free to the public on line for at least a day, all of which show it matters to the paper and all are facts for which I'm grateful.

But I hope this story doesn't get a whole lot bigger. 


Several new studies funded by the Southern California Earthquake Center have identified Ventura as a hot spot for geological activity, with a fault running directly under downtown potentially far more dangerous than previously believed.

If the fault ruptures along its length and involves other faults, it could cause a major earthquake and massive damage, with the possibility of a strong local tsunami, researchers say. The Ventura research was presented at an American Geophysical Union conference last month in San Francisco.

“We have a multiplicity of concerns about Ventura,” said Thomas Jordan, who directs the USC-based center.

“The Ventura fault that runs right through downtown is a very active structure, and Ventura County is an area with many big thrust faults, including San Cayetano, Red Mountain and Pitas Point.

“If you have a 7.3 out in the desert where there’s nothing but a small Marine base, it’s no big deal. But if you put a magnitude 6.3 in the middle of a city, there’s hell to pay, and the fault in downtown Ventura is capable of a lot more than that.”

Using holes drilled about 75 feet deep in a corner of the Ventura College campus, as well as sounding methods at various sites along Day Road in Ventura, researchers found evidence in the layers of stratification of a large earthquake 770 to 1,020 years ago.

The earthquake made a scarp — a fold in the Earth like a fold in a rug. Over hundreds of years, deposits from floods covered and smoothed it out. Today, it’s a gentle slope more or less along Poli Street and Foothill Road, not far from the base of the hills overlooking Ventura.

[a pic of the slope from the paper]


Note: Researcher Judith Hubbard, who graduated from Harvard in 2012, gave me a couple of charts that illustrate literally at a deeper level what is going on, and encouraged me to use them, so here are two profiles that show how deep the Ventura fault was thought to be in 1982 and how deep we think it goes today. 


You can barely see a crack in the top graph: in the bottom it links with a whole floor of faults. 

To continue with the story:

The earthquake made a scarp — a fold in the Earth like a fold in a rug. Over hundreds of years, deposits from floods covered and smoothed it out. Today, it’s a gentle slope more or less along Poli Street and Foothill Road, not far from the base of the hills overlooking Ventura.

The earthquake that made this slope was anything but gentle, found researchers James Dolan, a USC professor of geology, and Lee Mcauliffe, a graduate student working with Dolan.

“You’re talking about moving a whole chunk of the Earth’s crust in a few seconds,” Dolan said. “We’re talking 6 meters of uplift and 10 meters of displacement. That’s very, very energetic. You simply don’t see that in earthquakes of less than 7.5” magnitude.

Craig Nicholson, a geophysicist at UC Santa Barbara, pointed out that the 1994 Northridge quake was 6.7 in magnitude. A 7.5 would be about 30 times as strong as the Northridge quake, which caused about $40 billion in damage, according to Nicholson.


Dolan cited new studies by Judith Hubbard, a structural geologist now at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and Tom Rockwell, a geology professor at San Diego State University. Hubbard used oil industry data to help find and profile the Ventura fault. Rockwell used old photos to identify uplifted plateaus along the coast north of the city.

Both have deepened geologists’ understanding of the Ventura fault system.

“Previously, there had been some debate as to whether the Ventura fault was capable of generating large earthquakes or whether it was a surface feature and not much of a factor,” Dolan said. “What this study and other studies … are showing is that these are large displacement events. That means many meters of slip, which indicates that this fault is capable of an earthquake well in excess of a 7” magnitude.

Hubbard spent four months analyzing seismic profiles of the Ventura region provided by the oil industry. The profiles, based on sound waves sent miles below the surface by explosions, provide records of stratification in rock.

Scientists believe that the longer and deeper a fault runs, the more risk it poses. Previous study of the Ventura fault estimated it extended about 1,000 feet below the surface. Hubbard’s results show it extends at least 7,500 feet below.

This means it likely connects to numerous other faults in the region, extending north toward Santa Barbara along the Red Mountain fault, out to sea along the Pitas Point fault, eastward along the San Cayetano fault and southward along the Lion fault.

Note: Hubbard stressed that maps that show faults at the surface, which don't appear to connect, are misleading in the Ventura basin, because we don't see what's happening below. Here's a graph of hers that uses oil rigs to give a sense of the Ventura fault's depth. 

 And here's one that maps various basin faults at depth, showing how closely they lie. 


Sorry! Perhaps the edtor was right. Back to the story:

Hubbard's study estimated that terraces along Highway 101 north of Ventura, which thousands of years ago were beneath the sea, were raised by 16 to 32 feet per earthquake.

“This much uplift would require large earthquakes (magnitude 7.7 to 8.1) involving the entire Ventura/Pitas Point system, and possibly more structures such as the San Cayetano fault,” Hubbard wrote. “Due to the local geography and geology, such events would be associated with significant ground shaking amplification and strong regional tsunamis.”


Rockwell has documented four earthquakes along the Ventura/Pitas Point faults in the past 7,000 years, most recently about 1,000 years ago. Rockwell estimates earthquakes strike there every 400 to 2,800 years, but the long intervals are not entirely good news. It suggests a fault rupture will occur over a greater length and may involve more than one fault.

Ventura County has few large earthquakes in its historical record. A well-documented earthquake in 1812 damaged several missions along the Central Coast, including the San Buenaventura Mission. A second earthquake later that year caused a tsunami that struck Goleta, Santa Barbara and Ventura, according to historical records compiled in the late 1970s by the California Division of Mines and Geology.

Using sonar and seismic instrumentation, Rockwell has been working with graduate student Gulsen Ucarkus, a researcher at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, on an undersea survey of the Ventura-Pitas Point fault system as it moves offshore. He also is working with Steve Ward, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, on this fault’s potential to cause tsunamis. Also in the works is a model of the potential for ground shaking.

“If you look at the national hazard maps … you will see an extremely high hazard in the Ventura basin,” Lucile Jones, a nationally recognized seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said at last month’s conference. “It’s a confluence of faults that are moving very rapidly, and there’s probably a lot of buried faults that we can’t see, too, in such a fast-deforming basin.

“You’re one of the hot spots in California.”

And here's a link to the paper's excellent interactive graphic — with comments apparently from Lucy Jones, independent of my reporting — which the paper kindly encouraged sharing. 


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Connecting global warming and California drought

What is causing the drought in the West? Could it be a jetstream phenomenon connected to the cold winter being experienced back East? Which could be connected to blockages interrupting the polar vortex, causing it to spill southward into places like the Ohio Valley? And could those blockages be connected — as researchers such as Jen Francis contend — to global warming? 

In other words — could global warming be bringing us dryness here in California? 

The possibility could be a big story, with — as they say in the journalism trade — lots of moving parts.

Many studies have suggested the possibility that global warming could intensity drought in the West, but some of the leading modelers have tried to replicate the causal mechanism without success statistically, resulting in a genuine controversy in the field. In turn, the modelers have been sharply criticized for ignoring crucial factors such as soil mositure, by the likes of Kevin Trenberth, as discussed by Joe Romm in a ClimateProgress report

Not all climate science is settled to the nth degree. As long as reputable scientists are presenting research disputing the global warming/Western drought connection, the truth of the charge is unproven. 

Still, it's hard to avoid the possibility, especially in the High Sierra. 

Let me offer an example: 

On the shoreline at Lake Tahoe, where snow should be piled high by now, Valerie Chown and her family this week stumbled across a most unusual winter phenomenon.

There, on the beach, was a nude sunbather.

"It was crazy," said Chown, 59, of Los Altos Hills, about the encounter at Secret Cove, where a few too many secrets were revealed, at least for this time of year.

Only in California. That's from Peter Fimrite of the San Francisco Chronice.

Here's Bettina Boxer's version in the LA Times:

The signs aren’t good when the chief of California’s snow survey has to walk over bare ground to take a snowpack measurement in the Sierra Nevada, as Frank Gehrke did Friday near Echo Summit.

Manual and electronic readings up and down the range placed the statewide snowpack at 20% of normal for this date, adding to worries that 2014 could be a bad drought year.

The meager snowpack was not a surprise. Last year was California’s driest in 119 years of records, according to the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno.

This story includes a picture, though it's not much fun. All the officials are looking down: 


Meanwhile, as Climate Central reports, the center of the country is being hit hard by an outbreak of the polar vortex, depicted here in a model for January 6 by WeatherBELL Analytics:


Or, more precisely, in the words of Climate Central:

The cause of the Arctic outbreak can be traced to northeastern Canada and Greenland, where an area of high pressure and relatively mild temperatures is set to block the eastward progression of weather systems, like an offensive lineman protecting the quarterback from the other team.

The atmospheric blocking is forcing a section of the polar vortex to break off and move south, into the U.S. The polar vortex is an area of cold low pressure that typically circulates around the Arctic during the winter, spreading tentacles of cold southward into Europe, Asia, and North America at times. Except this time, it’s not a small section of the vortex, but what one forecaster, Ryan Maue of WeatherBELL Analytics, called “more like the whole enchilada” in a Twitter conversation on Thursday.

How cold will it get? Computer model forecasts project low temperatures on Monday night in Washington to drop to near zero, and below zero in Boston and possibly New York City as well. Dayton, Ohio, is likely to see lows from 10-20°F below zero, and parts of Iowa could see temperatures into the minus 30s°F. 

This raises the inevitable connection: Is there a Western onnection?

According to Fish Out of Water, for KOS, the answer is…yes:

This image shows that the lower half of the atmosphere above the northeastern Pacific was much warmer and thicker than normal in 2013, blocking jet stream flow that would bring storms to California.


The jet stream tracked far north of normal in 2013, leaving the west coast of the U.S. in drought. A dome of warmer than normal air and higher than normal pressure pushed west coast storms towards Alaska.

But is this atmospheric high pressure system the cause of California's drought, or a consequence of an oceanic pattern?

An alternative view puts responsibility at the feet of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, better known as the PDO. As Bill Patzert told the LA Times:

Climatologist Bill Patzert of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge blames a long-lasting weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

In the cycle's negative phase, the surface waters of the western Pacific warm while the eastern Pacific cools, rather like a big La Niña that pushes the jet stream and the storms it carries to the north of California.

The reverse ocean temperature pattern prevails when the oscillation is in the positive phase, producing wetter, El Niño-like conditions.

For more than a decade, the oscillation has tended toward the negative. "Since 1997-98 more or less, we've been in a dry pattern" in the West, Patzert said.

A glance at the weather service records backs that up. Of the 10 driest years recorded in downtown L.A., two — 2013 and 2007 — have occurred in the last decade.

Which is to say — natural variability. And the KOS blogger does admit the possibility, and fall into speculation in the conclusion to his post:

I suspect the weakening of the thermohaline circulation around Antarctica resulting from the freshening of the waters is driving an acceleration in the trade winds and the ocean currents. About 20% less water is sinking around Antarctica, so the thermal gradient is increasing around Antarctica. This is paradoxically increasing Antarctic winter sea ice while the global oceans warm up faster than expected.

And he adds:

Of course, there are natural cycles and there's always natural variability.

To which one can only say: Of course.

Frankly, at this point, we can only hope for an outbreak of natural variability — anything to vary the pattern from dryness.

Went to Death Valley after Christmas and was struck by the fact that it seemed only slightly drier than the rest of Southern California. Which usually by now has had more than an inch or so of rain, when absolutely none is foreseen for this month: 


It's worrisome — kind of like the Devil's Gold Course in Death Valley National Park. Badwater

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A writer needs a reader: Cheever

From a gloom-and-doom appraisal of the book trade in the Times — which may well be on the mark, may I say — a great quote from the late great John Cheever:

I can't write without a reader. it's precisely like a kiss — you can't do it alone. 

A pic of Cheever from at home:


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