Tag archive for Southern California

ON THE BRINK: SoCal faces dire, drier future

Here’s a story I spent a month or so reporting over the summer for the Ventura County Reporter: What the science is saying about the prospects for drought this century in Southern California

ON THE BRINK: Southern California faces dire, drier future

I’d like to dedicate this story to the late great climatologist Kelly Redmond, who died of cancer yesterday. Kelly was a legend in the field for his knowledge and his ability to communicate with others. (As an example, here’s a link to his Tyndall Lecture at the AGU a couple of years ago on accelerating environmental change — not just climate change). I think it’s probably the most thoughtful talk I’ve ever heard at the AGU.

Certainly, Kelly was the nicest guy this reporter ever met on the job. He took a call from me about fifteen years ago, completely out of the blue, from a complete unknown (me) working for a not very big paper, asking a great number of very naive questions about climate, and for well over an hour gave me, impromptu, over the phone, an introduction to the science. Climate 101. Amazing. When I saw him at conferences he always would chat, and always had something interesting to say. In 2012, I think it was, I saw him at a mixer at the AGU, and when I asked what’s new in the field, he said that “We [climatologists] never expected the Arctic to go over to the dark side so soon.” Jeez. I liked to say that he had a bit of the poet in him, as well as the scientist.

Miss you already, Kelly Redmond.

Will discuss the story more in days to come: here’s the cover picture.




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“The forks in the road”: Park Williams

Happy to say I found a way to profile the adventurous young forest ecologist Park Williams for the Santa Barbara Independent. The on-line version is the complete version of what I wrote; the print version is somewhat shorter. But let me add a couple of images and notes, because this story has a lot of different angles.

First, here’s a pic (if I can find it) of the way fog characteristically forms on Santa Cruz Island:














Under those fog banks grow Bishop Pines — and nowhere else on the island.

These pics came with the help, may I add, of researcher Sara Baguskas, who presented a paper on the subject of Bishop Pines and other trees on Santa Cruz Island at the AGU science conference this past December, and passed on her slides.*

But that’s background. Here’s the story.

A sense of play and a willingness to take big chances have always been important to Park Williams.

Although he is one of the most honored young scientists to attend UC Santa Barbara in recent years, winning a Graduate School Researcher of the Year award at UCSB and an Ecological Society of America award for young scientists in 2013, as well as becoming a fixture at the prestigious Tree Ring Lab of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Williams didn’t plan to become an ecological scientist, and he didn’t have his heart set on attending UCSB.

Born in l981 and raised near Sacramento, he went to UC Irvine for his B.S. degree but had a difficult time choosing a field after graduating. He applied to Berkeley, to Davis, and to Santa Barbara, each in different fields, from atmospheric chemistry to geology to forest ecology (at UCSB).

“I applied to UCSB, but I thought I was going to Berkeley because it had a bigger name. But then I visited Santa Barbara and talked to Chris Still, who later became my graduate advisor,” he said. “After talking to him, I accepted their offer the next day.”

Still, who now leads an ecosystem research lab at Oregon State University in Corvallis, remembers working with Williams well. They bonded over a fascination with cloud forests — moist tropical or subtropical forests filled with low-level clouds.

“Park is a terrific scientist, but he’s also a person who loves life and has a great time, which is a balance not all scientists have worked out,” Still said, mentioning a wild and crazy charitable project Williams launched after Hurricane Katrina.

Amazingly, a little of that direct-from-the-time is available on line through archives kept in UCSB’s geology division. Here’s the link.

In fact, there is an on-line available picture of Park in this wild and crazy phase of his life.










And how does Park explain his outfit? From September 21, 2005:

“Thanks for noticing,” Park Williams said when I commented on his outfit. Well, it’s hard not to notice a strapping weightlifter when he’s wearing a pink tutu, pink hair curlers, and pink slippers—and sporting a new moustache. No, he’s not campaigning for gay rights or doing field research on an arcane aspect of behavioral geography. As Park, a grad student working on his PhD in Climatology, puts it, ”In an attempt to spice up my life and do my part to save the world at the same time, until November 1, 2005 I will be accepting and acting upon dares and double-dog-dares for monetary donations that will go directly to the Hurricane Katrina Red Cross relief effort.”

Here’s what happened:

After New Orleans was devastated late in the summer of 2005, Williams set out to raise money for the Red Cross. He launched a site called Daring is Caring and took on dares for contributions to the cause. “It was really a hilarious thing he did,” said Still. “Basically he enlisted a bunch of his friends to help him out and solicited dares for pledges to the Red Cross.”

Williams began by singing karaoke rap songs down on State Street but soon graduated to wilder gigs, wearing tutus, delivering pizza around campus in a Speedo, and taking “a double dog dare” from a local radio show, which included going to a high-end pet store — now defunct — on State Street dressed only in a bathing suit and covered with dog treats and allowing the dogs to lick him clean.

(A reliable source told that Williams raised considerable funds with the help of a radio station — into the thousands.)

In an interview at the enormous fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco in December, Williams admits that at first he had a little too much fun at UCSB.

“I think it is a party school, at least compared to some of the other UCs,” he said. “And I think undergraduates especially need to be careful to be sure they can succeed in an environment where there’s a party going on almost all the time. It took me a couple of years.”

Williams initially wanted to do research into the cloud forests of Costa Rica, but he couldn’t find funding and ended up working in cloud forests much closer to home — on Santa Cruz Island.

“I don’t think I appreciated at the time how beautiful it was and what an opportunity it was to be living in Southern California but isolated from the gigantic human population,” he said.

Although he spent most nights in the field station on the western side of the island, the work often called for camping and rising at dawn to check the harp-like machine constructed to harvest fog water. By comparing the chemical composition of fog water to that inside the trees, the research group discovered how dependent the tree was on fog — about 10-15 percent it turns out.

So, it seems, Williams went from a wild and crazy party life at UCSB, to pursuing his science into beauty and isolation on Santa Cruz Island and, somewhat to his own surprise, discovering a whole new world out there.

This world includes some tough news, an example being how devastated Bishop Pines were on the islands by long (five-year) droughts, as of 1987-l991, and the most recent drought, which is also going into its fifth year. The land is changing profoundly out there, even without direct human intervention.

Here’s a slide from Sara Baguskas’ research, linked below.









Let Park explain:

Williams went on to compare tree ring growth with records of fog occurrence kept by local airports and showed that the trees do grow significantly more in years with foggy summers. The rare pine species also depend on winter rain, and droughts — such as the drought of 1987 to l991— led to mass tree mortality.

Williams went on to pore over decades of cloud records collected at airports since the 1940s to see if fog behavior has been changing, possibly as part of global warming.

“I was really surprised what a clear story came out of the data,” he said. “Out of that jumps this correlation between the urbanization of Southern California and the warming which comes with that.”

In a widely publicized study last year, Williams showed that in large urbanized areas the warming associated with the “heat island effect” means that marine moisture condenses into clouds at higher altitudes than it does in wild environments, reducing shading and fog and raising temperatures on land in cities.

“These low clouds are really important regulators of drought at the Earth’s surface,” he said. “For people, it’s not such a big deal [because they have alternate water sources], but for ecosystems the fog water is all they’ve got during summer.”

Williams has gone on to become something of a wizard at crunching vast datasets. He has worked with noted researchers in the Southwest, including Nate McDowell and Craig Allen, showing how imperiled forests in the region are by climate change. With a team led by Richard Seager, he studied global warming and drought in California, showing that about 15-20 percent of the drought’s impact can be attributed to human-caused warming.

“Global warming has significantly enhanced an existing trend towards fire weather in the Southwest,” he said. “It’s tough watching this happening, and it makes for a lot of sad stories, but maybe this work will be of benefit to western land managers and allow them to peer into the future.”

As for advice Williams would give to younger researchers, he turns contemplative. “Don’t sweat too much about the decision of what to study,” he said. “Just go and work very hard. Do something you’re interested in, and don’t worry too much about the forks in the road.”

And then, the way I would like to present the image:

And then he grinned.









[*Baguskas presented a paper at the AGU on fog and mass mortality among pines at the AGU, filling in for a colleague, but it happened not to be the paper available from the conference for linkage.]

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Another paper published my FORECAST: GODZILLA story, which includes an amusing history of the “meme” from the weather reporter’s friend at JPL/NASA, Bill Patzert.

Don’t usually repost my reporting, but I really like this story, and this paper used my headline.














They didn’t use the image that launched the concept, however (see below). Guess the monster lurking in the data may not be as visible to others as it is to me.

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Rain reaches Southern California: December 2014

Awoke to the sound of dripping. The liquid murmur of the rain. So missed! Images too — of precipitable water, for instance — offer beauty.  (Motion displays best if clicked to embiggen.) 


That gif doesn't necessarily display well, but this depiction of the swirling moisture from an atmospheric river gives an idea — it's not enough to get us out of drought, but it's a start. 


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The grit of SoCal beach culture: Britt Ehringer

“..in this show I thought he found a true wildness, a connection between punk and surfing, that was raw, edgy, and beautiful, both in composition and material.”

A show at a new (or semi-new) Ojai gallery introduced me to an artist named Britt Ehringer, who appears to have something to say about Southern California's beach culture. In this show (if not all his others) I thought he found a true wildness, a connection between punk and surfing, that was raw, edgy, and beautiful, both in composition and material.


"Southern California has a way of lulling people to sleep with the always sunny, euphoric beach mentality, but under the smoggy haze is a very different reality," Ehringer said (in a release). "There's a grit to Southern California that is a direct contrast to the almost transparent and light-hearted beach culture and the two contrasts make a very interesting artistic dichotomy."

Reminiscent of "surf noir," its "dark lord" Kem Nunn, and his classic Tapping the Source.   

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Snow disappearing from Southern California mountains

Don't expect to see pictures below much in the future. From the LA Times

study released Friday projects a significant decline in snowfall on the
ranges that provide a dramatic backdrop to urban Southern California.

By mid-century, the amount of snow draping the mountains
could decrease 30% to 40%, researchers say. If greenhouse gas emissions
continue unabated, the ranges could lose two-thirds of their snow by
century’s end.

That means fewer
and fewer days in coming decades will reflect the classic images of sun
and snow that have idealized life in Southern California since 1920s
citrus-crate labels beckoned to Easterners.

“It kind of cuts to our identity,” said Jonathan
Parfrey, a commissioner with the Los Angeles Department of Water and
who is also executive director of Climate Resolve, a local nonprofit concerned with climate change.

This has been my experience, walking up to the snow in our local mountains (the Topa Topas) every winter. Even at 6000+ feet, it snows less frequently, and when it does snow, it snows less. 

It's impossible to remove the natural variability, thank God, but still — much less snow. 



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Rain comes to the desert: Chris Clarke

The ecologists never fail to describe coastal Southern California as a semi-arid region, which all too many residents transmute into "desert." It's not! Big difference between a land of some rain and a land of no rain. Trees, for one. As Chris Clarke, who has an interesting gig writing for KCET points out, rain often skips the desert entirely. But when the rain does come, it's transforming: 

If the wave of scent that precedes the storm is strong enough to be euphoric, the scent when the rain actually hits can be mind-altering. The first drop hits soil. It dissolves the accumulated resin and dust of a year, or two or three, and releases it: a small wet grenade exploding in perfume. Then another hits. Then another. Before the marks of the droplets even begin to merge on the ground, they fill the air with volatiles: the air becomes like turpentine, but less choking.

And then a new scent overwhelms the others, literally washes them out. It can take a few years in the desert to notice it, but it's not subtle. It's just that outside the desert you're never away from that smell. It is the scent of water itself, rendered overpoweringly noticable by its absence — until now.

The presence of that writng!


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No El Nino or La Nina this year, just La Nada

Like the headline the Star put on my story from Saturday: No El Nino or La Nina this year, just La Nada

The crucial quote couple of graphs from the story, featuring media star and friend Bill Patzert:

Veteran forecaster Bill Patzert, who works with the NASA-affiliated
Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena on long-range forecasts for
Southern California, calls this condition "La Nada," because he thinks
the word "neutral" misleadingly implies that rainfall will be moderate
or "normal."

"You never want to say the word 'normal' when it comes to rain in
Southern California, because in the last 100 years, we've only had a
total of six 'normal' years of rainfall, meaning about 15 inches of rain
in a winter in downtown L.A," he said. "We have had one of the wettest
winters on record during a La Nada period, and one of the driest."

Here's a graph of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or PDO, which many climatologists believe governs rainfall in SoCal more than El Nino/La Nina/ENSO:
The graph is a few years old (2003). Patzert noted that during that freakish two weeks of rain in December 2010, it was positive, but as of late, has turned steadily negative. 

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The Southern California resurgence of backpacking

Too long ago our local master of the backcountry Bill Slaughter and his rock and roller partner Rain Perry led a group of mostly Ojains into the wilderness to a popular camp by the Sespe, Bear Creek, an easy but pleasant walk, well documented by Modern Hiker. We had a great time and, having sent scouts ahead on Thursday with mules to secure and supply the campsite, no trouble occupying this central spot. But people came through on the trail almost continually during the day and evening, and when we ventured deeper into the Sespe, near a good hot spring, the river became downright crowded. College kids, couples, small groups of adventurous guys, even familes — the backpackers kept coming, and filled up nearly every shady spot.  

All this to verify a comment from Craig Carey, who just published a new book on backpacking in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. This is what he said to the editor of the Santa Barbara Independent, re: backpacking in this area:

Do you think there’s a resurgence in backpacking?

I do. It’s a combination of things. 

One, a lot of not just parents but people in general are feeling what Richard Louv calls the “nature deficit disorder.” They realize that they’re not getting out enough, and the easiest place to go, Adventure Pass or not, is the Los Padres National Forest. It’s accessible to all of us.

Plus, it’s extremely inexpensive. Despite all the budget cuts and some of these darker corners being brushed in and hard to hike, most of the frontcountry trails are in fantastic shape. It’s an easy way to get out, and get your kids out especially. Kids remember this stuff forever, and they may even write a book about it one day!

It's hot country, too hot in summer, but the oases are fantastic in the spring:

Bear creek

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Winter sunsets in SoCal…

…are the best. Someday I'll find out why. Promise. 


[pic courtesy of Lauren Coyne] 

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