Dry, parched hills in central California, 2015 (Photos courtesy of the author)
Today's guest blogger, Esther Miller, is also our Nature Connection Messenger.* From her new home in central California, she sees miles of dry, parched hills that have suffered four years of drought, and she reflects on the effect of rain, wind, fire, and flood, and the impact weather in California can have on those of us 3,000 miles to the east. We are connected in so many invisible ways!
The butterfly effect
For years, weather scientists have explained how small changes in the air can have profound effects on weather. The standard example is how the flapping of a butterfly's wings may set in motion changes that result in a storm somewhere far away. I'm afraid there must have been some buzzards flapping to cause this drought in California.
Most of us define a drought, if we think about it at all, as any time it “doesn't rain enough.” But is there a quantitative definition? Is thirty inches in a year a drought? If you normally get forty to fifty inches, thirty is probably a drought. In much of California, with average rainfall below twenty inches, thirty is a blessing. In the deserts, thirty inches of rain in one year would prompt the building of another ark.
So drought is related to what is average in an area. Average, by definition, takes into account the fluctuations over many years. Just because one year is drier than others does not make that year a drought year, and there are plenty of things to do to mitigate those dry years. That's a subject I'll explore soon, but for now, I'm talking about a real drought.
Can anything stop a wildfire? Yeah…rain
Two of the most prominent seasons in California are fire season and flood season. In a normal year, there is no rain from April through September. A ridge of high pressure keeps storms from coming in off the ocean and only when this ridge finally starts to break up in early fall is there any hope for rain. Unfortunately, there is another ridge over the deserts and it moves rapidly to claim the territory once held by the first ridge, sending hot, drying winds down all the mountain canyons. What happens when hot winds blow through forests already down to single digits of relative humidity? It doesn't take a weather scientist to figure that one out! So the fall of every year presents a fire hazard.
This is the fourth year of rainfall that is less than half of normal in most of California. Some of the native plants are already stressed and dying. In some places insects that would normally be killed by months of snow and cold temperatures in the mountains have thrived and are attacking trees already stressed, so those fall winds are going to be blowing through standing dead trees. I read of one such stand that burned last year at the rate of 60,000 acres in 6 hours! Is there anything that can stop such a fire?
Yeah…rain. Once that ridge has dissipated and the winds have diminished, the ocean storms can move in. As much as we will need that rain, we don't want it falling on scorched earth where there is nothing to hold the soil. If the first storms are intense, mud slides are inevitable. So are flash floods. Massive erosion. Rearrangement of the landscape. Many homes and maybe lives may also be lost.
The ripple effect of far-away weather
If “out west” starts about Ohio for you, then drought in California may seem insignificant and not a part of nature you'd care to connect with. I'm afraid you are not going to have much choice.
In early May, our local newspaper published the 2014 crop report for our coastal county. The highest ranking crop was strawberries, with a value of over $464 million. Wine grapes are second followed by broccoli. Beef cattle used to be in the top five but the drought is forcing ranchers to reduce their herds by 40 to 50%. Avocado growers are cutting down their trees because of lack of water. A vintner friend has not yet answered my question on how the drought will affect wine production, but my guess is there will be fewer grapes and they will be smaller. Whether that drives up the price by scarcity or whether the drought will somehow change the character of the wine and make it a rare vintage, it's probably a safe bet that the price of California wines will go up, along with that of all those other agricultural products.
Four years of drought are bound to bring changes to this beautiful land. Some of those changes will have to be personal changes, many of those changes we have no control over. It is easy for those who live where rainfall is plentiful and the seasons are “normal” to look at California and make disparaging remarks about all the weird stuff that happens here.
When food prices go up and the news is filled with reports of fires or floods, remember that Mother Nature dances to a different tune here. Much of the time, it is an enchanting tune and we're happy to join the dance.
Let's just hope the buzzards are through with theirs.
Esther has worked professionally in special education and mental health and has had a variety of volunteer jobs. Gardening, cooking, and ham radio are among her many interests. She married and raised her family in California, then lived in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia for nearly 14 years. She recently returned to California to be near family.