Letter Re: Unexpected Climate Change

Dear Jim and Family,
The movie The Day After Tomorrow was on FX (cable TV channel) tonight. The first hour is entertaining weather disasters and fun science building up, the second hour was a travesty which insulted intelligent people and scientists everywhere. But it was pretty, and it’s just a movie. It’s okay for it to be half cr*p as long as its entertaining.

The reality of climate change is much more interesting, and considerably slower paced. This week I found a web site with a drought map which is updated weekly. US Drought Monitor. It is pretty darned interesting.

Another little reality is the West Coast (California, Oregon, Washington) has its entire climate based on the Longshore Drift, which is powered by the North Wind from Alaska. This wind causes upwelling of nutrient rich cold water along the coastline to several hundred miles out on the continental shelf. This water provides food for plankton, fish, and birds. It also drops summer temperatures inland and reduces evaporation along the coastline. Without this cool water current, there’s no food for the fish, no fish to catch, no salmon, and the weather starts to resemble that of Baja Mexico. That sounds pretty good until you realize that Baja has pretty dead water with not much in it. The ocean’s equivalent of a desert: oxygen poor, toxic thanks to algae blooms, and not healthy for people either. This is happening now, and has been a problem for the last 4 years, which (perhaps) coincidentally corresponds with years of drought. The North Wind has started late each summer, usually after high numbers of birds have died. Most of the Salmon are gone, for various reasons but the oxygen problem is the main culprit. You’d think this would be limited to California, since its a state which clearly offends God, but Oregon is suffering too and there’s a lot of Christians up there. Its Eugene that gives the state a bad rep.

This isn’t the best part. With warmer temperatures, the waters can support unusual weather for the area: hurricanes. I say unusual because they are such in the last few thousand years, however they’re Not unusual in the geologic record. As a geology student, I got to see the sedimentation of hurricanes, event (storm) by event (storm) in coastal sandstones called “Turbidite Sequences”. Turns out that California (and Oregon) used to get some pretty severe weather we normally associate with Southern Mexico, Florida, and the Gulf Coast. I’m talking category 4-5 hurricanes every year. Yes that seems strange, but the winds control the currents and the currents & winds control the weather. ANd the weather controls the food supply, which controls population movements and can turn a remote retreat location into a deathtrap.

Or something really weird can happen. Like summer rains and monsoons can start flowing into California, along with those hurricanes. See, normal California and Southwestern weather is brief winter rains followed by months of spring, summer, and fall drought. In the old days, Northern California got rain from October to May, and that was perfectly normal weather. Nowadays is January to February, and the rainy season is punctuated by long drying periods so the aquifers don’t fill, the streams empty, and it just resembles a desert. It sucks, but that’s how it is. This is a transitional period. Perhaps things will change back next year, but perhaps they won’t.

That leads to the weird thing. If we get summer monsoons, it changes the whole climate in the Southwest. It means lightning in a state that rarely sees any in the lowlands. It means tornados and hail. It means thunderstorms and flash floods. It means living pasture in currently dry regions, which is a real boon to ranching and dairy, but death to the orchards. It means heavy rain in the lower reaches of the Sierras and summer snowstorms. It also means rain reaching Nevada and the desert regions of California and Arizona (and Utah), with storms coming from the Southwest, via Hawaii, what we call the “Pineapple Express”. Imagine that happening a couple times a week all summer long in places where it never used to rain, so the SW, starts to get like the SE. Humid, wet, water soaking into the aquifers, rivers running, plants changing. It also means that a lot of dry lakes fill, starting at salt marshes and swamps but eventually able to host fish, deer, elk, mountain sheep, migrating birds, antelope, willows, alders, cottonwoods. Land in Nevada would become not only habitable but valuable. With the change in direction of the weather, new banana-belts would also develop, as they’re based on direction of rainfall and spots downwind from mountain ranges experience warming during storms on the far side. That’s more long-term.

In the short term, you’ll see a few storms, and a few hurricanes creeping north up Baja, a long way from Los Angeles, but as the ocean temps rise on the California and Oregon coastline, the further north the storms can go before breaking up. And like I said, there’s evidence in the geologic record of hurricanes striking the coast North of San Francisco. It could be some time before that happens, or it could happen in a dozen years, then more quiet for another dozen. Lots of factors are involved making precise prediction foolhardy. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for summer rain in California. It could be a harbinger of a serious change in climate, perhaps for the better. Best, – InyoKern