This post, originally published on Dec. 31, 2010, has been moved to The Nature of Berkeley blog.
To view the original post, click here:
Last Friday the rain gods were busy, so instead of tramping the mud on the fire trails, I decided to take a walk up Centennial Drive to the Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS) in the Berkeley Hills above UCB campus.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the desert, but I love walking and hiking in the rain. The colors of the plants and earth seem more vivid, and the gray skies somehow make the green hills seem even more green. I’ve also noticed that I usually see more wildlife on a rainy day than a sunny one. Maybe it’s because there are fewer humans out, or maybe some animals like foraging in the rain.
So, I expected to see some animals on the hike, but was happily surprised to come upon this on Stadium Rim Way just above the California Memorial Stadium:
Wild Turkeys—not your typical Thanksgiving gobbler!
Wild turkeys! I am a huge fan of this native American bird. I consider it the American peacock:
But I didn’t always appreciate what amazing birds turkeys really are. Like a lot of people, my early impressions of turkeys were from the standpoint of Thanksgiving. I remember being told as a kid that turkeys were so dumb, they’d look up in the sky during rain and drown, and other nonsense. (See the debunking Snopes site: http://www.snopes.com/critters/wild/turkey.asp)
The problem is, as the Snopes article points out: “Domesticated turkeys are not necessarily ‘stupid,’ but because they have been bred in captivity for so many generations, they lack the survival skills of their wild cousins: They’re weak, they’re fat, they’re not agile, they can’t run very fast, and they can’t fly.”
[Update 2010-02-04 - There's a fascinating article on the domestication of wild turkeys at ScienceNOW called the Turkeys: So Good People Tamed Them Twice. It explains what molecular anthropologists have been able to figure out about who first domesticated turkeys and when it occured.]
The turkey—one remarkable bird
The wild turkey is the very antithesis of our domesticated Thanksgiving bird. It’s wicked smart (“cunning” is a term hunters often use), illusive, and agile. And it’s a big, powerful bird.
An adult wild tom turkey typically weighs between 10 and 25 lbs and can be over 4 feet tall. That’s one big bird! Females typically weigh half as much and can be up to three feet tall. The wingspan of turkeys range from four to nearly five feet. The record-sized adult male wild turkey, according to the National Wildlife Turkey Federation, was 38 lb!
Despite its size, a wild turkey can run over 20 mph and uses that five-foot wingspan to hits speeds of 55 mph in flight. The wild turkey can defend itself, too. The spurs on a 20 lb. tom turkey make it a formidable foe, as many a hapless dog has found out when cornering one.
The turkeys one encounters in the Berkeley Hills are fairly used to humans, and it’s amazing how close you can get to them. This rafter (flock) of turkeys seemed to be all the same size and age —they seemed to be from the same brood. They walked up Stadium Rim Way for several hundred feet and then nonchalantly moved up the hill away from the Stadium, feeding as they went.
Centennial Road—beautiful lichen and black-tailed deer
As you head up Centennial Road up Strawberry Canyon, you’ll see some wonderful examples of lichens on most of the trees. I plan on doing an in-depth post about lichens later. They are fascinating plants, but identifying lichens is much more difficult than identifying vascular plants. Each lichen is a complete microscopic world with unique characteristics, and they can be very hard to tell apart.
The rain made the vivid green and yellow of two species of lichen quite striking:
About a quarter of a mile from the Berkeley Botanical Garden, I spotted two black-tailed deer grazing on the new grass that’s been springing up with our late fall rains:
Late Fall storm from Lawrence Hall of Science
It’s a pretty steep hike up to the Lawrence Hall of Science, but the view is always worth it. Even on a stormy day, unless you’re fogged in, the vistas can be wonderful, especially if you’re a fan of dramatic clouds. In these shots, you can see Sather Tower just coming out of the low clouds, with the distant San Francisco Bay mostly hidden:
Compare these views to this one from midsummer:
And here’s a view looking over to Oakland:
That golden stream in the distance is Highway 24, the Grove Shafter Freeway, curving through Oakland. This picture doesn’t do it justice; It looked like a river of molten gold—magical!
Going home—caressing clouds and a talisman
On the way back down Centennial Drive from LHS, the rain lifted some, and there were beautiful views of Strawberry Canyon. I alway love to watch the interplay between low clouds, fogs, and the Berkeley Hills.
Finally, in the grass along the road, I found one this lone feather, a final reminder of the rafter of turkeys I’d seen earlier. For me, it was a talisman of a remarkable bird that makes the Berkeley Hills such a wonderful place to explore.
Instant Karma—winter arrives with a howl!
In some sort of “instant karma,” just days after posting about how bad New England winters are and how great the weather is here in the Bay area, even in winter, we got our first real cold snap. And maybe even some snow showers in the Berkeley Hills! (More on that in moment.)
Last Sunday, a very cold and powerful low pressure system dropped down out of the Gulf of Alaska—our winter storm-making center—and plunged south into the Northwest and then central California.
The low’s powerful counter-clockwise rotations sucked down some seriously cold air out of Canada, and snow levels dropped to 1,500 to 2,000 feet around the Bay Area and the Berkeley Hills. My wife and I were walking around San Francisco Sunday evening, and we experienced very cold winds, some heavy sleet, and even some snowflakes.
Cyclotron Road Snowman!
Near the upper end of Cyclotron Road (how cool is it for a science buff to live at a place with a road named after a cyclotron?) I laughed out loud when I came upon this:
Apparently built earlier in the morning, or the night before, this whimsical snowman seems to suggest that the snow level was considerable lower than 1,500 feet on Sunday. As cold as it was, I’m not surprised that even Cyclotron Road had enough elevation to receive snowman-making amounts of snow.
Of course, it could have been a prank, but upon examination, it seemed to be made from real snow, and it had twigs and leaves embedded in it from the ground. The fact that someone took to the time to build it and put it on the memorial is just another reason I love this area.
UPDATE 02-24-10: I now know that the snowman is in fact the work of the doughty Berkeley Lab’s Anonymous Snowman Building Team. Kudos to BLASBT, and I hope to see more of their work in future cold snaps!
A Trail to Some Great Bay Views
At the parking lot below the entrance gate on Cyclotron, you can cross the road and catch some trails over to the canyon that leads up the The Big C.
You get some very nice views of the University of California, Berkeley, campus and The Campanile, or Sather Tower, from here:
The sky was beautiful. The big low pressure had moved west to create blizzard condition and below zero weather in Nevada, Colorado, and the Midwest. But here, the sky was blue with some puffy winter cumulus sailing through the sky. The views of the Bay, Golden Gate Bridge, and San Francisco were spectacular:
Hello Black-tailed Deer!
One of the reasons I like to go on these improvised trails, instead of up the fire road up The Big C, is that you often see Black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) here in the little valley below The Big C. And sure enough, as I hiked up, I came upon several deer resting under the trees:
The Black-tailed (or Blacktail) deer is a subspecies of the Mule deer family. It is common in the western United States and here in the Berkeley Hills. In fact, the Berkeley Hills are ideal for Black-tailed deer, because their natural place in the ecosystem is on the edge of forests. Deep in a forest, there are not enough grasses and underbrush for the deer to eat. But on open grasslands, they deer have no place to hide or take shelter from severe weather. The Berkeley Hills give the deer the mix of grasses and hiding places they prefer.
If you want to see Black-tailed deer grazing or on the move, the best time it at dawn or dusk. During the day, you’re mostly likely to come upon them resting in secluded places under trees. Here’s a nice close-up of a Black-tailed deer from Wikimedia. I don’t have a telephoto lens and can never get close enough to the shy deer to get a shot like this.
The Big C and back again
If you go straight up the hill to the Big C, it’s quite a workout, but as I said, it’s the best way to see some deer. The Big C is a great place to sit and rest and enjoy some vistas of the San Francisco Bay.
If you take the fire trail back down, you also get some very nice views of Strawberry Canyon:
On my way back, I ran into the same group of Black-tailed deer, who had moved down the small valley from where I first saw them. They move fast, but I did catch one of them crossing the fire trail in front of me:
Soon, I was out of my beloved hills, walking down Hurst Avenue to my home and some hot chocolate.
Winter—A Tale of Two Coasts
Last night it was in the low thirties here in the Bay Area, and as the GEOS satellite image below shows, there’s another winter storm heading our way. Old man winter really is here.
But my dear East Coast friends (who I love to tease in good fun about their weather) shouldn’t smirk too much. I happen to know that this morning they are “enjoying” a powerful wind and rainstorm that’s bringing driving rain, low 40s, and local flooding to the area.
Oh, and the big low pressure that blasted us? That’s now winding up big time in the Midwest, with near blizzard conditions and wind chills of minus 25 to minus 40 °F below zero!
And guess what? All that cold weather heading toward the Northeast, drawn inexorable by New England’s winter nemesis, the Icelandic Low. I’ll always love you, New England, but now that I’m done writing this, I think I’ll go take a walk in my beloved Hills—in the bright California sun. (And yes, I admit it; I will wear a jacket and cap!)
Holiday greetings to all! May you and your loved ones be safe and happy. Steve
“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.”
~ J. R. R. Tolkien
When hiking in the Berkeley Hills, I often think of this poem from The Lord of the Rings. In some places, I half expect to see a Hobbit or Ranger trampling along the trail. (Click images for larger version.)
In other dark places, I wonder if a Ring Wraith might not be lurking behind some tree or rock.
And in some, I can almost feel the presence of the Elves, the beauty of the trees, light, and sky is so breath-taking.
It was my happy privilege to read The Lord of the Rings while stationed in the Army in Augsburg, Germany. The trilogy was transformative for me, because somehow, reading it gave me back the “magic” of nature, the wonder of it. I’d somehow lost this feeling over the years through a combination of materialistic reductionism and a starkly dualistic religion that made this world at best a counterfeit of some abstract glorious realm that transcended material life.
As the wonders of the Tolkien’s story-telling unfolded, I felt my heart open up again to the beauty of nature all around me. In the incredible beauty of Black Forest trails, I was in Middle-Earth!
The charm of Bavaria, the rustic houses and even the dress of the people you’d meet on the trails, all lent themselves to the feel you’d stepped into a fairy tale. I can only image that the Cotswolds of England could more feel like Middle-Earth in the look and atmosphere.
I often marveled at this transformation of my heart. Yes, the story was beautiful, and wondrous, but why did it change my perception of nature so much?
Then, sometime later, I read Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” and everything made sense.
What happened to me was what happened to Tolkien himself, though the “magic” of words: “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.”
It was the wonder of the “mundane”—of stone, wood, tree, and grass, and the simple pleasures of food and true companions—that Tolkien’s story gave back to me, and it has never left. Genuine presence, being here and now, is “fairy,” is “magic.” It does transform everything into “Middle-Earth”—or the Pure Lands of Buddhism or the kingdom of heaven of Christianity and Islam.
As Tolkien says so beautifully:
“Far more powerful and poignant is the effect [of joy] in a serious tale of Faerie. In such stories, when the sudden turn comes, we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.”
Just like last year, we had some powerful October rains, though nothing like record breaker on October 14th of 2009, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported:
“It was the worst October storm the Bay Area has experienced since 1962, when terrible weather famously disrupted the World Series between the Giants and the New York Yankees.
San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Livermore all set rainfall records for a single day in October. Nearly 4 inches fell in downtown Oakland, almost 20 percent of what the city usually gets during an entire year.
And just like last year, after the record storm, I found a number of very large ladybug masses in Strawberry Canyon along the fire trail: (Note, you can click on any of the images below to see a desktop-sized image.)
Compared to last year’s massing, however, this was a rather modest gathering, maybe several thousand. But in October of 2009, the gathering was monumental! The swarm thickly covered plants for at least 20 yards, compared to about 4 feet this time. As I wrote in that post:
I read that a gallon jar will hold from 72,000 to 80,000 ladybugs. If that’s the case, then the number alongside the fire trail had to be way, way over a hundred thousand, maybe two or three hundred thousand! It was astonishing, and somehow touching, to see so many little creatures in a brief moment of community.
Perhaps this gathering will grow in the days ahead. I’m very curious to see if the numbers build, and I still wonder, as with the 2009 storm, if the big rains had anything to do with the gathering, or whether the ladybugs always head up into the canyons in late October.
By the way, last year’s post includes a ton of fascinating information and folklore on ladybugs that I think you’ll really enjoy if you haven’t read it yet:
One of the best things about the rain, especially the first big rain after nearly half a year of typical summer drought, is how wonderful it smells in the Hills and how vibrant the colors are! The mosses and lichen, especially, almost seem to glow in deep greens and yellows:
Looking at the moss and lichen, I also found discovered I was being eye-balled by one of the many Fox Squirrels in the Canyon:
This orb spider web was especially beautiful in the sun:
Another beastie you will usually see after a good rain are the beautiful—and often, huge!—banana slugs:
A lot of people go, “Ugh, slimy slugs!” and I know that banana slugs can be a pest, but I you get down on the slugs level, and watch it move, it’s an incredibly graceful animal. It’s very responsive to its environment and is far from stupid, a term I’m reluctant to use looking at any marvel of nature, no matter how humble.
When I find slugs in the middle of the fire trail, I always move them to the side of the trial they were heading for, because, sadly, I’ve seen way too many smooshed slugs by runners and walkers who didn’t see these little wonders.
This particular day, after the rains, I noticed hundreds and hundreds of small, fluttering creatures in the air. Clearly, flying was not their forte, and yet, the air was filled with them. On closer examination, I discovered that they were some kind of termite. My camera doesn’t have a close-up lens, but they looked very much like this:
At first, I wondered if they might not be flying ants, but I did a little research and was able to confirm from their body shape and wing structure that they were in fact termites:
I also learned that in areas like ours, which have a distinct dry season, the winged (or “alate”) caste members of termite nests leave in large swarms after the first good soaking rain. The alates are the reproductive caste. They fly off to find a new nesting sight, shed their fragile wings, mate, and start a new colony. I noticed alates all through Strawberry Canyon and over into the Claremont Canyon as well. There must have been tens of thousands of them, fluttering precariously in the air.
I was not the only one noticing this mass exodus. When I came to the sunnier parts of the Canyon, I started seeing lots of Western Fence lizards, running from cover to snap up some hapless alate that landed too close:
There must have been a lot of stuffed Western Fence Lizards that evening, because the alates seemed endless in numbers—natures way of making sure that enough termites survived to carry forward the species.
On my way down Claremont Canyon, I came across this lovely, but rather faded and battered butterfly:
I believe this is a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), one of the many lovely butterflies you will often see in the Canyons. (Kudos to Kay Loughman’s wonderful Wild Life in the North Hills website, which has some great images and information to help nature lovers identify plants and animals of our area.)
Yes, the fire trails in the Berkeley Hills can be muddy after a big rain, but there are many rewards for braving the mud. As I said, the fresh smell of the wet earth and vegetation is simply wonderful. The washed and soaked plants and lichen are so vibrant. I’ve also noticed that, for some reason, one tends to see more wild animals out right after a rain than at other times.
I hope enjoyed this post and that you will take find time to explore for yourself the amazing and beautiful ecosystem, that is the Berkely Hills. Hope to see meet you on the trails some day!
I’ve decided to include a journal of some of my walks and share my observations and thoughts about my hikes in the Hills here on Berkeley, Naturally!
This is the first entry, appropriately enough, on the first day of July. (I’ll date these by my post date, not by the day of my walk.) May all my readers have a great 4th of July weekend!
July 1, 2010
Wonders on this hike:
Amazing blue skies. Golden, shimmering summer grasses dancing in the warm wind caressing the Hills. The warmth of the sun coming through my T-shirt and making me wonderfully hot as I labored up the slopes. The cool breeze from the Bay evaporating my sweat.
Plum trees are already dropping their sweet fruit—yummy treats on some of the streets and trails. Also, the first ripe blackberries are starting to show up among their green brethren. I picked and ate a handful. There will be many, many more to enjoy throughout the summer and into the fall.
Spent 10 minutes watching a Western Fence lizard defend its territory against another male. Much head-bobbing, rapid body push-ups, and posturing; no violence.
Saw a very young red-tailed hawk crying plaintively in a tree—for its mother?
Came upon a black beetle on the trail just as a runner was coming; stood between the beetle and the runner so the little hunter wouldn’t be crushed. Waited until beetle moved off the trail, foraging for food.
Hiked into a huge stand of wild rosemary. Made some cuttings to bring home to Sarah and for spices for our cooking.
Coming down Panoramic Way, met a wonderful tortoise-shell cat who demanded that she be stroked and petted until she’d had enough—and then plopped over in the sun as if to say, “OK, your job is done. I won’t be needing you until the next time we meet.”
Then met a wonderful old woman who saw me loving the cat. She said she’d loved her earlier and that the cat lived in the area. But, she didn’t know her name. I showed her the cut rosemary; she drew a big, long breath of it, and said, “Wonderful!” I told her where she could find it and she beamed. She ambled very, very slowly up the hill. I thought she was a miracle of beauty and grace.
May all beings be happy. May all beings find the supreme joy that is beyond all sorrow. And may we meet as friends, some day, in the Hills of Great Beauty!
This is the second of a two-part series I’m calling “The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills. You can see Part 1 here:
In this second part, I’ve included some of the animals you can run into in the Hills—some you see all the time, and others, like the gray fox, are quite illusive. There are also some amazing skies in this series of photos. As a self-confessed weather nut, I never get tired to seeing the play of clouds over the San Francisco Bay and the Hills.
And so, let’s kick off Part 2 with some images of magnificent Bay Area clouds!
If you click on any of the images below, you can see a higher resoltuion 1600 x 1200 image.
These clouds, of course, are cirrus, which in this area so often are the heralds of distance storms marching in from the North Pacific for Gulf of Alaska. Cirrus clouds typically form above 23,000 feet (about 7,000m), in the cold region of the troposphere and are typically composed of ice crystals. In the view looking at the North Bay, you can see both the sweeping cirrus unicus and the denser cirrus fibratus.
This sunset was really dramatic and foreboding. I was in the Hills directly above the UCB Campus, looking across the Bay, past the Campanile (lower right) and toward the Golden Gate Bridge. A big Pacific storm was approaching, as the rapidly lowering sky foretold. The clouds in this picture are mostly altostratus and altocumulus, which are medium-level clouds.
This is perhaps my all-time favorite summer picture that I’ve taken in Strawberry Canyon. To me, it captures just about everything I love about the Berkeley Hills—the Eucalyptus and Oak trees, the beautiful golden hills, and a sky with gorgeous, puffy cumulus. It was hot, it was summer, and I was on my way up Centennial Drive to my beloved fire trails!
The color of the lichen on the trees in Strawberry Canyon are especially deep and brilliant after a rainstorm. I love how this yellow species contrasts with the moss.
I’m always amazed at the different moods of the Bay throughout the day. This grey sunset marked the end of yet another heavy late spring rain storm.
California poppies! Just seeing them makes me smile. Did you know Native Americans used poppy leaves medicinally? They also ate their seeds. Extract from the California poppy acts as a mild sedative when smoked, although apparently the effect is much milder than that of opium, which contains a much more powerful class of alkaloids.
If you live in the Bay Area, you’ve probably seen one of these little critters. The Eastern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus nigris) is actually a non-native species, probably introduced to California around the beginning of the 20th century. You can see them throughout the Berkeley Hills, and there’s quite a population of them on the Berkeley campus. I’ve yet to see a native Western Gray Squirrel on my hikes, but I keep looking for them.
I met this young female Fox Squirrel on the North Campus near the Life Science Building. If you stop and make a “tchi tchi” noise, you can almost always make a Fox Squirrel stop and see if you have some goodie for them. Having raised a squirrel from the age of a blind pup, I know lots of squirrel communication sounds, and she seemed amazed at my vocabulary!
This fat and muscular male lives in Strawberry Canyon. He too was intrigued by my squirrel talk, and stopped to observe me, although the squirrels in the Canyon are much more wary of humans than the ones on campus.
A gray fox! I wrote about this encounter at this post:
I made a lot of noise to get the fox to turn lift its sleepy head and turn toward me. No doubt he wondered what the crazy human was doing! But I was so excited to see a gray fox that I didn’t want my picture to be nothing but a gray lump on that fallen tree. I wish I had had a telephoto lens to see more of this magnificent creature, which apparently, is one of the few foxes that can climbs trees. This one was sleeping at least 20 feet off the ground. (Be sure to click image for close-up!)
Here is a small cluster of ladybugs I saw this spring. In October of 2009, after our record rainstorm, I came upon an astonishing gathering of what had to have been hundreds of thousands of ladybugs along the fire trail off Centennial Drive. I wrote about this amazing ladybug gathering here:
Here is an amazing insect you are apt to run across in the Berkeley Hills, especially after a rain, the aptly named banana slug. This one was nearly 10 inches long and as big around as a small banana. Many people find them “gross,” and I know it can be what we humans call a “pest,” but I think it’s a beautiful animal. I watched this one for about 10 minutes as it gracefully moved about 3 feet from the pavement into some vegetation.
Down on its level, laying on my stomach to watch how its muscles propelled it along on a layer of mucous, I was reminded of a majestic (albeit, miniature) ocean liner as it glided along the pavement.
I came across this small (maybe 10 inch) snake walking down from the North Gate of the UCB campus. I’m not sure what species it might be, but my best guess is some species of Sharp-tailed Snake (Contia tenuis)—maybe a Forest Sharp-tailed snake. If some herpetologist wants to weight in, that would be great! It was moving very fast to try to take cover, and I barely caught it on camera before it disappeared into the foliage.
Here’s another view of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge near sunset. A Pacific storm was heading our way, and the high cirrus and cirrostratus clouds that appeared in the West at the beginning of the day were beginning to give way to lower level altocumulus and stratocumulus.
The height of some of the redwoods in Strawberry Canyon is astounding. I estimated that most of the trees in this grove were well over 110-120 feet tall. Now that I live in Northern California, I hope some day soon to see the coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), the tallest trees on earth, at Redwood National and State Parks.
I loved how these California poppies found a way to grow out of near solid rock along the upper fire trail at Strawberry Canyon.
When spring arrives in the Berkeley Hills, you really should climb up into them and see for yourself how deep, rich, and varied the greens are. After being brown all summer and through much of the winter, the hills are transformed by the winter and spring rains into an emerald wonderland.
One of the delights of walking up the streets that head up into the Berkeley Hills above the City of Berkeley are the little paths and well-kept lanes and walks that connect the lower and higher levels of the hills. Here’s one of my favorite paths (for privacy, I won’t say where.) If you don’t have a copy, I highly recommend getting the Map of Berkeley Pathways which is put out by the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association.
More spring green near the top of Claremont Canyon.
I’ll end this post with a photo of a glorious sunset taken from the hills right above the UCB campus. (You can see the Campanile behind one of the Eucalyptus.) I hope this two-part series, “The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills” will inspire you to explore the Hills yourself and with loved ones and to always be alert for ways to preserve and protect this amazing natural treasure right at our doorsteps.
May we meet as friends, some day, in the Hills of Great Beauty!
This post, originally published on June 1, 2010, has been moved to The Nature of Berkeley blog.
You can read it here:
All my East Coast friends that used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area have told me how much they envy the weather out here—especially when the windchill is say, 20 below zero and snow and ice are everywhere! But they always warn, “True, the weather there is mostly wonderful, but wait until the winter rains come!
Well, they came, and I have to say, I’m impressed! The storms that march in from the North Pacific are indeed amazing, powerful storms, with huge amounts of water and energy.
As a weather buff, I knew this was coming, and in fact, have been looking forward to it. (See “Escape from New England-a weather nut’s confession“)
We are in the middle of what’s called a “moderate” El Niño event (technically, the phenomenon is called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation ). The bottom line is ocean temperatures in the Pacific have changed dramatically, shifting global air masses, and allowing far more of the amazing storms that form in the Aleutian Low and in the Northern Pacific to strike all along the California coast.
(I’m going to do an in-depth discussion on El Niño in a later post, but if you’re interested, in the “weather nut’s confession” post, I explain the basic mechanism of storm genesis in this area, and the Aleutian Low is one of the very big players.)
Here Comes the Rain! ( And we need it!)
For now, suffice it to say that the rails are greased for all that moisture and energy that are often blocked off by semi-permanent high pressure to head our way the rest of this winter. And head our way they have! Today marks the passage of the third, and most powerful storm, in string of storms that have pounded both Northern and Southern California with flooding rain, snow, high winds, and even an apparent tornado in the Long Beach area Tuesday afternoon! (See “Rare Mesocyclone/Tornado Hits Southern California” at AccuWeather Ken Clark’s terrific Western US Weather Blog.)
These last three low pressure systems have caused considerable damage with twenty-foot surf, winds over 80 mph, and flash floods. Some areas have gotten over 6 inches of rain. Mudslides and debris flows have been a special problem in southern California, as they often are:
Even so, the development of this El Niño is not all bad. For one thing, the surfers at Mavericks, near Half Moon Bay, love the enormous swells that come with these powerful storms:
But most of all, it’s bringing much-needed rain and snow to California and to the drought-parched Southwest. (The problem in El Niño winters is getting too much rain too fast.)
Here in the Bay Area and the Sierras, the heavy rain and snow are very good news. Due to a drought over the last three years, statewide reservoirs are still just at 74 percent of average to date, so all of this rain is a big boost.
The good news is that the Sierra snowpack, where the bulk of California’s water supply comes from, is now at 96 percent of normal, and will only pile higher with each new storm this winter.
The prognostication is that this very wet pattern will continue until spring, and if you look out in the north Pacific, you can see the next set of impressive storms are already forming and heading our way:
Storm Scenes on UCB Campus and in the Berkeley Hills
Here in Berkeley, we got several inches of rain and wind gusts over 50 mph. Powerful thunderstorms embedded in the low pressure system actually produced hail, a rarity in this area. I wanted to take pictures in the Berkeley Hills as each storm system passed through, but I would have needed an underwater camera! In between storms, I did get some cool storm images. (All the images below are “clickable” for larger versions.)
During a break in the rain, I went out to see how the storm had affected the Berkeley campus. The newly repaired and renovated Campanile had weathered the storm just fine:
and the campus was a sea of umbrellas as students scurried to classes:
I did see a fair amount of tree damage from the high winds of the thunderstorms. The Eucalyptus seemed fine, but I saw a fair amount of lost limbs with the red woods:
The north divide of Strawberry Creek runs in front of the Life Sciences building. The debris line on the grass shows how high the creek got during the some of the torrential downpours:
Leaving the campus, I headed up Centennial Drive into Strawberry Canyon itself. The Creek was really full, and even hours after the last heavy downpour, water was pouring into it from its tributaries:
On the hike up into the Canyon, I was once again struck by how beautiful the lichen and moss on the trees look, especially after a rain:
About half-way up the lower Strawberry Canyon fire trail, a thunderstorm cell moved through the canyon, and I got totally soaked:
But, I loved it. Hiking in the rain, or in a storm, in the Berkeley Hills is one of my favorite things to do. The rain makes everything so clean and beautiful, and the smells and sounds are so intense.
As I got higher up the fire trail, I crossed over to Claremont Canyon. Looking out at Oakland, I could see two strong thunderstorms moving through:
Looking north toward El Cerrito, I could see another powerful storm in the northern part of San Francisco Bay:
At this particular moment, San Francisco was in-between thunderstorm cells and catching a small break in the clouds (that line of lights on the right side of the picture, by the way, is University Avenue in Berkeley)
Soon, it was getting pretty dark, so I headed down from the fire trail onto Panoramic Way:
As the darkness closed in, I got one more photo of San Francisco and the Bay:
As the lights of Bay cities came alive, I thought to myself how blessed I am to live in Berkeley and in the Bay Area. The storms of winter and El Niño are all just part of the wonder of one of the most beautiful places in the world.
(In my next post, I’m going to show a large mudslide I discovered yesterday in the Berkeley Hills on Panoramic Way and discuss the mechanics of mudslides and debris flows. Stay tuned!)