Dispatch From the Sierra – This Year’s Snowpack

September marks the final month of California’s water year, and our state has certainly had an unusual one.  Much of our anomalously high precipitation came in a series of atmospheric rivers, often called “drought busters.” ARs are powerful westward-driven channels of water vapor that move fluidly, high in the atmosphere. This vapor often changes upon landfall, producing large volumes of rain or snow.

At home in Santa Clara County, we were cleaning up after each storm in ways we’d never before: clearing 20 palm fronds the roof, repairing a screen door ripped from its frame. By the end of February, statewide precipitation totals were at a 122-year high. Evacuations and failure risk at the Oroville Dam made national news, sparking discussion on California’s aging water infrastructure and development in floodplains. These same issues played out locally, as I watched Coyote Creek crest the Anderson Dam in my hometown for the first time in 11 years. It swelled as it flowed northward, closing U.S. 101 and flooding the Rock Springs neighborhood in San Jose.

News from the mountains was equally eventful. It seemed that years of seeing dire, winter-brown LANDSAT images of the Sierra Nevada in the news, and at scientific conferences, were suddenly erased. Sierra snowpack reached 164% of long-term averages by the end of March, and then it was 190% on May 1. Ski lifts were buried. Yosemite National Park’s Tigoa Road stayed closed until the end of June. In the lulls between storms, I joined crowds on parks and trails to see incredible displays of wildflowers. It was a superbloom you could see from space. California, it seems, does everything in extremes.

In April, I came to live and work in Sequoia National Park. With Kings Canyon, the two parks (known together as SEKI) encompass ~1350 mi2 and nearly 14,000 feet of relief. Our wet winter was something I could no longer monitor digitally; it became part of my everyday. Training and housing those initial weeks were based in Three Rivers, CA, while we waited for the snow to clear from the more established housing community at higher elevation. The forks of the Kaweah River run through and define this landscape, and Three Rivers is their convergence point. The Wukchumni people were the first occupants of the region, and up to 600 once occupied Hospital Rock year-round. Located on the Middle Fork of the Kaweah, Hospital Rock is situated among buckeye and oak trees – by all counts bountiful, and sacred. This spring, it was on the front lines of snowmelt.


Marble Falls | April 30, 2017

Always driven to hike new trails and seek the highest altitude possible, I was restless and on edge those first weekends in SEKI. The weather didn’t cooperate with this goal when mist descended on the park, obscuring higher elevations with yet more snow. Trails around the Foothills section of the park were often hot, and dusty. Hiking to Marble Falls, I daydreamed of a lazy wade at my destination, perhaps some mist to wash sweat and sunscreen from my eyes. Instead, I discovered what it was like to see higher elevation snowmelt coalesce downstream, into torrents. It was powerful and dangerous in a way that didn’t invite lingering.

Hours later, an 18 year-old man drowned downstream. The local news seemed full of such drownings, and high flood alerts were issued for the equally dangerous Kern, Merced, and Tule Rivers. My hiking attempts always led to water; even the slightest creek traces were too risky to cross.

We finally moved to housing at 7000 ft in mid-May, and again I hit the trails, in hopes of quieter streams at higher elevation. I was wrong; streams were equally impassible, and late-season, hummocky snow was an added obstacle. Pooling water, downed trees, and getting turned around easily made for difficult terrain to navigate.

There was no choice but to wait it out. Nighttime temperatures dipped below freezing, and heaters smelled of last winter’s dust as they ran throughout the night. Among the staff, we spoke of longer days, swims in alpine lakes, hiking nearby summits. After experiencing warm weather and superblooms on hikes in Santa Clara and Monterey Counties all of March, it felt strange to watch and wait for spring to come again. It snowed yet again in June, the week before summer solstice.


Lodgepole | June 12, 2017

Warmer temperatures and open trails did come at last, with brilliant displays of flowers that made the year seem like an endless superbloom. Snowmelt, meanwhile, never seemed to abate. Any discussion of Sierra ecology often mentions the dependency of flora and fauna on snowpack as a “water bank” that melts gradually throughout the summer. This season brought record-breaking heat waves, forcing melt that seemed anything but a slow release.

Tokopah Falls, Sequoia NP | May 13, 2017

Mist Falls, Kings Canyon NP | July 5, 2017

South Fork of the Kings River, Kings Canyon NP | July 19, 2017

John Muir once spoke of sourcing awe and energy from alpine places and weather. I understood this a little more as I watched the land drain its massive snowpack. But the words of NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis on climate change were with me, too: that “the reality of change seems to shout from the land.” As summer progressed, the news among staff and on park radio included more drownings in streams, and search and rescue resources stretched thin. Several record-breaking events were converging in SEKI: nearly double the snowpack, summer heat waves, high visitor numbers.  People died, many on vacation or their day off, while seeking beauty and respite in a national park.

It was about halfway through the water year that the state’s drought emergency was lifted. In Drought Monitor terms, no part of the state is in “exceptional drought” right now, compared to last year’s 21%. But one wet year doesn’t cancel out the dry ones that came before, or guard us against those to come. We may well be in a new climatic normal of deep drought, then deluge, in California. Is this how the land shouts the message? I now have one season of observations in a mountain community, just the start of understanding the answer to that question. I do know that bearing witness to the landscape during this water year has strengthened my storytelling, and resolve as a climate scientist.


Other 2013 Fave Articles

Last week, I wrote a post about my five favorite popular press articles from the past year.  I felt the following were noteworthy as well and are great resources.

Organized by topic, in no particular order:


How Chris McCandless Died” by Jon Krakauer, The New Yorker, 9/12/13
Absolutely riveting story of Krakauer teasing out the health effects of McCandless’s meager diet. It’s also a reminder of how mysterious the field of botany remains, at times. We can describe all the plants, but how much do we really know about all of their effects on and interactions with the human body?

Climate Change:

Climate change our most serious security threat” by Michael Breen, SF Gate, 08/23/13
Here, the author recalls his own deployment to Iraq, where our over-dependence on fossil fuels and the weather extremes of climate change, were especially amplified.

How Much Will Tar Sands Add to Global Warming?” by David Biello, Scientific American, 01/23/13
Straightforward breakdown on the potential impact of burning this inefficient fuel source, if total extraction and production were to proceed.

Hydraulic Fracturing / Fracking – Dakotas:

A Mysterious Patch of Light Shows up in the North Dakota Dark” by Robert Krulwich, NPR News, 01/16/13
Using a series of NASA satellite images, this article illustrates the light pollution of ND oil fields that is now visible from space.

North Dakota Went Boom” by Chip Brown, New York Times, 01/31/13
Great piece describing the extent of landscape, economic and social transformation currently occurring in North Dakota.

Hydraulic Fracturing / Fracking – California:

Vast Oil Reserve May Now Be Within Reach and Battle Heats Up” by Norimtsu Onishi, New York Times, 02/03/13
Published right on the heel of “North Dakota Went Boom,” this was the first I’d heard about the true extent of the Monterey Shale. I was gobsmacked by the possibility that reserves may be “four times…the Bakken Shale in North Dakota.”

California Legislature passes fracking regulation bill” by Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times, 09/11/13
Despite some environmental groups withdrawing support after this bill passed, this is a start towards (previously nonexistent) regulation.

‘Fracking’ the Monterey Shale – Boon or Boondoggle?” by Alex Prud’homme, Los Angeles Times, 12/29/13
Great Op-Ed on the possible over-estimation of oil reserves, current state of regulations stand, and complexity of issues and stakeholders involved.

Land Use:

Land transformation by humans: A review” by Roger LeB. Hooke, José F. Martín-Duque, and Javier Pedraza, GSA Today, December 2012
One of the best, most concise summaries of land degradation I’ve read, with a great collection of references to important works and scholars.


Our Overcrowded Planet: A Failure of Family Planning” by Robert Engelman, Yale Environment 360, 06/24/13
Female empowerment and education is a running theme of Engelman’s articles on population control. I recommended this to my “Global Environment” students this year as a complement (and, update) to Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons.”

Hungry Planet: What the World Eats,” photos by Peter Menzel, Time, 09/20/13
Amazing photo essay of families around the world, with a week’s worth of food and drink spread out, with cost listed in dollars. This was started a few years ago, but had an update in September.


“The Lost World,” [2 parts], by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, 12/16/13 and 12/23/13.
Fantastic story of old-school paleontology and the how the idea of extinction evolved [Part 1], and discussion of whether or not we’re witnessing – and causing – the next large extinction event [Part 2]. Unfortunately these are behind a paywall.

What Killed off the Woolly Mammoths?” by Jennifer Abbasi, Discover Magazine, 09/09/2013
A summary of the complex suite of climate (and possibly anthropogenic) factors that led to the demise of the mammoth, based on work my advisor (Glen MacDonald) recently conducted.


Who Will Speak for the Bees?” by Katie O’Connor, Conservation Biology Institute Blog, 09/16/13
This post is about an unfortunate, and unintended loss of a bee population in Oregon. It reminds me of Muir’s quote on ecosystems: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Megadrought in U.S. Southwest: A Bad Omen for Forests Globally” by Caroline Fraser, Yale Environment 360, 06/20/13
Discussion of fire ecology, and inevitable extreme wildfires that are predicted to occur with widespread warming and drying in the Southwest.

Yosemite Fire Puts San Francisco on the Front Lines” by Glen M. MacDonald, SF Chronicle, 08/29/13
Written by my advisor, this article mentions how the Rim Fire threatened Hetch Hetchy water supply. A good reminder of just how dependent our urban centers are on seemingly-distant wilderness areas, and the ecosystem services they provide.


Los Angeles, CA

Britten Leigh Photography: ScienceRocks &emdash;

Favorite Articles I Read in 2013

Most of the popular press articles I read focus on geoscience and environmental issues. When I read damn good writing in the journalism milieu, it stays with me and I want to share it with anyone who will listen.

To that end, I compiled a round-up of my favorite articles from 2013. These are the ones that I go back to for re-reads, that reinforce why I do the work that I do, that inspired new directions in my research, or that were so compelling or haunting they stayed with me.

The finished list certainly has topical biases, reflecting my particular interests over the past year. General themes include wildfire ecology, domestic fossil fuel extraction, and my research discipline: paleoclimatology. The allure of past worlds, climates and landscapes is still quite strong for me.

1. “Into the Wildfire” by Paul Tullis, New York Time Magazine, 09/22/13.

Wildfire is one of the most critically important issues for the ever-warming, ever-growing West. Literature on fire ecology is voluminous; Tullis gives a great distillation here, and interviews top fire scientists. Jensen and McPhersen (2008) wrote, “…very little meaningful information ever filters beyond the realm of wildfire experts to the general public, or to academics and experts in other, even closely related, fields.” Tullis’s article does much to bridge that gap.

2. “Why I Came to Washington to Protest the Keystone Pipeline” by Rick Bass, Yale Environment 360, 02/15/13.

It’s telling that a retired petroleum geologist wrote this call to protest. Lyrical yet logical, this is my favorite piece on “the folly of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.” He describes imagining the millions-of-years old marine landscapes that can, given the right conditions, lead to oil trap formation. One senses that barrier between this world and those past beaches because near-porous for him, an experience I’ve had myself during archaeology or geomorphology fieldwork. I’ve also done fieldwork in the Alberta taiga, undoubtedly the most pristine landscape I’ve ever seen. Bass makes a compelling emotional appeal to protecting this boreal forest, describing it as “the great lungs of North America, one of our last hopes for temperance against rising CO2 levels.”

3. “For 40 Years This Russian Family Was Cut Off From Human Contact, Unaware of World War II” by Mike Dash, Smithsonian.com, 01/29/13.

A fundamentalist Russian Orthodox family fled persecution in the 1930s into the Siberian forest, where they eked out an isolated living for decades. This haunting read details how a team of prospecting geologists came to find them in the 1970s, and how they gradually learned the family’s story and struggles to subsist deep in the Siberian taiga for so long.

4. “How High Could the Tide Go?” by Justin Gillis, New York Times, 01/21/13

This article should be required reading for any climate skeptic…or hell, any citizen of the world. Gillis illustrates why paleoclimate research matters, and the real threat of sea level rise to our coastlines. In addition, I love that he opens the article with an account of a fieldwork expedition. Fieldwork among other driven, enthusiastic geoscientists is a unique experience, the day(s) filled with a relentless drive to seek the next core, the next fossil, or the next outcrop before sundown. Highlighting the importance of the scientists’ work here (documenting Pliocene sea level rise) adds even more urgency.

5. “Thank You For Fracking” by Tom Chiarella, Esquire Magazine, January issue

I took “Intro to Creative Writing” from Prof. Chiarella, and I remember getting impatient that semester with the amount of time I had to spend writing stilted, awkward poems, rather than prose. When his lines here lean towards the overwrought (“when [the gas is] gone, we’ll look for more — deeper in the earth, at the bottom of the ocean, in moons, in the sun, probably in the stars…”), I’m reminded of that class.

And yet, the language kind of works; I love the title, for starters. What follows is a nuanced piece on the natural gas boom, the sheer power of the technology, and its effect on the lives of real people in Marcellus Shale country. I identify with a duality expressed here: deep concern with the fast expansion, regulation roll-back, and lack of industry transparency, and yet a love for visiting drill sites, and seeing firsthand how the extraction process works.

There are many other great articles I’d love to list and share, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll do that in another post.

Carmel, California