Berkeley Hills-El Niño Storms Hit Hard

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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“)

It’s El Niño Time!

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.)

Storm Surf in Pacifica – Paul Sakuma/AP

Petaluma Flooding – Brant Ward – The Chronicle

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:

Storm Surf at Mavericks

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.

Heavy Sierra Nevada Snows

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:

Pacific Storms Lining Up – The Weather Channel

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!)

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3 responses »

  1. Pingback: Berkeley Hills Landslide | The Nature of Berkeley

  2. Pingback: Taking a look at landslides in California « Goodheart's Extreme Science

  3. Pingback: Berkeley Hills Landslide « Berkeley, Naturally!

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