Category Archives: climate

Surprised by Turkeys in the Berkeley Hills!

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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.

 

Winter blast-snow in the Hills-black-tailed deer

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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.

On Monday, with the rain gone, I wanted to take a hike up into the Hills.  I decided to take a walk up Cyclotron Road and climb up to The Big Cabove the Berkeley campus.

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!

BLASBT Snowman 12-18-08

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

Rethinking Berkeley, Naturally!

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My posts to Berkeley, Naturally! have slowed down to the point where I realize I need to re-think the goals of this blog. Originally, I had hoped to make Berkeley, Naturally! a kind of science/nature blog, similar to my other blog Goodheart’s Extreme Science.

But with three blogs to write for and look after, it’s become apparent to me that I can’t be as ambitious with Berkeley, Naturally! as I had hoped. It will need to be more of a nature/photo blog and less of a science oriented blog, although it will always have a science and nature lover’s perspective.

When I have time, though, I’ll probably still want to do in-depth posts with like these:

They Are the Ladybugs of the Canyon

Berkeley Hills Landslide

Source Area – Where the Slope Gave Way

Escape from New England—A Weather Nut’s Confession

I get up in to the Berkeley Hills three or four times a week, and always take my camera, so I will have lots of images to share, and observations. Stop by and have a look!

The Berkeley Hills are calling!

Berkeley Hills Landslide 2010

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Last week’s third and final storm was a doozy, setting all-time record low pressure in a number of cities. Here in the Bay Area we got 3 to 8 inches of rain, and wind gusts of over 80 mph.

Powerful Thunderstorms Drench Berkeley and North Bay

All along the coast, 20 foot waves pounded the shore:

Storm Surf – Jan 2010

causing significant beach erosion:

Beach erosion – Great Highway, San Francisco – Lea Suzuki – Chronicle

And as I mentioned in my last post on the storms, the first of the three storms even produced a tornado (and some waterspouts) in Southern California. (see Berkeley Hills-El Nino Storms Hit Hard)

And of course, snow in the Sierras was measured in feet—8 to 10 feet in some spots!

Sierra Summit Had 10 feet of Snow! – Ken Clark

After the mid-week second storm, I wanted to hike into the Berkeley Hills to see the effects of the storm on the canyons. But because it was so muddy, instead of taking a fire trail, I took one of my favorite paved roads up into the Hills, Panoramic Way:

I usually walk south on Piedmont, past the Memorial Stadium:

And then take a left up Bancroft, just past the International House:

When Bancroft dead-ends, I walk up the Bancroft Steps and then cross over to Panoramic Way, which winds up into the Hills:

Panoramic Way – Google Map View

As soon as I got up into the upper, less-developed parts of Panoramic Way, I saw lots of rocks on the road and erosion like this:

Typical Panoramic Way Storm Erosion

Typical Panoramic Way Storm Erosion – Closeup

But I was really shocked when I came around a bend of on the upper part of Panoramic Way and found this:

Panoramic Way Landslide

A landslide!  Not a huge one, but still, impressive to see first-hand. Over a hundred feet of the steep upper slope adjoining the road had given way:

Source Area – Where the Slope Gave Way

And flowed down Panoramic Way for quite a distance:

Depositional Area on Panoramic Way

I was struck by how intact the top layer was; the whole section had been slipped down the slope pretty much in one piece, carrying along most of the shrubs intact.  Although small in scale, this little landslide had all three of the basic  elements of any landslide:

Of course, this landslide on Panoramic Way in the Berkeley Hills was a small one compared to the huge landslides California is famous for.  In the hills and on the cliffs all along the California Coast, heavy rains and steep, unstable land create a deadly combination that leads to highly destructive and often lethal landslides and debris flows. One of the worst in recent memory was the La Conchita landslide in 2005, which killed 10 people.

2005 La Conchita Landslide – John Lehmkuhl

In Southern California, this vulnerability is only made worse after wild fires, fanned by the infamous Santa Ana winds, denude the hills of vegetation.   Without vegetation to slow it down and trap it,  water runs off too quickly, causing flash floods and debris flows filled with huge rocks and tons of sand and gravel. Sometimes truly enormous boulders are set loose:

300 Ton Topanga Canyon Boulder – 2005 Landslide – (AP Photo)

You don’t have to have barren hills to be at risk for a landslide. Doing research for this article, I came across this amazing image of a landslide in England.  Known as the Holbeck Landslide, it occurred south of Scarborough in North Yorkshire:

Holbeck Hall Landslide – England 1993 – British Geological Survey

Fortunately, this particular landslide didn’t happen in a moment.  It took place over a two-day period, so people were able to evacuate when the first signs of movement became evident.  The scale of the movement of land is hard to fathom, until you know that the the cliffs in the depositional area are over 180 feet high! Geologist estimate over a million tons of loose glacial till (sediment) flowed down to the sea shore.

Looking at the Holbeck Hall image, I have to admit that the little landslide on Panoramic Way seems pretty insignificant! (Although I wouldn’t have wanted to be in its way when it broke loose!) Still, the soil physics involved are very similar.  All you need for a landslide is instability—relatively loose soil and rock, a steep-enough slope, and some sort of triggering mechanism, such as too much rain, an earthquake, or erosion of the base of a slope of land.  As this USGS diagram shows, there are all kinds of landslides:

Kinds of Landslides – USGS

The bottom line is that at some point, the friction and cohesion that hold the soil on a slope are simply overcome by gravity, and the soil and rock take off down hill, acting more like a liquid than “solid” land. In California, the majority of landslides caused by rainstorms, though earthquakes and tremors are a not-too-distant second.

Because of the unique geology and weather of California, landslides and debris flows are always going to be a part of the California experience, just like earthquakes, wildfires, Santa Ana winds, and El Niño events.  Because Californian love their hills and the vistas they offer, hill dwellers are always going to be in harm’s way.

Claremont Canyon Hills – Beautiful Vistas and Risk

We can do what we can to be safe, but as nature writer John McPhee makes so clear in The Control of Nature, even our best efforts may be inadequate.   In the last section of his outstanding book, he shows how  residents of the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California have had little success in preventing debris flows from destroying their houses in spite of spending millions on creating man-made diversion pits and dams.

Landslide & Debris Flow Scars in the San Gabriel Mountains – USGS

From the standpoint of geology, landslides, mudslide, and debris flows are simply the more spectacular forms of the ceaseless erosion that shapes our beautiful planet, wearing down mountains and creating the sedimentary rock and soil so much of life depends upon.  Walking in the Berkeley Hills, you can see evidence of this  ceaseless erosion of wind and rain up-close and personal.

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National Geographic has a fantastic video on YouTube about landslides.  The opening scene of a landslide in Portland, Oregon is simply amazing.  Watch as a fellow in a truck outruns a landslide coming down the street, sweeping away cars and everything in its path!

National Geographic Landslide Video

In this next amazing video, caught on camera by a Japanese research team, you can watch a whole mountainside slide across a road with the forest riding along intact!  Amazing!

Heyelan Japan Landslide

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!)

Escape from New England-a weather nut’s confession

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It all began in the Mojave Desert

I’m a weather nut. Have been since I was a little boy. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Mojave desert. Except for the often spectacular heat, the weather in my home town of Las Vegas is deadly dull.

Sure, we would get our annual summer “monsoon” thunderstorms as moist air pushed up from Baja and Mexico:

The lightning from them could be truly spectacular and delighted a little boy’s heart:

And yes, ever four or five years a strong winter storm would leave an inch or more of snow in the Vegas Valley:

We kids loved it, but lots of people freaked out, and there was always a spate of car crashes as people not used to ice on the roads drove like Vegans usually do—way too fast.

But for extreme weather, that’s about it. Except for the heat. (You really can cook eggs on the sidewalk in the height of summer. I did it as a kid on a number of 115 degree °F days.)

Now for some real weather!

So, when I moved to Boston in the mid-’70s, I was in weather nut heaven! Finally, some real weather. In New England you have it all: rainstorms, snow storms, wind storms, blizzards, nor’easters, flash floods, heat waves, brutal cold snaps, and even the occasional tornado and hurricane! How many places can you think of that have blizzards and hurricanes and tornadoes? New England gets them all! (Yes, that’s the Statue of Liberty with a tornado in the distance!)

Here’s some shots of the Great Blizzard of ’78.  I’ll never forget walking around the eerily quiet streets of Boston at the level of the rooftops of the cars buried in the drifts:

As Mark Twain famously noted:

“There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger’s admiration — and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go.”

The Dynamic Duo of New England Weather

The reason New England gets all of this weather is because it happens to be located near the semipermanent low pressure area called the Icelandic Low.  Much of the time in winter this low pressure area looks something like this, as huge storm systems develop in it:

Located  between Iceland and southern Greenland, the Icelandic low pulls all the weather of North America towards it, and thus, toward New England. If New England weather sucks, it’s because the Icelandic Low sucks—all the weather masses of North America toward it.

But the Icelandic Low has a partner in crime—the Azores or Bermuda High:

This huge semipermanent area of subtropical high pressure is the other pole of what is called the North Atlantic Oscillation. In the summer, the high pressure area tends to move toward North America.   Its clockwise rotating air pumps warm, moist air up the Atlantic coast to New England. This is why a place that gets blizzards and below zero weather also gets sweltering, humid 90 degree °F heat in the summer. Don’t you just love it?

Not only that, the Azores High’s clockwise rotation tends to create tropical waves off of Africa and send them toward North America. These pressure waves often become tropical storms, and sometimes, hurricanes. The Azores High sends them all toward the Caribbean and North America. When the high moves even further west, it will even shunt hurricanes up the East Coast, and that’s why New England can also get hurricanes.  Here’s a typical track of a hurricane sweeping around the Azores High and roaring up the Atlantic Coast toward New England and the distant Icelandic Low.

This double-whammy of the Icelandic Low and the Bermuda High is why there’s always some weather mass or storm merrily marching through New England.

If you love weather, and lots of it, move to New England!

So, if I love weather, why did I leave New England?

As an amateur meteorologist, I loved my time in New England. I relished her nor’easters, hurricanes, blizzards, cold snaps, snow storms, and heat spells.  The clouds were often magnificent and came in every variety. Over time, however, the long, cold New England winters started to get to me as the initial novelty of them for a desert boy wore off.

I loved fall in New England; still do. It’s New England’s best and most beautiful season.  Here’s an image of Malden in the fall of 2008, my last Fall in the Boston area. (click for a nice large image)

But I more and more, I was dreading the winters.

It wasn’t just how early winters started and how long they lasted. It wasn’t just the damp, penetrating wind-driven cold. (Forget it Chicago, Boston is the real windy city!) The coup de grace was day after day of grey, overcast skies. I need sun! I need to see blue skies, even in winter—even if howling winds make the windchill 20 below!  Just gimme some sun!  And after three decades in New England, I just needed a new place that (for me) reflected a brighter, happier outlook on life (not that one can’t be happy in New England; I’m talking about the physical environment.)

As a final send-off, just before we left for California, New England got in one last nor’easter.  Not a record setter, but afterwards, the snow and slush all froze, and it was bitter cold until we took the Amtrak Zephyr to the Golden West. Adios New England!

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So, here I am in Berkeley, with my dear wife—blue skies galore, even in winter, and no 20 below windchill! Yes, I know the Bay area has its winter rainy season. I know it can be rainy for days, even weeks. (We arrived in the middle of winter when we moved here.) I now know what the fogs of summer are all about (not nearly as bad as advertised.)

But Bay area weather at its worst is just not in the same league as bad weather in New England. In New England, you get more of everything—more cold, more clouds, more rain, more heat, more humidity, more wind, more….just more! And less—less sunny days, less time you can spend outside, less comfortable weather.

The Glorious Weather and Climate of the San Francisco Bay area

So, now I turn my weather eyes to the amazing climate and weather of the San Francisco Bay area. It may not be as “exciting” weather-wise here, but there’s plenty going on, and the big picture is very interesting.

We have our own version of the Icelandic Low up in the Aleutians off the coast of Alaska.  But instead of pulling continental weather to it, this semipermanent low pressure area spins off storm after storm, creating most of the weather in the North America, and indeed, much of the weather in the Northern Hemisphere.  It’s called the Aleutian Low, and its monumental storms are some of the biggest and most powerful on Earth.

In winter, these huge storms spin out of the Gulf of Alaska and crash into Canada,  the Northwest, and Northern California.  After dropping huge quantities of rain and snow, they still have enough moisture and energy to move on and create rain and snowstorms across the entire country.

And of course, in California, we feel the powerful effects of  the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, often  abbreviated by meteorologists as ENSO.  El Niño not only has dramatic effects on California weather, it affects weather all over the world. As a newcomer here, I’ve not personally experienced an El Niño event, but as a long-time student of weather, I sure know how damaging they can be here in California:

I’ll be talking a lot more about all of this fascinating weather stuff in future posts. But for now, I’m just going to kick back and enjoy this sunny Berkeley day in early December. Wow, I can wear my t-shirt outside! Wow, I don’t have to wear my heavy New England winter jacket. Wow, the wind isn’t freezing my face off!  This year in Boston, it snowed heavily in October, and at night there, it’s already in the low 30s and high 20s °F.

My New England friends tell me they are having a warm spell right now, after the “summer that wasn’t.” (Boy, do I remember a lot of those!)   But, alas, they are still doomed.  Winter is coming, and there’s no stopping it!

Dear New England, I loved you, but your long, cold, dark winters will grind me down no more!  I’ve found my personal paradise here in Berkeley and the Berkeley Hills.  And I’m here to stay!

Why I Love the Berkeley Hills

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Why I Love the Berkeley Hills

(A point of geography: the term Berkeley Hills applies to one of ranges of the Pacific Coast Ranges.  These hills used to be called the Contra Costa Hills.  Therefore the term “Berkeley Hills” includes those hills above Oakland as well as those above Berkeley.  “Berkeley Hills” is a geographic term (a toponym, to be exact) and has nothing to do with political or city boundaries. I  just want my good neighbors in Oakland to know they are not being left out when I speak of the Berkeley Hills!)

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I’ve been so busy getting my dharma journal, Metta Refuge, up and running, I just haven’t had time to get anything posted here at “The Nature of Berkeley!”

But today, the first day of December, that changes! I thought the least I could do was post some introductory images from my hikes in Strawberry and Claremont Canyons. I wanted folks to see why I’m so in love with the Berkeley Hills area and why I feel so grateful to live here.

I’m also working on my first post about an animal you’ll often run across in the Hills. It’s actually a much-loved insect (yes, insect!) More on that later!

For now, here on some images that will give visitors to this blog a feel for our beautiful ecosystem here in the East Bay. If you click on any of the small images below, you’ll get a much larger one you can download for your desktop image or wallpaper. Enjoy!  (©Steve Goodheart)

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I took these next two photos this summer in Strawberry Canyon. The grasses are brown because it’s been nearly five months since the last substantial rain, and the Great October Rainstorm of 2009 is still months away.

After 33 years in Boston, I can’t tell you what a marvel it is go a whole summer without a trace of rain!  As a boy growing up in the Mojave desert, I was used to long rainless periods, but even in the desert, we had summer “monsoon” thunderstorms.  The Bay area’s “Mediterranean” climate and summer drought are fascinating, and I look forward to discussing how they shape this ecosystem.

These next two photos were just two weeks after our amazing October rain storm. (The heaviest October rain in 47 years!) What a difference!

As a newcomer to the area, I was amazed at how fast the hills “greened up.” The plants in this area have some amazing adaptations to the Mediterranean climate we have here, and I’ll be writing a lot about that in later posts.  Here’s a nice shot looking across Strawberry Canyon to the historical UC Berkeley Cyclotron.

My favorite trees in the Canyons are the somewhat controversial Eucalyptus, which were introduced to this area in the 1850s. These beautiful trees dominate much of the terrain in the Canyons.

One of the best things about living in Berkeley is being so close to wonderful hiking and fire trails. Here are some images from some of my favorite hikes.

Once you gain some altitude into the hills, you are often rewarded with beautiful vistas of San Francisco Bay and unobstructed skies.

There are a huge range of plants in the Strawberry and Claremont Canyons. Here are two of my favorites: lichens and some wild (unripe) blackberries:

Many of the trees on the steeper slopes have a real battle with gravity and erosion. (I’ll be writing much more about Berkeley Hills plants and their challenges in later posts.)

Finally, hiking in the hills you’ll definitely come across wild animals. I’ll never forget the first time I came upon a flock of wild turkeys in Strawberry Canyon. (Alas, I’ve yet to have my camera with me when I’ve come across them.) There are many kinds of birds, too, including large raptors. But the toughest, most aggressive bird you’ll come across in the Canyons is the smallest! Meet the pound-for-pound champ, the Rufous Hummingbird:

You’ll also run across reptiles on your hikes. I’ve seen several kinds of garter snakes, and along the sunnier trails, you’ll almost see always some Western Fence lizards:

And some of the creatures you’ll find in the Hills are just, well, fantastic:

I hope you enjoyed my first “Berkeley, Naturally” post. With my other blog established, I hope to get into a rhythm and post here several times a week.

Happy trails! Steve