Tag Archives: snow

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

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