Tag Archives: winter

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

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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!