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Last week we had some of the best low tides of the season, and I was grateful to spend three consecutive mornings in the intertidal. The picture-taking conditions were fantastic when I went to Natural Bridges, and I snapped away like a madwoman. Unfortunately, last week was also finals week, and it wasn't until I got all of the grading done and actual grades submitted that I let myself look at the photos. And there were a lot of good ones!

There are many wonderful things about the early morning low tides. One of the best is that most people prefer to remain in bed rather than get up before the sun and splash around in cold water. The past several weeks had been very busy, with little time for solitude, and I badly needed some time by myself in nature.

Usually when I post an entry here I have a story to tell. This time I don't, unless the photos themselves tell the story. Let me know what you think.

Rocks covered in green surfgrass and brown seaweed, surrounded by water. Wave breaking in the background. Clouds in the sky.
Low intertidal at Natural Bridges
2022-05-17
© Allison J. Gong

Act I

At this time of year the algae are the stars of the show. They are at their most lush and glorious for the next several weeks.

Brown and dark iridescent seaweeds on rocks
Assemblage of mid-intertidal organisms
2022-05-17
© Allison J. Gong

Even in the sand, the algae were abundant and conspicuous. In the low intertidal the most prominent algae are the kelps. Here the feather boa kelp (Egregia menziesii) and the various Laminaria species are doing really well. Egregia also occurs higher in the intertidal, but Laminaria and Macrocystis (just visible along the right edge) are low intertidal and subtidal species.

Kelps (Egregia menziesii, Laminaria setchellii, and Macrocystis pyrifera) in the low intertidal
2022-05-17
© Allison J. Gong

My absolute favorite sighting of the morning was this group of algae on top of the sand. I love the way that the algae are splayed out. They are just so pretty!

Assemblage of algae in the sand
2022-05-17
© Allison J. Gong

Macrocystis pyrifera is justifiably well known as the major canopy-forming kelp along our coast. But it does occur in the low intertidal, as mentioned above.

Long strands of golden-brown seaweed
Giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera)
2022-05-17
© Allison J. Gong

Intermission

Act II

And now to focus on some individual organisms. Starting with my favorites, the anemones. This time it was the giant green anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, that was the star of the show.

Large bright green sea anemone
Green anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica)
2022-05-17
© Allison J. Gong

I experimented with close-up shots, too!

There was a clingfish (Gobiesox meandricus), in its usual under-rock habitat. Don't worry, I made sure to carefully replace the rock as I found it. This fish was about 10cm long. It may be the first clingfish I've ever seen at Natural Bridges. Clearly, I need to do more rock flipping.

Mottled brown fish with large head, on a rock
Northern clingfish (Gobiesox meandricus)
2022-05-17
© Allison J. Gong

A clingfish's pelvic fins are fused together and modified to form a suction cup on the ventral surface. Clingfish can hop around a bit and are super cute when they eat. They sort of dart forward and land on the food, then shuffle around as they ingest it.

The coralline algae were both abundant and flourishing. They are looking fantastic this season. Someday I'll study up on the coralline algae and write about them. For now, here are some happy snaps of Bossiella.

Pink, stiff, seaweed. Body of repeated sections.
Bossiella sp., one of the erect coralline algae
2022-05-17
© Allison J. Gong

Such a beautiful organism!

Sticking with the pink theme, another oft-overlooked organism is the barnacle Tetraclita rubescens. It has a few common names, including pink volcano barnacle and thatched barnacle. It is the largest of the intertidal barnacles along the California coast, and can be fairly abundant in some places. It is never as abundant as the smaller white (Balanus glandula) and gray/brown (Chthamalus dalli/fissus) barnacles, though.

Large pink barnacles on a rock
Tetraclita rubescens, the large pink barnacle
2022-05-17
© Allison J. Gong

Which brings us to my favorite color, purple. The tentacles of the sandcastle worm, Phragmatopoma californica, are a beautiful shade of purple. You don't get to see the tentacles unless the worm is under water, and with the tide as low as it was when I was there this past week, it wasn't easy finding any Phragmatopoma that were submerged. I've written about Phragmatopoma before, so won't go into details here. But look at all those fecal pellets!

Tentacles of the sandcastle worm, Phragmatopoma californica
2022-05-17
© Allison J. Gong

And last but not least, here are a couple of the many purple urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) out there. At Natural Bridges there's a large pool fairly high in the mid-intertidal that is called the Urchin Pool because it contains dozens (hundreds?) of urchins. Most of them are burrowed into the soft rock. Those are sort of easy pickings. I like finding urchins in less-obvious places, like these.

Purple urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) tucked into burrows
2022-05-17
© Allison J. Gong

Urchins in the intertidal often cover themselves with bits of shell, small pebbles, and algae. This helps them retain water as the tide recedes. At a location where the rock is soft, such as Natural Bridges, many of the urchins have grown larger than the opening to their burrow and cannot leave to forage; these imprisoned urchins have to wait for pieces of algae to drift nearby, which they can grab with their tube feet and then transport to the mouth on the underside. So long as they don't get pried out by otters, the urchins seem to do just fine.

I think that's enough for now. I hope these photos give you some idea of what it was like out there a week and a half ago. The next excellent low tide series is in mid-June. Snapshot Cal Coast will be in full swing then, so get out there if you can!

Row of people with backs to the camera, standing on a bluff and looking out over the ocean

For the final field trip of the quarter for Introduction to Field Research and Conservation, I took the class to the Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve. Located in the Santa Lucia Mountains south of Big Sur, Big Creek was the fourth of the UCSC Natural Reserves we visited this quarter. The site is rugged and spectacular, and because it's not open to the public we were the only visitors there. There's something truly special about arriving at a campsite after dark (which most of us did) and waking up to find that you've landed in paradise. And realizing that you haven't pitched your tent in poison oak!

Saturday 07 May 2022

We had about a day and a half at Big Creek. Saturday we went on a hike that was much longer and more grueling than the gentle saunter I had promised the students. If I get to teach this class again and return to Big Creek, I now have better plans for how to manage things. We did hike through areas that burned in the Dolan fire in 2020, and were able to see first-hand now the landscape is recovering from that disturbance.

Landscape photo of mountains in background, burned trees in midground, and green vegetation in foreground.
Scorched trees
2022-05-07
© Allison J. Gong

First, some facts about the Dolan Fire. It was started in the Los Padres National Forest in August 2020 by a man who was convicted of arson, throwing rocks at a vehicle, cultivating marijuana on public lands, and 12 counts of animal cruelty; this man, whose name shall go unmentioned here, was sentenced to 24 years in prison just a few days ago. The fire burned over 124,000 acres, cost the state $63 million to fight, destroyed 10 residences and four other structures, and damaged nesting sites for California condors, resulting in the deaths of 12 of the endangered birds. One of the casualties of the fire was the outhouse at the Redwood Camp campground, which is where we were camping. The outhouse had been rebuilt recently and was brand spanking new when we arrived.

Outhouse at Redwood Camp
2022-05-07
© Allison J. Gong

Yes, it's a lovely outhouse, but I really took this photo to show the burnt trees. Redwood Camp is situated alongside Devils Creek, in the redwood forest. The fire came right down to the road and scorched trees along the canyon wall. Many dead trees had to be removed and trails cleared before Big Creek could reopen.

Our hike-that-was-more-than-a-saunter took us up the fire road to Whale Point, where we had spectacular views of the Santa Lucia Mountains in one direction and the Pacific Ocean in the other. Along the fire road our guide showed us fire damage to the redwood forest, and pointed out signs of recovery.

Redwoods are adapted for fire. They have a thick bark that shields the inner living tissue from damage, so long as the fire isn't too hot. The outermost layer of bark is frizzy and burns really fast, so a redwood on fire blazes like a match catching for a few seconds, then goes out. Old redwoods have few, if any, branches near the ground, so a low temperature fire at ground level would cause very little damage to a healthy tree. Fire clears out the underbrush and opens up the canopy, creating an opportunity for some young sapling to reach for the light. Fire suppression, on the other hand, allowed the accumulation of several decades' worth of vegetation, and when the Dolan Fire came through it burned hot and furious.

I knew, of course, that redwood trees are clonal. They sprout new trees from the roots and can eventually form "fairy rings". These occur when a mother tree puts up a ring of clonal offspring. Eventually the mother dies, leaving a ring of trees surrounding either a stump or an open space. We see in the Santa Cruz redwoods all the time.

What I didn't know, but learned at Big Creek, was that redwoods also have epicormic growth, in which new shoots originate from the beneath the bark of the tree, sometimes halfway up the trunk.

Scorched tree trunks with new sprouts growing high above the ground
Redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens) showing epicormic growth
2022-05-07
© Allison J. Gong

Epicormic buds lie dormant underneath the bark layer, their growth suppressed by hormones released by active shoots higher up in the tree. When those higher shoots are damaged, the cessation of hormones allows the epicormic buds to begin growing. The selective advantage of sprouting new growth halfway up the tree is that the new shoots have less far to grow to reach the sun. With redwoods being so tall, an epicormic bud located halfway up the trunk has a major leg up on the competition trying to grow from ground level.

However, that doesn't mean that many trees damaged by fire don't grow from roots. We saw lots of those, too. Our guide said that post-Dolan some redwoods grew from root sprouts and some from epicormic buds, and that there wasn't really any rhyme or reason as to which trees did which.

Young redwood sprouts, with new growth in bright green
Young redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) sprouts, age 1 year
2022-05-07
© Allison J. Gong

These young trees sprouted in 2021, a few months after the Dolan Fire was extinguished on 31 December 2020. The first year's growth is the dark green color. The new growth added in 2022 is the brighter and paler green. Here's another young tree where the color between the 2021 and 2022 growth is more striking:

Young redwood sprouts, with new growth in bright green
Young redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) sprouts, age 1 year
2022-05-07
© Allison J. Gong

The reward for the hike was a long rest at Whale Point, which we started calling The Top of the World. Because with views like this, who can argue?

25 people standing on a bluff above the ocean
Students listening to our guide at Whale Point
2022-05-07
© Allison J. Gong

Sunday 08 May 2022

After breakfast on Sunday the students packed lunches and dispersed to work on their rapid research projects (RRPs). The RRP is a field exercise in which students devise an entire research project, from initial observations and questions to final presentation, in a few hours. I've found it to be a very effective assignment, because it forces students to simplify and narrow their ideas. They simply can't get too carried away if they have to make a poster and present it to their classmates in half a day. When students are working on RRPs my job is to keep them focused and on-task. Sometimes this is easier said than done. We had students working in the forest, in the creek, and on the beach.

At Big Creek there's a new classroom built down by the beach. No matter where the students did their actual research, we would all meet at the classroom to build and present posters.

Modern building in outdoor setting
Classroom building at Big Creek Natural Reserve
2022-05-08
© Allison J. Gong

It's hard to see in the photo, but to the right of the middle of the building, in the corner of the ell, there's a glass door. Directly across on the opposite side of the building there's another glass door, so you can see all the way through the building. We discovered that this is a problem, as two birds had tried to pass through the building and smacked into the glass. They were both dead. So on the spur of the moment I turned it into an impromptu lesson.

I couldn't ID either bird off the top of my head, so a handful of students and I sat down with the birds and some field guides to study bird anatomy and identification.

6 women sitting cross-legged on a wooden deck, one with an open book on a knee. Two dead birds in the middle of the circle.
Me, trying to ID the dead birds
2022-05-08
© Allison J. Gong

We talked about different types of feathers—primary and secondary flight feathers, coverts, tails—and their functions. After working through descriptions in the field guides I was pretty certain that the larger bird was a Swainson's thrush (Catharus ustulatus) and the little yellow bird was some sort of warbler. It was a good lesson for the students, because we looked at physical descriptions and geographic ranges, and could not come up with a definitive answer. I took several pictures of both and uploaded them to iNaturalist when we got home. We were correct about the brown bird, and the little yellow one ended up being an orange-crowned warbler (Leiothlypis celata).

Two dead birds lying on wooden deck. Bird on top is small and yellow, bird on bottom is larger and brown.
Orange-crowned warbler (Leiothlypis celata, top) and Swainson's thrush (Catharus ustulatus, bottom)
2022-05-08
© Allison J. Gong

The RRPs were the last part of the field trip, and after that we packed up and headed out. The students went straight back up the coast to get home, and saw three California condors from the highway. Alex and I drove back up to Whale Point where it was really windy, just to see condors, and didn't see any. Go figure. At least I had my camera with me and could take real pictures. And it was another beautiful day.

Big Creek Bridge, one of the iconic bridges along Highway 1
2022-05-08
© Allison J. Gong

I am one fortunate woman, because I get to call this work!

1

Big waves breaking on beach, with cliffs on the right side

One of the things that I've been doing with my Ecology class since almost the very beginning is LiMPETS monitoring in the rocky intertidal. Usually we have a classroom training session before meeting in the field to do the actual work. This year we are teaching the class in a hybrid mode, with lecture material being delivered remotely, so we don't have class meetings except for our field trips. The LiMPETS coordinator for the Monterey Bay region, Hannah, and I arranged to meet at our sampling site, where she would do a training session on the beach before we herded everyone out into the intertidal. It truly was a great plan! But the weather intervened and a spring storm blew through, bringing in a big swell. There was a high surf warning for our area the day of our scheduled LiMPETS work. Hannah and I conferred via email and decided that we'd still give it a shot, and at least the students would have an opportunity to learn about the LiMPETS program and practice with the datasheets and gear.

I arrived early to see how the surf was looking, and it was impressive. The waves were regularly covering our sampling location with whitewash, even as the tide was going out. When my co-instructor arrived and I showed him where the transect would lie, it was an easy decision to make to cancel the monitoring. But we would still be able to do the practice stuff, so we convened with Hannah on the bluff and she went into teacher mode.

College students standing in a circle, listening to instructor
Hannah (right) explaining the LiMPETS program
2022-04-22
© Allison J. Gong

We didn't bother with the transect, but had groups of students work through some quadrats out on the intertidal bench, which you can just see in the background of the photo above. Hannah kept everyone out of the danger zone and we stressed the importance of having one member of each group keep an eye on the ocean at all times. We stayed mostly in the high zone, venturing down into the upper mid zone only when the tide was at its lowest. Even then, the big swells would surge up the channels and splash up onto the benches. Nobody got swept off, though, or even more than a teensy bit damp.

Most of the students left after what little work we had for them to do, and that gave me the freedom to poke around on my own and take pictures. I hadn't had a chance to do this in a long time, and intended to make the most of a decent low tide that was almost wiped out by huge swell.

So here we go!

First up, the high-intertidal seaweeds:

Olive-green seaweed on rock, with mussels surrounding
Silvetia compressa
2022-04-22
© Allison J. Gong

And here's a typical high intertidal community at Davenport Landing. Inhabitants include:

  • Several large clumps of rockweed (Silvetia compressa and Fucus distichus)
  • Several smaller bunches of tufty reds (Endocladia muricata)
  • Mussels (Mytilus californianus)
  • Many blotches of "tar spot alga" which is the encrusting tetrasporophyte phase of Mastocarpus papillatus
Clumps of olive-green seaweeds, dark red seaweeds, and mussels on rock
High intertidal community at Davenport Landing
2022-04-22
© Allison J. Gong

The water was pretty murky, so not great for underwater photography. Some of the shots turned out pretty well, though. The soft pale purple structures that you see in the photo below are papullae, used for gas exchange. You can see these only when the star is immersed.

Clumps of pale purple transparent tubes interspersed with white blotches
Aboral surface of the ochre star Pisaster ochraceus, showing papullae and spines
2022-04-22
© Allison J. Gong

The anemones were, as always, happy to be photographed. In this shot, the anemone was being photobombed by a turban snail.

Large green sea anemone and small purple snail in a tidepool
Green anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica) and black turban snail (Tegula funebralis)
2022-04-22
© Allison J. Gong

Here's another typical intertidal assemblage:

Clump of sandy tubes with mussels, barnacles, and greenish-purple seaweed
Sandcastle worm (Phragmatopoma californica), iridescent alga (Mazzaella flaccida), gooseneck barnacles (Pollicipes polymerus), and mussels (Mytilus californianus)
2022-04-22
© Allison J. Gong
Gooseneck barnacles (Pollicipes polymerus)
2022-04-22
© Allison J. Gong

A couple of students stayed after the rest of the class had left. They were happy to see the nice fat ochre stars, and so many of them in one small area.

It's always good to see so many big ochre stars. For this species, in the intertidal areas that I visit, sea star wasting syndrome (SSWS) no longer seems to be a problem. Fingers crossed! We'll have to see what unfolds in the next months and years.

This week was my spring break, and although I have more than enough work to catch up on, I decided that each day I would spend a few hours doing something fun before or after getting stuck in with adult responsibilities. I didn't set up formal plans, but knew I wanted to collect a plankton sample early in the week. Monday 21 March 2022 was the vernal equinox, which seemed as good a time as any to see what was going on in the plankton.

And the plankton was quite lively! I was very pleased to see a lot of diatoms in the sample. Diatoms are early season bloomers, able to take advantage of nutrient inputs due to coastal upwelling. They are usually the most abundant phytoplankters from about March through July.

Mixed marine plankton
Mixed plankton sample, collected from the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf
2022-03-21
© Allison J. Gong

All of those button-like round objects are centric diatoms in the genus Coscinodiscus. They can be large cells, getting up to 500 μm in diameter. Coscinodiscus is in some ways the quintessential centric diatom, as you will see below.

Take a look at these objects:

Clearly, one is a circle and one is a rectangle, right? Well, yes, but these two objects are the same type of thing—they are both cells of Coscinodiscus. The easiest way to understand diatom anatomy is to think of the frustule (the outer skeleton of the cell) of Coscinodiscus as being constructed like a petri dish. Because that's actually what it is: an outer casing of silica with two halves, one of which fits over the other exactly the way a petri dish lid fits over the bottom of the petri dish. If you place a petri dish on a table and look down on it, you will see a circle. But if you pick up the petri dish and look at it from a side view, you will see a rectangle. If you don't believe me, go ahead and try it with any canned food item in your pantry. Coscinodiscus is the same. If it lands on the microscope slide lying flat, it will look like a circle; this is called the valve view because you are looking down on the surface of one of the two valves of the frustule. Most of time when we see Coscinodiscus we see it in valve view. Sometimes you get lucky and a cell remains "standing up" even after you drop a cover slip on top of your sample, and you see the cell as a rectangle. This is called the girdle view. So in the photo above, what you see on the left is a Coscinodiscus cell in valve view, and what you see on the right is the same type of cell in girdle view. Same object, two perspectives, and two shapes. By the way, this is the answer to the question posed in the previous post.

And this is what a valve view of Coscinodiscus looks like when you zoom in:

Circular object with golden-brown spots
Coscinodiscus sp. under brightfield lighting, showing true colors
2022-03-21
© Allison J. Gong

You can see some of the sculpturing on the frustule, and the beautiful golden-brown color of diatoms. The diatoms are related to the brown algae and share the same overall set of photosynthetic pigments, which explains why diatoms are often the same colors as kelps.

Another of the common diatoms around here are those in the genus Chaetoceros. The prefix 'chaet-' means 'bristle', and the cells of Chaetoceros have long bristles. Unlike Coscinodiscus, Chaetoceros forms chains. Some species form straight chains, others form spiraling chains, and still others form a sort of meandering chain that is embedded in a tiny blob of mucilage. The cells below are forming a straight chain.

Chain of rectangular boxes, each containing amorphous golden blobs. Long bifurcating bristles protrude from the corners of the boxes.
Chaetoceros sp.
2022-03-21
© Allison J. Gong

In addition to all of the diatoms, there were more dinoflagellates than I expected to see. Ceratium was very well represented, often in chains of two cells.

A golden cell with two points at one end and a single point at the other. Three golden ovoid cells in a chain.
Dinoflagellate (Ceratium lineatum, top) and an unidentified diatom
2022-03-21
© Allison J. Gong

I was even able to capture some video of Ceratium cells swimming in the thin film of water under the coverslip. Dinoflagellates have two flagella: one wrapped in that groove, or "waistline", and one that trails free. Usually it's the trailing flagellum that's easier to see, and if you watch you'll be able to see it in each of the cells.

Protoperidinium was another common dinoflagellate in the sample. Unlike the diatoms and photoautotrophic dinoflagellates, which have that sort of golden-brown color, Protoperidinium is a heterotroph. It eats other unicellular protists by extruding its cytoplasm out of the holes in its cellulose skeletal plates and engulfing prey, similar to the way an amoeba feeds. Because it does not rely on photosynthesis for obtaining fixed carbon, Protoperidinium comes in colors that we typically don't associate with photoautotrophs. Pink, red, and grayish brown are common colors. This time I saw several that were bright red.

A disc-shaped object with a single point on one side and two points on the other side. Object contains small red blotches.
Protoperidinium, a heterotrophic dinoflagellate
2022-03-21
© Allison J. Gong

So that's a glimpse of springtime in the ocean. Now let's look up!

Legend has it that the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano every year on March 19, which is St. Joseph's day. I don't pay attention to St. Joseph's day, but I do pay attention to the vernal equinox every year and keep an eye out for the return of our swallows to the marine lab. We get both cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) and barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) building mud nests on our buildings. Last year (2021) the cliff swallows showed up first, with the barn swallows arriving a few weeks later; I remember being worried that they might not show up at all.

This year the swallows returned right on schedule. I saw my first barn swallows on the day of the vernal equinox, 21 March 2022.

Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica)
2022-03-21
© Allison J. Gong

They are so pretty! I haven't seen any nest-building yet, but did witness what might have been a territorial spat. The bird in the photo above is the one on the left that is retreating in the photo below

Bird perched on a sign
Two barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) expressing a difference of opinion
2022-03-21
© Allison J. Gong

Look at that gorgeous outspread tail! Barn swallows migrate to North America from southern Mexico and Central America. The cliff swallows come all the way from South America; no wonder they're a little late arriving in California! I think they'll show up any day now, and both they and the barn swallows will begin daubing mud above doorways and under the eaves.

Somehow, no matter what else is going on and what the calendar says, it never feels like spring until the swallows are zooming around again. Spring is my favorite season, as there's so much going on, and I begin to feel energized again with the longer days. I have a busy spring teaching schedule and don't know how much time I'll have to do fun things like look at plankton for the hell of it, but will try to slow down often enough to take note of what's happening around me.

At ~05:00h UTC on 15 January 2022, the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai undersea volcano erupted. The eruption was probably followed by a massive undersea landslide, which set tsunami waves out across the Pacific Ocean. This time translates to ~21:00h PST on Friday 14 January, and for the rest of this entry all times and dates will be reported in California time. The eruption and landslide happened in the early morning in Tonga, which was the previous evening here in California.

I woke up on Saturday 15 January (yesterday, as I write this on the 16th) to reports of tsunami warnings for the entire Pacific coast of North America. The first waves were expected to hit the Monterey Bay area around 07:30h. Knowing that we are in spring tides now and that the low low tide (LLT) would be at 15:35h, I back-calculated the preceding high tide (the high high tide, or HHT, for the day) to be around 08:30h. Hmm. High tide plus tsunami surge could equal interesting things to see! And yes, as we were warned not to go down to the ocean, I planned to remain above it all and observe from the bluffs.

What the instruments measured

The volcano erupted first, and caused the landslide. When the massive displacement of water occurred in the ocean, it sent pressure waves through both the ocean and the atmosphere. But before that, the volcanic explosion itself created a pressure wave in the atmosphere. And it happens that the barometer in our weather station caught the pressure anomaly! At 04:04h on 15 January, about seven hours after the eruption, the weather station measured a spike in atmospheric pressure (circled in red in the bottom panel). Our weather station records pressure only every five minutes, so the actual spike may be a bit higher than what was recorded.

Spike in atmospheric pressure, measured by home weather station
Spike in atmospheric pressure, measured by our weather station in Santa Cruz, CA

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has tsunami stations established on the entire coast of the U.S., as well as earthquake monitoring stations elsewhere along the Pacific ring of fire. The tsunami station at Monterey measured sea level anomalies due to the tsunami waves striking the coast, starting at about 07:00h, as seen below.

This kind of chart is a little different from what you're probably used to, so let me explain what it shows. You have time and date along the X-axis. The blue line, which is hard to see because it is mostly obscured by the red line, is the predicted sea level; note that it follows the usual trajectory for the tides we have in this area, with two high tides and two low tides every day. The jagged red line is the interesting part. It shows the anomalies, or how the actual sea level deviates from the predicted sea level. There are both positive and negative anomalies. These anomalies are the tsunami surges that hit the monitoring buoy. Positive anomalies are the pressure waves striking the buoy (i.e., the crests of the wave), and negative anomalies are the pauses between surges, or the troughs of the wave. The first large anomaly was about 0.7 meters above the predicted sea level.

Imagine tossing a pebble into a calm pond. When the rock hits the water it sets up a series of pressure waves that emanate in all directions from the point of impact. If you watch those waves, or ripples, you notice that over time they diminish in size until eventually you don't see them anymore.

A tsunami is a similar phenomenon, only ginormously magnified. The underwater landslide displaces a huge amount of water, which then surges away in all directions. These tsunamis travel across thousands of kilometers of open ocean, where they may not make much difference in sea level. But as they approach land they behave like other waves do: they slow down and get taller. When they hit the continental shelf, they surge up coastal waterways and flood any low-lying land they encounter.

And there isn't only one surge. As you can see in the NOAA chart, surges and relaxations occurred throughout the entire day. The purple line indicates the same anomalies as the red line, only they are shown on a single horizontal line instead of on the wave of the blue line. This makes it easier to see how the magnitude of the deviations decreases over time.

What I saw

Double-checking the NOAA tide chart for Santa Cruz, I saw that the HHT would be +1.7 meters at 07:59h. I managed to get myself down to the marine lab, do my chores, and scurry out to Younger Lagoon at about 08:45h. Don't worry, I didn't have time to go down onto the beach, but watched events from the bluff, where I had a better view anyway. Remember, we had a high tide coinciding with the oncoming tsunami surge, so the potential was there for something interesting to happen. Now, a +1.7 meter (= 5.5 feet) isn't an extremely high tide. But combined with a tsunami surge, maybe that would be enough to flow over the sand berm into the lagoon.

And that's what happened. From my position on the bluff I recorded this video:

And here's my nature journal entry:

© Allison J. Gong

Things were pretty exciting at the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor, too. All day, people were recording the tsunami surges as they rushed up the harbor from Monterey Bay. Unlike the tsunami in 2011, which tore up both docks and boats, causing extensive damage, yesterday's tsunami was quite mild. I had already made plans for the day and didn't get down to the harbor to check out the action until late in the afternoon. My friend, Murray, built a little boat, Scherzo, who lives in the upper harbor. Scherzo didn't exist in 2011 so we don't know how she would have weathered things. She was floating happily when we went to see her yesterday, although she did seem to be sitting rather low in the water. She probably took on water over her transom during the biggest tsunami surges.

Scherzo is the sleek little craft on the near side of this dock. She is blue with a white cover.

Murray's little boat, Scherzo, in her slip at the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor
2022-01-15
© Allison J. Gong

The harbor patrol had blocked access to the docks so they could inspect them for structural damage. I assume, but don't know for sure, that slip renters were able to check on their boats today.

We were at the harbor at 16:30h yesterday. Sea level was still noticeably rising and falling, and even a minute of watching was rewarded with fairly drastic changes. Since we were not allowed onto the docks I was unable to record good footage of how quickly water was moving in the main channel. However, in the side channel where Scherzo is tied up we could watch the water drain. In this video, keep an eye on that rock that looks like a shark fin, near the middle of the frame.

What other people saw

In one of those inevitable consequences of any public safety announcement, the effect of a tsunami warning is to attract people to the beach. I know that many surfers headed out to surf the tsunami, and a lot of people recorded the tsunami from bridges and other places. Here are just a few of the YouTube videos showing the tsunami in the Santa Cruz area.

Video #1: Drone footage of the tsunami pushing into the mouth of the harbor and up the main channel. You can clearly see the green water from Monterey Bay pushing its way through the muddier water of the harbor itself. And the poor dredge sure did take a beating!


Video #2: Tsunami waves heading up Soquel Creek, which opens to Monterey Bay


Video #3: Cars floating at the upper harbor parking lot. I think a lot of this water came up through the storm drains, rather than flowing from the harbor onto the sidewalk and roadway.


Video #4: This video was shot from the Murray Street bridge, looking south at the lower harbor.


Video #5: This footage was shot at the upper harbor, near the dock where Scherzo lives.

So yeah, things were pretty exciting here. But the important thing to remember is that what was a source of entertainment and mild concern here in California, caused tremendous damage in Tonga and neighboring islands. Volcanic ash is settling over the island to the depth of several centimeters, fouling fresh water supplies. The ash is also clouding the air and darkening the sky. Communications have been disrupted, and it is unknown how many casualties resulted from the eruption and ensuing tsunami. Australia and New Zealand have begun deploying aircraft to assess the damage, but it will be a while before we know how bad things really are. Drinking water does seem to be the most pressing need for Tongans and inhabitants of other affected islands.

I imagine that in the coming days there will be opportunities for us to help those who need it. If you can contribute, please do so.

Yesterday I had some time to kill before getting a COVID test, and, as usual, wandered down to the ocean. This time I was at Seacliff State Beach. It was pretty crowded, so I walked onto the pier to see if the fishermen were having any luck. They weren't, really. One man kept catching jack silversides (Atherinopsis californiensis) that were too small to keep. There was a lot of banter about sharks and bait and crabs, but what I witnessed yesterday confirms my hypothesis that a lot of what people call "fishing" is merely an excuse to get outside for a few hours. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

As for me, I have nowhere near enough patience to make a decent fisherman. I did, however keep myself amused by eavesdropping on their conversations and writing snippets in my nature journal. I did also find myself mesmerized by the anchovies. Watch for yourself.

Northern anchovies (Engraulis mordax) at Seacliff State Beach
2021-11-23
© Allison J. Gong

Like sardines, anchovies are planktivorous filter feeders. If you watch the video again and can focus on an individual fish for a while, you'll see that as it swims forward, the front end becomes white and bulbous for a few seconds. That's sunlight reflecting off the fish's jaws. Anchovies have metallic silver coloring, which is a defense against predators. For fish that live in surface waters that are brightly lit, all of those glinting flashes of light make it difficult for a predator to zero in on a single fish to pursue. There is safety in numbers, and for anchovies the silvery coloring combined with schooling behavior means that if a predator manages to catch some of the fish in the baitball, most will avoid being eaten. This works against predators such as larger fish, squid, and birds, which generally capture one or a few fish at a time. But if the predator happens to be a humpback whale, which is capable of engulfing the entire school, then the anchovies are SOL. Think about it, though. For any anchovy, the probability of encountering a larger fish, squid, or bird is much higher than encountering a humpback or blue whale. Thus the selective advantage of schooling!

Okay, now back to the feeding. Anchovies have really long jaws for their size and can, like snakes, open their mouths very wide. This allows them to filter as much water as possible as they swim. Food, mostly plankton, is caught on the gill rakers, which are bony or cartilaginous structures projecting forward (i.e., towards the mouth) from the gill arches. Some fishes' gill rakers are nothing more than short nubs. Filter feeding fishes such as anchovies have long thin gill rakers. Water enters the mouth as the fish swims forward, and plankton is caught on the array of gill rakers. The water then passes over the gill filaments, where respiratory exchange occurs, and then out from underneath the operculum. Anchovies cannot suck water into their mouths, and thus can feed only while swimming forward, or ramming water into the mouth. This is a type of feeding called ram feeding.

These anchovies were very close to shore. They were feeding, so obviously there was plankton in the water. I haven't done a plankton tow in a while, as I generally assume that fall/winter plankton isn't as interesting as spring/summer plankton. However, given the presence of feeding anchovies inshore, it might be time to test that assumption.

I go to Natural Bridges quite often, to play in and study the rocky intertidal. But at this time of year, before the low tides really get useful, there is another reason to visit Natural Bridges—to see the monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). Natural Bridges State Park is a butterfly sanctuary, providing a safe overwintering spot for migrating monarchs.

Yesterday morning, while it was still cool enough for the butterflies to be hanging in clusters, I went out and photographed them. Last year's count was only 550 for the winter, but I'd heard that there were more butterflies this year and it was definitely worthwhile going out and looking for them.

Monarch butterflies clustered in eucalyptus tree
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) at Natural Bridges State Park
2021-11-06
© Allison J. Gong

The butterflies rest with their wings up, so when they are hanging like this you see the duller underside of the wings. A few of them were starting to warm up their flight muscles and showing off the more brilliant orange of the dorsal wing surface.

Monarch butterflies clustered in eucalyptus tree
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) at Natural Bridges State Park
2021-11-06
© Allison J. Gong
Monarch butterflies clustered in eucalyptus tree
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) at Natural Bridges State Park
2021-11-06
© Allison J. Gong

I am really not good at counting things like this, but my guess is that there were hundreds of butterflies, all told. Based on the 2020 season, when I didn't see any monarchs at all at my house and only a few scattered individuals at Natural Bridges, this year's population seems to be doing much better. 2020 was an awful year in California in general, and in the Santa Cruz region in particular. The CZU August Lightning Complex fire put air quality into the unhealthy-for-everybody range for several weeks. Much of the rest of the western U.S. also burned, with much habitat loss for nature. Maybe that's part of why there were so few monarchs last winter in Santa Cruz. Of course, the monarchs' populations have been declining for years, so last year's population crash may be only a dip in the grand scheme of things.

Whatever the cause, it really was good to see even this many butterflies at Natural Bridges.

Oh, and before starting my butterfly hunt in earnest, I spent about an hour watching and listening for birds. I wanted to get the birdwatching in before human activity drowned out the birdsong. Unfortunately, most of what there was to hear was the cawing of crows.

Nature journal page of birds seen and heard
Page from my nature journal

Next time I'm at Natural Bridges, I'll try to remember to check in with the visitor center to see what the official count for monarchs is. Fingers crossed the number is a lot higher than 550!

Over the weekend the atmospheric river slammed into Northern California and settled over us for a few days. Our weather station at home, roughly at sea level, measured 4.5 inches of rain. On Sunday afternoon it was extremely windy, and I think the rain wasn't falling vertically enough to be captured by the rain gauge, and my guess is that another half-inch or so fell but wasn't measured. A total of about 5 inches of rain feels right.

This storm was a very big deal for us, for a couple of reasons. The most obvious is that California is in the midst of another severe drought. There wasn't much rain or snowfall at all in the 2020-2021 rain season, reservoirs are drier than I remember seeing them, and the governor has asked residents to reduce water consumption statewide by 15%. We are woefully short of that conservation mark. So yeah, the amount of water available to all consumers is (or should be) of concern to all of us.

A second reason why we all paid so much attention to this storm was the fact that much of the rain was forecast to fall on areas that had burnt recently, including the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fire burn scar. Both the 2020 and 2021 fire seasons were horrendous, leaving many acres of previously forested land bare and prone to mudslides, or "debris flows" in modern parlance. Residents in the Santa Cruz Mountains were warned to prepare for evacuation, just in case. And everyone was prepared to deal with power outages, which, oddly enough, didn't happen.

On Friday the 22nd, before the major storm blew in, I went to Younger Lagoon to record some video clips for my Marine Biology class. One smaller storm had already blown through and it was very windy. I encountered two birders who were looking for pelagic birds that had been swept into the lagoon or were seeking shelter from the elements.

This is what the lagoon looked like on Friday:

North end of Younger Lagoon
Younger Lagoon
2021-10-22
© Allison J. Gong

In fact, here's the video I put together for the students:

So that was Friday. On Saturday we went hiking at Moore Creek Preserve with our god-daughter and family. We all wanted some quality outdoors time before the major storm event on Sunday/Monday.

Yesterday (Monday) I went back to Younger Lagoon to see how much it had changed with all the rainfall. I could tell from the smell that the sand berm hadn't been breached yet. We can always tell when the lagoon breaks through, because all of the hydrogen sulfide buried in the sediment gets into the air. It's a smell that, once known, is difficult to forget. Anyway, I took a photo of the top of the lagoon from the same spot as on Friday. And see how much difference one big rain event can make:

Younger Lagoon
2021-10-25
© Allison J. Gong

To make the comparison easier, let's look at those photos side-by-side:

We had a high surf advisory yesterday, so I wandered down into Younger Lagoon to check out the ocean conditions. I could hear that the surf was really big. It was still windy, too.

Just to make sure my intuition was correct, I stopped to check out the sand berm. And yes, it was still there.

Sand berm between the Pacific Ocean and Younger Lagoon
2021-10-25
© Allison J. Gong

The waves were big and the sets were coming in fast. I shot this video at about low tide yesterday morning. We're in neap tides right now so the low wasn't very low.

High surf advisory at Younger Lagoon
2021-10-25
© Allison J. Gong

Storms and tidal surge, when combined, can wreak havoc on nearshore coastal habitats. One of the obvious victims of the recent violence is the kelp bed. The kelps have been on their seasonal decline for weeks now, and the storm-strengthened swell tore up a lot of kelp and deposited it on the beach. Thousands of detached pneumatocysts (floats) of Macrocystis pyrifera had been blown into windrows. The lighter colored pneumatocysts are the ones that were washed up earlier, probably in the second-most-recent high tide; the darker ones were deposited during the most recent high tide, about six hours earlier.

Kelp debris, mostly Macrocystis pyrifera, on the beach at Younger Lagoon
2021-10-25
© Allison J. Gong

I expected to see dead animals on the beach, too, and was surprised that there weren't any carcasses in sight. Then I looked across the beach with binoculars and saw a couple of turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) on the sand, and a third on the fence above. Vultures eat carrion, so there must be a corpse over there after all. Sure enough, there was a dead bird. As I approached I saw a black body with a smaller reddish part, and my first thought was, "Are turkey vultures cannibals? Will they eat their own dead?" because turkey vultures have unfeathered red heads. But when I got closer I could see that this corpse had webbed feet. It was, in fact, a cormorant.

Dead cormorant at Younger Lagoon
2021-10-25
© Allison J. Gong

The scavenging turkey vultures flew away as I approached. I didn't want to interrupt their brunch any longer than necessary, so stuck around just long enough to snap a few photos. By the time I had crossed back to the near side of the beach, they had returned to their feeding.

All told, this storm was a good start to the rain season. It put an end to the fire season, which is a huge relief to all of us living in California. We have a long way to go to return to normal rain levels, whatever they are in this era of anthropogenic climate change, and it irks me to hear people saying that we've had a lot of rain now, so the drought must be over. Too bad it doesn't work that way, or we would all be rejoicing big time.

Climate change models predict, among other things, oscillation between extreme rain events and extreme drought in California. Just in the past handful of years we've had drought plus the Blob (2015), a wet winter in 2016-2017, and a return to dry conditions from 2018-2020. And we all remember the extreme fire seasons of 2020 and 2021. So what is "normal" these days? I think it's impossible to know. We are experiencing climate change as it happens, and we don't know how or when things will begin to stabilize. I suspect it won't be within the lifetime of anyone reading this blog.

Still, after having about zilch in the way of rain last year, it's good to see that Mother Nature can still throw an atmospheric river at us. Fingers crossed for more rain as the season continues.

Over the past couple of weeks I've rented two super telephoto lenses, to see what all the hype was about. I mean, do I really need 500 or 600mm of reach? I had read up on the specs of such lenses, and one major drawback is the weight—1900 grams or more. Would I be willing to lug a beast like this around, and would I be able to use it effectively? You never know until you try, so I rented them. And, of course, it was foggy both weeks so I didn't have much opportunity to take decent photos. But since the entire point of renting the lenses was to see if I could use them at all, that was fine.

As part of the test-drive for the second lens, I went up to Waddell Beach to see if there would be any birds to photograph. It is migration season, and our winter residents will be arriving soon. Some of them, such as the red-necked phalarope, have shown up at Younger Lagoon over the past four weeks or so. It was really foggy at Waddell, remember, and I didn't have much hope of seeing anything remarkable. There were some gulls and whimbrels off in the distance. But it turned out that the stars of the show were blackbirds!

They were hard to miss, because there were 50-60 of them and they were hopping up and down like jumping beans.

This is a mixed flock of Brewer's blackbirds (Euphagus cyanocephalus) and red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoenicius). The glossy greenish-black birds are the male Brewer's blackbirds, and most of the brownish birds are female Brewer's blackbirds. Since both sexes were doing the hopping, I didn't think this behavior had to do with courtship or mating.

So yes, while most of the birds seemed to be Brewer's blackbirds, I did hear the liquid gurgling of the red-winged blackbird's song coming from somewhere in the flock. When I got home and looked at the photos on the big monitor, I did see some red-winged blackbirds. Here's a male, surrounded by other males red-wingeds and both female and male Brewer's blackbirds.

Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoenicius) at Waddell Beach
2021-09-14
© Allison J. Gong

In this photo above the black birds are male Brewer's blackbirds. The brown birds without faint wing bars are female Brewer's blackbirds, and the brown birds with the wing bars are male red-wingeds. There were no female red-winged blackbirds in any of my photos. According to an article from Cornell's Bird Academy, the males spend the weeks leading up to springtime competing for territories, and when the females return from their winter migration they will choose mates based partly on the quality of the territory. Mid-September is too early for this kind of competition, though. We are just about up to the autumn equinox, but not near winter quite yet.

Back to the hopping. There's a clue in this photo about what I think was going on:

Male Brewer's blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus) at Waddell Beach
2021-09-14
© Allison J. Gong

See that little fly? There were many such flies, most of which were lower on the beach gathering around the kelps and other wet detritus that had washed up. There were fewer flies up where the driftwood accumulates, though. Once again, it wasn't until I saw the pictures on my big monitor that I could figure out what those blackbirds were doing. They were hopping up to eat flies!

Here's a series of shots showing one of the male red-wingeds in mid-hop.

  • Looking up, just before the hop:
Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoenicius) at Waddell Beach
2021-09-14
© Allison J. Gong
  • Up he goes! See the very edge of the red epaulette on his right wing? And all those flies?
Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoenicius) at Waddell Beach
2021-09-14
© Allison J. Gong
  • Is he going to catch something?
Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoenicius) at Waddell Beach
2021-09-14
© Allison J. Gong
  • Maybe?
Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoenicius) at Waddell Beach
2021-09-14
© Allison J. Gong
  • After all that, I'm not at all sure if he actually got anything!
Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoenicius) at Waddell Beach
2021-09-14
© Allison J. Gong

I don't have any hard evidence that the blackbirds (both Brewer's and red-wingeds) are catching flies. And while I was at the beach watching them hopping up and down I had no idea what they were doing. However, now that I've seen the flies in the photos, it makes sense that the birds would be hopping up to catch and eat them, especially since both sexes of the Brewer's blackbirds were doing the same thing.

So that's what was hoppening at the beach!

1

One year ago today a lightning storm settled over the Santa Cruz Mountains and dry lightning ignited a bunch of wildfires. Given the drier-than-normal conditions at the time the fires took off like crazy and eventually merged into one megablaze that CalFire dubbed the CZU Lightning Complex fire. The CZU Lightning Complex fire burned over 80,000 acres in Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties before being contained by CalFire on 22 September. It raged through Big Basin Redwood State Park and destroyed the buildings at the park headquarters up in the mountains. Several mountain communities were threatened, with over 1400 structures destroyed. I personally know two families whose homes were lost, and many others who evacuated. We were also ready to evacuate, with bags packed and a place to flee to.

To commemorate the first anniversary of the CZU Lightning Complex fire the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History and the Santa Cruz Public Library put together a series of events called "CZU and You" to teach the public about this particular natural disaster. This past weekend we attended a walk through Rancho del Oso, led by Richard Fletcher, who is one of the California State Parks interpretive rangers. Rancho del Oso sits in a little valley that I think of as the "bottom" of Big Basin Redwood State Park. It ends at Highway 1 directly opposite Waddell Beach. In previous years I have taken my Ecology class to Rancho del Oso for the first field trip of the semester. Rancho del Oso was cleared to reopen for visitors on weekends only just a few weeks ago.

My nature journal entry
2021-08-14
© Allison J. Gong

The Nature and History Center at Rancho del Oso is housed in the building that was the residence of Hulda Hoover McLean, who was the niece of President Herbert Hoover. Hulda and her husband, Charles, raised a family in the Rancho; Hulda taught her children about the natural history of the area. She sold her 40 acres of land and her home to the Sempervirens Fund in 1985, with the intent to create a place where people could visit and learn about this part of the natural world. There was one ranger on site on August 16, 2020 when dry lightning ignited the fire on the hillside directly across Waddell Creek from the nature center. He managed to flag down a single fire truck and crew. Working through the night this handful of people built a backfire to burn up the hill towards the flames that had sped around the house and were approaching from the other side, and sweeping off the burning embers that landed on the roof

The first things that Ranger Fletcher showed us were some cones from Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) trees. He described this species is being moderately serotinous, meaning that seeds don't fall out of the cones until they are exposed to the heat of a fire. Heat dries and opens up the cones, allowing the seeds to fall and be dispersed.

In the area this backfire burned, literally across the driveway from the nature center, we could see some of the fire followers. These are the first plants to show up after a fire. Some of them may have arrived by seed, but many are regrowth from underground roots or bulbs.

The naked lady lilies (Amaryllis belladonna) are non-native ornamental bulbs that have been planted in gardens all over the region. They are called naked ladies because their leaves die back completely before the stalk blooms in late summer; you can see all the brown leaves at the bases of the flower spikes. In this first bloom season after the fire they seem more vibrantly pink than usual. The other foliage in the foreground is a blackberry (Rubus sp.) that could be either native or not. In the background you can see some bracken fern (Pteridium sp.).

Naked ladies (Amaryllis belladonna) in burned area at Rancho del Oso
2021-08-14
© Allison J. Gong

After a disturbance such as a fire the process of ecological succession is reset. Given the European colonizers' habit of suppressing all fire, it had been at least 100 years since the Waddell Valley burnt. In the many decades since the previous fire the homesteaders and ranchers had planted all sorts of non-native ornamental plants in their gardens. The naked ladies and invasive blackberries are examples of plants that are well suited for our Mediterranean climate, and they certainly made a showy return after the CZU Lightning Complex fire.

Fortunately it's not just the non-natives that are coming back. The ranger was excited to point out that one yellow bush lupine (Lupinus arboreus) had popped up on this same slope. Lupines are good plants to have on burnt slopes because they help stabilize the soil. They are also nitrogen fixers, which makes the soil more hospitable to other, hopefully native, plants.

Bush lupine (Lupinus arboreus), bracken fern (Pteridium sp.) and naked ladies (Amaryllis belladonna) in burned area at Rancho del Oso
2021-08-14
© Allison J. Gong

One plant that I hadn't expected to see in this location is Equisetum, the horsetail. There is a lot of Equisetum along the Marsh Trail, and I associated this plant with wetlands. So why was it growing on this particular slope, which is measurably drier than the Marsh Trail? It was growing really well, too!

Equisetum in burned area at Rancho del Oso
2021-08-14
© Allison J. Gong

And see how lush it is growing along the Marsh Trail?

Equisetum along Marsh Trail at Rancho del Oso
2021-08-14
© Allison J. Gong

We hiked the Marsh Trail—how could there be so many mosquitos when we're in such a bad drought??—and crossed Waddell Creek to where the Skyline to the Sea trail ends (or begins, if you were to start at the beach and hike uphill). This is where Ranger Fletcher told us more about the fire itself and its ongoing effects.

We were hiking at Rancho del Oso on a foggy morning. It was so very different last year, when the marine layer abandoned us early in the summer and left us to dry out just in time for the dry lightning in mid-August. But this is the area where the first lightning strikes hit ground:

Hillside northwest of Waddell Creek, where the Waddell fire began
2021-08-14
© Allison J. Gong

Once the fire was extinguished this hill was covered with black, burnt vegetation. Anything green is vegetation that has grown since then.

CalFire declared the CZU Lightning Complex fire contained on 22 September 2020 and controlled on 23 December. What nobody knew at the time was that the fire remained burning underground. Considering their great height, redwood trees don't have deep roots. But they have lateral networks of roots that entwine with those of neighboring trees (which are likely to be clonemates) and form a more or less solid mesh that holds all of the trees up. The fire travelled along this root network and continues to burn. One of our group asked "What is there to burn, if the roots have already burnt?" and Ranger Fletcher explained that now there are tons of charcoal buried in the ground, and we all know how well charcoal burns, right? Not being able to detect where roots are burning underground means it's difficult to evaluate trails and know when they are safe. Just last week a ranger was working up at Big Basin and stepped into what turned out to be a cavern containing burning embers. CalFire estimates that the fire will continue to burn underground for another four years. Trees that were weakened or killed by the fire will also be falling. It will be several years before the Skyline to the Sea trail opens again. But in the lifespan of a redwood forest, five or even ten years would be a blink of the eye. And I'd just as soon not step into a burning hole while hiking, thank you very much.

On this side of Waddell Creek you can see the meadow that acts as a buffer zone between the mountains and the ocean. When wildfires burn through hilly areas, we worry about winter rains causing mudslides. This past winter we got hardly any rain at all, so at least the mudslides didn't materialize. But even when there aren't mudslides, a lot of nutrients wash downhill towards the ocean. The meadow is a biological sponge that soaks up these nutrients and keeps them from creating problems in the marine habitat. This is one of the reasons that wetlands are such important players in the health of coastal ecosystems. I took this photo from the Highway 1 bridge that crosses Waddell Creek. Just on the other side of the highway the creek spills onto Waddell Beach.

Waddell Creek and flanking wetlands
2021-08-14
© Allison J. Gong

From a fire behavior perspective the CZU Lightning Complex fire was unusual. Fires usually burn up hills, but this one burned downhill towards the ocean. Waddell Beach is almost always foggy, and the marine layer can be felt away from the beach, as it was on our most recent visit to Rancho del Oso. This marine influence should have acted to keep the fire from racing downhill as fast as it did. Alas, the marine layer was not doing its job last summer. If it had been, we wouldn't have seen so many lightning strikes in the first place. The paucity of rain from the previous winter didn't help things, either. Climate change is coming back to bite us in the ass. Around the world we are seeing extreme weather events, from severe drought to equally devastating floods to heat records tumbling by the wayside. We are living in the era of anthropogenic climate change, and we will not be alive when an equilibrium returns to Earth's climate. In the timeframe of a human lifespan, however, it is nice to see and document how this small part of the landscape is recovering from last year's fires. Now that Rancho del Oso is open again I'll try to get up there every so often to record changes in my nature journal.

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