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In terms of weather, this has been the first real week of winter we've had so far this season. But finally we're getting some action from an atmospheric river, and it is bringing both much-needed rain and the threat of mudslides in mountain regions that were badly burnt just a few months ago.

Graphic showing what atmospheric rivers are and how they affect precipitation

During an El Niño event, the probability of higher-than-average rainfall in California is usually due to what are called Pineapple Express storms. These warm, wet storms occur when the atmospheric river is to the south and picks up and transports water from the tropics. La Niña, which is the counterpart to El Niño, typically results in drier-than-average conditions in California, but when the atmospheric river does come into play it comes from the north and is cold.

We are currently at the mercy of La Niña, and weather forecasters predict these conditions will continue through February and then begin to wane through the early spring. This means that the storms we've had over the past several days have been cold. According to our weather station, on Monday 18 January the high temperature was 24ºC (75ºF), and a week later on Monday 25 January the high was 12ºC (53ºF). It has continued to be chilly throughout the week. Today, Friday 29 January, we're getting a break between storm systems and it's beautifully sunny. Because of the sun it feels warmer, but the actual air temperature probably won't get much higher than it has been already this week.

Yesterday we were hit by what was probably the strongest of the storms in this particular atmospheric river. At the marine lab the waves were routinely splashing up and over the cliffs. When that much water crashes into solid land, the pounding is felt as much as it is heard. After doing my chores I wandered over to Younger Lagoon to see what was going on. I wanted to see if the lagoon had broken through the sand bar.

I spent some time watching the ocean, and this is what I saw:

Storm waves at Younger Lagoon
2021-01-28

That sand bar forms as sand accumulates on the beach during the summer, following the typical sand cycle along the California coast. Younger Lagoon does not drain a river, so there is not a constant flow of fresh water down to the ocean. There is some run-off from the surrounding agriculture fields, but the vast majority of water flowing through the lagoon is run-off from rain. It's that heavy flow of fresh water that sometimes breaches the sand bar and allows water from the ocean to mix with water in the lagoon.

Given how much rain we'd had, I thought it likely that the lagoon would have breached. But as you can see from the video above, it had not. Clearly, there hasn't yet been enough fresh water flow through the lagoon to break through the sandbar.

So we're still waiting for that event. I suspect that once it does, we'll know because of the smell.

In the meantime, the ocean continued to pound the coast. I was wearing my foul weather gear so I went to Natural Bridges to watch the waves slam against the rock formations. That was a fun excursion! The big swells were coming in so fast that the deep BOOM-BOOM-BOOM was almost continuous. Close to shore the water was a constant froth of movement.

Storm waves at Natural Bridges
2021-01-28

You can see how high the waves were hitting against the cliff. The mist blew quite far across the parking lot, and I went home with saltwater drying in my hair. Fortunately I got to spend the rest of the day indoors, drinking tea and keeping dry. Winter storms are great fun, as long as you don't have to be out in them!

According to my notes at the lab, the last time I spawned urchins was December of 2016, making it four years ago. It has always been something I enjoyed doing, but I didn't have a reason to until now.

When the coronavirus pandemic began almost a year ago now, access to all facilities at the marine lab was restricted to a group of people deemed essential. In my case, "essential" had to do with the fact that I keep animals alive. There were many hoops to jump through and inane questions to answer—for example, "What will happen if you don't go in to check on water and food?" and "How many animals will die if you do not have access to the lab, and how much effort [i.e., $$$] would it take to replace them?"—but in the end someone higher up in the food chain exercised some common sense and decided to let me have continuous access to the lab. So I've been at the lab pretty much every day, to check on things and make sure that air and water are flowing.

So over the summer we were running sort of bare-bones operations at the lab. There were many fewer people looking after everyday things. The autoclave broke and wasn't fixed until September. One of the casualties of this less-than-normal vigilance was one of the cultures in the phytoplankton lab. Our Rhodomonas flasks had been contaminated since late 2019, and we were struggling to rescue them. I tried so hard to keep them going ahead of the contamination, but ultimately failed. As of this writing all of the old Rhodomonas cultures have died.

In October, after the autoclave had been repaired, I decided to take action and replace our inevitably doomed Rhodomonas cultures. I found a company that sells small aliquots of many marine microalgae and ordered a strain of Rhodomonas that was isolated in Pacific Grove. May as well see if a local strain of algae works as a food for local larvae, right? The new Rhodomonas cultures seem to be growing well and it's time to see of urchin larvae will eat and thrive on it.

Equipment and glassware used to spawn sea urchins

About a month ago I collected 10 urchins to spawn. Yesterday was their lucky day! Purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) are broadcast spawners, and spawning is both inducible and synchronous. We can take advantage of the inducibility to make them spawn when we want, as long as they have ripe gonads. The difficulty is that we can't tell by looking whether or not an urchin is gravid, so all we can do is try to induce them and then hope for the best.

As I've written before, we induce spawning in sea urchins by injecting them with a solution of potassium chloride (KCl). KCl is a salt solution that causes an urchin's gonopores to open and release gametes if the gonads are ripe. I shot up 10 urchins yesterday, and eight of them spawned. An 80% spawning rate isn't bad, but only two of the eight were female and neither of them had a lot of eggs to give.

Since the gonopores are located on the aboral (top) of the urchin, the easiest way to collect eggs is to invert the animal on a beaker of seawater, like so:

Female sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) spawning
2021-01-12
© Allison J. Gong

In nature the eggs, which are a pale orange color, would be whisked away by currents to be (hopefully) fertilized in the water column. In the lab we can collect the eggs in the beaker, as follows:

This is much less damaging to the animal than trying to pipet eggs off the top of the urchin.

We try to collect sperm and keep it dry, so there is no putting males upside-down on beakers of water. Instead we pipet up the sperm and keep it dry in dishes on ice. When it's time to fertilize the eggs we dilute the sperm with filtered seawater and add a small amount to the eggs.

One of my favorite things ever is watching fertilization take place in real time, under the microscope. It truly is one of nature's most amazing phenomena. It is a great thrill to watch the creation of new beings.

In the video you see eggs being bombarded with sperm, probably at much higher concentrations than they would encounter in the wild. It is common knowledge that it takes only one sperm to fertilize an egg, but what would happen if two sperm penetrated an egg at the same time? I've written about polyspermy and the fast and slow blocks thereto, in case you'd like to refresh your memory about what is happening in the video.

A successfully fertilized egg is easily recognized by its fertilization envelope, which is the slow block to polyspermy.

Zygotes of the purple sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus)
2021-01-12
© Allison J. Gong

After fertilization, the next step to watch for is the first cleavage division, which occurs about two hours later.

2-cell embryos of the purple sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus)
2021-01-12
© Allison J. Gong

Aren't they pretty?

Over the next day or so the cleavage divisions continue, resulting in the stage that hatches out of the fertilization envelope. This stage is a blastula, which is a hollow ball of ciliated cells. The hollow space inside is called the blastocoel, and it is here that the larval gut will soon develop.

Blastula of the purple sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus)
2021-01-12
© Allison J. Gong

It's easier to see the 3-dimensional structure of the blastula by watching it spin around.

As the blastula rotates under the coverslip, you can see the ciliary currents that would propel it through the water. You also see some objects that look like sperm and are, in fact, dead sperm, getting caught up in the currents.

The blastula is the same size as the egg. The embryo can't begin to grow until it eats, which won't happen until it has a gut. Over the next few days an invagination will begin at a certain location on the blastula which is called the blastopore; this invagination will eventually form the first larval gut. At that point I will have to start feeding them and calling them larvae.

And just to remind you of our humble beginnings, we begin life in much the same way as sea urchins. That blastopore, or initial opening to the larval gut, is the anus. The mouth doesn't exist until the invagination breaks through to the opposite end of the embryo. So yes, like the sea urchin, you had an anus before you had a mouth!

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On the penultimate day of 2020 I met up with my goddaughter, Katherine, and her family up at Pigeon Point to have two adventures. The first one was to find a marble that had been hidden a part of a game. We got skunked on that one, although the marble was found after we left and the hider had sent an additional clue. The second adventure was an excursion to the tidepools. I've had a lackadaisical attitude towards the afternoon low tides this winter, not feeling enthusiastic about heading out with all of the people and the wind and having to fight darkness. But the invitation to join the marble hunt, on a day with a decent low tide, meant that I could spend a good deal of quality time with Katherine.

It is not unusual for a promising low tide to be cancelled out by a big swell. It happens, especially during winter's combination of afternoon lows and occasional storms. The swell yesterday was pretty big.

Here's the view to the north, from Pigeon Point:

Looking north from Pigeon Point
View to the north from Pigeon Point
2020-12-30
©Allison J. Gong

All that whitewash breaking over the rocks is not good for tidepooling, especially with small kids in tow.

This is how things looked to the south of the point:

View to the south from Pigeon Point
2020-12-30
©Allison J. Gong

This is Whaler's Cove, a sandy beach that lies on the leeward side of the point itself. See how the water is much calmer? It's amazing how different the two sides of the point are, in terms of hydrography, wind, and biota. The south side is much easier to get to, especially for newbies or people who are less steady on their feet. Being sheltered from the brunt of the prevailing southbound current means that the biological diversity is, shall we say, a bit subdued when compared to what we see on the north side of the point.

I first took Katherine tidepooling when her sister, Lizzie, was an infant riding in her mom's backpack. Katherine was about four at the time. Her mom and I were suprised at how much she remembered. She recognized the anemones right away, even the closed up cloning anemones (Anthopleura elegantissima) on the high rocks. She remembered to avoid stepping on them—that's my girl!

She wasn't all that keen on touching the anemones, though, even after we told her it feels like touching tape.

Giant green anemone in tidepool
Giant green anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica)
2020-12-30
©Allison J. Gong

She did like the sea stars, too. Purple is my favorite color and I think hers, too, so the purple and orange ochre stars were a hit. It was nice to see two large healthy ones.

I had some actual collecting to do, so it was a work trip for me. Late December is not the best time to collect algae, but I wanted to bring some edible seaweeds back to the lab to feed animals. We haven't had any kelp brought in since the late summer, and urchins are very hungry. They will eat intertidal seaweeds, though, and when I go out to the tidepools I bring back what I can. It will be a couple of months until we see the algae growing towards their summer lushness, but even a few handfuls of sea lettuce will be welcome to hungry mouths.

Bright green sea lettuce growing with red algae
Sea lettuce (Ulva sp.)
2020-12-30
©Allison J. Gong

Katherine and I walked up the beach for a little way to study one of the several large-ish crab corpses on the sand. This one was a molt rather than an actual corpse.

Rock crab molt on sand
Rock crab (Romaleon antennarium) molt
2020-12-30
©Allison J. Gong

Katherine found the missing leg a little way off, and we discussed why we call these limbs legs instead of arms. "They use their claws to pinch things, like hands," she said. Not wanting to get into a discussion of serial homology and crustacean evolution with a 6-year-old, I told her that calling the claws "hands" isn't a bad idea, since they are used a lot like the way we use our hands. But, I continued, the crab walks on its other limbs like we walk with our legs, so can we call those legs? She was happy to agree with that. I can tell I will have to be careful about how I explain things to her, so that she doesn't come up with some wonky ideas about how evolution works.

In the meantime, Lizzie, the little sister, was having a grand old time. She flooded her little boots without a complaint and, after her mom emptied the water from them, squelched happily along with soggy socks. That girl may very well grow up to be a marine biologist!

Once the sun went behind the cliff it started getting cold. With one child already wet we decided to head back. On our way up the beach we saw this thing, which I pointed out to Katherine:

"What is it?" she asked. When I asked what she thought it was she cocked her head to one said and said, "It looks like a rock." Then I told her to touch it, which she didn't want to do. So I picked it up and turned it over, to show her the underside:

Gumboot chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri)
2020-12-30
©Allison J. Gong

These big gumboot chitons do look more interesting from this side, because you can at least see that they are probably some kind of animal. Katherine had seen some smaller chitons on the rocks, so she had some idea of what a chiton is, but these are so big that they don't look anything like the ones we showed her earlier. Plus, with their shell plates being covered with a tough piece of skin and invisible, there are no outward signs that this bizarre thing is indeed a chiton. Katherine was not impressed.

At this time of year, when the sun decides to go down it goes down fast. But as we were walking back across the rocks the tide was at its lowest, so there was more terrain to explore. Then it was back up the stairs to the cars, where we could get warm and dry.

Beach and lighthouse at Pigeon Point

Oh, and Katherine and her mom and sister were able to find the hidden marble! They also hid one of their own for someone else to find.

At the end of August I got to play animal wrangler for a film production. Back in the late winter I had been contacted by an intern at KQED in San Francisco, who wanted to shoot some time-lapse footage of anemones dividing. We went out and collected anemones, I got them set up in tanks at the marine lab, and then COVID19 hit and everything went on shut-down. The intern finished her internship remotely and went on to her next position, and in the meantime the anemones stubbornly refused to divide.

The KQED lead videographer for the Deep Look video series, Josh Cassidy, who would had recorded the anemones dividing if they had divided and if the marine lab were not closed, asked me over the summer if we could somehow arrange to meet up to film something else. He had heard of some research that showed the emergent property of sea stars bouncing as they walk along on their many tube feet. Is there any way, he asked, that he could film some of the stars at the lab?

Well, filming at the lab was out of the question. Only essential personnel are allowed in the buildings, and there was no way I could sneak in Josh and all of his gear. We discussed options such as meeting up at a beach but I decided that I needed more control of the site to keep things safe for the animals. We ended up borrowing some friends' back yard for the day, which worked out pretty well. They have a covered pavilion, which was ideal because of course it turned out to be hot the day we filmed. I had several bags of frozen seawater to keep things cool-ish, two coolers for the movie stars themselves, a battery-operated air pump, and 30 gallons of seawater on hand.

Filming for production purposes takes a really long time. Even for a short film, we were working most of the day. Because of course most of the stars were uncooperative. They don't have anything even remotely resembling a brain, but damn if they can't bugger things up. I was feeling kind of bad that my animals were being such troublemakers; Josh, fortunately, was much more patient with them.

And here's the film! You'll see my right hand for about 1.5 seconds.

I didn't realize this at the time, but Josh also writes an article for each episode of Deep Look, for the KQED website. For this episode the article describes the research into the biomechanics of sea star bouncing. I'm quoted at the end.

So watch this short film. I hope it helps put a little bounce in your step.

Still more or less under quarantine shutdown due to COVID19, I haven't been doing much outdoor stuff over the past several months. What with the pandemic and horrid air quality due to wildfires throughout the state, spending time in places I would normally like to hang out simply hasn't been possible. We're still getting too many out-of-the-area visitors for me to feel comfortable being around people, and weekends are especially bad. But last weekend I went to Moss Landing to take pictures of birds and other wildlife—I needed visual aids for a virtual lab my students will be doing in a few weeks.

It's the time of year for birdwatchers to get excited about winter visitors. I've had golden-crowned sparrows in the canyon behind the house for almost a month now, but I hadn't been down to a beach in a while. Moss Landing is a great place for birdwatching, because you can explore the estuarine habitat of Elkhorn Slough, the sandy beach, and the harbor during a 2-mile walk. That's three distinct habitats for very little effort!

Starting at the tidal marsh, I always keep an eye out for the long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus). They have the largest beak-to-head ratio of any bird.

Long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus) in salt marsh
Long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus)
2020-10-10
© Allison J. Gong

One of my favorite winter visitors to the marsh area is the willet (Tringa semipalmata). Unlike most shorebirds that are speckled or mottled, willets in winter plumage are a beautiful soft gray-ish brown color. Every time I see a willet I ask myself, "Willet, or won't it?"

Willets in marsh at low tide
Willets (Tringa semipalmata)
2020-10-10
© Allison J. Gong

And when they take off in flight, willets show these striking black and white wing patterns. They always take me by surprise, even though I know to expect it.

Willet in flight, showing white flashes on wings
Willet (Tringa semipalmata) in flight
2020-10-10
© Allison J. Gong

A whole flock of willets taking off at once is quite an impressive sight!

Flock of willets in flight
Willets (Tringa semipalmata) in flight
2018-11-14
© Allison J. Gong

From the marsh it's a short walk over the dune and onto the beach.

I always look forward to walking this beach because of the dead things. Don't get me wrong, the living things are fun to see, but in some ways the dead critters can be more informative. For every species there is always some baseline level of mortality in the ocean, so you expect a certain number of dead things to wash up. However, an unusually high number of corpses could indicate that something is going on at sea. This trip I didn't see very many dead critters: just a few grebes that had been there for a while, nothing out of the ordinary.

Oh, and an otter pup. At least, I'm pretty certain it was an otter.

Yes, we came across a dead sea otter pup, my first ever.

Dead sea otter pup on the beach
Dead southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) on the beach
2020-10-10
© Allison J. Gong

The body was missing a head, but the parts that remain were a bit longer than my booted foot. Although most of the soft tissue had been scavenged, the carcass had distinct paws, meaning it wasn't any kind of pinniped (seal or sea lion). Also, pinnipeds don't have fur like this, as they rely on blubber for thermoregulation. Sea otters, on the other hand, have the densest fur of all mammals, with the oft-cited 1 million hairs/in2.

But let's be honest. I like the beach because I like photographing birds, and there is always interesting bird life at this beach. I'm not one of the crazy bird people who keep a life list and need to be the first person to spot a particular something-or-other. And, unlike the idiots I saw tramping through the pickleweed in pursuit of a Say's phoebe that day, I don't climb over fences and trespass where I'm not supposed to be. Besides, even the everyday backyard birds are fun to watch. Whoever says that familiarity breeds contempt certainly is not a naturalist!

And who doesn't love a snowy plover or two?

Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus)
2020-10-10
© Allison J. Gong

The snowies aren't nesting at this time of year so the upper part of the beach isn't roped off. They do still get disturbed by people wandering around, who probably don't even know the birds are there. They (the snowies, that is) are so tiny that when they hunker down behind a divot in the sand they disappear completely. If you sit or stand quietly, they will pop up and make short dashes from hillock to pile of beach wrack and back again, feeding on the insects and crustaceans they find.

In addition to the snowy plovers, another tiny "peep" bird runs around on the beaches, often in large groups. These are the sanderlings, Calidris alba. I've only ever seen them in nonbreeding plumage, as they nest in the high Arctic.

Sanderlings (Calidris alba)
2020-10-10
© Allison J. Gong

Sanderlings are the little birds that run back and forth from the waves. As a wave recedes the sanderlings frantically stab their stout beaks into the sand, grabbing up small mole crabs and other crustaceans that are right at the surface. When the next wave arrives the sanderlings run back up the beach. They have short legs and don't swim, so getting swept out to sea would be a very bad thing for them.

Sometimes even the long-legged shorebirds forage on the beach. I've seen the curlew there, as well as whimbrels and godwits. This day the godwits were stealing the show.

Marbled godwits (Limosa fedoa)
2020-10-10
© Allison J. Gong

The godwits, with their longer legs, are able to stand their ground when the waves wash up. They can catch food that is buried more deeply into the sand. On mudflats they pick their way over the flat at low tide, digging for worms, clams, and crustaceans. They can feed on a mudflat only at low tide. But on the beach they can feed at any time, just moving with the tide as it floods and ebbs.

And my friend the long-billed curlew was there on the beach, too!

Long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus)
2020-10-10
©Allison J. Gong

The curlews are not as eager to forage in the waves themselves as the godwits seem to be. The curlews might wander down to where their ankles are swashed by the waves, but do not seem to like getting wetter than that. But that bill can probe very deeply into the sand or mud. I've watched them feeding on mole crabs on the beach, and on worms on the mudflats.

Autumn and winter are good times to watch birds around here. There's a bit of a lull in bird activity once the swallows leave depart for the south and before the winter residents show up. For me, autumn begins when the golden-crowned sparrows arrive in the neighborhood, which this year was September 25. I'm listening to them now as I write this! Being located on the Pacific Flyway means we get lots of birds resting for a bit on their migration even if they don't winter here. I'll try to get out to Moss Landing during the winter months, to keep track of the avian comings and going.

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Another guest blog entry by my husband, Alex Johnson

22 September 2020
Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, Montana

Thirty four years ago I worked as a seasonal employee in Glacier National Park. My first job - and my most favorite - was Information Desk Clerk. I found I loved sharing my enthusiasm for the park with all the other visitors.

However, as with any job, it wasn’t always rosy. One of my tasks was to book trips for the famous open-top Red Bus tours. Of course being in the mountains, the weather wasn’t always cooperative. (We had snow in the park on the 4th of July both seasons I worked there!) On those days I would often hear from disappointed passengers: “We couldn’t see anything”, or “It was cold and rainy the whole day”, they’d complain.

I never fully understood this. Of course I know that some of the grand vistas can be obscured and the postcard-blue skies are hidden at these times. But in my experience, some of the most magical and transcendent moments happen during mountain storms, and particularly as those storms clear. The clouds dance amongst the peaks, the waterfalls come alive, the colors become vivid, and the wind sings. And the light can be incredible. Yes, it can be cold and sometimes uncomfortable, but when the storms clear, there’s no describing it.

Today I was back in Glacier again, this time alone. I’ve been back only twice since my employee days, and that hasn’t been nearly enough. It was one of those stormy days, with a steady rain and slate grey skies. It wasn’t too cold (for September), there was very little wind, and the clouds were doing their dances through the peaks. So, on the spur of the moment, I decided to take a hike on the Highline Trail out to Haystack Pass and back, a walk of about 8 miles. The Highline is a spectacular trail, starting at Logan Pass and traversing for miles along a gigantic glacial arête know as the Garden Wall all the way to Canada.

The walk out was beautiful, if a bit wet. I took my time, looking for sheep and mountain goats, and pausing to take lots of pictures. At Haystack Pass, I stopped to have a bite to eat. There’s not really any shelter there, so by the time I was finished I was starting to get cold. My fingers were suffering most, and were pretty well numb by the time I got going again. However, with a vigorous start to the hike back and keeping my hands in my pockets for a while, I gradually warmed up.

As I went along, the rain started to intensify and a chilly wind began to blow down from the Garden Wall above me. I picked up my pace, both to stay warm and to hasten my return. Then, after some 20 minutes, the clouds started to loose their grey, the wind began to die down, and the sun started to peek through the clouds above Mt. Oberlin to the west.

As the sun started to shine through the trees in front of me, an image of my best friend from those Glacier days, Chis Wall, came into my mind.

Chris was the Front Desk manager at East Glacier Lodge where I worked, and was technically my boss. However, he an I hit it off and did lots of hiking and climbing together. After Glacier, Chris went on to work at Sequoia National Park with his girlfriend Ellen (whom he also met in Glacier). I visited them there several times. One summer they managed the Bearpaw Meadow High Sierra Camp, and I hiked in the 11 miles to spend a week with them. I kept in contact with Chris and Ellen for number of years. I even recall traveling to Tuscon for their wedding. Later, they moved back to Massachusetts where Chis was from, and we fell out of touch.

Some time ago I ran across Chris’ obituary online. He had died too young of brain cancer, I believe.

When the sun came out today, I remembered another time like this, with Chris singing the Beatles song, Here Comes the Sun.

“Here comes the sun, doot-n-do-do. Here comes the sun….”

I could picture him, with his infectious grin, his happy voice, the bandana he always wore on his head, as well as his hit out-of-tune singing. I could even see the four tube socks he wore with his hiking boots, two on each foot, none of which matched any other. (This was a particular point of pride with him.)

The rains stopped. The air warmed. The clouds danced and swirled. The waterfalls came alive. The colors were vivid. And the light was incredible.

It was a perfect day for a walk in the mountains.

Thanks for meeting me up there again today, old friend.


In this strange pandemic school year with classes online and student clubs not able to meet in person, the Natural History Club has been meeting virtually twice a week. We can't go out as a group on any field trips, so the students have been sharing their nature journals online. Yesterday we played Jeopardy! I didn't win, but I didn't embarrass myself, either.

Last spring I was scheduled to give a tidepool talk as an event for the club. The talk was scheduled for mid-March, exactly the time when COVID19 arrived and threw all plans into the blender. The good news is I get to give the talk virtually next month, as the first event of the year. Please come!

Here's the link to register for the Zoom meeting: https://cccconfer.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJ0tc-ChpjMrHdVEvjcsu3v31IjD1M3lK8aI

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California has been burning for almost a month now. Wildfires rage up and down the state, and it seems that new ones pop up every day. I haven't bothered looking up the latest stats on acreage destroyed because, frankly, it would be too depressing. All across social media today people posted photos of orange skies that made everything and everyone look kind of sick. The photo above was taken at 17:10 this afternoon, a full two hours before sunset.

There's a thick layer of smoke blanketing most of California for weeks now. Over the Labor Day weekend the smoky conditions combined with a record-breaking heat wave and made for widespread misery. Fortunately for those of us on the coast, the marine layer returned yesterday and brought cooler temperatures. The marine layer creeping in from the ocean is also acting as a buffer between the smoke and us, keeping air quality at ground level pretty nice. People even a few miles more inland from us are still suffering from dreadful air quality.

The double layer of fog and thick smoke has resulted in the twilight we've had all day. I noticed that the wildlife responded to these unusual conditions.

  • The cats have been sleeping more than usual, even for cats. They've been sleeping like we're near the winter solstice rather than on the sunny side of the autumn equinox. And I've also been very sleepy all day. Like the cats, it feels like mid-December to me, too.
  • Hummingbirds—During the heat wave they didn't visit our feeders much, I think they were trying to shelter out of the heat. Yesterday and today they were feeding frantically. They normally visit the feeders occasionally throughout the day, and in the hour before and after sunset they tank up before going into torpor for the night. The hummers and all of the other diurnal birds have gone to bed a good two hours before sunset.
  • Insects—The nighttime cricket serenade is going full-strength. They normally don't start up until full dark. Tonight they've started a good few hours earlier.

None of us knows how many days like this we'll have before the skies clear again. It is very unsettling, to say the least. Now imagine the same kind of thing, only more pronounced and lasting for decades or centuries, as would have occurred during periods of extreme volcanic activity in Earth's history. After today it's a little easier to understand at a gut level what I already knew at an intellectual level, that severe levels of atmospheric smoke and dust can change the biota: if the sun never gets brighter than it did today then plants would die, resulting in altered community structure.

As I finish up this post, it is now about the time that the sun should be setting, and it has been full dark for well over an hour now. Feels like bedtime!

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Today's report was written by a guest blogger, Alex Johnson, who also happens to be my husband.

26 August 2020

In the late afternoon last Saturday, the wind shifted and we got our first breaths of fresh air all week. We even saw actual clouds and blue sky for the first time in 5 days! Also fortunately, the thunderstorms predicted over the weekend bypassed us, and since then the weather has been much more cooperative for the firefighters: our marine layer came back (which at least helps in the lower elevations near the coast), the winds have been relatively calm, and the temperatures have been more moderate.

We no longer have ash and burnt vegetation falling continuously from the sky. Only sporadic ash fall now. However this morning the smoke came back, so our air quality is terrible again.

Finally, the fire crews were able to construct fire lines over the weekend to protect our area of town. Two lines were constructed. The primary line runs from Wilder Ranch at Highway 1 up to the far upper reaches of the UCSC campus (at Twin Gates) and then down to Highway 9 south of Felton. A secondary line runs through private land between the Moore Creek Preserve and Wilder Ranch up to Empire Grade Road just south of the west entrance to the UCSC campus.

Yesterday I took a hike to have a look at the secondary break. Here's what I saw:

In the areas I took a look at, they used bulldozers to widen existing ranch roads (dirt), to about 50 feet in width. While digitizing the lines on the map, I noticed that the firefighters appeared to do this where ever possible. In other areas it was evident they had to cut through heavy timber/brush.

Needless to say, with these fire breaks in and the improved weather, we are feeling very much relieved and more secure. We still have our bags packed and are ready to leave, however.

Also because I'm a mapping geek I created my own web maps, pulling together data from various sources so I can keep track of what's happening. It includes these photos, the fire breaks, evacuation areas, and other info I've found useful. The maps above came from those web maps, so here's a link if you'd like to explore:

The situation remains fluid, but at least the weather is cooperating for now. The breaks that have been established are protecting both the city of Santa Cruz and the UC Santa Cruz campus. Smoke in the air remains a problem, and air quality has ranged from not-too-bad to don't-breathe-if-you-have-to-go-outside. Still, at least we aren't likely to have to evacuate any time soon.

2

22 August 2020

Scorched tanoak (Neolithocarpus densiflorus) leaves

As I write these words, a massive and powerful wildfire is raging through the Santa Cruz Mountains, approaching the city of Santa Cruz from the north and west. This morning's stats:

  • 63,000 acres burnt/burning
  • 5% containment
  • 1157 people fighting the fire (roughly 10% of what is needed to fight a fire of this size)
  • firebreaks constructed to protect the city and university
  • firefighters coming from out of the area and out of state

Much of the terrain burning is redwood forest. Big Basin Redwood State Park has burnt extensively. All park buildings and campgrounds have been severely damaged if not destroyed. Up the coast from me at Waddell Creek, the fire burned all the way to the ocean. Rancho del Oso, the nature center at the bottom of Big Basin at Waddell Creek, is in the middle of the forest; I don't know whether or not it still stands.

Each of these leaves tells the story of the destructive power of Nature. Most of them are from tanoak trees (Neolithocarpus densiflorus) or California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica), both of which are very common understory trees in redwood forests. For the past week, charred leaves have been tossed by updraft and carried along the wind, to be deposited miles away. Fortunately they are no longer acting as live embers when they touch down.

My camera gear is all packed up, in case we need to evacuate. I took these photos with my phone when I went to the marine lab this morning. They are completely unaltered. If they look a little too orange, well, that's how everything looks right now.

Why did I feel compelled to take these pictures? I think it's because the damage to Nature caused by Nature should be acknowledged as well as the damage to human lives, homes, and health. What I'm about to say may sound insensitive. I do not want to diminish the human tragedy of lost homes, livelihoods, and health. But I do want to shift my personal focus a little bit, because dwelling on all that has been and could be lost only renders me unable to function. If I can think about the future, perhaps even the long-term future far beyond my own life, I feel more grounded and ready to deal with the now.

What is and has been happening to the redwood forests is absolutely tragic. But the redwoods themselves are fire-adapted and resilient. The forest will recover. Already there are Facebook groups organizing to help the residents who have been displaced, begin the long and arduous process of cleaning up once the fire crews give the okay to do so, and start thinking about long-term monitoring of the forest's recovery. From a purely ecological perspective, it will be fascinating to document the process of secondary succession.

But before any of that can happen, human safety is the top priority. We are far from the end of this ordeal. While the weather has cooperated the past couple of days, with cooler temperatures and higher humidity thanks to the return of the marine layer, the forecast calls for 20-30% chance of lightning weather Sunday through Tuesday. That means more lightning strikes and more fires starting. We were visited by a firefighter yesterday afternoon, who told us that while we were not in the immediate evacuation zone we need to be ready to go. She advised us to do the usual fire prevention stuff—clear out a defensible space around the house, make sure there's no leaf litter or debris on the roof, etc. So we did. And now we stay indoors as much as possible, as the air quality outside is dismal. And we wait.

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