For several weeks I had projected a 300-mile bike tour along California’s Central Coast, from Morro Bay south to San Clemente. The opportunity had arisen because we were hoping to connect family visits in Morro Bay and San Clemente.
Because of scheduling problems, the San Clemente part of the trip and the bike ride were scrubbed, and it’s a good thing! I would have been riding down the coast during several days of heavy rains that interrupted the worst drought that California has endured since the early 1860s. Since I didn’t didn’t bring my bike to Morro Bay, I used some of my time reading and thinking about climate on California’s Central Coast.
Cyclonic wind shear: A column in The San Luis Obispo Tribune explains the meteorological event that would have caused me such distress if I had been cycling the previous week: the intense rainstorm that had hit the region on February 28 and March 1. John Lindsey reported in his column Weather Watch that it was “one of the most powerful Pacific storms that I’ve seen off the San Luis Obispo County coastline in my meteorological career.” The southern branch of the polar jet stream brought upper-level winds of 150 knots from the western Pacific. At the same time, “relatively warm air at the Earth’s surface from the south moved north, producing a cyclonic wind shear.”
These intersecting air masses “liberated great amounts of latent heat as water vapor condensed into clouds and precipitation.” It also caused rapid and sharp drop in air pressure and “near hurricane force winds.” The ocean’s surface was dramatically affected: 40-foot seas, longer-period swells, and damaging westerly swells that hit piers ordinarily protected from El Niño-driven storms (“Big waves not swell for piers,” The Tribune, San Luis Obispo, March 2, 2014).
Drought-flood-fire: During my time in Morro Bay, Cal Poly historian Dan Krieger described one of the region’s historic and devastating droughts in his column in the San Luis Obispo Tribune (which he has written since 1984). He helps me understand the distinctive import of the climatological history of the Southwest that is described in more technical language in a book I reviewed a short time ago: The West Without Water. Its authors describe a meteorological pattern in which long periods of dry weather and drought are followed by episodes of wetter climate, often with such heavy precipitation that wide-spread flooding occurs. Hardly does the water subside, however, when everything dries out and intense wild fires break out. (See my review.)
During two rainless years, beginning in 1862, Krieger writes, “virtually all of the herds of mission-bred cattle and sheep were destroyed”—as many as 300,000 head of cattle and 100,000 sheep died. “The late afternoon sun created an almost blinding effect, as its light was reflected from the chalk-white carcasses in El Potero de San Luis Obispo, the old mission pasture, now the Cal Poly campus just north of town.” The drought marked the “real end of rancho days along the Central Coast.”
As soon as the drought was over (around 1865), new investors began buying vast tracts of land. Edgar Willis Steele and his brothers, for example, bought 45,000 acres for $1.10 an acre. The rains had returned and the tall, green grass justified their descriptive title for their purchase: “cow heaven.” (The Tribune, March 9, 2014). Although some of the people who made these massive purchases fell onto hard times, California has enjoyed a relatively moist climatic period since that time.
Since then, there have been more dry periods, but less severe than the one in 1862, followed by short periods of heavy rain and frequent wild fires. Because this sequence is thought to be the normal rhythm of life in this part of the world, Californians continue their regular activities confident that the reservoirs and irrigation systems will get them through droughts so that they can maintain normal life despite the alternation of wet and dry periods.
I wa unnerved, however, by the report on a local news channel during our short time in Morro Bay that wild fires are likely to break out within the next couple of weeks despite nearly five inches of rain since early February.
Krieger starts his column with a reference to The Land of Little Rain by Mary Hunter Austin, published in 1903. Fortunately, this series of essays about Death Valley has been reissued in later editions and three used copies are available at Powells.
Wave energy power supply: Since the 1950s, one of Morro Bay’s landmarks has been the natural gas-fired electrical generating plant located on the shoreline facing the community’s most important identifying mark, the Morro Rock. A short time ago, this power plant was closed.
One reason was that new state and federal regulations would require upgrading so that the plant would use less sea water in its processes; the owners considered that the costs would be too high. A second reason may be that the size of this plant is so small that it no longer is a necessary part of the power grid for California. A third reason is that the plant’s current owners are increasingly interested in renewable energy, and this plant’s location opens the possibility of engaging in the new wave energy process for generating electricity.
News reports that I read while visiting the Central Coast towns indicate that environmentalists are happy that the plant has closed. Although the city of Morro Bay had been receiving $750,000 a year in fees and taxes, these funds were no longer being used for the city’s operational budget but instead were being deposited in a reserve fund. Some people in the community see the plant’s closing as one more example of the pressure by environmentalists to force economically unfeasible changes upon businesses that are OK the way they are.