Beautiful Spring

“The people of New England are by nature patient and forbearing; but there are some things which they will not stand. Every year they kill a lot of poets for writing about ‘Beautiful Spring.’ These are generally casual visitors, who bring their notions of spring from somewhere else, and cannot, of course, know how the natives feel about spring. And so, the first thing they know, the opportunity to inquire how they feel has permanently gone by.”

– Mark Twain, in his perpetually quotable speech on New England weather given Friday, 22 December 1876 – the year The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published

Circa 1874, age 39

No bread, no milk – for real

Visible light satellite photo taken on day two of the Northeast Blizzard of 1978

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the worst snowstorm I’ve ever experienced, the Great Northeast Blizzard of 1978, which is the likely origin of those odd runs on bread and milk that now occur in so many places – most prominently east of the Mississippi – before snowstorms. After this storm, many people in the worst affected areas couldn’t go out for days and genuinely did run out of such things. Where I lived, not far north of Boston, we got 30″ of snow, with eight- and nine-foot drifts due to the near-hurricane force winds that raged during the thirty-two hour storm. Those winds were hurricane force twenty miles away at the coast. My chief memory of the storm as it was happening is those fiercely howling winds driving the heavy snow mostly sideways for hours and hours on end. There was no thought of going outside – it was just too dangerous.

The storm happened on Monday and Tuesday of that week, and it was Friday before we could get to a grocery store. Quite different from the similar snow depth storm here in 2015.

February 1978: Southwest of Boston, Massachusetts, abandoned vehicles litter Route 128, the Boston inner ring highway, near Dedham. It was a week before all 3,500 vehicles there were cleared by the National Guard and U.S. Army.

February 1978: Abandoned vehicles on Route 9 west of Boston – just a mile or so from my current office

To guarantee unimpeded rescues and cleanup, then-Governor Michael Dukakis declared a travel ban in Massachusetts after the storm that extended to three days, so there was no point struggling to get to the nearest grocery a mile away because they’d have nothing in stock – nothing of use, anyway. Once the ban was lifted, our relatively minor street was still largely impassable, so I walked to the store to get some staples – with my sled as carry-all as I recall – and I think we had indeed run out of bread and milk, but still had some eggs.

I think it’s memories of this storm or stories from older relatives that still fuel the “must get French toast ingredients” urge that hits a lot of people before any middling to major snowstorm ’round these parts – and, strangely I think, many other places that have never experienced a regional shutdown lasting several days and almost certainly never will.

Here’s the best overview of the storm and its aftermath I found online, from WGBH Boston:

WBZ-TV aired a special last week, shown below. It was all right, but they buried the lede entirely – suffocated it, really. As the WGBH report mentions quite early on, most forecasts the morning the blizzard started called for about 6″ of snow total. While that sort of forecast would preemptively shut down a place like Washington DC, most people in New England would still go to work, and so they did. No one was prepared for what happened. By the time the monstrosity started showing its true self, snowplows couldn’t keep up with the stupendous rate of snowfall and it was too late for many to try to get home. A lot of those who attempted it were stranded and had to await rescue or abandon their cars and seek shelter.

At the time, there was basically one computer model available, but most meteorologists viewed it askance because it was new and its prediction seemed over the top. Not all of them thought it was dubious, though:

“Back in 1978, we did not have the accuracy of the computer models that we have today. And in 1978 there was a brand new computer model that came out and it was predicting the storm to be pretty much the magnitude it turned out to be. But because the computer model was brand new, people did not have confidence in it. And so there was some question whether or not people wanted to buy into the kind of product that it was delivering. To me it looked very reasonable. I took my little bag of clothes and I moved into Western Connecticut State College weather lab and I said, ‘I’m going to be here for a few days and there’s no question about that. It’s in the logbook on that day: ‘a granddaddy of a snowstorm is coming our way.’”
– Dr. Mel Goldstein

Houses tossed onto the beach like shoe boxes in Scituate, Massachusetts

The National Weather Service office at Taunton, Massachusetts prepared a slideshow some years ago with lots of good photos and graphics explaining how the storm evolved. Click on the image to view the PDF:

NOAA’s report on the blizzard (click to download or open the PDF):

This edition of The Boston Globe never reached its readers – they literally stopped the presses and abandoned the print run. There was no way to distribute it.

I had been scheduled to fly out to Kansas City, Missouri on 7 February to begin my first full-time job, but the snow was still coming down hard at that point and my move was delayed by two weeks. A few months after I moved into the Walnut Tower apartments in downtown Kansas City, wild weather of a different kind: Late afternoon on a Saturday or Sunday, I heard loud sirens that sounded like air raid sirens, but, being 18 years old and a Midwest newcomer, I didn’t know until the next day that what I heard was a tornado warning for the downtown area. I had an inkling, though, because I watched out my 11th floor window for about 90 minutes as, in ones and twos, ten or twelve funnels serpentined off the bottom of the filthy yellow mammatus cloud deck and twisted back up, never getting closer than about 1,500 feet off the ground.

“It was kind of nice to rule by decree because the legislature couldn’t get into the State House. So it was just me, you know.”
– Massachusetts Governor Dukakis

Yeah…and?

Headline seen: 71.2 million people are under winter weather alerts

By now, especially in light of that decimal point, I think they must have automated this sort of tally for forecast teasers and online clickbait, but even to the nearest hundred thousand, it still means less than nothing. My reaction is a sarcastic “Oh, thank goodness it’s not 74.5 million, but I do wish it were more like 60.8 million.” Even if it were a useful number compared against the population of the US, for example – that still isn’t useful, by the way – do they really think a large percentage of said population knows how many million people live in the US? I doubt even 71.2 million of them could, without Googling, answer that question within 50 million of the number.

Breathless reports of meteor sightings also puzzle me. Thinking back, every time I’ve driven a long distance on a clear night – say, more than a few hours – I’ve seen at least one, and not at the time of meteor showers, either. Like snow in winter, meteors are not uncommon. Online shouts of “INCREDIBLE” and “AMAZING” make me scratch my head and think that some people are mighty easily amazed. I think, “Huh…neat!” when I happen to see one, but that’s the extent of it. When I was seven or eight years old, though, a friend and I witnessed not your piddly little two-second thin streak in the sky, but an extremely large green fireball-type meteor just after dusk that lasted about eight seconds. Now that was amazing, so impressive that you could put me on that street today and I could show you exactly where we stood and point out in the sky just where it started and ended.

Update: I found references to the fireball I saw when I was a kid and posted another article with all the details here.

Also, for the last time, stop trying to name winter storms, Weather Channel. After some years now of your attempts at social network engineering, you and your sister companies under parent NBC/Universal are the only ones who do it – a few other media organisations tagged along at first, but I think they were shamed back out of the practice, and rightfully so. Is that why you keep buying other weather companies – just to make more people in the industry do it?

When a debris basin overflows

From Burbank Firefighters Local 778, a group of whom were trapped in the Deer Canyon area until the landslide subsided:

Two people were in the car and survived. They made a beeline out of there after an evacuation order said the basin above them might be overtopped. It was, and they hydroplaned with the debris flow down the hill, then regained control and went up another road to escape the flow.

The debris basin that was inundated, Upper Sunset, is at the upper right. The car came down Country Club Drive, which emanates from the Sunset Debris Basin access road.

The debris basin after the landslide is below. The wall appears to have been breached but was not. There’s ongoing construction to raise the rim five feet to increase the capacity of the basin by 8,000 cubic yards – see the scaffolding – and that middle portion is not yet started.

The wrong word

The prevailing term in government warnings and the news reports out of Santa Barbara County is mudslide, not landslide. Yes, it is primarily mud by volume, but mudslide seems far too mild a term to me when I look at these pictures from today in the northern part of Montecito, just south of the Santa Ynez range that’s northeast of Santa Barbara.

This sort of confluence of events occurs just once or twice a decade at this scale, with multiple fatality landslides occurring every second or third decade. Wouldn’t some people – specifically those who haven’t seen this before – think of mudslide warnings, “Oh, some mud? Whatever”? I doubt anyone would think that if the more apt “landslide” was used instead. A reaction of “Let’s get the hell out of here” would be a little more likely, I think – and a lot more sensible.

When I wonder how mudslide overtook landslide in Southern California, the cynical me answers immediately: decades of real estate agent subtlety, probably.

Click any image for a larger version

Photo: Mike Eliason, PIO, Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Photo: Mike Eliason, PIO, Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Photo: Mike Eliason, PIO, Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Rescue of 14-year-old girl at right. Photo: Mike Eliason, PIO, Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Photo: Mike Eliason, PIO, Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Photo: Ventura County Sheriff Air Unit

Los Angeles against the Mountains

A debris basin in Los Angeles County

You may have heard that, after the California wildfires, there’s a scramble to empty “debris basins” there because so many hillsides now lack any vegetation to halt or even slow landslides that will occur on burn-scarred hills after heavy rainfall. The debris basins are man-made bowls of varying sizes, whose construction first began in 1915, meant to catch landslide debris but allow water through. There are more than 120 of them near Los Angeles, where they’re essential because the tectonically active San Gabriel Mountains are both growing and disintegrating at one of the fastest rates on the planet. The basins are regularly emptied by crews, but because of the volume of material, it can be difficult to keep up.

The regional forecast for the next four days is not good: 1-2 inches of rain at the coast and up to 5 inches on west-facing slopes. As little as a quarter-inch of rain in an hour is capable of triggering a landslide in burned areas.

John McPhee wrote about the basins and the underlying geology of the region in The New Yorker in 1988. The second half of his essay is behind their paywall, but the fascinating first half is freely readable here:

Los Angeles against the Mountains, Part 1

Both parts are included in his book, The Control of Nature. When he wrote that essay thirty years ago, the basins had already collected – and been emptied of – over twenty million tons of landslide material. In the eyebrow-lifting words of McPhee:

Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows. The dark material coming toward the [Genofile family] was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins.

The lecture notes about McPhee’s essay on this page summarize well the never-ending chaparral overgrowth/wildfire/rain/landslide cycle in Southern California.

The low stuff, at the buckwheat level, is often called soft chaparral. Up in the tough chamise, closer to the lofty timber, is high chaparral, which is also called hard chaparral. High or low—hard, soft, or mixed—all chaparral has in common an always developing, relentlessly intensifying, vital necessity to burst into flame. In a sense, chaparral consumes fire no less than fire consumes chaparral.

As a side note, there’s no need to find blame in campfires of the homeless – or even the far more common cause, poorly-maintained power lines and their rights-of-way – because Southern California wildfires are inevitable. They would, with 100% certainty, occur even if the region was completely uninhabited. It’s not a matter of if – it’s a matter of when.

The strangest aspect of the basins is where much of their debris is transported once removed: back up into the mountains. McPhee called this bizarre flood control district job security an “elegant absurdity”.

Traveling from the west in the area of the record-breaking Thomas Fire to the east, here are the Santa Barbara County debris basins:

Then Ventura County’s – a little rough looking because I cobbled this together from four zone maps of differing scales:

And finally, Los Angeles County’s debris basins, where you can easily see that the landslide problem is most acute:

This map of likely landslide paths after the Station Fire in 2009 is an example of just how acute. This area is near the centre of the map above and not far north-northeast of Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena:

Fire power

Click any image for a larger version

From Sacramento FD, 15 December 2017: Sacramento Engine 316 as part of California OES Strike Team 4805c, preparing to depart Ventura Base Camp for a day on the fire line. The Thomas Fire is now 252,500 acres, with 35% containment and 8,369 personnel assigned.

Hundreds of units are visible in their photo from the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Other totals as of 15 December: 1,012 fire engines, 62 water tenders, 32 helicopters, 158 handcrews, 78 bulldozers, plus other firefighting aircraft.

In the MODIS natural colour image below, smoke from California wildfires stretches north past the Oregon border. The southern half of Vancouver Island is visible at the top and the lower edge of this image is about 175 miles south of the Baja California border. Acquired by NASA’s Aqua satellite on 11 December 2017.

Aqua’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) shows CO concentration on 11 December 2017. “Column” refers to the 5km-high column of air that’s measured and 1018 is one quintillion.

Further details on these Aqua images here.

The mind boggles

Still no hope of ever having a hobby of any sort? Thumb-twiddling too mundane? All dully waking moments must involve a dully glowing screen? Why not try chasing your own tail for a while as we track you, serve up some ads, and gain some micro-revenue? Satisfying? Of course not. But it does occupy time.

Vote early and often! Allow all cookies. Attempt no ad-blockers there.