California Gets Hit
March 4, 1998
By Mark Hoover previous |
I finally got on a jetstream flight. Kinda. But first, after six intensive
weeks of being on the road, tracking El Niño with some of the brightest
oceanographers and meteorologists on the planet, it's time to add a few things
Okay, I can add up the frequent flyer miles later (did anyone say Paris?)
Actually, if I don't eat another pack of sky peanuts for a long while, that's
fine by me. I did the red-eye thing one last time over the past few days, and
got home yesterday from a whirlwind tour (note the carefully chosen phrase) of
California. Why California? As any Californian would tell you, for CLOSURE,
El Niño spent six months beating up the rest of the world. Catastrophic
forest fires and rivers without water in Indonesia. Killing torrential rains,
tidal surges, and typhoons in southern China. The worst floods in history in
Peru. The strongest pacific hurricane ever measured along the Mexican coast.
Drought and starvation in parts of southern Africa. The list goes on.
But because in January, California—which has about one five-hundredth of the
world's land area—hadn't yet gotten hit, El Niño was being called El
No-show, El Yawño, and whatever else the Letterman and Leno staff
writers could turn into a pun. The rest of the Earth could disappear in a
planetary hurricane, but if California didn't get hit, the conventional wisdom
seemed to be that El Niño was a bust.
February, of course changed all that, and the storms and rain of the past 10
days were the worst yet. Suddenly it's clear the California climate prediction
gurus who went way out on a limb last summer predicting double or even triple
normal rain, destructive surf, mudslides, flash floods...were right on the
money; eight weeks ago they were nervously wondering if they should update
their resumes. Despite all the hardships brought to California recently by El
Niño, there's little mention of all the trouble avoided by the excellent
advance warning our detection systems and prediction models provided
this year. Up and down the pacific coast, emergency teams drilled, cities
cleaned out spillways and flood channels, and citizens patched up substandard
buildings and laid in supplies. If we have power against the weather, it lies
in our understanding of what to expect.
Los Angeles had its first real weather break in a month this weekend, and I
arrived in beautiful weather. However, two ominous storm systems are gathering
at this moment out in the Pacific, and on the satellite photos I'm looking at,
the second one already shows signs of a "pineapple tail" dipping south like a
straw to suck El Niño heat and moisture north and east. There is a lot
more rain in the West Coast's near future. Also, bear in mind that March is
traditionally the rainiest month along the West Coast, anyway.
I drove my rented car around Los Angeles Saturday, making my way to the Pacific
Coastal Highway that leads to Pacific Palisades, Topanga, and Malibu. Despite
the sunny weather, evidence of the recent havoc was all around. Particularly
near Malibu, the hillsides were sodden and threatening to collapse; scores of
smaller collapses had already created diversions and road hazards. Some
hillside houses had been abandoned. Sinkholes had opened, including one right
in Century City, a heavily urban area dominated by television and movie
industry high-rises. Along the sea, some beach houses were wrecked, and many
more were boarded or fortified. Where they hadn't been washed away, the
hillsides were incredibly green, as in the Galapagos, a green I've not seen
before in the Mediterranean climate that prevails in Los Angeles.
On Sunday, I drove down to San Diego along the Santa Ana Freeway, which hugs
the coast for most of the two-hour drive, on my way to the Scripps
Oceanographic Institute, where some of the best El Niño modelers and
predictors work in Scripps' Experimental Climate Prediction Center. One
upshot: later this week we'll give an ECPC scientist a chance to say, "I told
you so," and more importantly, a chance to say what's still in store.
Again I was struck by evidence, especially along the beachfronts, of the recent
violence. I had hoped to get a close-up look at the Scripps Coastal Data
Information Program's radical new regional wave forecaster, but guess what: El
Niño had taken out its data platform, in its offshore location.
Later on, I took a shuttle flight up to San Francisco, which if anything has
been hit harder than southern California. A deck of clouds moved in and
blocked the late afternoon sun, but didn't prevent me from seeing evidence that
the Bay Area has gotten about 125% of the rain it can safely absorb. I had
hoped to get to Pacifica, about 10 or 15 miles south of San Francisco on the
coast, to observe firsthand the hillsides that were melting away, carrying
quantities of mud, asphalt, and broken houses down into the sea. Alas, the
plane of the scientist I was supposed to join up with for the short drive was
cancelled, and we never got the chance. I can assure you, however, that it
doesn't take an expert to recognize the signs of extreme weather duress, and it
was painful to drive around San Francisco and see the transformations wrought
by El Niño.
About that jet stream flight. During a fit of temporary insanity I had
purchased an overnight flight ticket back east. An airline whose name I will
withhold wedged me into a seat that reminded me of when I was six, and forced
to sit in a booster chair at Howard Johnson's on fried clam night: a middle
seat, in a row whose window looked out at the side of the jet engine bolted to
the fuselage; a seat between two persons of hearty girth, one of whom snored
like Curly the Stooge. The captain's voice came on the intercom as we
accelerated out of San Francisco International, and he casually announced that
to take advantage of an unusually strong jetstream, the plane would fly at
37,000 feet, and arrive at the gate in Chicago 30 minutes early.
And then he turned the lights out. As the plane surfed along in the jetstream
at three in the morning, and I breathed the peanut fumes coming from the row in
front of me, I drew my arms as close together as possible to avoid disturbing
Curly on my right and Orson Welles on my left. My thoughts ran to that other
jetstream flight I was supposed to take, the one in Hawaii, in the sleek NOAA
Gulf Stream jet out over the Pacific, probably sipping on pineapple juice and
munching macadamia nuts, and upon landing, donning a lei or something, and I
thought...well, you know what I thought...El Niño got me again. :)
So what's next? A lot of visitors to this Web site have written asking what
will happen later this summer, and even next winter. So we have invited two
scientists to help give us a look ahead, as the next two dispatches shift from
the present to the future.
How much longer will El Niño last? Will the summer be hot and dry?
Will next winter be cold and harsh? Will La Niña displace El
Niño? If you're interested in the answers to these questions, don't
miss the rest of this week's dispatches.