The past is never dead. The past is not even past.
When William Faulkner wrote that, he was thinking of human history, but it's true on here on planet earth as well. Cycles repeat. For that reason, and because they were troubled by the drought they saw in the deep time record, paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram and a fellow researcher at UC Berkeley set out to present the full record of climate extremes in the Southwest to the public in a new book, The West Without Water.
In an an introductory op-ed in the LA Times this week, they write:
How extreme is this year in California's climate history? To answer this, we need to look back further than the 119 years we have on record, to the geologic past. Based on the growth rings of trees cored throughout the Western United States, AD 1580 stands out as the driest year in the last half a millennium, drier than 1976-77. It was so devastatingly dry in 1580 that the giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada essentially failed to grow at all; the cores show either extremely thin or absent tree rings. If the current drought continues in California through Oct. 1, this water year will be the driest not only in our modern records but in half a millennium.
But that's actually a little bit reassuring, because it implies that this sort of drought, when eventually it is over, at least will not return soon. For perhaps as long as 500 years.
If you look at the archaeological record, you see that the Native American population in the West expanded in the wet years that preceded those long droughts in the Medieval period. Then during the droughts, they were pretty much wiped out. There was the so-called Anasazi collapse in the Southwest about 800 years ago. In some ways, I see that as an analogy to us today. We’ve had this wetter 150 years and we’ve expanded. Now we’re using up all the available water, yet our population is still growing.
We’re vulnerable just like they were, but on an even larger scale.
[Image of groundwater levels in Central Valley from GRACE, NASA's gravity-measurement satellite. Red line shows groundwater levels from l962 based on USGS measurements -- green line shows satellite measurements since 2003]
The fourth section of the Pacific Crest Trail, Section D, which I walked this past week, begins by passing under Interstate 15 (which goes from Los Angeles to Las Vegas), then turning north along a major rail arterial. It crosses the San Andreas Fault and then (literally) turns and heads for the hills.
The regionality of cocci is only partly to blame for the pace of research. In the lab, cocci presents a serious hazard. Early on, laboratory infections were common; a grad student would open a petri dish and, whoosh, millions of spores would go up his nose. (After farm work, lab work was considered to have the greatest occupational risk; at Stanford, a center of valley-fever research, a group of obstetrics students got it, though their classroom was two stories above the cocci lab.) At the county public-health building in Bakersfield, I saw a slide of cocci, recovered from a patient’s sputum and fed agar, potato extract, and sugar. Angled in a test tube to reduce surface area and stored in a bio-safety cabinet (air flow, straight up), the slide was covered with a cloudy gray smear, like a spiral galaxy. “Here he is,” the lab director said. “Just looks like a little bread mold. He’s making arthrospores in there, and if we opened it we’d just get a little invisible cloud of infectious particles.” Cocci researchers typically work in Bio Safety Level 3 labs: hepa-filtered air, seamless floors and ceilings, closed antechamber. Until last year, C. immitis was listed as a Select Agent. After culturing it, lab technicians had seven days to report to the Department of Homeland Security that it had been destroyed.
In Tucson, Galgiani took me to see the university’s Bio Safety 3 lab. In the corridor, you could hear an autoclave grinding like a hotel icemaker, sterilizing every piece of lab equipment and protective gear that came into contact with the pathogenic agents inside. In addition to cocci, the lab handles monkey pox, mouse pox, West Nile, and chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus for which there is currently no treatment. On the wall was a group of manometers. Galgiani checked that the pressure in the rooms was lower than that in the hall: a containment strategy.
“In the nineteen-fifties, both the U.S. and the Russians had bio-warfare programs using cocci,” he said. “Generals can’t control agents that rely on air currents to disperse them, and it was difficult to use the vector precisely, so it fell out of favor. But terrorists don’t care about that stuff—all they care about is perception. A single cell can cause disease, and you can genetically modify it to make it more powerful.” He held up his wallet to a sensor by the door, then put his finger on a fingerprint reader. “The atrium is as far as we get,” he said as we stepped inside. “When you work like this, everything slows down, for safety reasons. It’s a harder kind of research to do.”
Because Valley Fever is endemic to the Antelope Valley, and most dangerous in fall, during windy times and after the summer's heat, I'm going to walk Section D of the Pacific Crest Trail in January. (Helps that we're in the midst of a drought, so snow is not a factor.) Will be gone for a week. Wish me luck.
Yesterday an exciting pressure chart came my way via the indefatiguable John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal. Albuquerque, which has had no perceptible precipitation to date this winter, is as interested in the so-called "Ridiculously Resilient Ridge" of high pressure that has been blocking any possible weather from the Pacific as we are here in California.
So it's exciting when that "RRR" shows signs of breaking down. John put up this chart from the National Weather Service (NWS):
Chatted about this with the helpful meteorologist John Sucop at the Oxnard office of the NWS. He said that models (available to the public here at an NCEP site -- check out the loops) show the ridge breaking down by the edge of the month as low pressure systems continue to hit it.
Of course the ridge could reform: that happens all the time. But the anomaly can't last forever.
In the meanwhile, might as well take advantage of the anomaly and go hike the San Gabriel Mountains in the winter, when it's mild, bugless, and lacking snow. Usually those hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, section D, are told to wait until May until the snow passes -- not this year.
Last week The New Yorker led off with an uncharacteristically labored analogy/editorial from Adam Gopnik, who pointed out that the Titanic had a twin sister, the Olympic, which sailed unharmed through the frozen northern seas for decades and (he suggested) so could we.
"It reminds us that our imagination of disaster is dangerously more fertile than our imagination of the ordinary. You have certainly heard of the Titanic; you have probably never heard of the Olympic."
Okay, that's sweet, but doesn't it seem rather besides the point? Far more memorably last week a snarky Internet commentator not nearly as famous as Gopnik found a detail from the familiar Titanic story/metaphor that made a far bigger splash on the intertubes, because it briliantly dramatized what has become an all-too-frequent pattern among deniers. Too often the likes of James Inhofe (who wore long underwear to work at the Senate last week, to show that the evidence for global warming is "laughable") will exalt an ephemeral detail -- a cold snap -- in an attempt to wave off the facts. This new metaphor fought that mockery with its own mockery.
Take it away, Nerdy Jewish Girl!
Re: global warming and the cold weather "Liberals keep telling me the Titanic is sinking but my side of the ship is 500 feet in the air."
A number of publications last week published compendiums of amazing images from the polar vortex's drunken stagger, in Chris Mooney's wonderful story, across nearly all the nation save drought-stricken CA. Frozen lakes, waterfalls, etc. Here's NASA's GOES satellite picture:
Fine. But what about the vortex of public reaction? Tom Toles sketches that one:
A few days after publishing my shockingly popular story on the Ventura fault last week, and thinking of the upcoming twenty-year anniversary of the Northridge quake, the Ventura County Star followed up with a brief story on seismic risk in Southern Califonia, quoting some of the same experts I qutoed.