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Off Deadline: Did oak trees know a strong El Niño was on the way?

 

In April 2014 -- before El Niño was a household word and daily headline -- I did a column about a massive drop of acorns prior to the last big El Niño year of 1997-98.

I detailed how rains impacted our lives in the woods above Saratoga and hit Palo Alto hard with millions of dollars in flooding and damages.

Well, here comes another large one, dubbed a "Godzilla El Niño" by one TV station. In my 2014, column I noted there had been another heavier-than-usual fall of acorns, and I asked how the oak trees seemed to know about upcoming heavy winters.

Well, they don't.

"I've actually gotten that question a lot, that specific question about the acorns," Daniel Swain, a weather specialist based at Stanford University and co-producer of the Weather Blog, said in an interview we did last fall. The blog is available at weatherwest.com, named for his group at Stanford called "Weather West."

"The answer is that the trees don't know, but they are capable of responding to things that have happened in the recent past ... that might cause them to drop more or fewer acorns than usual.

"The trees don't know, but they could still be predicting something," Swain said.

Walter Passmore, Palo Alto's urban forester, linked heavier acorn production to trees that have undergone stress, just as pruning fruit trees increases fruit production.

The acorn question doesn't seem so nutsy considering today's weather news about storm-wracked middle America and the South, drought-stricken California, rapidly melting polar glaciers and coastal areas worldwide witnessing rising sea levels.

"Climate change" is complementing the earlier term "global warming," describing more accurately increased weather volatility, linked to increases in the surface temperature of oceans.

I'm not much one for Chicken Little warnings. But evidence is piling up.

"We've been studying the drought and the role of climate change and all these things," Swain said, including what some have called "the ridiculously resilient ridge" of high pressure that deflects storms from California.

"What caused the drought? It's this ridge," he said. "Then the real science question is, 'Why is this ridge there?' and 'Why has it been there for going on four consecutive years?'"

The lack of rain and warmer temperatures, he said, have "garnered a lot of attention because the last few years in California have been really outside the realm of people's experience. It's very different from what people are used to in a way that it's actually noticeable," even to city dwellers.

"If you're in a city and spend most of your time indoors, or working in an office, you might not really notice what's going on. An interesting dichotomy about this whole drought is that it hasn't been a really taxing event for anybody who lives in the major coastal cities. ... It's actually something that's 'happening elsewhere,' even though meteorologically it's happening everywhere in California."

The most serious impacts have been "confined to places where most people don't live," such as the Central Valley and the Sierra and the Coastal mountains where there is a massive tree mortality, wildfires, flooding and mudslides.

Swain said a side effect of doing the Weather Blog is that he gets emails from around the state with "personal messages and photographs that weave a narrative I certainly wouldn't be getting on my own."

Some are alarming, he noted: "Everybody in the (U.S.) Forest Service I've been talking to is saying that (tree mortality) is much worse than is publicly known at this point" based on overflights showing vast numbers of dead or dying trees.

"But beyond that there are problems with the urban forest, and in a lot of places the urban forest is doing much worse than the native one -- which is what you would expect because the native trees ostensibly have adapted to drought because there have been droughts before.

"The urban trees maybe not. We have redwoods growing along 101 in Silicon Valley, and those are just dying. ... And it's not just the highway medians. It's in people's back yards, and the urban-forest canopy in Northern California is quite extensive.

"Today it's just incredibly stark. We're dealing with things that would not have happened if we hadn't done what we've done with the atmosphere. That's sort of why I got into climate rather than weather. Years ago I thought I was going to be a federal meteorologist doing day-to-day weather forecasts.

"Yet the way the climate is changing and where it's changing the most, and the whole picture on climate change, is something that brings together these really important physical-science questions with these really important cultural and socioeconomic issues. They're really inseparable at this point. When people talk about income inequality and social justice they really should be talking about climate change in the same breath, because all these things are inextricably linked.

"It's one of the big issues of the 21st century," not just because problems climate change causes directly but because of a bigger picture of how to deal with changing technology, concentration of wealth and distribution of natural resources.

Swain will be leaving Stanford this year but will continue the Weather Blog, which has been in existence for a decade. He is planning a series of posts next summer on the latest scientific evidence relating to how California's climate will change in a longer future.

Until then, he hopes El Niño will bring drought relief. Stay tuned, he said.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jaythor@well.com. He also writes periodic blogs at PaloAltoOnline.com.

Comments

13 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 26, 2016 at 4:27 pm

Jay,

You get to the real question in terms of the drought:

"What caused the drought? It's this ridge," he said. "Then the real science question is, 'Why is this ridge there?' and 'Why has it been there for going on four consecutive years?'"

Then you let yourself get drawn off into global warming alarmism, with no scientific rationale.

Why?


11 people like this
Posted by Eileen Wright
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 26, 2016 at 5:51 pm

"Then you let yourself get drawn off into global warming alarmism, with no scientific rationale."

That ridge is yet another Warmie attempt to advance their agenda of unlimited government funding for the scientists in their cabal. Their altering of old tree rings is another sly ploy. They are holding the whole state hostage with this.


16 people like this
Posted by NormanBeamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 27, 2016 at 8:26 am

When the oak trees drop a lot of acorns, it's called a "masting", and the acorns on the ground are called "the mast."


21 people like this
Posted by Back in the Day
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 27, 2016 at 9:07 am

Up until the mid-twentieth century, people were thrilled so see acorn mast on the ground. Deer and boar would eat it and it would give a wonderful flavor to the meat. Farmers would turn their domestic pigs out into the forest so they could eat the mast


19 people like this
Posted by Avid reader
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 27, 2016 at 12:56 pm

Brian Sussman, former television meteorologist in the SF Bay Area, wrote two great books on the subject of climate change. The first is "Climate-gate" and the second is "Eco-tyranny".

Both books are available in local libraries. Each are great reads to learn the other side of the story, containing ample documentation for the average person to form an educated opinion about this topic that is so often in the news.


9 people like this
Posted by Rogue Trader
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 27, 2016 at 1:29 pm

I tested my teenage daughter - "It looks like sea levels are rising 1/8 inch a year. Are you worried? What does that mean?"

After thinking, she said "it all depends on if sea levels rose in the past, and how much."

Outstanding! Sea levels have been rising for thousands of years. The current sea level is 350 feet HIGHER now than in the past. At one time, you could walk from Japan to China, or walk from Asia to North America, because sea levels were so low.

Over the past 10,000 years, sea levels have been rising about 1/2 inch a year. However, over the past century, despite all the industrialization, they have been rising only 1/8 inch a year - well below average.

Sea levels have been rising for thousands of years - and they rose much faster well before industrialization.

Web Link



5 people like this
Posted by Rogue Trader
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 27, 2016 at 2:12 pm

It is normal for a high pressure system/ridge to persist up to several weeks over California during winters, which diverts rainfall north to Seattle and Canada.

The drought, however, was characterized by a "Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” (RRR)that persisted for most of the winter. This article notes

"The RRR has been driven mainly by a configuration in the tropical western Pacific Ocean called the North Pacific Mode (NPM), characterized by a band of warm water between the North American West Coast and Micronesia, a finger of colder water stretching from Japan and the Philippines into the Pacific north of Hawaii, and a large swath of cold water off the West Coast of South America. The last time the NPM was this strong, Hartmann writes, was just before the 1997-1998 El Niño!

This is the important point: the NPM, which likely caused the ridge, which certainly caused our drastic two-year precipitation deficit — it’s gone. El Niño has disrupted it. There’s therefore no reason to believe the ridge will re-form, no reason to think the storm track will be deflected, and no reason to think The Blob will persist. “The climate models used for seasonal weather prediction are pretty emphatic about this,” Bond says. “We don’t expect a big ridge in the Northeastern Pacific this winter.”

With the ridge gone, the storm track should return” (end quote from article in Sept 2015)
Web Link

Fast forward to current Feb 2016. Yes, another high pressure ridge has kept California dry the last few weeks, but as Daniel Swain writes, this is typical and seen almost every winter, and is not the return of the RRR.

In fact, on the right hand menu, Swain tweeted on Feb 26 that there could be a big shift toward wetter weather again in March, as the current high pressure ridge hopefully dissipates by the end of this week.

Web Link


18 people like this
Posted by Doctor
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 27, 2016 at 3:02 pm

To the climate change deniers: Tell me, when your doctor tells you you've got cancer and need treatment, do you argue equally voraciously that no treatment is necessary, cancer has been around for decades, people have died of cancer before, all the health care people are just out to make money, and question their professional judgement?


16 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 27, 2016 at 5:10 pm

"all the health care people are just out to make money, and question their professional judgement?"

There are parents who use that logic to avoid vaccinating their children, putting them and their medically unvaccinatable playmates at needless risk of deadly illness.

I can respect people who deny their own cancer,. because they are putting only their own lives on the line, but definitely not those who risk the lives and livelihoods of others for their ideology. Climate change deniers are in that latter category.


8 people like this
Posted by Counterclockwise
a resident of University South
on Feb 27, 2016 at 5:44 pm

"Over the past 10,000 years, sea levels have been rising about 1/2 inch a year."

Lessee, now. That means the oceans got 21.8 feet deeper in the 523 years since Columbus first came to America, so the beach where he landed and the docks he sailed from are under 21.8 feet of water now. Likewise all the other waterfronts in the world that existed then. Many older ones would be much deeper under.

Gosh, you'd think somebody would notice that, even write it into the history books, wouldn't you?


4 people like this
Posted by Eileen Wright
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 27, 2016 at 5:57 pm

The warmies are flooding Miami too Web Link. They will stop at nothing to push their agenda.


14 people like this
Posted by Scientist
a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 28, 2016 at 11:06 am

"Doctor, a resident of Crescent Park" wrote: "To the climate change deniers. . ."

Really, that buzz phrase bespeaks the kind of ideological euphemism Orwell liked to parody. Orwell's writing had bite because it resonated with the real world. Euphemisms reveal the yearning to "define" reality to human tastes (rather than understand it on its own complex terms).

Literal "climate change" is firmly established, uncontroversial, common over geological time (so the phrase above starts with a special, spun interpretation). What's controversial has never been climate change, but the human role in it. (Blurring that vital distinction is important in ideological writing.)

This region has its share of professional climate-science experts. In person, they'll acknowledge complications euphemism-users never heard of. We have part of the picture (they'll tell you), but not all. There's evidence that human activity influences the global climate cycle, we're pretty confident, but we'd like to understand it better, and more quantitatively.

That's today's reality. In the long focus, dismissing anthropogenic unknowns as "climate-change denial" is little better than what it claims to dismiss. (And anyone who uses pop-culture phrases like "settled science" reveals how little they understand what "science" truly means.) Around 1900, most "classical" physical scientists thought they were pretty near wrapping up the Whole Story. They understood mechanics, light, heat; they could account for "almost all" observed physics. There were a few inconvenient outlier phenomena (light waves not always behaving like waves, Roentgen's mysterious fluorescence, some questions about atoms, etc.) but many at the time assumed they'd all be resolved soon. Yet much of today's technology (including by which you read these words) relies on understanding things 1900's scientific consensus didn't.


13 people like this
Posted by @Doctor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 28, 2016 at 11:13 am

I agree with your analogy completely.

However, I couldn't resist noting that your post could double as an indirect quote on what a now-deceased high tech mogul actually DID say to his concierge Doctor.


6 people like this
Posted by Doctor
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 28, 2016 at 2:29 pm

Expecting the cause for ANYTHING in science to be "firmly established, uncontroversial" is itself unscientific and utter nonsense. Science is NEVER going to be that firm on ANYTHING. Not Newton, Not Einstein, Not Hawking, or ANY scientist will EVER have their work in that category.

We don't understand time, space, the universe, subatomic particles, biology, DNA, chemistry, the standard model, or ANYTHING to the "firmly established, uncontroversial" level that climate change DENIERS (aka non-scientists) expect in climate change. There's plenty of "complications" in every scientific field. That's what scientists do, they explore these "complications".

Lead, Follow, or Get out of the Way.


1 person likes this
Posted by John
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 28, 2016 at 7:47 pm

Back to the original question I asked: What is the scientific explanation for the high pressure ridge that is causing the current drought? Does anyone know?

Jay, do you have any idea?


7 people like this
Posted by Weather Overground
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 28, 2016 at 8:40 pm

"What is the scientific explanation for the high pressure ridge that is causing the current drought? Does anyone know?"

The Pacific Decadal Oscillation, as in the 1984-1994 drought.


2 people like this
Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 29, 2016 at 11:27 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Here's the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientific consensus in their most recent (5th) report:
"Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. {1.2, 1.3.1}" (page 4 of the Synthesis Report's Summary for Policy Makers, available here: Web Link)
(The qualifier "extremely likely" represents a 95% - 100% assessed likelihood of an outcome or a result, as explained at the bottom of page 2.)

For those who invoke science to insist there's a great deal of uncertainty in human contributions to climate change, I recommend you, in the name of science, to take a look at the findings of the IPCC.


8 people like this
Posted by Polly Wanacracker
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 29, 2016 at 12:12 pm

"Did oak trees know El Nino was on the way?"

They did. In my neighborhood it went like this.

People heard about el Nino last summer, and many more of them than usual had their roofs fixed or replaced. Noticing these diligent preparations, the squirrels concluded a severe winter was coming and socked away a lot of extra acorns. This heavy demand for their acorns tipped off the oak trees.


4 people like this
Posted by Roger Overnaut
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 29, 2016 at 12:30 pm

"Brian Sussman, former television meteorologist in the SF Bay Area, wrote two great books on the subject of climate change."

Sussman falls short of authority on a couple of levels.

First, TV "meteorologists" are not always professional meteorologists. Anyone with a decent smile who can read a script can do the job.

Second, meteorology and climatology are not at all the same thing. For example, Sussman climatology will tell you his politics are 95% to 100% likely to be off the deep right end. Sussman meteorology will attempt to predict if he will get up on the wrong side of the bed on a particular morning.


4 people like this
Posted by Saving my money for a worthy cause
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 29, 2016 at 12:36 pm

[Post removed.]


3 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 29, 2016 at 1:52 pm

"The Pacific Decadal Oscillation, as in the 1984-1994 drought."

If that is true, our current drought cannot be related to anthropogenic global warming alarmism. The PDO has been going on for centuries, as evidenced in tree ring data.

Jay, can you please explain?

Cedric, can you explain?


2 people like this
Posted by Eileen Wright
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 29, 2016 at 2:16 pm

Tell them John. Nature changes climate and that proves people dont change climate. But warmies can't follow simple logic. They just mix things up to get money for their scientists.


Like this comment
Posted by Rogue Trader
a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 1, 2016 at 12:31 pm

I gave a brief summary of the importance of high pressure ridges/systems for California weather in the 7th post on this thread.

The drought was characterized by a "ridiculously resilient ridge" that blocked jet stream rain from reaching California for most of the winter the last few years. It is thought to be caused by the North Pacific Mode, and it thankfully broke up last summer.

This Feb 2016 is the more common and ubiquitous high pressure ridge that lasts a few weeks. The high pressure over CA has diverted all the February rain north to Washington and Canada, where they are getting drenching rains. El Nino rain has not disappeared, it was just blocked from California in Feb.

Luckily, the high pressure system is about to break up within a few days. Look to rains returning by this weekend.


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