Friday, November 21, 2008


This week the weather in Santa Cruz has been too beautiful. Sunny and 85 degrees – unusually warm for our Coastal community. Forget the valleys; thanks to the offshore winds, it has been warmer here along the Coast. Visitors have swarmed to the beaches and everyone is turned out in shorts and tank tops to enjoy the balmy weather. So what's so wrong with this idyllic picture? It's mid November!

I grew up in Northern California. While it's not unheard of for us to have soft, warm days in November, we're talking 70 degrees warm, maybe even 75, followed by chilly nights and mornings. And this would be unusual as more typically the storms are rolling in at this time of year, at least that was true when I was a kid.

As a child I listened to my grandparents from Cleveland talk about winters in Pasadena. My grandfather was an estate manager for a very wealthy family who summered in Ohio and wintered in Pasadena. My grandfather sent home postcards from Pasadena to my father, postcards featuring beautiful groves of oranges and gorgeous winter scenery in sunny California, adorned with Poinsettias, a symbol of near-tropical California holidays. In fact, the Poinsettias were grown at the Paul Ecke ranch in Encinitas, south of Los Angeles and shipped all over the country. Gorgeous tropical flowers arriving in the frozen Midwest December made California even more exotic. Oh, and then there were the gift trays of dried fruits with celluloid picks to lift each piece from the basket. And boxes of dates from the desert. California was a veritable Eden.

In the 1920s my father and grandmother took the train across the country during the winter to visit my grandfather and revel in the crystalline clear days where Mount Baldy looked like a short walk away from the streets of Pasadena. My father said that Pasadena in those days was paradise.

It was a common perception at the time that it rarely rained and that California winters were in the 70s and 80s. While this was almost true in Southern California, it was true enough for winter-weary folks living in East Cleveland. After all, 65 degrees in February is very balmy if you're dealing with –10 degrees and Lake effect snow.

Sadly, in the last twenty years, the weather has changed dramatically. Rains rarely come to Southern California now, and when they do, they arrive as torrential downpours causing flooding and massive erosion. The Santa Ana winds still blast the Los Angeles basin in the autumn, with hot, dry, desert air under pressure that roars down canyons and triggers huge firestorms exacerbated by the drought. The pines are now riddled with boring beetles a side effect of the dry weather, making them weak and vulnerable. Fueled by fire igniting the equally dry chaparral, they explode like Roman candles.

And what about Northern California? It's warmer here too and the rains come later and end much earlier. Late November or early December isn't unusual for the first real rain and some years it's over as early as March. We have far less fog as well. Heavy and moisture-laden, it nurtured the redwoods through the long dry summer months. Now we have warm and fairly fogless summers. In June this year over 2000 fires burned after a dry lightning storm ignited our forests and meadows from far Northern through most of Central California. Since 1999 the average number of acres burned in California annually has been over 7,000,000! Some years more than 9,000,000 acres have burned.

I want to bask in the summery weather, to celebrate the sweet heat of the late Indian Summer, but I can't fully enjoy it as it makes me so deeply uneasy. No snow falling in the Sierra, our reservoirs running low. The trees are now stressed here in the northern part of the state, just as they have been for the last fifteen years throughout the entire Southwest. When commenting about the weather to friends, their responses are much like mine. Sure it's beautiful, but how can we fully enjoy it as old daily heat records are broken constantly, not just in November but in nearly every month? Whether manmade or natural, the weather is changing alarmingly fast.

Sunny California. When I was a child people in the Midwest were envious, assuming that Northern California was as warm and inviting all winter as the more famous Southern clime. Now they rarely comment about our sunny winters. Instead, it's about our fires and how could we live in a state that burns from June to December. A sad commentary for our once golden state.

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