El Nino is coming (this time for sure. we think). Three Dot Lounge for July 26, 2015

El Nino is coming (this time for sure. we think)

If you follow my twitter feed, you may have noticed I’ve been sharing a lot more links and content about El Nino, that blog of warm water that forms every few years out in the Pacific. Last year we thought an El Nino event was forming but it ended up fizzling out. This year…

This year it’s back , it’s strong, and it may well end up historically strong I’ve noticed a change in the tone of discussion among the experts and meterologists in the last week or so from curiousity and enthusiasm for the event to, well, nervousness. This thing is moving off the charts, pretty literally.

Why the nervousness? Because historically California and the west occasionally gets massive rain events that seem triggered by exceptionally strong El Ninos, and there’s some worry we may be headed in that direction.

Thinking “great! that’ll solve the drought!” are you? Well, maybe not. If the rains come in warm and don’t build the snowpack, they’ll help drough relief a lot less than you might think, and if we get some early winter storms and then the warm storms move in, the pack may melt quickly, and then…

Well, Scientific American has a fascinating and scary article looking at the 1861 event. Take a look and consider what might happen if similar rain levels hit today. By the way, historically these events happen every 100-200 years, so like major earthquakes, we’re “due”.

The El Nino is impacting the west coast in major ways. There have been historically good but unusual whale watching along the California coast this year because the warm water has moved the food sources further north and closer to shore. On the flip side, though, this has caused major losses among the elephant seal and sea lion populations as pups are abandoned in large numbers by mothers due to lack of food.

We’ve also found out that a number of the bird nesting colonies in Mexico have failed for the second straight year, including Brown Pelicans and Heerman’s Gulls. There are effectively no juvenile Heerman’s Gulls along the coast for the second year running. We’ve also seen tern colonies strongly impacted and some colonies are moving north and nesting near San Diego instead of their traditional grounds in Mexico. Closer to home, the drought is ravaging the pacific flyway and refuges and it looks like this winter will be brutal unless something changes drastically. In the San Francisco Bay delta, the surveys of the massively endangered delta smelt found three fish. Three. Since this is a species that has to spawn annually, the scientists are declaring them effectively extinct (and in response, some farmers made a call that this should allow them to pump more water since it’s a lost cause, ignoring that this would further devastate the delta and other species including striped bass).

Oh, yeah. And the wildfires. We’re running at about 2X the normal number of fires this year. One even came back from the dead As I write this, Glacier National Park seems to be having the kind of wildfire we saw in Yellowstone in 1988. Here in California we haven’t yet had that massive fire like we’re seeing in Glacier or british columbia, but we’ve had a lot of small to medium ones.. But the fire season is just hitting it’s prime months. I’m really worried here.

Even if we get strong rains this year, the problems aren’t solved and we have multiple years of deficits in the water supply to deal with.That’s not even dealing with what is likely an even bigger but less understood problem: over-pumping of acquifers and possible collapse and loss of those acquifers. We as a state are using much more water than our environment can replace, and we’re woefully unprepared to deal with the problem both politically and attitudinally.

Many people are working on the problems and some interesting techniques and solutions are being found. A new one that looks interesting is Solar Desalination which is going to be tried in the central valley to clean and recycle for use agricultural waste water. The big problems with desalination today is the cost to implement and the massive energy use — taking advantage of solar may be a way to mitigate both of those in some situations. And after criticism was brought of Apple’s plan to build a massive solar farm to power it’s operations here in California they worked with Audubon to mitigate those problems — solar doesn’t have to be destructive to the environment when done with care, and Apple showed again it cares.

The bottom line for all of this, if you ask me, is that it’s going to be a rough winter, and we can’t get into the mindset that even if the rains come, our problems are solved. Some of them will live on beyond the winter rains, especially if the politicians declare victory and move on.

No wonder the experts are nervous. And so am I.


About Three Dot Lounge

Three Dot Lounge is an email newsletter that collects interesting things that catch my attention and the opinions they generate. Current interests include high tech, living in Silicon Valley and California, the challenges of protecting our wild areas and the impact of the drought on those areas, but content in this newsletter will vary wildly.

Three Dot Lounge is written and produced by Chuq Von Rospach. Chuq is a long-time high tech and internet citizen who’s places of employment include Sun, Palm Computing, HP, Cisco, National Semiconductor and a 17 year tenure at Apple. You can follow Chuq on twitter at @chuq or on Google+ or Facebook.

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