Eleven years ago, when Daniel Swain was in high school in Northern California, he launched a blog called the California Weather Blog (aka Weather West). He used it to explore and document his interest and research into our state’s weather and climate.
“I’m not sure if anybody read it at that time,” he said. “It took off when I was a graduate student at Stanford in the midst of the drought that developed in California. As it evolved and I became involved in researching the causes and character of that drought, the blog became a forum for people who were interested in the drought and affected by it.”
Swain, a tall and thoughtful young man with a judicious way of speaking, is perhaps too modest about the success of his blog. Weather West now has well over half a million visitors a month, and thousands of comments on his every post — an unheard-of achievement for a science blog.
“Sometimes I will run into people on the street who don’t recognize my face, but know my blog,” he said. “I have a lot of followers at the ski resorts and in the mountains, and it’s made me realize that there are a lot of different communities in the state that are intimately connected to weather and very attuned to variations in our climate. I think there was a bit of a vacuum, which is fascinating because, if you think about it, California is neither a small nor a boring place when it comes to climate.”
Swain has become probably even better-known in the scientific world than he has on the Internet for his memorable name for the ridge of atmospheric high pressure that formed off the coast of the Pacific Northwest during the scorching drought of the past five years. This ridge of high pressure — like an invisible boulder in the jet stream — persistently bumped storms from the Gulf of Alaska eastward and northward, off course and away from California in the years 2011-2015. Swain called it the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge.
For Swain personally it was an eye-opener. He thinks that California’s climate is changing much faster than most people realize, despite the ending of the drought, with consequences we are only beginning to grasp.
“One thing that is kind of amazing to me as a relatively young person is that the climate in California is significantly different now from when I was born,” he said. Swain, now at UCLA, pointed to recent research that found that although the average amount of snow and rain that falls in the state hasn’t changed enormously in recent years, the amount of snow stored in the Sierra Nevada during the drought was massively reduced by the drought, and in future droughts will be reduced even more, by 60-85 per cent.
“If you zoom in on the models and take into account the highly varying topography and the diminishing snow cover, you find that the Sierra Nevadas are actually going to warm much more than we [scientists] thought this century,” he said. “Temperatures could rise as much as 10 degrees at some locations in the mountains.”
The March study, by Neil Berg and Alex Hall at UCLA, warns that droughts could all but eliminate the snowpack in the mountains on which California depends for water storage. The authors conclude, “Going forward, it is likely to become more difficult to store and manage municipal, agricultural and ecological water needs within a warmer climate, especially during periods of extreme drought.”
This could challenge the State Water Project, which depends on the slow melting of the Sierra snowpack to keep farmers in water through the long summers. Swain thinks that people are begining to understand the need to adapt to climate change, but he still thinks that even scientists have been slow to recognize how quickly the state is moving toward a polarization of the climate.
“It really is the extremes that matter now in California,” he said. “We already have seen patterns of extreme wetness and extreme dryness in recent years despite the fact we haven’t seen a significant change in the long-term annual mean [for rain and snow]. I argue that when it comes to precipitation in California, it’s not that the average doesn’t matter, it’s that the extremes matter much more.”
Swain will speak on how climate change is disrupting California’s climate on Saturday, May 20, 3-5 p.m., at Krotona Hall, on 2 Krotona St. in Ojai. This is accessible off Hwy 33: Take Hermosa Road into the Krotona Institute. $5 donation requested, students free. For more information call the Krotona Institute at 646-1139.