Hawks Dancing and Other Signs of Spring

I had a brain fog that needed to be cleared, so I glanced at some e-mails, then took a walk. A thick, medium overcast meant that I didn’t need more than the usual hat and long sleeves. As I started off down the block, I heard a loud but unusual bird call, and a dove flew down from the neighbor’s tree. Except doves don’t glide, then soar up like that. And they are not large and brown. And doves most certainly do not go “ka ka ka ka” when they call.

Sharp-shinned hawk. Probably female, based on the size of what crossed the road and settled with graceful ease onto a branch of the neighbor’s tree across the road. When I glanced back to look at it, it took to the air once more and joined a second hawk circling and turning against the grey overcast. I suspect we will have a little hawk soon, and fewer song birds and grackles. (Indeed, the next day a hawk was perched on the bird bath chanting, “here, dovie, dovie, dovie.”)

Some flowers have begun to bloom. Cool-season grasses are going strong, and brown lawns have turned more-or-less green. The roses are starting to put out new leaves, aside from the two that are deader than door-nails. Tulip buds are beginning to swell, and the daffodils and hyacinths are showing forth in purple and white. The wisterias, forsythias, and redbuds are still sleeping. They’ve been burned in the past. Do you move the leaves and other mulch so that the shoots can get sun and air, and to tidy up the place? or do you leave them for insulation, because the last freeze isn’t for three weeks?

Days grow longer. Two minutes per day, the sunrise eases back on the clock. Sunset delays more and more, encouraging after-supper strolls and park activities. The sunny patch in south-facing rooms grows smaller and smaller, to the frustration of Athena T. Cat, who wants her heater back right now. The sun in the morning makes driving due east a hazard, and indeed, we’ve had our annual “pedestrian in the morning dark” accident. Puffy white clouds and spring showers visit, replacing the high, milky skies of winter. It can still freeze, or snow, but the odds grow less and less. Orion has passed the zenith of the sky and has begun to stagger, driven into the western sea by the Scorpion.

I have mixed feelings. I don’t care for spring and summer as much as I do fall and winter. Yet this year, people seem more eager for spring than they were in the past. Is it the odd weather of winter that’s pushing them? It it the growing hope that perhaps we might ease out of the drought and this year will be better? The signs seem to indicate that La Niña is fading and a neutral to damp season might be in the offing. Is it a longing for new life and the promise of a better year? Or just the desire for something that’s different from the cold brown-ness that is winter on the High Plains?

All I do know is that it is spring, and the cat is shedding like a maniac. As usual. Both coats. All over me.



Seasonal Confusion, or The Other March Madness™

The poor plants. Some are blooming, some are thinking about opening their leaves, and a few are hunkered down swearing that they won’t get caught this year. Humans are trying to decide how many layers of what we need to wear. And then there’s the [unkind words here] time change last weekend. Blargh.

Daffodils began blooming three weeks ago, despite MomRed ordering them to go back to sleep. The first shoots appeared in January, eliciting groans. Everyone has been expecting the worst. It’s not Easter until the daffodils get flattened by snow. Granted, we need the snow, so that wouldn’t be the problem.

The pears started budding out two weeks ago. They are peaking right now, which isn’t great news, since it’s supposed to get into the low 20s later this week. If we get moisture, and if there’s not much wind, and if the highs are warm enough, it might not do too much damage. Maybe. The hawthorn remains un-budded and dormant. It won’t get fooled again. The April that turned most of the garden into plant-jerky almost did in that tree, and since then, it blooms later than average. The plum trees are budding right now, as well. Wisteria remains dormant and I didn’t even see buds on the two I pass on my walks. They must have talked to the hawthorn.

The roses . . . Are starting to put out shoots, those that survived. At least two are dead, mort, defunct. One of those was new, and had been doing OK until it got into the 60s back in January, then dropped to the single digits. That seems to have killed it. Most of the new leaves are on the roots, which is OK for the roses at RedQuarters. All are own-root. We gave up on grafts a decade ago. However, I suspect a lot of places will lose grafted roses. I’m torn between uncovering the new growth so it gets sun, or burying it in mulch to shield it from the forecast for the latter half of this week.

And then there’s the people. With days starting in the upper 20s and then peaking in the 60s, layers are necessary. Which jacket? Big coat and then lug it around later? Will this shirt be too warm or is the wind high enough that I need something else? Should I start digging out lighter-weight pants or wait?

Spring is SO confusing around here. But we are getting moisture. RedQuarters had .10″ on Tuesday morning. It looks as if, perhaps, the La Niña pattern is shifting to neutral or even an El Niño. Either one will bring more chances for water, which this part of the country needs.

High Pressure Low Pressure

A repost from 2021. I’ve been taking a class on “how to stop humans from leaking until the professionals arrive” and didn’t write new content. The wind howled on Tuesday and Wednesday – visibility in town was 1/2 mile in dirt. Blargh.

You’ve been researching an area’s weather and climate too long . . . when you can reconstruct the weather systems (highs, lows, frontal passage) by reading the complaints about wind and lack there of in ranch records from the late 1800s early 1900s.

High pressure, low presure, or fixin' to blow up a storm. Photo by Michael Lapoint.

High pressure, low pressure, or fixin’ to blow up a storm. Photo by Michael Lapoint.

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An Early Chinook: When the Snow Eater Comes

The wind came in around midnight, warm and dry. I heard it, sort of dimly noted that the heater had not run for a while, and went back to sleep. Indeed, come dawn, the last of the snow had completely disappeared from yards, including the remains of snowmen. Now abandoned, damp, knit hats and scarves lay on the lawn, empty of their former contents. The chinook wind had arrived.

Chinook wind takes the name from the Chinook people of the Pacific coast. The usage inside the Rocky Mountains is taken from a different Blackfeet word meaning “snow eater.” One the coast, the wind [chin-ook] blows in from over the Pacific and brings warmer air and lots of moisture. The chinook wind of the inland plains [shin-ook] devours moisture as it races down the slope of the eastern front of the mountains. The classic chinook is that of Montana and Alberta, as Ian Tyson so eloquently described in “Springtime.” Down in the High Plains, it tends to be more out of the southwest, but does the same thing as the wind blows downslope off the southern Rockies.

Downslope winds tend to be warm, and dry, no matter what you call them. Image from:https://earthweather.blogspot.com/2009/12/chinook-winds-snow-eater.html

We don’t get that many true chinook winds. In winter, our winds tend to be northwest (slightly mild to bitterly cold), due north (good Lord, that’s cold!”) northeast (“Not so bad, and the snow’s nice”) and south. (“Go back to sleep, plants, please go back to sleep!”)

This past one melted the snow in the night, leaving moist spots in the lawn and garden. The snow all sank in for once, and will help a lot with the prospects for a solid start to the winter wheat crop. There are hints that we might get more moisture this coming week. Or we will get howling winds and no moisture. It just depends on what happens when the forecast computers shake the Magic Eight Ball™, er, that is, run the next model.

All That Glitters

I wrote this during the Ice Storms of 2007. They coated chunks of the central US with ice for up to eight weeks. I’ve clipped some bits and details.

The weather warnings had started almost a week before the Big Glaze. As a result, I’d gotten several days worth of food that did not need to be heated, spare batteries and other things well in advance, partly as a way to ward off any bad storm. After all, if you have it at hand and in working order, you shouldn’t need to use it, right? Earlier, on Monday morning, I’d also turned the heat up in my apartment, thinking that the warmer it was before the lights went out, the longer it would take to drop to freezing inside. Two friends and I had planned to go get supper in a nearby small town but we opted to cancel until after Christmas Break. None of us wanted to be out on the roads in freezing rain. Once the rain started that night, I got even more concerned and filled a bunch of bottles, a cooler and the bathtub with water. Several towns in Oklahoma had lost power to their water pumps and required help from the National Guard’s big military generators and water trucks to keep people supplied with drinking water. I wanted to be able to drink and flush for a while, if things got that bad.

I went to bed to the sound of rain pattering on the windows and pouring out of the drain spout, and cars splashing and hissing over wet pavement. Around ten forty five two bright flashes of light and a sizzling “BLANG!” announced the explosion of an electrical transformer one block to the north, as an ice-laden limb fell on top of the metal can and shorted the circuit. Then twigs and branches began dropping from the tree outside my window. Soon a second flash – “Bang!” was followed quickly by a third, interrupting the rain’s steady patter as more transformers blew up and blacked out blocks of houses. Ten minutes before midnight, my power went out. I tossed and turned, praying for the rain to freeze in the clouds and turn into sleet and snow, praying for the rain to stop, praying that no one was getting hurt, and cringing at each crack, flash and siren.

Around one AM the power came back for 45 minutes before going out for good. The crack of breaking limbs had started making me very edgy, as ice-coated twigs and small branches broke off the trees next to my apartment, clattering against my windows as they fell. Sometime after the last power outage, a very large limb crashed down and slammed into my bedroom window, almost cracking the glass. I got up and drug my mattress off the box spring and across the room, away from the windows, in case more of the tree decided to try and come indoors to get out of the cold. Transformers continued to blow as strobeing red and blue lights just north of my apartment showed where the police had set up a roadblock for some reason. I must have drifted off to sleep at some point, because I woke up after the sky lightened, around eight AM on my watch.

Rain continued off and on all morning, adding to the ice coat bending pines and breaking cottonwood trees all over town. No one on my block had power, but we did have running water, for which I was very grateful. Urban areas are NOT the place to be when modern sanitation systems fail, and the fact that the commodes kept flushing was a very great comfort and (pardon the pun) relief. I had some cereal and milk, then opened the kitchen window and put the milk outside to keep cold. The phone still worked, so I checked in with family and fired up my laptop and phone modem to check weather. Icky, but the end seemed to be in sight.

I attempted to study by the light of a very muted sun, in the best-lit room in my half-basement apartment. I managed a couple of productive hours, but it was hard to concentrate with limbs still falling. In early afternoon another enormous “crack CLATTER tinkle rattle” came from the west side of the complex, unmuffled by the two shut doors between my “desk” and the back bedroom. I capped my pen, laid it carefully down beside my papers, stepped out of my “office,” then took a deep breath and opened the bedroom door. No new drafts chilled the room, so I very gingerly opened the blinds. Another huge limb, its twig-tips still vibrating from the impact, lay just outside the glass. Later inspection would reveal that the big end, about six inches around, had missed the telephone junction box by half an inch or so. I shut the blinds, shuddered, and went back to staring at pictures of trophic levels and descriptions of food chains.

Around noon the rain stopped and the clouds thinned. The wind remained calm, and the temperature rose to a little above freezing, helping to lighten the load on the stressed trees. Cars began passing back and forth, but slowly, and the main east-west road remained blockaded closed. I opted not to go out and investigate. Later that afternoon, a friend from a block or two north dropped in to compare notes. Her transformer had been the one “going up in a blaze of glory” at ten forty five the night before, and she’d been out that afternoon investigating. Apparently a power pole had collapsed and high-tension lines were snapping in the street, leading to the road bock. Limbs and trees had fallen all over the place, and only one small strip of shops had power, as did Wal-Mart. We compared radio notes, and agreed that we would be lucky if we got power back by the next afternoon. I ate canned chili (not bad, better when heated), emptied the freezer and fridge, and went to bed around seven. I’d not gotten much sleep the night before, and the cold was starting to wear me out. A grad student who still had power called to let me know, in case anyone on our emergency phone tree needed a place to stay. I thanked him and agreed to pass the word on if anyone checked in. Then I piled two fleeces and a heavy parka on top of my bedding, climbed in and slept for thirteen hours.

The next day I lugged my books to campus and joined the hordes of other students taking advantage of the light and heat to study, cram, moan and hang out. The powers that be had decided to reschedule those exams that would have been on Tuesday, but only those. Wednesday exams were still on. By comparing notes, the grad students in my department filled in our pictures of the storm. Three of us had power, and the rest were hunkered down, staying with friends or family that had electricity, or otherwise coping with the mess. We all looked a bit frazzled on the edges, but not as bad as some of the faculty. One professor had moved his wife and infant son into his office, and the three of them were living there until they could get power back at their house. The former Army Colonel-professor had come through more or less unscathed. As I’d figured, he had a wood stove, kerosene lamps, a gas-powered chainsaw, emergency supplies and was doing just fine.

Wednesday night was chillier, although the pile of bedding, fleeces and coats kept me very warm. That, and having half of my walls underground helped insulate the apartment to a certain extent, since the ground remained unfrozen six inches below the surface. However, the place was loosing heat. I opened all the taps, just in case. Fortunately, the temperature only dipped into the mid twenties that night, unlike the teens that had been forecast. I didn’t sleep as well, mostly because of an alarm clock’s ticking. I usually kept the clock in the kitchen, and had opted to bring it into the bedroom. Big mistake that I will NOT repeat any time soon, because the clock has a very loud tick for its small size.

Thursday morning dawned clear and cold. Ice crystals hanging in the still air gave the eastern sky a faint golden wash, and the sun shone down on a diamond-dripping world. I opened the blinds and leaned into the window well, giving thanks for the ice-eating sun. All of a sudden I understood why my distant ancestors in the British Isles had worshipped the sun and had made such an important event of the Winter Solstice. There was an almost atavistic relief in seeing the sun for the first time since Saturday. It was really there, and escape from the ice really would come. My walk to campus was stunningly beautiful, as the sunlight turned ice-covered trees into shimmering silver and light. Berry bushes hung low with crystallized red and navy fruit, surrounded by fiery-red leaves that glowed through the encasing ice. Photographers were out in droves, capturing the beauty amidst the misery.

And miserable it was, for many people. The university campus, hospital and business districts had electricity, but the residential areas would be slow going. The downed pole and line did get removed from the main drag, allowing it to reopen, but traffic remained awkward since the stoplights had no power. The police told everyone to treat the intersections as if they were four-way stops, and to only call officers if some one got hurt or the wreck blocked traffic.

My German table met as usual, and we spend most of the session comparing stories and grousing about the power company. Back in my hometown, the utility company is fairly aggressive about keeping YOUR trees away from THEIR power lines. That, obviously, was not the case in this part of Flat State and it contributed to many of the headaches, because of losing the transformers and primary lines as well as individual residential connections. At least 30% of the town still did not have power, and people were getting very annoyed. Part of the difficulty stemmed from the earlier storm in another state, which sucked in all the available linemen and crews from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri even before other people had gotten clobbered. I didn’t grouse too much, nor did I join one of the members when she fussed about why no one had come up with a way to keep transformers from blowing up when falling branches shorted them out. There didn’t seem to be a point, some how. And we were much better off than a lot of people.

Sunset that evening was even more stunning than the sunrise. High thin ice clouds had begun drifting in, and the evening light turned them into ribbons of gold and delicate pinks high above the horizon. A faint mist from the melting ice combined with the low sun to tint the landscape pink and white, blurring the edges of the hills and gilding the lingering ice on the grasslands. The sky slowly turned lavender, while a thin crescent moon hung just west of the zenith. At last the liquid gold sun spread and sank below the edge of the world, leaving pink and yellow light to fade into blue and black.

The ice is beautiful. It is a deadly beauty, and the aesthetics of sunlight through and on ice-coated bushes, trees and grass do not balance the misery of losing electricity in a modern city, or the sorrow of those whose houses were damaged or destroyed by falling trees. I’ve always preferred fall and winter to spring and summer, and I still do. But I also understand why the Anglo-Saxon poets feared winter, and why the Norse gods battled ice giants. Without heat and light, life gets very difficult in northern latitudes in winter, one week before the Solstice. Tomorrow the sun will shine, subliming away more of the ice. By early next week, it is supposed to be up into the low 40s, melting the rest. But a lot of people will be cold for quite a while. Without the proper equipment, resources and experience to cope with losing power for an extended period of time, we are in a world of hurt. Even if we are prepared, the experience is still not a lot of fun. The novelty of cold food by candlelight wears off quickly, and we are too accustomed to having hot water available at the turn of a tap. The scene in The Lion in Winter where King Henry breaks the ice off the top of the washbowl was normal for life in a medieval castle. Ice in the toilet tank in the twenty first century is a serious problem.

(C) 2007, 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Good Silence and Bad Silence

In the story I just released, the main character muses that he prefers sounds to absolute quiet. The absence of sound – silence – means danger of some kind. For the rest of us, silence is often welcome, at least briefly. But some people cannot tolerate the absence of aural stimulation, and must have a TV, radio, music, conversation, something. Note, I’m not talking about people with tinnitus who need sound to minimize the unending hum.

I alternated editing with shoveling earlier this week. Nothing absorbs sound like snow, and I was the only one out moving the fluffy white blanket off the pavement. No wind blew, and very few cars moved close enough to hear. I heard a faint murmur, perhaps, from the main road near RedQuarters, but none of the usual roars, grumbles, hums, or other sounds. Instead I heard silence, snow quiet, the absence of much sound. The shovel scraped on the pavement, very loud in the stillness. Small birds fluttered and called to each other in the back yard, muted by the white blanket. Two Vs of geese passed overhead, calling encouragement to themselves and the flew toward open water and bare grass somewhere south and west. Otherwise, only the shovel and my own steps disturbed the peace.

This was good silence. I relished it. Oh so faintly, the chimes from the War Memorial came over the distance, marking the hour. Then stillness returned. Snow quiet is calm, a soft hush.

I’ve heard bad silence. When everyone stops speaking and turns against you, eyes hard, casting you out of their company without a word. When what should be heard isn’t, the warning of someone or something else Out There, watching, waiting perhaps for you. When the wind tops, and the birds go quiet, and you turn to see a wall of dirt charging down from the north, or the green sky turns black and the next sounds are a roar like a train and the thudding of hail. The “it’s too quiet” moment before everything erupts into danger or chaos or tears. The silence of bad news that needs no words.

Driveway and sidewalk cleared, I felt good enough to shovel the neighbor lady’s walk as well. Amazing what a year of weight lifting and cardio do to make snow lighter. Every few minutes I stopped, listening to the hush. It’s been so long since I heard true quiet that I savored the moments, basking in the absence of noise.

Putting Water Back In the Ground

A lot of people depend on ground water, aquifers, for drinking and irrigation. Some aquifers recharge on their own, and do it pretty quickly, such as the Edwards Aquifer in central Texas, or the Sandhills portion of the Ogallala Aquifer. Others either recharge very, very slowly, or not at all. Those are the ones that tend to get lots and lots of attention, unless Central Texas is dry, and Austonio begins talking about sending a pipeline up to the Panhandle to tap the Ogallala.

A quick note to clarify here, before I go any farther. I’m talking about aquifers in sediment like sand and gravel, not groundwater in bedrock, as is found in New England, Canada, and a few other places. That is a different formation, with different flow patterns, and I know next to nothing about how those “work” other than general theory. If you are in New Hampshire and you have a well drilled into bedrock, please contact a local expert.

How do aquifers recharge? It depends on the material above and below the porous layer. That’s what most aquifers are – a layer of sand and gravel that at one time was exposed to rain and snow, or was a river bed (large swaths of the Ogallala and Equus Beds). Under that layer is a watertight layer, usually a shale or something. Over time, that sand and gravel got buried by other things and now lies below the land surface. A few, like the Edwards in central Texas, have access today through caves and sinkholes, where rain can fall right in, or have a very porous layer above that lets rain and snow melt trickle down pretty quickly. The Nebraska Sandhills are pure sand, and water that falls there soaks in, recharging the Ogallala below. Unless there is an extended drought, recharge is not as much of a concern (over-pumping that draws down the water too fast is a different matter.) Other aquifers, like those in Arizona, coastal Georgia, and most of the Ogallala, would take hundreds to thousands to regain their water, if they can at all. When the aquifer is buried hundreds of feet below the surface and topped with firmly-packed dirt, caliche, and so on, water has a harder time soaking in. These are “fossil” waters, and you just assume they won’t recharge without help. How to help without destroying the formation, is another problem.

First, there has to be water to go back in. Without that, it’s pretty moot. Also, the material in the aquifer layer has to still be loosely-packed enough to accept water. If you draw enough out, the layer compresses, and that’s that. No recharge ever, unless all the surface material erodes away and rain falls directly on the sand and gravel.

Ideas for recharging aquifers all involve “putting the water back in down there,” or at least, giving the water an assist. Drilling a well and pouring water back in . . . has a lot of technical difficulties, including the fear of contaminating the rest of the aquifer if some chemical or biological contaminant seeps in – think fecal coliform, or avian cholera, or . . . So the water would have to be filtered, and dust kept out, and the water released high enough that the layers between the end of the well and the aquifer would filter some of the stuff. Oh, and you have to hope that on the way down, the water won’t pick up salt, gypsum, or dig a hole that causes a sink hole.

Around here, attempts were made to deepen the natural rainwater lakes, punching through the clay layer at the bottom of the shallow depression to allow more water to seep in. It started well, but the clay swells, and sediment filled in the holes, closing them. Also the rate or recharge did not justify the cost of the work, which has to be maintained. And depends on moisture. In a year like 1940-41, when the area got 40″ of rain or more, no problem! In a decade like the 1950s, or 2010-2014? Rain? What rain?

Most aquifers were “laid down” when the local/regional climate was much wetter. The Ogallala was sediment dumped from the Rockies by huge, enormous, massive, gargantuan rivers that wandered back and forth over the region for millions of years. Then things changed. In the case of the Ogallala, the goal in 90% of the region is to balance draw-down over time, so that X% of the current depth will remain in Y years. Some places are changing types of crops, other areas revert to range land, and irrigation is much, much more efficient than it used to be. The down side to better irrigation is that less excess water seeps back in to return to the aquifer.

Eventually, a way might be found to return water to places like the Ogallala, Equus beds, coastal aquifer, and so on. If the stuff has not compacted, and if there is sufficient rain and snow to permit that. And if people are willing to spend the money and time needed to do it.

Atmospheric Rivers, the Pineapple Express, and a Large Wetland

California’s drought is, if not broken, seriously dented, especially for the upcoming summer. As of Tuesday the 17th, average depth of snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was one and two-thirds the thirty-year average and increasing. As usual, once the media could get in, and the storms proved to be numerous and productive (and photogenic. Large bounders on the highway are cool. So are floating cars if they are somewhere far away from you,) people began trying to blame someone for the “atmospheric river.” (Climate change! Global warming! Cars and trucks! Hollywood’s moral turpitude!*) Um, well, not really. This isn’t new, just mildly uncommon.

California and parts of the western coast of North America have a Mediterranian Climate. This means that summers are warm and dry, because the ocean currents tend to be cold, and discourage evaporation. Also, winds from inland bring warm, dry air down from the mountains and push out to sea, sending any storms away from the coast. This makes for predictable seasonal weather – you can plan a picnic for July 15 and be 99% sure it will be sunny and warm, even if you set the date in December of the previous year. Likewise, November through March tend to be moist and cooler, although how wet and how cool vary from year to year. A strong La Niña pattern will send the moisture well to the north, and Seattle will get lots of snow, as will British Columbia. Southern California will be dry, and soon start worrying about water limits and rationing and Mega Drought. An El Niño year means California wades, the northern Rockies are relatively dry, and Arizona has a ski season as well as flooding. Remember when the Colorado River almost ripped out Glen Canyon Dam in the early 1980s? El Niño years. We’ve been having a series of La Niñas.

The short-term pattern his shifted, thanks to a series of Pacific storms that formed well south of the usual track in the Gulf of Alaska. These are sometimes called “the Pineapple Express,” because a southern branch of the jet stream picks them up from as far as Hawaii, and slings them over the west coast. From there they might go straight east, or north, or more rarely a little south**. They dump rain and snow on the West Coast.

Since California lives and dries by the winter rainfall and snow pack, all this would be great if it were spread out between October 1 and March 1. However, it is all in December-January, and the overload has filled rivers, flood plains, reservoirs, overloaded snow-removal equipment, and generally made a mess of the place. This is also not new. If you build a lot of hard surfaces along a river, it will rise higher and faster than before, causing flooding. Land-slides are part of the process as well, which people have observed going back to the Spanish colonial period. That’s just what the geology does in that part of the world, especially when very wet.

We’re nowhere near the mess of 1861-62 yet. Back then the Central Valley was still a wetland for the most part, undrained and grass covered, with meandering streams and only one major outlet. So when lots and lots and lots of snow and rain fell, and fell, and fell between November and January, some of it very hard and all at once, the Central Valley went under water. Literally. Sacramento was navigable by boat. Arizona, Washington, Oregon, and New Mexico also had flooding, and the Texas Panhandle finally saw the terrible drought of the 1850s broken for a while. A drought had plagued the area in the 1850s, and the shift to a very strong El Niño broke the drought hard. Very hard. Now, since there were far fewer people to be afflicted, it was a pain but not the disaster it is today. Only a few thousand people died (!) The rest of the country was more worried about the Civil War (and in TX, about the Comanches raiding again). It wasn’t that flooding hadn’t happened before, but that the scale was so impressive. Thirty-feet deep floodwaters are uncommon, and memorable. The good news was, it refilled the aquifers. The bad news was, it wiped out the ranches in the Central Valley along with a lot of other property, and cost human lives, and made a mess of the place. Wired has a pretty good article, if you skim the climate-apocalypse bits. The cautions and observations about the long-term sequence of floods and modern consequences is food for thought – and disaster novels.

Today, parts of the Central Valley have sunk from ground-water pumping. California’s water storage and use policies are . . . I will be charitable. Convoluted, awkward, complex, and perhaps slightly off in their use priorities. The current series of storms will be good in the medium-run, especially this spring and summer as the snow-pack melts and provides summer in-stream flow. Right now, it’s rough on people, livestock, and wildlife. It will also be a major concern for produce growers and other things, since so many fields are under water – literally – and will be water logged for a while. What the state of the soil will be after the water drains is to be seen. We may lose some to sand and other sediment deposits.

What we’re seeing isn’t new, just news. It’s not caused by people but by atmospheric pressure and temperature systems. Rain happens, and sometimes a lot of rain happens all at once.

*The Book of Genesis says no more global floods. There’s nothing about a localized scouring not being an option.

**The southern track is more common with El Niño patterns, and that’s where southern NM, TX, and northern Mexico get winter precipitation. Or we get it from the Gulf of Mexico, but that’s rare this time of year.

Dust Storm or Just Blowing Dirt?

If you are not from the area, it might seem like a difference without a distinction. If you happen to live in a place where, as long as we have written and geologic records, the soil has traveled downwind, it’s an important difference.

Note the make of the cars. Welcome to the Filthy Fifties, which were drier than the 1930s around here. Image source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2019/04/07/dust-storms-just-part-life-west-texas/3378177002/

The above is a dust storm. They happen when the wind picks up so much dust that it starts attracting more, and you get black (or deep red) skies and lots and lots of static. In my part of the world, they often came from the north, part of a screaming cold front, but not always. In the 1950s people could identify the looming wind shift based on the color of dirt. Some cars would be shorted out by the static in the air, and woe betide you if you touched a barbed-wire fence. They became electrified. A dust storm is a haboob, “black roller” that tosses dirt and sand well into the sky. If you can see over it from the ground, it’s not a dust storm (by local standards). Back in the day, some were so bad south of the Panhandle that the blowing sand would strip the paint off of cars. I’ve not heard of that in a very, very long time.

I’ve been inside a dust storm once. The sky turned dark red, the wind howled, I could see two blocks in town, and the power went out for four hours. There wasn’t much to do besides read on my Kindle, then sit and listen to the wind and wait for the power to come back.

Blowing dust is just that. In local areas you will have poor visibility, such as downwind of a construction site or bare field (depending on soil moisture and wind direction). The top soil departs and gets into the air, but you can see blue-ish sky over the layer of dirt. Straight up might be blue, or somewhat brassy (as I type this, it is brassy in town, so it is probably icky brown in more open areas.) Visibility can drop locally, but you don’t have huge swaths of the area shut down because of no visibility at all. As I type, the wind is 270 at 41 MPH gusting to 67 MPH. Which explains why, as I drove back from Day Job, I saw exactly one semi on the interstate, and he was east bound. Everyone else is staying parked until this weakens, lest they end up on their sides, or needing to refuel every ten miles. We’re supposed to get a hard wind shift around 2000, 50 MPH from the north, then tapering off quickly.

If you go back to the earliest written accounts of the region, and from areas to the east, you find that the dirt blew long before humans farmed out here. The bunch-grasses had gaps between clumps when it got a little dry. Bare soil + steady dry winds = traveling topsoil. The dust storms are less common, but still happen.

Book Review: The Vortex

Carney, Scott and Jason Miklian. The Vortex: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation. (New York: Ecco Books, 2022) Kindle edition.

The short version – this account of the 1970 Bay of Bengal cyclone and the war between East and West Pakistan is well written, makes good use of sources, and is painful to read because of the topic.

Scott Carney and Jason Miklian tell the story of a natural disaster that became the catalyst for war, including attempted genocide (their term). Hurricane forecasting was just starting to move into the realm of science, and in 1970, different countries used different ways to predict storms and warn of their intensity. Sattelite imagery too lagged behind time of need, and the National Hurricane Center in the US didn’t get images quickly. When trying to warn people on the other side of the globe, that lag became lethal, as did the confusion in intensity scales. A US Category 4 sounded mild on the older 1-10 scale. It wasn’t.

The book follows five people – two young men from East Pakistan, an American woman and her husband who work in Dakka, East Pakistan, President Yahya Khan of Pakistan, and a Pakistani officer. President Richard Nixon and a few others appear at times. The way the authors use those characters can make the story a little confusing, because each chapter focuses on one person in turn. I found the American woman and the young man on the island to be the most intriguing. They tried to stay outside of politics, and for various reasons got pulled in: she organized international aid and distribution, and he became a guerilla fighter.

The story quickly turns ugly. The cyclone, which caused an estimated 250,000 deaths (possibly as many as 500,000) led to unrest in East Pakistan. This caused the government of West Pakistan to act against those who had been calling for more political rights for the flat, ethnically Bengali half of the country. The solution was to eliminate anyone in leadership and anyone who did not speak the languages of western Pakistan. The resulting “Operation Searchlight” led to the deaths of millions, either through execution through or disease and hunger as refugees fled to India, or tried to. That in turn galvanized East Pakistani units in the larger army to mutiny, and individuals in East Pakistan to turn to irregular warfare.

There are clear villains in the story as told. Yaha Khan, the president of the country, Richard Nixon (who gave Khan a blank check and arms in exchange for helping facilitate the opening up of China), the West Pakistani military commanders who encouraged murder, rapine, torture, and other things. Heroes include those who tried to help, and those who fought for the freedom of what became Bangladesh. Missing is India, for the most part.

The book is well written but painful to read. Genocide is not pleasant. I’d read about Operation Searchlight in general, but not the horrible details and how it was organized and carried out. The results of the 1970 cyclone – bodies, death, emotional pain, starvation – are also hard to read, although perhaps more familiar. I got tired of the Anthropogenic Climate Change drum being beaten, especially in the final chapter. The disjointed nature of the story, hopping from person to person, could also get confusing. Having a map in hand helps.

I’d recommend the book for those interested in the history of South Asia in general and Bangladesh in particular and those looking at the interplay of natural disasters and politics. I’m not comfortable with the amount of blame the US gets in the book for Operation Searchlight, but I’m not a diplomatic historian and don’t have enough background to be able to tell if the authors overplay the importance of the US’s reaction or lack there of to the West Pakistani actions.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the authors or publisher for this review.