Science

Monday, April 25, 2022

On This Day: 30th Anniversary of the Cape Mendocino Earthquake

Posted By on Mon, Apr 25, 2022 at 12:21 PM

Editor's note: Thirty years ago today, a magnitude-7.2 earthquake struck near the coast of Petrolia, shaking the ground with the strongest accelerations ever before measured in California, the first of three strong temblors that would rock the region over 24-hours.

To mark the date, the Redwood Coast Tsunami Work Group today announced a new web page to remember the event, which includes a video, "
A virtual tour of the Mendocino triple junction.”

Meanwhile, here's a look back at a 2017 Journal piece from the quake's silver anniversay along with the stories readers shared about their memories of those days back in 1992.

Two Days that Shook Humboldt

Twenty-five years have passed since that warm spring morning on April 25, 1992, when the Cascadia subduction zone delivered a far-reaching message — a magnitude-7.2 earthquake that shook the ground with a force never before recorded in California.

At 11:06 a.m. the streets appeared to pitch and roll as windows shattered, houses were knocked off foundations and a 15-mile-long section of coastline near Petrolia was thrust several feet in the air, leaving tidepool creatures trapped above the ocean's reach.

The same movement caused a corresponding drop in the Eel River Valley floor.

But Mother Nature was not done yet. The next morning came with two powerful aftershocks — a 6.5 and 6.6 — amid a series of smaller ones. Those who experienced it say it almost seemed like the earth would never stop shaking.

Although the quakes left rattled nerves, more than $60 million in damage and nearly 100 injuries, only a small corner of the Cascadia subduction zone broke loose that day.

Had the rupture continued farther along the 600-mile mega thrust fault that runs from Cape Mendocino to Vancouver Island, the result could have been a magnitude-8 or even a magnitude-9, according to Humboldt State University geology professor Lori Dengler, who was in her McKinleyville home when the first quake struck.

"It was certainly more than a wake-up call ... but no matter how you look at that, we were incredibly lucky," she says. "I think it's our duty to put the good graces of Mother Nature to work and to be prepared when the bigger one comes."

While the potential of the Cascadia subduction zone was only known to a small group of geologists and seismologists before 1992, dire warnings about the fault's capabilities have since garnered coverage in major publications, including the New York Times and The Atlantic.

One of the main changes that came about after the Cape Mendocino quake was a general awakening to the near-shore tsunami danger lurking off the West Coast. A small one hit soon after the shaking stopped in 1992, washing away the established belief that the threat would come from far away with hours of warning time.

That realization laid the groundwork for the creation of the National Tsunami Mitigation Hazard Program and the modern mapping, hazard modeling, warning and education systems now in place.

"Mother Nature was actually being very kind to us," Dengler says. "We got an earthquake that did some damage but didn't kill anybody. It raised awareness and we are so much better prepared now than in '92."

The powerful temblors not only transformed the world's understanding of what the clash of tectonic plates off our coast is capable of unleashing but also left an indelible mark on our landscape and those who rode out the seismic waves.

Here are some of their stories.

Wedding Day Jitters

I was standing outside waiting for the bride and groom to arrive for their beautiful outdoor wedding ceremony, when the Earth began to shake. With no doorway or table to hide under, I stood there trying to keep my balance. As I looked up, the bride came running and screaming out of the old Victorian house she was getting ready in — in her bra and petticoat! Not a memory I will ever forget, even though I was only 10 at the time.

— Sarah Weltsch

Change of Plans

The 1989 Loma Prieta quake still fresh in our minds, I still lived in Martinez (Contra Costa County), while my daughter was then a student at HSU, living off-campus in a second story apartment on Erie Street in Eureka. I had driven up on Friday for what was supposed to be a fun women's weekend of R&R. We were just getting ready to go out the door for the day when the first (7.2) quake hit. Being third and fourth generation California natives, it took us only a Nano-second to figure out what was happening. And we did exactly what you are not supposed to do: flew outside and down the stairs, and I mean flew — neither of us even remember doing it. We'd been speaking face-to-face/eye-to-eye when it hit, and the next thing we knew we were in the parking lot.

I remember being confused by what seemed to be the surprisingly long time it took for any information to come over the radio, as this was obviously not just another average run-of-the-mill California temblor to which we're all accustomed.

But here was our takeaway: Not only did that weekend's experience cure both of us of ever again sleeping naked, but we both also slept in our eyeglasses for about two years!

— Catherine Barnes

'I Could See the Ground Rolling'

Eleven a.m. on Saturday, April 25, I was alone and driving to Eureka. Just before the Slough Bridge it felt like I was getting a flat tire. I pulled to the right and soon learned my tires were fine, it was the ground that had a problem. My little Honda Accord hatchback started to violently rock back and forth so badly that I seriously thought it was going to tip over. I could see the ground rolling like the ocean waves, a truly surreal phenomenon, and it felt like it would never stop! Eventually, the shaking calmed a bit, so I quickly, but cautiously, drove over the bridge. It was so bad that I fully expected it all (the bridge, my car, me) to crash into the water. I pulled into the Montgomery Ward's parking lot where others had also stopped and gotten out of their cars. I looked over at an older woman and said, "That was a big one, wasn't it!?!" She laughed and said, "Yeah, honey, I'd say it was!"

At this point, the light poles were still swaying back and forth. The windows were rattling so hard that I could see the glass moving in waves and feared they'd all snap and shatter (they didn't). I had no way of contacting anyone, cell phones existed only in the movies and were a couple of decades away from becoming the norm, so I had to drive back to McKinleyville with no idea of how much danger I might be in. There was no way to know how big the quake was, no way to talk to friends or family, and no way to know how the buildings and people in my life fared through what I knew was the worst earthquake in my lifetime. As I drove, I kept looking for any sign of a tsunami on the bay and, at each building I passed, checking for rubble. It was probably the most scared I've ever been in my life. I didn't like earthquakes before but this (and the two that followed later that night) gave me a very (un)healthy phobia that I have to this day. Ugh! It was five weeks before my wedding and I remember being hypervigilant as I kneeled at the altar in St. Bernard's, looking at the walls and ceiling, absolutely terrified that we'd have another one, and praying to God we wouldn't.

— Cathy Tobin

‘Like Elephants Dancing on the Roof’

I was 8 years old, in the big tan Presbyterian Church on 11th in Arcata, mom was at a Scottish dance group that practiced in the main room there. I remember hearing rumbling and creaking — like elephants dancing around on the roof when the earthquake started. My brother and I had been playing in the Sunday school room and we ducked under the table there, until mom called us out. We ran out and noticed the big chandeliers swaying overhead, and then went outside to join all of the Scottish dancers in the parking lot behind the church. There we experienced some strong aftershocks that were really disorienting. Really memorable quake!

— Allison Curtis

'I'll Never Forget It'

I was riding my bike home from Marshall Elementary and car alarms started going off and it felt like I was riding on waves. I fell off my bike and flagged a stranger to drive me home because I was too scared to ride my bike home. Those were the good 'ole days when you could get in a stranger's car. I was only 10 then, too! I'll never forget it.

— Nick Jones

'I Have Always Been so Grateful'

On the evening of Friday, April 24, 1992, I had just given birth to my beautiful baby girl. My second child in less than a year.

On Saturday the 25th, I was on the operating table at General Hospital preparing to have a pregnancy-related procedure. When the quake struck, the anesthesia was just starting to take effect, but I remember seeing the big overhead light swing back and forth. The anesthesiologist flung himself over me to block any possible falling debris (I don't remember any falling) and the doctor was in the doorway, holding on tight. Needless to say my procedure was postponed.

Meanwhile, my almost 16-hour-old newborn was at the nurses' station. She had been in my room before I went into surgery and hadn't made it back to the nursery yet. The nurse working next to my baby picked her up out of the bassinet and put her under the nurses' counter with her. They were both fine. I have always been so grateful to that nurse.

We (my daughter and I) were still in the hospital when the aftershocks came. We were fine. But I would find out later that my 10 ½-month-old son was at home with his dad and traumatized. His dad had panicked, picked him up out of his crib and hunkered down under the kitchen table with him. Through the kitchen window my son watched a transformer from the nearby power pole explode. Needless to say, he was terrified.

It took a long time for my son to be able to sleep through the night again and to be away from me for any length of time. We are all fine now. And I want to, belatedly, thank the wonderful nurses and staff at General Hospital for taking such good care of me and my baby girl that weekend in 1992.

— Heidi Erickson

Hitting the Wall

I remember jumping out of my bed and running for the door but hitting the wall because the door moved (LOL).

— Nikki Mahouski

Giving the Table a Turn

I was six years old. I remember when the first one struck I ran to the doorway, like most of my family, because it's what the earthquake drills taught us. My mom had a collection of different colored antique bottles on the window sills in the living room and I remember seeing them topple off. I remember in a successive one that I decided to duck under the kitchen table instead because the drills were like "in a doorway or under a table!" (Back then at least) and I felt like I should give the table a turn since I'd already used the doorway. That's how my 6-year-old self handled it; I don't think I was terribly concerned.

— Mariah Bowline

'We Could Not Believe the Damage'

On the morning of April 25, 1992, I drove from Fortuna to Ferndale to visit my friend Jerry Lesandro, who was the curator of the Ferndale Museum at that time. I was surprised to see so many people in town as I did not realize there was a parade that day. I went into the museum and sat down to talk to Jerry while he was getting ready for a most likely busy day. I remember two women volunteers standing near him as we talked. Just after 11 a.m. Jerry and I looked at each other and smiled saying, "Oh, I feel a little tremor."

Just then the building started shaking like crazy. I stood up and made my way to the doorway to hold on. I could not believe how difficult it was to walk. Jerry and the two women fell down as tiles and light fixtures fell from the ceiling. I thought to myself, "This is it!" The sound of falling items and of the building creaking was so loud! It seemed like it was never going to stop. After the shaking came to a halt, Jerry rounded everyone together and asked us all to leave. He locked the museum up and we ran outside. I was shocked to see a house off of its foundation across the street. I followed Jerry as we ran through Main Street. It was chaos.

I saw my friend Kathy holding her head as blood ran down her face. She was unfortunately in front of a store window when it broke and fell on her. I remember seeing Stan Dixon doing his best to calm everyone down and asking home owners if they had any damage. I went with Jerry to his and Larry Martin's Victorian home on Berding Street to assess any damage. When Jerry opened the door he started cussing a blue streak. The hall was littered with broken antique items, pictures were tilting nearly off the walls and furniture had been knocked over. A heavy dresser upstairs had traveled across the room and had then tipped over.

I helped Jerry straighten up a few items and then decided to head home to check on my house, my cat and on my parents. Traffic was slow and bumper to bumper. I pulled over at Tom and Maura Eastman's home, a cute red Mansard near Ferndale High School. It had fallen straight down about 3 to 5 feet off of its foundation. It was so weird to see the front steps leading to an area above the door! Maura was out front so I asked if she was OK. She cried and I hugged her. She was lucky to not have been injured.

I left and remember being on the bridge at Fernbridge having to stop due to a backup of vehicles. I felt an aftershock and heard a young man yelling from his truck for traffic to speed up so that he could get off the bridge. I had to admit, that was a scary place to be at that time. My parents were fine and their home had no damage. I drove to my rental and was surprised to see that not much had fallen.

Late in the afternoon, my partner Chris had come home from work and we decided to go to Ferndale to see if we could help Jerry and Larry. We drove to Rio Dell and took the back road into Ferndale from Blue Slide Road as we heard that no one was to enter Ferndale via Fernbridge. An officer stopped us and asked if we lived in Ferndale and we lied and said that we lived on Berding Street. (We wanted to help our friends).

The town was a mess. We could not believe the damage that we saw. Several hours later while back home, we were awakened by the first big aftershock (which I say was another earthquake due to its magnitude) in the middle of the night. This time, items were falling off shelves and the walls. My cat was terrified. I felt helpless listening to things breaking. Again, I thought the shaking would never stop. After the second aftershock I gave up trying to pick things up and Chris and I spent the rest of the night on our deck, too upset to stay in the house. We watched the sunrise and hoped that the worst was over. I cannot believe that it has been 25 years!

— Lyn Iversen

1992 Earthquake Story

I moved to Ferndale in 1989 after purchasing an older historic home. Over the next three years I had heard and read about how seismically active the area was and had become accustomed to what I called “bumps in the night” when the house would kind of shudder and the suspended lights would sway slightly back and forth.

On the morning of April 25, 1992, I took my son downtown to participate in a parade as part of the first (and last) Wild West Days. My son was on a small pony which, like many of the other horses in the parade, seemed somewhat “spooked” and I had to hold the reins tight in my hands to keep the pony in line. As the parade came to an end I hurried back to my house to pick up my cat that had an 11 a.m. appointment at the Ferndale Veterinary on the outskirts of town. I loaded my son and the cat in the car and headed down Main Street a little late for my appointment. Just past the intersection with Main and Herbert Street, my car suddenly started lurching from one side to the other. At first I thought I had a flat tire. As the lurching continued I thought maybe I had two flat tires as the movement was very strong. About that time I noticed the power lines and trees swinging violently, which was strange as there was little to no wind. As the seconds passed I finally realized this was an “EARTHQUAKE!” No sooner had I realized what was going on than it all stopped.

Several cars continued down Main Street so I decided to continue on to my vet appointment. After parking the car I grabbed my cat and walked into the front office where I encountered a real mess as a fish aquarium had crashed to the floor resulting in broken glass, water and flopping fish everywhere. I looked at the startled staff and quickly announced, “I would come back at a later time.”

As I returned to my car and started driving back down Main Street toward my house I was shocked by the view of several houses which had been shaken from their foundations. One house which had previously been elevated with stairs to the front door had dropped to the point where the stairs now led to the second story. As I turned off Main Street I continued to encounter houses where the front porch or side buildings had separated from the main house. Finally, I turned onto my street where my house came into view. As my house has horizontal siding the first view revealed that everything was still horizontal. I also have a front porch with concrete stairs to the front door so I was relieved that the porch was still connected to my house. I did not see any obvious exterior damage. I removed the cat and my son from the car and walked into my house where I encountered another mess.

The TV had nosed-dived onto the floor. Potted plants had tipped over spreading dirt everywhere. In the kitchen, plates, cups and glasses were strewn across the floor. As most of my kitchenware was plastic there was not a lot of broken anything. Pictures hanging on the walls were askew but remained hanging so no damage there. A quick look at the walls and ceilings revealed some small cracks in the sheet rock over doorways but no other damage was apparent. The refrigerator and electric range remained in their original location and the water heater, enclosed in a small side-space, appeared stable. The most damage to the interior was in my laundry room where several cans of paint stored on shelves had flown across the room spilling paint across the floor and the washer and dryer. I did my best to clean up this mess but much of the paint stains remained for further clean-up at a late time.

My son and I spent most of the rest of the day cleaning up the spilled dirt, picking up the plates and things that had left the cupboards during the violence and hanging out in the yard feeling a bit more safe outside than inside. By late afternoon I had heard about the collapse of the Valley Grocery, which was the only unreinforced masonry building on Main Street, but only one person was injured and there were no fatalities that anyone was aware of. By the end of the day, we settled into our evening routine. Being without power we had to resort to a Coleman lantern and gas stove to cook dinner. After reading both my son and myself to sleep we settled in for the night.

Suddenly around 1:30 a.m. in the early morning of the 26th, our house started to shake violently as if being grabbed and shaking by a giant. Once again I could hear the dishes crashing to the floor, and the TV doing its nose-dive. The plants and cans of paint remained on the floor so no more damage there. Amazingly, my son did not even wake up. I grabbed a flashlight I had kept next to my bed and quickly looked through the house to see if there was any damage that would suggest the house was in danger of collapsing or otherwise be hazardous. Assuring myself that it was safer to stay indoors and not finding any reason to leave the house I climbed back in bed.

I must have counted thousands of sheep before finally falling back to sleep. Then the giant returned around 4:30 a.m. and once again started shaking the house. By then, I was convinced that California had split off from the North American continent and was now an island. After the second morning quake I was unable to get back to sleep. I fired up the Coleman stove and made some coffee. I was sitting outside on my front porch drinking my coffee and eating a banana when the volunteer fire department drove by giving me some assurance and sense of security that someone was responding to all the wreckage and frayed nerves. The next day I checked with friends and neighbors to see if they suffered any damage to their homes. Some had minor damage while others had homes that survived the first quake but leaped off their foundations during the second or third quake.

Having suffered limited damage, I concluded that having concrete front steps, a remodel that included new posts, bracketed into concrete piers that themselves were placed in concrete and were cross-braced, plus a slab for an extension of what we called the “sun room” as well as back wooden stairs also on piers in concrete meant that whatever direction the house tried to move during the ground shaking it ran into concrete. I also realized that if you are living in an area subject to strong earthquakes, occupying a house made of wood is advisable as a wood structure can “rock and roll’ with the shaking and under most circumstances will not collapse. Not wanting to rest on my laurels, I spent the next year installing new concrete piers in concrete and bolting the piers to posts that are then crossed braced to each other. It took me 12 months to install 19 new posts and piers. It has been awhile since a major earthquake. There have been a few that we definitely felt here in Ferndale and resulted in damage in Eureka and elsewhere, but nothing of the magnitude we felt on those fateful days in April 1992. I have my fingers crossed that if (when) we have another large quake the improvements to the house foundations will put us in much better shape to survive the next “Big One!”

— Michael Sweeney


From the Redwood Coast Tsunami Work Group:

The Redwood Coast Tsunami Work announces “A virtual tour of the Mendocino triple junction” to mark the 30th anniversary of the Cape Mendocino earthquake sequence.

The April 25, 1992 M7.2 earthquake was the most damaging earthquake to strike California’s North Coast in historical times. Causing at least $60 million in property losses and over 400 injuries, it led to the only federal disaster declaration ever issued after an earthquake in Humboldt County. The earthquake, located near the coast just north of Petrolia, was in the Mendocino triple junction region, a complex zone where three fault systems and three tectonic plates meet. It is the only triple junction on land in the conterminous United States.

The earthquake produced measurable coastal uplift along a 15-mile-long stretch of coastline and a modest tsunami that was recorded on seven tide gauges along the California and Southern Oregon coast and in Hawaii. It was followed in the next 18 hours by magnitude 6.5 and 6.6 aftershocks.

To remember the events of 1992, the Redwood Coast Tsunami Work Group has launched a new web page (https://rctwg.humboldt.edu/capemendo92 ). The page includes remembrances of what happened and what has changed in both earthquake and tsunami planning since then. Featured is a new video field trip of the complex Mendocino triple junction area to better understand the complex geology of the Cape Mendocino area where the earthquake occurred and the role it plays in regional earthquake hazards.

The video was produced by Thomas Dunklin, an alum of the Cal Poly Humboldt Geology Department who lives in the Petrolia area and accompanied many of the research teams who worked in the Cape Mendocino area after the earthquake.

The 13-minute video features spectacular drone footage of the remote and rugged triple junction and includes animations of the plate interactions and earthquake activity in the region.

The video project was supported by CalOES with funding from FEMA through NEHERP and donations to RCTWG from the public. Feedback appreciated (lori.dengler@humboldt.edu).



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Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Two Additional COVID Deaths Reported in Humboldt County

Posted By on Wed, Apr 13, 2022 at 3:38 PM

Humboldt County Public Health reported today that the county has confirmed two COVID-19 deaths since its last report April 6: One was a resident age 80 or older and the other was an individual in their 50s.

One new hospitalization was also reported today but, according to a state database, eight people are currently hospitalized with the virus locally, including two under intensive care, and there is another suspected COVID-19 case. The deaths reported today are the 142nd and 143rd in Humboldt County since the pandemic began.

Find the full public health press release, which includes a schedule of upcoming vaccination clinics, here.
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Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Report to California Legislature: Prepare for Devastating Effects of Climate Change

Posted By on Wed, Apr 6, 2022 at 10:43 AM

Wildfire smoke turned Humboldt County skies orange throughout the day in September of 2020. These pictures are from around 9:30 a.m. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • Wildfire smoke turned Humboldt County skies orange throughout the day in September of 2020. These pictures are from around 9:30 a.m.
Painting alarming scenes of fires, floods and economic disruption, the California Legislature’s advisors on Tuesday released a series of reports that lay out in stark terms the impacts of climate change across the state.

The typically reserved, nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office outlined dire consequences for Californians as climate change continues to alter most aspects of daily life. Much of the focus of the six-part series is detailing the economic cost as the changing climate alters where and how Californians build, grow food and protect the most vulnerable residents. 

  • Wildfires, heat and floods will force more frequent school closures, disrupting education, child care and availability of free school lunches. More than 1,600 schools temporarily closed because of wildfires each year between 2017 and 2020, affecting nearly a million students a year.
  • Outdoor workers — 10 percent of California’s workforce and mostly Latino — will continue to bear the brunt of extreme heat and smoke.
  • Wildfire smoke may have killed about 20 people per 100,000 adults older than 65 in 2020, and is projected to become more deadly. Just a 50 percent increase in smoke could cause the deaths of nine to 20 additional people among every 100,000 older residents exposed each year.
  • Housing, rail lines, bridges, power plants and other structures are vulnerable to rising seas and tides. “Between $8 billion and $10 billion of existing property in California is likely to be underwater by 2050, with an additional $6 billion to $10 billion at risk during high tide.”
  • Extreme heat is projected to cause nine deaths per 100,000 people each year, “roughly equivalent to the 2019 annual mortality rate from automobile accidents in California.”
  • Lower-income Californians, who live in communities at greater risk for heat and floods because of discriminatory housing practices, will be hit especially hard by climate change and have fewer resources to adapt.
  • Housing will be lost: For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area alone, 13,000 existing housing units and 104,000 job spaces “will no longer be usable” because of sea rise over the next next 40 to 100 years.
  • Beaches will disappear, too: Up to two-thirds of Southern California beaches may become completely eroded by 2100.

The report’s unsaid but unambiguous conclusion: Climate change could alter everything, spare no one in California, so legislators should consider preparing for sweeping impacts.

“These hazards will threaten public health, safety, and well-being — including from life-threatening events, damage to public and private property and infrastructure, and impaired natural resources,” the reports say.

Scientists say it’s not too late to stop the most severe effects, although the clock is ticking. Technologies and other solutions already exist to reduce greenhouse gases from fossil fuels and other sources and prevent more irreversible harm, according to a landmark international scientific report released Monday. But international accords and plans continue to fall far short, with emissions expected to keep increasing

“These hazards will threaten public health, safety, and well-being — including from life-threatening events, damage to property and infrastructure, and impaired natural resources.”

Legislative Analyst’s Office report

California’s legislative analysts did not conduct new research; instead, they compiled existing data and projections, providing a comprehensive clearinghouse for legislators as they enact policies and approve budgets.

State Sen. Bob Wieckowski, a Democrat from Fremont and chair of the budget subcommittee on resources, environmental protection and energy, said he plans to turn to the reports as references and rationale for the subcommittee’s budget proposals. 

“It’s impressive,” he said. “(It) turns the climate conversation into an all-hands-on-deck versus, ‘Oh, this is just some tree hugger over here.’” 

The analysts make no explicit policy recommendations but they advise legislators to consider such questions as: How can the state avoid exacerbating climate impacts? How can lawmakers protect the most vulnerable Californians? And how should California pay to prepare and respond to climate change? 

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat from South Gate, asked the Legislative Analyst’s Office to assess the impacts of climate change on a variety of policy sectors, and the reports grew from there. They frame climate change as a complex, multi-disciplinary problem that requires response from all of the state’s agencies.

Project manager Rachel Ehlers said the aim is to assist lawmakers incorporate climate change into decisions outside of traditionally environmental realms, including housing, health and education. For instance, would a new housing policy “have the potential to inadvertently worsen climate change impacts?” she said.

Last year’s budget package reflected the overarching scope of the problem, proposing to spend $9.3 billion over three years to bolster the state’s responses to drought, floods, fire and sea level rise. 

Despite the state’s climate-forward reputation, critics and many legislators note that California’s follow-through has been inconsistent.

The reports come in the lead-up to California Gov. Gavin’s Newsom’s May revision to his January budget blueprint, when the administration can reframe and update its proposals. Thus far, the proposed budget included more than $22 billion for climate change efforts that include protecting communities against wildfires and extreme heat. 

Despite the state’s climate-forward reputation, critics and many legislators note that California’s follow-through has been inconsistent.

“I don’t at all feel that we are leading the world anymore,” Rendon, a Democrat from South Gate, told CalMatters last year. 

Despite the passage of a $15 billion climate budget, California Environmental Voters, an advocacy group, gave the state its first “D” grade for what it called its climate inaction last year. 

“We’re plagued by ‘climate delayers’ in Sacramento – members of the Legislature who talk about climate change but don’t back up those words with action,” CEO Mary Creasman wrote in a CalMatters commentary

Last month, a coalition of California’s environmental justice advocacy organizations pushed for a phase-out of fossil fuels, and warned that clean air regulators have failed to adequately consider public health in crafting the state’s blueprint for curbing greenhouse gas pollution. 

California is already reeling from climate change

The analysis made clear that many of the worst consequences are already here, even as it noted that future impacts are coming sooner and may be worse than scientists had predicted.

Summer temperatures scorched records as the state’s second-largest wildfire tore across Northern California during the third-driest year on record for rain and snowfall. California must brace for yet more climate hazards, the reports warn, from extreme heat to more severe wildfires, whiplash from drought to flood and sea level rise along the coast. 

Drought clutches California and a statewide heat wave forecast for Wednesday is poised to sap the remaining snowpack that supplies about a third of the state’s water. California’s firefighting arm warns that a record-dry start to the year could spell a devastating fire season ahead.

It’s a disaster drumbeat Californians have heard many times before. The Legislative Analyst’s Office has released report after report assessing the state’s climate policies and spending. It has warned that sea level rise will submerge billions of dollars in homes, roads and businesses by 2050, and that the state must accelerate planning to protect state assets including college campuses, prisons and even state workers from soaring heat, flooding, fire and extreme weather.

Newsom’s administration launched a preemptive response to the reports, with the Monday release of its updated climate adaptation strategy. The guidelines pull together plans from 38 departments and address priority issues, such as protecting communities vulnerable to climate change and combating risks to health and safety. 

California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said the strategy is “a matter of protecting our residents and our communities or natural places from climate threats that are already here.” 

State officials regularly recalibrate the official response to climate change, often in response to dire reports. Four years ago, California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment released under former Gov. Jerry Brown warned that climate change would lead to death and property damage on the order of tens of billions of dollars by 2050. 

Though the reports were focused largely on how California must adapt to the ravages of climate change, the Legislative Analyst’s Office has also warned repeatedly that California’s landmark greenhouse gas market, cap and trade, will fail to meet California’s goals to reduce emissions

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Monday, April 4, 2022

Two Quakes Hit Near Rio Dell

Posted By on Mon, Apr 4, 2022 at 9:06 AM

screenshot_2022-04-04_9.03.56_am.png
Two earthquakes hit near Rio Dell in quick succession this morning.

The first, a magnitude-4.1, struck at 8:16 a.m. and was followed two minutes later by a magnitude-3.9, according to USGS, both about 5 miles west of Rio Dell.
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Friday, April 1, 2022

Sierra Snowpack Worsens, Falls to Lowest Level in 7 Years

Posted By on Fri, Apr 1, 2022 at 12:18 PM

Scene at the March 1, 2022 snow survey at Phillips Station. - CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF WATER RESOURCES
  • California Department of Water Resources
  • Scene at the March 1, 2022 snow survey at Phillips Station.
Seven years ago today, during the height of the last drought, California Gov. Jerry Brown stood on the barren slopes of the Sierra Nevada, watching as engineers measured the worst snowpack in state history.

Today, snow measurements aren’t quite so bleak. But the snowy scene belies the severity of the drought. The snowpack — which provides a third of California’s water supply — is 39 percent of average statewide.

Worse than last year, worse even than last month, this year’s snowpack is the worst it’s been in seven years, tying with 2007 for the sixth lowest April measurement in state history. It’s not as bad as the last drought, however: The snowpack contains about eight times more water than in 2015. 

The amount of snow in April is considered critical because it indicates how much water will be available through the summer. The snow, historically at its deepest in April, melts and flows into rivers, streams and reservoirs that serve much of the state.

As California’s water officials discovered last year, climate change is upending their forecasts for how much melting snow the thirsty state can truly expect to refill its dwindling stores.

It’s a dismal end to a water year that began with great promise, with early storms in October and December. By Jan. 1, the plush snowpack was 160 percent of average for that date statewide, and already a little over half the seasonal total. 

“Our great snowpack — the water tower of the West and the world — was looking good. We had real high hopes,” Benjamin Hatchett, an assistant research professor with the Western Regional Climate Center and Desert Research Institute, said in a recent drought presentation.

Typically, the snowpack would continue to build until April. But a record-dry January and February followed by unseasonably warm and dry conditions in March sapped the frozen stores, which by the end of the month were already melting at levels that would be expected in April or May.  

Now, “we would consider this to be deep into snow drought,” Hatchett said.

“Our great snowpack — the water tower of the West and the world — was looking good. We had real high hopes.”

Benjamin Hatchett, Western Regional Climate Center and Desert Research Institute

Though state officials reported that early snowmelt has started to refill foothill reservoirs, the water level in massive Lake Shasta, critical to federal supplies for farms, people and endangered salmon, sits at less than half the average for this date. Lake Oroville is only slightly better, at 67 percent of its historic average. 

From Andrew Schwartz’s vantage point north of Lake Tahoe at the University of California, Berkeley’s Central Sierra Snow Lab, it still looks wintry, with about three feet of snow, “plus or minus six inches,” he said. 

It’s a far cry from the grassy field further south at Phillips Station where former Gov. Jerry Brown stood for the survey seven years ago. 

“It’s been a false sense of security when you come up here,” Schwartz said of the snow lab. “Statewide as a whole, it’s not looking great.”

There could be a number of consequences to the early snowmelt, Schwartz said. It could result in more water loss as early snowmelt evaporates in reservoirs, disrupting the balance of mountain ecosystems and speeding the start of fire season. 

“Without the snow, once things dry out, it’s just going to be catastrophic again,” Schwartz said. 

From left, Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, and Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. joined the Department of Water Resources for a manual snow survey on April 1, 2015. This was the first early-April measurement that found no snow at Phillips, an indication, the Governor said, of the drought's extreme severity. Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources
In 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown joined the Department of Water Resources for a manual snow survey. It was the first early-April measurement that found no snow there, an indication of the drought’s severity. Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

Early snowmelt can also complicate reservoir operations if managers need to release water to preserve flood control space, said Nathan Patrick, a hydrologist with the federal California Nevada River Forecast Center.  

California’s water supply will be determined by how much snowmelt continues to flow into major reservoirs versus how much will seep into the soil or disappear into the air. Climate change is already transforming this pattern as the weather swings between extremes, and warmer temperatures suck moisture from the soil and melt snow earlier in the year. 

California’s Department of Water Resources is working to overhaul its runoff forecast calculations, an effort that has grown increasingly urgent. Last year, the state’s projections for runoff from the Sierra Nevada overshot reality by so much that water regulators were left scrambling to protect drinking water supplies and preserve enough water in storage

Assemblymember Adam Gray, a Democrat from Merced, has called for a state audit of the calculations. “Has the state learned anything from this disaster?” he asked in a CalMatters op-ed. 

This year, the California Nevada River Forecast Center’s Patrick expects more of the snow to reach reservoirs. 

The soils, for one thing, are wetter — the result of powerful October storms that soaked the state. That means more of the snowmelt may flow into rivers and streams. Generally, he said, “We expect it to be better this year.”

Still, increased runoff can’t make up for a paltry snowpack — particularly in the Northern Sierra.  The snowpack there is the lowest in the state, just 31 percent the seasonal average, compared to 42 percent and 43 percent in the Central and Southern Sierra. 

Patrick sees a trend emerging in the runoff and streamflow measurements over the past three years. “One after another have been below normal,” he said. 

“You can deal with one or two bad years, but when you start to get these compounding, three bad years … it’s hard to recover.” 

A boat crosses Lake Oroville below trees scorched in the 2020 North Complex Fire, May 23, 2021. At the time of this photo, the reservoir was at 39 percent of capacity and 46 percent of its historical average. (Photo by Noah Berger, AP Photo

LESSONS LEARNED: DROUGHT THEN AND NOW

A CalMatters series investigates what’s improved and what’s worsened since the last drought — and vividly portrays the impacts on California’s places and people.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2022

It's Only A Test: Tsunami Warning System Drill

Posted By on Wed, Mar 23, 2022 at 8:38 AM

Tsunami warning sign. - FILE
  • File
  • Tsunami warning sign.
The annual Tsunami Warning Communications Test takes place tomorrow (Wednesday), giving local emergency officials the chance to tryout the local warning system and residents an opportunity to learn more about the ways those same officials will be getting out the word if a distance-source tsunami is heading to Humboldt's shores.

The drill is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. with the county Office of Emergency Services testing the local warning system: Humboldt Alert. Residents who are signed up will receive notifications on their cellphone, landline and/or email. That will be followed at 11 a.m. by the National Weather Service running a test of the Emergency Alert System until noon, with notifications being sent out via radio and TV broadcasts, NOAA weather radio and reverse 911 calls in Humboldt, Del Norte and Mendocino counties. In some areas, tsunami sirens may be activated and people on the coast may hear test broadcasts from planes.

During last years's test, nearly half of the Humboldt's 12 sirens remained silent after being "corroded to oblivion" by years of exposure to salt air and the North Coast's notoriously wet weather. The Journal's March 10 cover story "Icons of Preparedness," looks at the cost vs. the benefit of replacing the sirens, as well as whether the devices are as effective as cellphone alerts and other warning systems, as local emergency officials weigh the options moving forward.


But the warning systems being tested are really meant for use in a distant-source tsunami, like the one generated back in March of 2011 by a devastating earthquake off the coast of Japan, when Humboldt County was under the highest threat level, a tsunami warning, and the local sirens were last sounded as an alert. In that scenario, officials are likely to have hours to get out the word. (The sirens are not activated if the region is under a lower-level tsunami advisory, which was the case back in January.) Find the county's tsunami hazard areas here.

tsunami_alert_levels.jpg
A far bigger threat lurks in our own backyard, a rupture along the Cascadia subduction zone, which could send surges beyond beaches and the harbor in minutes.

In that case, local emergency officials stress, the only warning will be the ones Mother Nature has to offer: prolonged, intense shaking, a loud ocean roar and the sudden receding of the water to show the sea floor. Any of these means time is of the essence and to head for higher ground immediately.

Nearly 30 years have passed since a small corner of the Cascadia subduction zone ruptured near Petrolia on April 26, 1992, shaking the region with such intensity that seismic sensors in the area were overwhelmed and a 15-mile section of coastline was thrust several feet into the air.


Within minutes, for the first time ever recorded on the West Coast, a locally generated tsunami arrived on shore, with a small wave arriving at the North Spit less than a half-hour after the magnitude-7.2 earthquake struck just before 11 a.m. Southern Humboldt beaches were hit even sooner.


In the quake’s aftermath, landslides shut down roads, water mains burst, windows shattered, a wide swath of the North Coast was left without power and fires destroyed the Petrolia post office and a shopping center near Scotia. Hundreds of people were injured and homes damaged.


But for all the ferocity released by the earth that day, the Cape Mendocino Earthquake was just a sampling of what the Casacadia subduction zone has the power of unleashing — a magnitude-9.0 or greater megathrust quake, which last occurred in 1700.

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State Unveils Long-awaited Standard for Drinking Water Contaminant

Posted By on Wed, Mar 23, 2022 at 6:00 AM

On Monday, California proposed a long-awaited standard for a cancer-causing contaminant in drinking water that would require costly treatment in cities throughout the state.

Traces of hexavalent chromium are widely found in the drinking water of millions of Californians, some naturally occurring and some from industries that work with the heavy metal. 

The proposed standard is a major step in a decades-long effort to curtail the water contaminant made infamous by the movie Erin Brockovich, based on residents of rural Hinkley, California, who won more than $300 million from Pacific Gas & Electric for contamination of their drinking water.

Once finalized, the standard would be a first in the nation to specifically target hexavalent chromium

The highest levels are reported in parts of Ventura, Los Angeles, Yolo, Merced and Riverside counties.

Several hundred drinking water wells throughout the state exceed the State Water Resources Control Board’s proposed standard of 10 parts per billion. The highest levels were reported in parts of Ventura, Los Angeles, Yolo, Merced and Riverside counties. Residents of the low-income, mostly Latino city of Los Banos, for instance, are drinking water that contains three times more than the proposed standard would allow.

Water suppliers say the proposed standard will lead to substantially higher monthly rates for many residents, while public health experts and environmental advocates criticize it as not protective enough of people’s health.

“It’s not terrible, but it’s not acceptable,” Max Costa, professor and chair of environmental medicine at NYU School of Medicine, said of California’s proposal. Costa was an expert witness for residents in the Erin Brockovich case. 

When it comes to hexavalent chromium in drinking water, he said, “The most acceptable level is none.” 

Under the water board’s proposal, 10 parts per billion would be the maximum allowable amount in drinking water. It’s a minute amount, equivalent to about 10 drops of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. But it’s also 500 times greater than the amount California’s scientists deem a negligible cancer risk over a lifetime.

Under state law, the state must balance the health risk and the financial cost when setting drinking water standards.

Still not a negligible cancer risk

Monday's proposal is a draft, released to solicit public comment before officially starting the regulatory process, which could begin by late summer. An official drinking water standard is unlikely to be finalized before 2024. 

Until recently, the science was mixed on whether hexavalent chromium causes cancer when ingested, rather than inhaled. (Inhaling it has been a well-documented cause of lung cancer for workers for several decades.) 

The proposed standard is "not terrible, but it's not acceptable...The most acceptable level is none."

Max Costa, NYU School of Medicine

But in 2008, National Toxicology Program studies showed rats and mice that drank high doses of hexavalent chromium for two years developed oral and intestinal cancers. In addition, California state scientists who analyzed the scientific literature reported increased stomach cancer risk among people who work with hexavalent chromium. 

Chemical industry representatives have criticized the studies, saying the rodents were drinking levels much higher than people are exposed to. Mice and rats are routinely given large doses to extrapolate the cancer risk to a larger human population that lives longer.

In 2011, California scientists set a non-enforceable public health goal for hexavalent chromium that is much more stringent than today’s proposal — 0.02 parts per billion. The amount was chosen because it poses a negligible, one-in-a-million lifetime cancer risk that is generally considered acceptable for environmental contaminants.

The water board’s proposal would pose a much higher risk — one cancer among every 2,000 people over a lifetime, according to the state’s risk assessment. 

“I think we would all much prefer to be at a better protective level than one in 2,000 cancer cases,” said Darrin Polhemus, deputy director of the division of drinking water with the State Water Resources Control Board. “But the costs do impose a really high burden at the lower (standard) levels, and just couldn't strike that balance there. So, I wish there was a different scenario to paint.”

The limit is likely to be tested in court. It’s happened before: In 2014, California set a short-lived standard of 10 parts per billion. But in 2017, a judge overturned it, ruling that state regulators had failed to consider whether the rule would be economically feasible

“We would all much prefer to be at a better protective level...But the costs do impose a really high burden at the lower levels."

Darrin Polhemus, State Water Resources Control Board

Hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium-6, is used in industrial processes such as metal-plating, stainless steel production and wood preservation. It also naturally occurs in certain California rocks and soil. 

State data shows that 129 community drinking water systems serving more than 4.1 million people have reported hexavalent chromium levels above the proposed standard. In addition, 51 systems serving institutions and businesses — including 11 schools — and three water wholesalers exceed the proposed limit. (Some wells may no longer be supplying water to residents.)

The highest level reported by the state is in Ventura County, where one drinking water well was reported with 173 parts per billion  — more than 17 times higher than the proposed standard.

Some contamination, such as in the Coachella Valley, is naturally occurring. Some, like in the San Fernando Valley, is linked to industrial contamination. And some may be a combination of both.

Latino communities and those with larger populations of other people of color are more likely to have drinking water with average levels of hexavalent chromium above 5 parts per billion, according to Lara Cushing, a UCLA assistant professor of environmental health who conducted a recent study

Current federal and California drinking water standards combine hexavalent chromium and its more benign alter ego, trivalent chromium, which is considered an essential nutrient. Federal drinking water standards cap total chromium at 100 parts per billion, and California at 50 parts per billion

Higher rates for customers

Once a standard is finalized, water suppliers must remove the chemical from drinking water to below 10 parts per billion or face penalties that could include fines of up to $1,000 a day.

They can treat the water at plants or at household taps through reverse osmosis or another technology, blend it with clean water, take contaminated wells offline or pipe water from another system. 

The proposal gives water providers some time to comply, Polhemus said — two to four years after the rule’s adoption, depending on their size. In the interim, water providers that detect hexavalent chromium will be required to submit their plans and timeline for attaining the standard.

Domestic well owners — like those in the San Bernardino County town of Hinkley portrayed in the movie — are not covered by drinking water standards. Private well owners are generally responsible for testing and treating their own water. 

The cost of treatment is likely to increase customer rates, although some water agencies might opt for a cheaper option, such as blending their water with cleaner sources. 

Rates for the smallest water systems — fewer than 100 connections — could increase by around $38 per month if suppliers install treatment in households. Systems with between 100 and 200 connections may see hikes as high as $44 to $167 per month, based on installing reverse osmosis or other costly treatment systems, according to state estimates. The largest water providers, which can buffer the costs across all customers, could have monthly increases between 75 cents and $45. 

State regulators couldn’t predict what funding will be available when a standard is eventually finalized, but said in general, state and federal programs help communities clean up their drinking water. 

Rates for the smallest water systems could rise by $38 per month, while the largest could see increases between 75 cents and $45 per month.

Some larger water providers are looking forward to the end of a drawn-out regulatory process. 

“I've been hoping for it to be re-finalized for some time,” said Tarrah Henrie, manager of water quality for California Water Service, the third largest regulated water utility in the country. “It just gives us certainty.” 

The utility has nearly 500 active wells around the state. Of them, 20 wells tested above 10 parts per billion hexavalent chromium. The wells are located in the Solano County town of Dixon, the Glenn County town of Willows and in two small water systems near Salinas. 

"Disadvantaged communities are really in desperate need of state funding assistance."

Mary Lynn Coffee, attorney for the city of Los Banos

Ten of the wells are being treated — in Willows, with the help of a state grant. Though rates increased slightly in Dixon, Henrie said, the company has been able to prevent customer rates from spiking by subsidizing residents there. Without the subsidy, customer rates in Willows and Dixon would have increased by 18 percent to 28 percent.

Los Banos in Merced County is bracing for the financial hit.

Rates could increase “exponentially,” said the city’s outside counsel Mary Lynn Coffee. Costs to treat water from 13 wells could run from $41.6 to $92.3 million, with annual costs running between $1.7 and $5.1 million, Coffee said, based on a 2015 assessment. The city’s water budget has averaged around $4.7 million for the last four years. 

The 13 wells that serve the largely Latino city of around 45,000 people have average hexavalent chromium levels of around 29.8 parts per billion, three times higher than the proposed standard would allow. Los Banos residents earn on average about 60 percent of the state average, and California has categorized the city as disadvantaged

Since all signs point to the hexavalent chromium being naturally occurring, “there is no polluter that would help contribute to the cost of cleanup,” Coffee said. “Disadvantaged communities are really in desperate need of state funding assistance if they're going to meet a new (limit) around the 10 parts per billion mark.” 

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Friday, March 18, 2022

Quake-Up Call: Tsunami Drill in Manila

Posted By on Fri, Mar 18, 2022 at 11:52 AM

manilatsunami.jpg
Heads up, Manila. A tsunami drill taking place tomorrow is going to make for a noisy morning, with sheriff's deputies and Arcata Fire Department trucks making their way through neighborhoods there while sounding hi-lo evacuation sirens.

To be clear, this is only a drill.

“Humboldt County is prone to a variety of natural and human-caused disasters,” said Ryan Derby, the county’s Office of Emergency Services manager. “Your best tool to effectively respond to and recover from a disaster is your personal preparedness.”

The drill begins around 9:30 a.m. and residents are being asked to make their way to higher ground in the dunes on the west side of the highway when they hear the sirens as part of a practice evacuation for a local quake with prolonged, intense shaking. Under that scenario, time is of the essence, with the potential for destructive surges to breach beaches in minutes.


The county's Office of Emergency Services will also be testing out the Zonehaven AWARE system, a new mapping tool for first responders that categorizes Humboldt County neighborhoods into specific zones to determine evacuations areas in the event of an emergency.


The Manila drill is part of Tsunami Preparedness Week and the countywide Tsunami Warning Communications Test follows on March 23, starting at 9 a.m., with OES testing the local warning system: Humboldt Alert.

Residents who are signed up will receive notifications on their cellphone, landline, or email. That will be followed at 11 a.m. by the National Weather Service running a test of the Emergency Alert System, with alerts being sent out via radio and TV broadcasts, NOAA weather radio and reverse 911 calls. In some areas, tsunami sirens may be activated and people on the coast may hear test broadcasts from planes.


During last years's test, nearly half of the county's 12 sirens remained silent after being "corroded to oblivion" by years of exposure to salt air and the North Coast's notoriously wet weather. The Journal's March 10 cover story "Icons of Preparedness," looks at the cost vs. the benefit of replacing the sirens, as well as whether the devices are as effective as cellphone alerts and other warning systems, as local emergency officials weigh the options moving forward.
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Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Time to Test for Tsunami Preparedness

Posted By on Wed, Mar 16, 2022 at 5:52 AM

Tsunami warning sign. - FILE
  • File
  • Tsunami warning sign.
In just the last few months, Mother Nature has sent out a few reminders about the North Coast's seismic vulnerability, including two earthquakes separated by seconds in December — a magnitude-5.7 and 6.2 — and the tsunami generated by a volcanic eruption near Tonga in January.

While Humboldt County was largely spared in both cases that doesn’t mean the region will be so lucky the next time, if the distant and not-so-distance past is any indication. To help residents be ready, local emergency officials have planned three Tsunami Preparedness Week events that will be taking place in the coming days.


“Humboldt County is prone to a variety of natural and human-caused disasters,” said Ryan Derby, the county’s Office of Emergency Services manager. “Your best tool to effectively respond to and recover from a disaster is your personal preparedness.”


At 9:30 a.m. Saturday, there will be a walking evacuation drill in Manila, with sheriff’s deputies and Arcata Fire Department trucks driving through neighborhoods sounding hi-lo evacuation sirens while the OES tests out the Zonehaven AWARE system, a new mapping tool for first responders that categorizes Humboldt County neighborhoods into specific zones to determine evacuations areas in the event of an emergency.


After hearing the hi-lo sirens, Manila residents are being encouraged to visit community.zonehaven.com to find their designated evacuation area on the map and proceed to higher ground.

The annual Tsunami Warning Communications Test takes place March 23, starting at 9 a.m., with OES testing the local warning system: Humboldt Alert. Residents who are signed up will receive notifications on their cellphone, landline, or email. That will be followed at 11 a.m. by the National Weather Service running a test of the Emergency Alert System, with alerts being sent out via radio and TV broadcasts, NOAA weather radio and reverse 911 calls. In some areas, tsunami sirens may be activated and people on the coast may hear test broadcasts from planes.

During last years's test, nearly half of the county's 12 sirens remained silent after being "corroded to oblivion" by years of exposure to salt air and the North Coast's notoriously wet weather. The Journal's March 10 cover story "Icons of Preparedness," looks at the cost vs. the benefit of replacing the sirens, as well as whether the devices are as effective as cellphone alerts and other warning systems, as local emergency officials weigh the options moving forward.

A final drill will take place March 24 in Shelter Cove, which runs its own siren system, with the three located in area being sounded. For more information, contact the Shelter Cove Fire Department.

“Recent events like the December 6.0M earthquake and January tsunami advisory really served as a wake-up call to some of our coastal communities regarding the very real threat of a destructive tsunami,” Derby said. “Whether you are on the coast or inland, now is the time to begin getting yourself and your family prepared for whatever disaster the future may have in store.”

But the warning systems being tested in the three preparedness events are most useful for a distant-source tsunami, like the one generated back in March of 2011 by a devastating earthquake off the coast of Japan, when Humboldt County was under the highest threat level, a tsunami warning, and the local sirens were last sounded as an alert. In that scenario, officials are likely to have hours to get out the word. (The sirens are not activated if the region is under a lower-level tsunami advisory, which was the case back in January.)

A far bigger threat lurks in our own backyard, a rupture along the Cascadia subduction zone, which could send surges beyond beaches and the harbor in minutes. Then, intense shaking will likely be the only warning. 


Continue reading »

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Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Snow Falling: Amid Climate Change, Overhauling California Water Projections Gains Urgency

Posted By on Wed, Feb 23, 2022 at 11:16 AM

From left, Andy Reising and Anthony Burdock, both Water Resources Engineers in the Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit and Sean de Guzman, right, Manager of the California Department of Water Resources Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit, begin the measurement phase of the second media snow survey of the 2022 season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on Feb. 1, 2022. - KENNETH JAMES/CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF WATER RESOURCES
  • Kenneth James/California Department of Water Resources
  • From left, Andy Reising and Anthony Burdock, both Water Resources Engineers in the Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit and Sean de Guzman, right, Manager of the California Department of Water Resources Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit, begin the measurement phase of the second media snow survey of the 2022 season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on Feb. 1, 2022.
The Sierra Nevada hasn’t provided nearly as much water as predicted. Now the state is struggling to overhaul its snow runoff forecasts.

Packed onto the slopes of the Sierra Nevada is a precious source of water for California — a frozen reservoir that climate change is already transforming. 

As the planet warms, the spring snowpack is dwindling. The snow is creeping up mountainsides to higher elevations, melting earlier in the year and seeping into dry soils rather than washing into rivers and streams that feed reservoirs. 

The risks are no longer futuristic or theoretical: The state’s projections for how much water to expect from the Sierra Nevada were so far from reality last spring that reforming the process has become increasingly urgent.

The calculation for the Sacramento River region was off by 68 percent, leaving the state’s reservoirs with far less water supply than expected. 

A boat crosses Lake Oroville below trees scorched in the 2020 North Complex Fire, May 23, 2021. At the time of this photo, the reservoir was at 39 percent of capacity and 46 percent of its historical average. (Photo by Noah Berger, AP Photo

LESSONS LEARNED: DROUGHT THEN AND NOW

A CalMatters series investigates what’s improved and what’s worsened since the last drought — and vividly portrays the impacts on California’s places and people.

“If you’ve changed the climate and then you try to use statistics — which relies on what happened in the past — to predict the future, you’re already running into an issue,” David Rizzardo, manager of the California Department of Water Resources’ hydrology section, told CalMatters.

State officials are altering their forecasts to take into account the myriad ways climate change is reshaping California, from warming temperatures to soil dryness. The stakes are huge: The Sierra Nevada snowpack provides about a third of California’s water supply. Some California water watchers wonder: What’s taken so long? 

“We’re way past the time when we could ignore climate change,” said Peter Gleick, a climate and water scientist who co-founded the Pacific Institute, a global water think-tank. “The water agencies really need to get on the ball here. Can you tell I’m a little frustrated?” 

The process is complex, requiring a massive expansion of data collection from the state’s snowpack and watersheds, and an overhaul to the forecast calculations. 

“We’ve been forecasting since 1930. This is a complete overhaul,” said Sean de Guzman, manager of the state’s Department of Water Resources’ snow surveys and water supply forecasting section.

Snowpack: How it’s measured and why it matters

When the weather warms and the rain stops, melting snow courses into waterways, then into reservoirs, faucets and sprinklers — supplying California’s homes, farms and wildlife right when they need it most.

To keep close tabs on this precious resource, engineers like de Guzman plunge tubes into the snow to gauge its depth and water content, blanket remote mountains with sensors and weather stations and scan the snow cover from planes flying over watersheds.

De Guzman’s team plugs the snow measurements, along with information about rain and streamflow, into their calculations to forecast how much snow is expected to melt and run off into rivers and reservoirs. The federal California Nevada River Forecast Center calculates its own forecasts in parallel, he said.  

The results are critical for managing California’s precarious water supply year-round. 

Reservoir managers use them to determine when to hold on to water and when to let it flow. 

Operators of state and federal water supplies rely on them to determine how much water to send to the cities, growers and water suppliers dependent on water pumped south through the Delta to hundreds of miles of canals, tunnels and pipelines. 

Weekly forecasts from February through mid-June help the powerful Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water agency in the nation, game out the year ahead — planning how much supplemental water to buy and how much to charge growers.

“Those forecasts drive all the finances in our estimates, when we set rates at the beginning of the year,” said Jose Gutierrez, Westlands’ chief operating officer.

A view of the Sierra's from Zurich Station in Big Pine on March 2, 2021. Photo via iStock/Getty Images
A view of the Sierra Nevada from the Eastern Sierra’s Zurich Station in Big Pine on March 2, 2021. Photo via iStock/Getty Images

Flood control, power generation and maintaining water quality for people, ecosystems and threatened and endangered species all rely on the runoff forecasts. Even outdoor enthusiasts benefit from the snowmelt predictions. “We get a lot of calls saying, ‘Hey, you guys must know when the waterfalls in Yosemite are going to be going,’” Rizzardo said.  

The problem? The forecasts haven’t yet factored in how climate change has altered snowmelt. 

“Climate change,” Rizzardo said, “has thrown a monkey wrench at all this.”

Climate change upends calculations

As climate change drives temperatures ever hotter, the snowpack is retreating up mountain sides to higher altitudes and melting earlier in the season. And the wet season is contracting into a shorter, sharper period of storms.  

The future, said state climatologist Michael Anderson, will continue to bring more rain and less snow and shift the surviving snowpack from the north’s lower peaks to the central and southern Sierra’s higher elevations. The shift will mean having to change water infrastructure to manage snowmelt storage and increased flood risks from rain mixing with snow. 

“If you think of Lake Tahoe, we’ll get to a future where at lake level there won’t be any snow but in perhaps the mountains, there still will be snow,” Anderson said. “And then we watch it start to move upslope.” 

Scientists predict that in the next 35 to 60 years, if carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases continue unchecked, the West’s snowpack could shrink even more substantially and even disappear for a decade or more at a time.

“We’ll get to a future where at lake level there won’t be any snow but in perhaps the mountains, there still will be snow. And then we watch it move upslope.”

Michael Anderson, state climatologist

California already has seen a preview of this future, said Andrew Jones, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

In April 2015, former Gov. Jerry Brown watched as state staff measured a snowpack that didn’t exist — right when it should have been at its peak. It was the height of the last drought, which stretched from 2012 through 2016, and Brown stood in a field patched with dry grass. Behind him rose the bare slopes of what should have been snow-capped peaks. 

At left, Frank Gehrke, Department of Water Resources Chief of Snow Surveys, informs Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. about snow surveys at Phillips Station on April 1, 2015. Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources
Frank Gehrke of the Department of Water Resources shows then-Gov. Jerry Brown how snow is measured at Phillips Station on April 1, 2015. Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources

“To know that this change is happening, and yet we’re all just living our lives and turning on the tap and using water as we always have done…it gives me a sense of appreciation for the fragility of the system that we have,” Jones said.

Though drought grips California once again, the snowpack wasn’t as scarce last year as it was in 2015. It was calculated at about 59 percent of normal in April 2021. But it took only one month for that snowpack to dwindle to 22 percent of normal in May. And, worse still, the rapidly melting snow didn’t refill rivers and reservoirs as expected. 

Instead, it soaked into thirsty soils or disappeared into the air. By May, the runoff forecast for the Sacramento Valley had dropped by about 700,000 acre feet — enough water to supply 2.1 million Southern California households. All told, the forecasts overestimated runoff by 68 percent for the Sacramento River region and by 45 percent or more for major watersheds farther south, according to a state report.  

“That was basically something we had never seen before. We have these various relationships that tell us if we have this much snow, you can expect this much water,” de Guzman said. “And that basically fell apart in 2021.” 

Gleick said the overestimate had massive ramifications for the environment and the year ahead. For instance, when there was less water than projected, operators of the state and federal water projects petitioned regulators to relax requirements aimed at preventing saltwater from tainting key Delta water supplies in order to preserve more water in storage.  

The shortfall was no surprise to Gleick, whose own research in the 1980s warned that climate change would shrink the snowpack. 

“I would have suggested fixing the algorithms by the year 1990. But that didn’t happen,” he said. “So the best time to do it is right now.”  

Turning up the forecasts

Revamping runoff forecasts will require collecting better data about the dwindling snowpack and creating more comprehensive models that better capture the changing conditions.

“It’s an understandable concern, (but) it isn’t easy science,” Rizzardo said.

“What last year did was say, ‘Okay, we just need to kick all this into high gear, and figure out a way to get it done.’”

From left, Andy Reising, Water Resources Engineers in the Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit and Sean de Guzman, Manager of the California Department of Water Resources Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit, conduct the second media snow survey of the 2022 season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on Feb. 1, 2022. Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources
Reising and de Guzman measure the snowpack on Feb. 1, 2022. Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

Better data is already in the works. Ten years ago, the Department of Water Resources teamed up with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to conduct detailed surveys of snow cover from airplanes equipped with a remote sensing device called lidar and other instruments. 

So far, the surveys have been limited to five of the state’s watersheds. Though the partnership with NASA has ended, the list will almost double this year with the addition of the Feather, Yuba, Truckee and Carson rivers.

These measurements will be critical for feeding new, data-hungry models informed by climate factors and incorporating more information about the watersheds themselves, such as vegetation, temperature and soil moisture. 

New technology, including sensors that quickly assess the snowpack’s temperature and how much water it contains, are now being test-driven by the University of California, Berkeley’s Central Sierra Snow Lab and state officials.

The question is whether the scientists will have to start from scratch and build a new model “or are there ways that we can tweak the existing models to really make them more accurate again?” said Andrew Schwartz, the snow lab’s lead scientist and station manager.

“The old models that have been developed for this runoff no longer really apply to today’s climate, because the climate has changed already,” he said. 

“We have these various relationships that tell us if we have this much snow, you can expect this much water. And that basically fell apart in 2021.” 

Sean de Guzman, Department of Water Resources

As part of a pilot project this year, one possible new model will include data from the airborne snow surveys of the Feather River and San Joaquin watersheds, and spit out forecasts that the scientists will compare to their current approach. 

They already tried using machine-learning techniques to weigh factors like atmospheric dryness, soil moisture and temperature, but the multi-year effort yielded only slight improvements, de Guzman said.

This year, the team is working on what he calls a major tuneup, incorporating more recent rain, snow and runoff data that better captures the relationships under climate change. 

“By changing a lot of the datasets that we’re feeding into the models, that will hopefully help give us a better picture of what we’re now seeing,” he said. 

Despite the challenge of forecasting the future, some state officials don’t expect as significant a gap between expectation and reality this year. Although dry conditions persist now, storms late last year built up the snowpack and soaked the earth, priming conditions for more snowmelt to reach reservoirs.

Rizzardo, though, is less optimistic, particularly after the Berkeley snow lab reported a record-setting dry streak. “This is also part of the question mark, because we’re seeing things we’ve never seen before. And so we can’t say with certainty, ‘This is what it’s going to be.’”

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