– Kin Hubbard
The party’s over.
Like a convict whose sentence got lost in the clerical shuffle, we were braced for the bad and were given the good: a stretch of clear November skies to kick off the monsoon season. But Mother Nature has stumbled onto our paperwork. It’s time to serve the sentence. It’s time to get wet. Out at sea a cortege of clouds is assembling and getting itself pointed down the time-honored parade route. Straight at us.
We should see this as a good thing. Our Golden State, no tropical rainforest under the soggiest of conditions, could use a thorough dousing. Northern California’s rainfall total for 2008-09 came to only 78 percent of normal – on the heels of 77 percent in 2007-08 and 63 percent in 2006-07. Pray that scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration got it right when back in July they predicted an El Niño winter for 2009-10. How wet will this El Niño get? The jury’s still out, but don’t leave your umbrella at home.
It might be too much to ask East County folk to pray for rain – especially those involved in winter soccer leagues. But it shouldn’t be too much to ask us to pray for snow. Lots of it. In the mountains, that is. A deep and enduring Sierra snowpack, which accounts for 40 percent of California’s fresh water, means a healthier Delta. One reason our Delta is in crisis is the increasing influx of salt water from the Pacific and decreasing fresh water runoff from the Sierra. As the sea level rises and the Sierra snowpack thins, the squeeze on the Delta – the West Coast’s largest freshwater estuary – will only get worse. We East Countyites should be the first to hop onto the harsh-winter bandwagon.
Need another reason to be dreaming of a wet Christmas? Those magnificent clouds, of course. As winter clouds roll in, sky memories are awakened and new memories made. From the Ridge Trail at Antioch’s Black Diamond Mines I’ve seen the December sky become an ocean. On its vastness sailed an armada of cumulus in disciplined formation like an invasion fleet bearing down on an enemy coastline. In January from the Miwok Trail at Brentwood’s Round Valley I’ve seen a feather of whitest cirrus suspended in the delicate updraft of dawn. And from Big Break in Oakley I’ve witnessed a sunset sky straight out of the Book of Job, spread out “hard as a molten mirror.”
I know, I know. It’s easy to rhapsodize about the beauty of clouds from the safe haven of East County. In our microclimate no mighty rivers escape their banks; no mudslides bury our homes. Better yet, no sub-zero temperatures crack our water pipes; no blizzards send our cars careening into ditches. Winter in East County: if this is as bad as it gets, we’ve got it good. Residents of the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas might take a less upbeat view of rainfall. When clouds are given names (Katrina, Rita and Wilma come immediately to mind), aesthetics tend to go out the window as swiftly as those clouds break through it.
If clouds are hazardous to our health, they’re also indispensable to life on Earth. Four and a half billion years ago not a single cloud graced the skies of our planet. Earth was a sphere of molten rock, a victim of countless high-speed collisions of asteroids, planetoids and comets. Its oceans were red, not blue. The collisions tapered off and Earth, like a pastry whisked out of the oven, cooled and its magma ocean formed a crust. Then it happened: the invisible gas we call water vapor escaped from the crust and condensed in Earth’s primitive atmosphere. The first clouds were born.
Those primordial clouds lashed our planet with rains that cooled the surface further and flooded its hollows to form the first seas. Then, about three billion years ago, another miracle took place: the seas gave birth to single-celled organisms. Life on Earth was off and running.
Speaking of miracles, a cloud is not what it seems. To our eyes a cloud appears airy but tangible, like cotton candy. In fact, a cloud is nearly an optical illusion. When warm air rich in water vapor rises it expands, cools and condenses onto the tiny particles of dust that inhabit our atmosphere, forming miniscule droplets around the particles. It takes only a few billion of these droplets to accumulate before voilà! A visible cloud takes shape. Direct sunlight, containing all the colors of the spectrum (which added together equal white) reflects off those billions of floating droplets in perfect balance, showing no shift toward any color of the spectrum. That’s why clouds, in their unblemished state, are white.
It’s December, time for the canvas of our lives to be embellished with light and music and cheer; time for the canvas of the sky to be brushed with mare’s tails and piled high with anvil heads, stained with crimson and magenta. Things are looking up. And so should we.