After a rainless January and February, we were excited to learn that a storm was moving our way. I read that it was being carried down the coast by our old friend the “jet stream,” that fast-moving river of air moving from east to west which circulates around the globe often delivering weather systems to our coast. Or at least it used to.
The possibility of a storm deserved a morning sky watch. Soon after sunrise, I stepped outside on my balcony and aimed my camera at the sky and would continue to do so at hourly intervals until noon. As a long-time sky watcher (or storm watcher) in the Bay Area, the evidence was not encouraging.
Though winter storms generally form in the Gulf of Alaska and move down the West Coast, the winds that accompany them blow counterclockwise, so approaching storms are preceded by winds from the southeast. This morning the wind blew consistently from the northeast and was cold and dry, rather than moist and mild.
What I loved about most winter storms was the buildup that preceded the arrival of the storm itself. From my Bay Area hilltop house, I could scan the horizon from the south of San Francisco north past Mt. Tamalpais to Sonoma County. Not much escaped my attention.
The classical winter storm usually begins with high cirrus clouds often in fantastical shapes like wispy feathers. The clouds spread across the sky from north to south. At some point the wind begins, fluky at first before settling into gusts from the southeast growing in strength as the clouds thickened and lowered.
After years of living in Berkeley, I knew the wind direction without looking. An early October storm carried the strong, acidic odor of cooking tomatoes coming from the Heinz catsup plant in southwest Berkeley. If the wind was blowing from the northwest, it would carry the strong petroleum odors coming from the Chevron distillery in Richmond.
In Santa Barbara, where I have lived for 10 years, I smell mostly the odor of cooking tortillas and the scent of flowers. Sometimes the alarming smell of burning chaparral tells me there is a fire in the mountains. When the wind blows from the northwest during in the long summer, the air smells vaguely like ammonia or slightly salty of kelp drying on the beach. It feels heavy and damp.
I’ve often wondered why I am so exhilarated just before a storm. I dash around, bringing in outdoor furniture, rolling up outdoor shades and tying them tight. Hankering for the feel of soil, I plant that final sixpack of pansies ahead of the rain.
Now I’ve learned the likely cause of this joyous energy – negative ions. Negative ions associated with clouds and wind facilitate the transfer of oxygen to the cells. No wonder I’m so exhilarated. After a storm has passed, denied this extra oxygen, I descend into what I’ve always thought of as a post-storm slump.
None of this energy was associated with today’s morning’s storm watch which began with a few isolated clumps of white clouds and a wind that never shifted around to the southeast. Instead of the air warming as it usually does with an approaching storm, the wind rattling in the dry foliage was cold and odorless. By noon the clouds had mostly disappeared leaving only a few shards to help color the sunset.
Later I learned that the storm track was inland, bringing a dusting of snow to the higher coastal peaks while delivering generous, dry fluffy snow to the Sierra. I was disappointed after high hopes for a good rain, but I did enjoy the variety – a welcome relief from the still warm air from sunup to sunset.
TWO BOOKS FOR THE SKY WATCHER
The first book, sumptuously illustrated with clouds from around the world is titled: “The Cloud Collector’s Handbook,” by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. It is the official publication of The Cloud Appreciation Society. The Brits do love their weather. Some photos and descriptions are of familiar clouds. One is so rare you have to travel to the north-east corner of Australia to see it.
The second book is “Reading the Clouds: how you can forecast the weather,” by Oliver Perkins. He is another Brit, a sailor for whom knowing the weather is critical. One reason for “having your head in the clouds” is that they are full of valuable and interesting information.