THE VARIOUS FORMS OF FOG

 

over SB
Fog over Santa Barbara and the harbor

Fog

The fog comes
On little cat feet.

It sits looking
Over harbor and city
On silent haunches
And then moves on

–Carl Sandburg

 

I’ve lived in coastal California for all of my 87 years, so you think by now I would have developed at least a tolerance for the fog which arrives each summer.  But I’m one of those unfortunate people whose moods are dictated by the weather.  Awaking to sunshine fills me with good cheer.  A gray beginning sets a similar mood for the morning.

Yes, I’ve heard the arguments – fog delivers at least some moisture in this driest of seasons during perhaps this most serious of droughts.  And the cloud cover protects plants from the desiccation by the summer sun.

I’m also aware that taking the perspective of a naturalist delivers me from being a victim of moods (moods are nice enough when they are cheerful ones).  I’ve spent the last few days doing research, reacquainting myself with my library including historical books like “Up and Down California,” Brewer’s fascinating account of doing a geographic and geological survey of the state in the 1850’s, and going a century back to the classical account of California’s coast by Richard Henry Dana in “Two Years Before the Mast.”  I’ve also been mining Google for gems of information.

Dana didn’t mention fog as he was more concerned about the winter when the anchored ship could be caught by a southeast storm gale and be blown ashore before they could set sail for the open ocean.

At the risk of sounding pedantic, here are some basic facts.  Our fog – advection fog – comes mostly in the summer months when the Northern Pacific High is in command.  That zone of high pressure that squats over the eastern Pacific, fends off storms that might come in from the north, and establishes summer wind patterns. In the late spring and early summer, the wind picks up speed and blows down the coast.  The wind displaces the warmer surface water causing an upwelling of the deeper, cold water.  When the warmer wind passes over the chilly water, the moist air condenses into tiny liquid droplets suspended in the air, forming fog.

from book
The movement of fog onshore on a typical summer day (“A Naturalist’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Region” Joan Easton Lentz.  Illustrator: Peter Gaede)

Often the fog is drawn inland by the low pressure lying over the hot the Great Central Valley.  The fog usually retreats back to the immediate coast where it may persist all day, and sometimes for days on end.  In Santa Barbara, those foggy days may be called May Gray or June Gloom. In Northern California the winds and chill air at Pt. Reyes makes it one of the foggiest places in the world with an average of 200 foggy days a year.

 

I favor those late summer and early autumn days of exoticdecreasing coastal fogs when the Pacific High begins to slowly shift south allowing for the possibility of an early rain coming down from the north.  Or when humidity sometimes moves north bringing the possibility of a thunderstorm and wonderful cloud effects.  Exotic weather heightens one’s senses.

northernI’m also reading about how coastal fogs along the north coast have allowed the redwood forest to persist.  Once, when the climate was much wetter, redwoods were common over much of the continent.  But as the climate became drier and cooler, the redwood forests retreated to a narrow band along the immediate coast of Northern California visited by ocean fogs in the summer.

I once read that sunny California has more fog than any other state when you consider that the coast in the summer is often foggy and in the winter, damp, ground-hugging tule fogs covback to sbering the Great Central Valley can blot out the sun for days on end until the next rain storm sweeps the fog away for a time.  The so-called radiation fog often follows the rain when the earth is both chilled and damp and the drier air above it condenses, forming fog.  I remember once driving across the Sacramento Valley at night and I could see that the fog came up to the cow’s belly, leaving its head in the clear.

Back to Santa Barbara: In his journal; ”Up and Down California” William Brewer writes on Tuesday, March 12 (1861).  “Still foggy and wet.  This weather is abominable – now for nearly two weeks we have had foggy, damp weather, tramping through wet bushes, riding in damp, foggy air, burning wet wood to dry ourselves, no sun to dry our damp blankets.  I find that it makes some of my joints squeak with rheumatic twinges.  Went out this morning, found it so wet that we had to return to camp”.

Five days later on Sunday Evening, March 17, he writes:  “We have had a clear hot day, after two week’s fog, and have improved the opportunity to dry our blankets and clothes, botanic papers, etc.”

I don’t recall in my four years of living in Santa Barbara of having a foggy spell in March.  What does ring true is the strength of the sun.  Even on foggy days, as the fog begins to thin one can feel the heat of the sun.  I remember being warned as a child, that I could be badly sunburned by the sun in a light fog.

I’m not sure about this, but it’s my impression that the west coast of the continents at our latitudes often have summer coastal fog.  In the case of Peru, Chile and Namibia in Africa, these are deserts with little or no rain, and no surface or groundwater.  A certain Namibian beetle sleeps with its hindquarters raised and in the morning shifts its position to allow the condensed moisture to run into his mouth for a drink.  Incas, living on the barren slopes off the west-facing Andes, after observing that pots under shrubs and small trees filled with fog drip, learned to string up nets made of small mesh which would sift drifting fog, collectinggreen up to a hundred gallons a day.

In the Bay Area where I lived, researchers measured in the rainless summer the equivalent of 10 inches of rain under the pines and eucalyptus along the ridgeline of the foggy Berkeley Hills.  I noticed how on my summer walks in the grasslands, yellow and dry by May, I could count on a circle of fresh green grass within the drip line of each tree.  The long narrow leaves of the eucalyptus and the slender pine needles did an especially efficient job of combing out moisture  from the drifting fog.

Harvesting fog

Why not string a series of nets along Twin Peaks in San Francisco?  Unfortunately such a meager harvest could only supply the needs of a small neighborhood. But there are small villages in the arid west coast of South America and elsewhere, where enough water was collected with fog nets to grow crops, irrigate orchards and have enough left over for personal use.

One such community is Bellavista, a village of 200 people on the dry slopes above Lima, Peru.  With almost no rain, no river, or groundwater, the village had to be served by anto  expensive water trucks from Lima.Lima

Conservationists Kai Tiederman and Anna Lummerich, working with a non-profit supported in part by the National Geographic, showed the villagers how to construct the fog catchers — nylon mesh stretched between poles.  The villagers did the heavy work, carrying sand bags 800 feet up the steep hill to stabilize the poles and to build pools to store the collected water.  With the wind blowing the heavy fog through the nets they can now collect 600 gallons a day.

end 1The newly-planted 700 tara trees will be able to eventually collect their own water.  Tara trees produce valuable tannin.end 2

Okay, I’m convinced.  Bring on the fog and no more grumbling about gray mornings.

Making It Work on the South Coast

I don’t think I could have written these words even two months ago because I was still unreconciled to my move to Santa Barbara. This is NOT my home, I would have told you. And then I would begin my rant. Where are the robins to sing up the dawn? Where are the chickadees chattering in the oaks, or the Great-horned Owls hooting at dusk from the eucalyptus?

Nothing was right. Here, it is a cacophony of crows – an unholy chorus – from dawn to dusk. The creek next to this retirement “campus” is dry as a bone, lacking the lush streamside vegetation to attract the spring singers like the Swainson’s Thrushes, Warbling Vireos, and Wilson’s Warblers that populated my beloved Strawberry Canyon.

American Crow. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, wingbeats.org
American Crow. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, wingbeats.org

Some days, I would imagine sitting on the bench under the sheltering branches of the oak I had planted 60 years ago. Or I would envision myself at the U.C. Botanical Garden, climbing the path up to the Old Roses garden, and to the fence line where I could look up the steep chaparral-covered slope to the bent tree at the top of the hill. Coming down, I would stop to view the Bay in the “V” of the hills. Of course, there would be robins singing everywhere, and the Olive-sided Flycatcher calling from its perch at the top of a redwood.

There’s no cure for this nostalgia other than to acknowledge that I will always look at what’s around me through Berkeley eyes. I don’t want to surrender that perspective. But maybe I could allow myself to consider the virtues of the South Coast, of Santa Barbara where everyone wants to come and visit and — if they could afford to – stay.

A month after I came to live here last September, flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers arrived, just like the ones in Berkeley. The manicured gardens of lawns, palms, and agapanthus beds were just fine with them. They dove into the palms and out again, forever “chipping.” Then a Hermit Thrush took up winter residency beneath the live oaks below my bedroom window. And then a troupe of cheerful White-crowned Sparrows arrived, singing sweetly, but in a different dialect.

White Crowned Sparrow. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, wingbeats.org
White Crowned Sparrow. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, wingbeats.org

My retirement community is just up the hill from Oak Park, one of the scruffier city parks but with some fine live oaks and sycamores. Sycamores are new to me except for the ones I would infrequently see out around Sunol where they favored the flats near streams. They are the true eccentrics in the plant world – no two trees alike. Gravity often has its way with them, pulling long branches in deep curves that almost reach the ground, while other limbs look to the sky and grow upward in search of the sun. The trunks near the ground are often covered with thick, brown bark that gives way to thin plates of bark that continually shed, revealing patches of pale brown, gray, olive, and bright russet in newly exposed areas. I am always reminded of a pinto pony. The upper limbs — rising high above the companion somber live oaks — are almost pure white, especially stunning against a blue sky.

Sycamores are attractive to birds partly for the opportunities they provide the cavity nesters. The larger holes invite woodpeckers and owls, with the smaller holes attracting House Wrens, nuthatches, bluebirds, and many others. Certain species of hummingbirds gather the down under the leaves to line their nest, while those winged beauties, the tiger swallow butterflies, leave behind eggs that become the voracious caterpillars that find the big palmate leaves to their liking.

 

Sycamore Limbs.
Sycamore Limbs.

Mission Creek, considered the only perennial stream in the area, borders the park. But this part of the creek, a mile or so from where it enters the ocean, is always dry this time of the year. Only once during this record dry winter did a good rain fill Mission Creek with a wild white-and-tan froth of racing water. From its bank, I could hear the torrent rearranging rocks in the creek bed. The next day, the flow had slowed to a few reflective pools connected by a trickle of running water. One day later, the water had disappeared – gone! And it’s been dry ever since.

I walk down the hill to the park most days, crossing a bridge where I often stop to examine the placard describing how the creek bed has been restored by removing tons of concrete that had acted as a barrier to the passage of the endangered Southern Steelhead Trout. In better times, the fish might have entered the creek from the ocean during winter storms, ascending the creek to spawn in the upper watershed where water remains year round. But not this year. Even the upper watershed in the Botanic Garden has been reduced to a few stagnating pools, with only the thinnest trickle of water in certain places.

Sometimes I drive up into the foothills to visit the Botanic Garden, which like the one in Tilden Park is devoted exclusively to plants native to California. The upper part of canyon has its share of live oaks, small bays, and towering sycamores, but none of the dense riparian vegetation to attract the streamside breeders that fill Strawberry Canyon with their joyous songs.

Many of the birds in the south coast canyons are the ones you might expect to see inland in the Bay Area – Acorn Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatch (instead of Red-breasted), Phainopeplas, sometimes Canyon Wrens, and Wood Pewees. Stellar’s Jays are seldom seen in the lower elevations. Swainson’s Thrushes pass through in migration, only breeding in the rare streamside where the vegetation conceals this shy bird that mostly reveals its presence through its song.

Acorn Woodpecker. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, www.wingbeats.org
Acorn Woodpecker. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, http://www.wingbeats.org

Today I visited such a place – Atascadero Creek in nearby Goleta, which is tidal below its check dam. But above the dam, its fresh water section supports a jungle of willows, cottonwoods, a few small live oaks, and the first Big-leafed Maple I’ve seen since coming south. I heard two singing Swainson’s Thrushes, several Wilson’s Warblers, a singing Black-headed Grosbeak with a begging juvenile.

Here at the retirement place, House Finches continue to build nests on any flat surface and the Lesser Goldfinches empty my feeder in a day. But the Orange-crowned Warblers, which sang until a week ago in the park, have ceased singing, confirming that the summer doldrums will soon be upon us with few surprises in the bird world and the uninspiring sequence of daily fog and sun.

Time to look to the local beaches, where shorebirds are beginning to move along the coast. Shorebirds, mostly gray or brown during the winter, are my weak link. With my Sibley open, I’m trying to bone up on leg length and color, beak differences, feeding habits. Best idea is to find a walking companion more knowledgeable than I.