As I type this, rain is coming down in sheets outside my house. In the last 24 hours, my location (southeast Carlsbad) has received over 2″ of rain. Other places in the county that I follow have received similarly prodigious amounts of rain: Palomar Mountain, 9″; Borrego Springs, 2″; Julian, 5″; the Santa Rosa Plateau, 8.5″. And the storm is far from over.
All through the day, I’ve been checking the radar, refreshing the comment section at the outstanding WeatherWest blog, and obsessively looking at updates on the various National Weather Service Facebook and Twitter accounts. As I sit here in the throws of my obsession, resisting the urge to live Tweet/Facebook every single detail I come across, I ask myself, “How did it come to this?”
In 2011, I embarked on a solo camping trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. I arrived just before heavy rain settled in, and I had just enough time to pitch the tent before the water started falling. Undeterred, I hiked to the Emerald Pools, where I saw a waterfall spilling into the uppermost pool with snowflakes melting just above my head. As the storm cleared out, I drove up to the Canyon Overlook Trail, and watch as the clouds drifted away from the canyon, revealing the snow-caked West Temple. Dozens of waterfalls spilled from every hanging canyon, and the exhilaratingly clean and fresh desert air reinvigorated me from the long drive in.
On this trip, I learned a very valuable lesson: wet weather makes for beautiful hiking.
I learned a very different lesson over the following 6 years, during which time I hiked through the worst drought in California’s recorded history, and perhaps the worst drought in over 1,000 years. Over the course of this drought, I began to understand that climate change was occurring at an accelerated pace, and the impacts on weather around the globe were leading to unprecedented impacts on habitats. Across the Sierra, hundreds of millions of trees succumbed to drought and bark beetle attacks. Wildfires became more frequent and devastating, and the wildfire season now begins earlier and ends later. The evidence of climate change and the lack of weather that helped me get hooked on hiking in the first place was impossible to ignore.
As that period of time wore on, I began to follow Weather West. The blog breaks down what’s going on with California climate, and it occasionally ties that weather back to the changing climate. The comment section produces a huge amount of additional information, and there are few places on the internet where so much good information combines with a great online culture. I began learning about long-term forecasting, model performance, the Madden-Julian Oscillation, and the distinctions between weak, moderate, and strong El Nino’s and their correlation with California weather patterns. I’m no expert, but I learn a bit more every day.
Following the weather has thus become a crucial part of my hiking experience. I check forecasts regularly, and I follow upcoming patterns for several weeks before the weather actually comes to fruition. Such activity prepares me in important ways that have enhanced my enjoyment and safety in hiking in several important ways:
I Prepare for Adverse Conditions
Heat and cold produce a number of ailments that, together, represent some of most serious and common injuries for hikers. Weather forecasts tell me not only where I should hike (no desert in July!), but also when to hike. For instance, if the forecast high is 90 in Escondido, but it will be under 75 until 10 a.m., I can still get in 6-8 miles if I start at 7 a.m. Or, if rain is going to fall on Thursday, but I know it won’t start until 1 p.m., I can adjust my trail time accordingly to avoid cold weather and muddy trails.
I’ve Got a Pretty Good Idea of Snowpack and Wildflower Projections
Because I follow weather across the state, and because I now have a number of tools that tell me accumulated yearly rainfall, snowpack depth, etc, I have a good idea of snowfall numbers in the Sierra, which tells me what conditions might be like in spring and summer. I also can tell months out what the bloom might be like in the deserts. This helps with long term planning so that I can time out when conditions will be ideal. I’ve gotten really good at this, and can mostly plan for things like peak run-off in the Sierra for waterfalls in Yosemite or when wildflowers in Joshua Tree may begin blooming.
Weather Trends Help Me to Understand Why Things Are as They Are
Why does Palomar Mountain have a beautiful coniferous forest despite its location in a semi-arid region? Why is there desert 5 linear miles to the east? Why does one part of San Diego have beautiful oak trees, while the other is all scrub? Why does one slope have dense vegetation, while the other slope is grassy and scraggly shrubs? Understanding how weather works as well as certain other physical tendencies (slope aspect, rain shadowing, etc), develop a deeper appreciation for the various microclimates and habitat variations that make Southern California such an interesting, diverse place to hike.
I Continue to Develop My Understanding of Long Term Patterns
I enjoy this both because I like to learn, but also because it helps me to understand how habitats are going to evolve. I’m not just documenting trails when I am out there. I’m documenting the impacts of climate change. I’ve already seen a lot change first hand, as many places I’ve hiked have burned down, or many trees in various forests have died due to drought. As a witness to all of this, it helps me to understand what’s happening and why, which enables me to help relay that information to other people.
So, you may think the weather isn’t a big thing to worry about, especially here in San Diego, but if you’re a serious hiker, I highly recommend investing the time to learn as much as you can about it. Not only does it help you prepare in the short term and long term, but it helps you to develop a deeper appreciation for how things change and for how things got there in the first place.