Putting the life back in science fiction

California in the High Altithermal Part 9: Death Valley Dreams

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading articles (such as this one) about how anomalously warm Alaska and other parts of the Arctic were this winter.  Someone even said that if California had warmed half as much as the Arctic did, we’d be in trouble.

Well, we did warm about half as much.  By my calculations, San Diego was 9°F/5°C warmer than average for the month of February.  This turned what is normally our wettest month into a dry month, with tumbleweeds sprouting in February instead of June, and flowers blooming months early.  The heat squelched our El Niño rains, with persistent high pressure forcing the rains north to flood northern California and Oregon.  Since I’m not a climatologist, I can’t say authoritatively that this is the new normal, but given the fossil record of rain forests in Oregon and the models of a hot dry So Cal, I’ll go out on a little bitty limb and say it sure could be.  But I’m not sure whether we know that we’re in trouble yet.

Still, some rain did get through, so my wife and I took a three day weekend to go up to Death Valley and see the tail end of the “superbloom,” and all I got was this lousy blog idea.  Actually, I had fun and got a lot of cool pictures of individual flowers and landscapes as well, but the massive fields of flowers have faded away.

As I drove that narrow ribbon of highway through the valley of death, across the slopes of alluvial fans and the toes of bajadas , looking out at saline dry lakes, I started musing about whether this was the future for Southern California: oppressively hot (actually, it was only 99°F/38°C, so not at all bad) and barren, with life confined to oases.  Perhaps there’s an element of truth there?

One truth that Death Valley makes clear is that water is life, and the rest is details.   The little flecks of civilization cling to pockets of fresh water: Furnace Springs, Stovepipe Wells, with tiny ribbons of road between them.  The superbloom of annual flowers was another version of this response, of millions of plants taking advantage of a bit extra rainwater in the soil to pull it out of the soil, build it into their tissues, live fast, die young, and leave some beautiful seeds.  The valley’s sparse shrubs have a lot of space between them, just so they can harvest enough water.   They’re dormant through most of the year, growing only when there’s water available.  There are also little, often salty, oases, like Salt Creek, a little trickle about twice the salinity of seawater that has it’s own subspecies of inch-long pupfish that lives nowhere else.

So far as I know, those fish live in Pleistocene groundwater that’s bubbled up through the salt.  That’s true for all the permanent water in the area: the springs are remnants of the last ice age, when Death Valley was covered by lakes.  There’s a fair amount of water under the desert, but those aquifers are not being replenished.  The reason the springs they support have lasted 12,000 years and more is that they’re small in comparison to the size of their parent aquifers.    As you might imagine, everyone from ranchers and farmers to the city of Las Vegas has been trying to suck that groundwater out, but unfortunately it wouldn’t quench their thirst, only prolong their short struggle with the desert.

Even the landscape is shaped by water.  Those alluvial fans, which coalesced into bajadas, are the remnants of rare flash floods scouring everything from dust to boulders out of the high mountains and dumping them on the desert below.  There’s little or no vegetation on the slopes, no loamy soil to let the rain soak in, percolate into groundwater, and come out in springs.  Instead rainstorms scour, causing mudslides and flash flood that pull dirt, rock, and debris with them.  Ultimately, there’s no route for water to get to the sea out in the Mojave, so whatever is left of the floodwater pools in the dry lake beds and evaporates, leaving the salts behind.  That’s what happens with rare rains and scanty vegetation: the mountains erode and form alluvial fans at their base.

Closer to the coast, even scrubby chaparral vegetation is pretty good at catching rain, letting it soak into the ground, releasing it into springs.  Mudslide erosion happens after fires, or where people got stupid about clearing slopes, and the rain hits bare soil and rock.   Still, as southern California gets hotter, the vegetation will die back, the bare slopes will increase, and the rains will cause more erosion.  Keep this up long enough, and mountains in California that aren’t currently in the desert will show their rocks as they lose their plants, their leaf litter, their organic soils.  Steep gullies and canyons will shed flash floods, alluvial fans will form at their mouths, and the shape of the land will change, even if the mostly dry streams occasionally drain to the sea.  For many millennia after that, even after the rains return and the slopes are revegetated, the remnants of alluvial fans and bajadas will tell a story of a desert past.

Before groundwater extraction and silliness like the golf course at Furnace Creek (and a swimming pool, too!  In Death Valley!  Like this is a sane form of tourism!), the desert Indians mostly lived by springs, venturing away to hunt, gather, and trade, but bound by water.  Indeed, their ancestors had first settled the area when it was covered by lakes, adapting, then adapting, then adapting again as the climate warmed, the Pleistocene megafauna died out, the lakes went away, and the desert grew hotter and drier.  They’re still there, even in a little Indian village in Death Valley.

But their key lesson is about the critical importance of oases, something I’ve brought up before.  One of the most permanently damaging things our we will do in the next few decades is to suck the desert aquifers, try to keep Las Vegas and places like it going, rather than letting them dry up and blow away like Rhyolite, a mining town on the edge of Death Valley that lasted only about 12 years, but held 11,000 people at its population peak.   Without water from the last ice age, there’s no place for even small bands of people (Shoshone, Anglo, Latino, or other), to take refuge during the furnace summers of the High Altithermal.  Without water, the deserts are mostly uninhabitable.  Uninhabitable, that is, except for when the El Niño storms break through, put a brief flush of green on the landscape, and give humans and animals a chance to sneak in from the edges, maybe cross to greener pastures elsewhere if they’re fast enough and daring enough to cross before it dries out, and willing to wait years on the other side to return.   Without water, with increasing heat, the deserts will spread.

Oh, and a final note:  we stayed in Lone Pine, a hundred miles away from Death Valley in the Owens Valley.  The Owens River is running, but it would be a creek anywhere else in the world.  There’s a sheen of water on parts of Owens Lake, but there were also blowing dust storms while we were there where it’s still dry and saline (the water’s there to try to keep the dust down, since it’s fairly toxic).  Seeing it now, I doubt Owens Lake will refill any time soon, even if LA stops sucking water out of the Owens to feed its lawns and pools.  There’s less snow melt to feed it, and more evaporation to dry the lake.  The town of Lone Pine, north of Lake Owens, has a nice hotel and some decent restaurants.  It’s also anomalously warm, as a retired search and rescue worker told me (his wife runs the Alabama Hills cafe).  A decade or two ago, Lone Pine would have been freezing at night in March, perhaps with snow on the ground.  Now people are out in tee-shirts and the late spring wildflowers are blooming.  There’s just a bit of snow on the High Sierras to the west.  It’s at least ten degrees warmer here too, just like in the Arctic.

Welcome to the future.  It’s breaking out all over.

Yes, this is part of that ongoing series.   Here are links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5Part 6Part 7, and Part 8.


16 Comments so far
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Late March in the Central Valley and we are still getting rain. I’m not complaining, but it is a little unusual. I assume this is due to El Nino (which didn’t seem to bring the promised deluge either).

Comment by Alex Tolley

Glad you got some rain. We saw some spectacular clouds over in the desert, but it was dry and windy.

Comment by Heteromeles

Hi Frank. I assume you have pertinent news aggregators and in case you haven’t seen this item from a geoscience journal, here is the link from a Guardian story:http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/21/carbon-emission-release-rate-unprecedented-in-past-66m-years.
Basically itn studying thperiod after the dino extinction up to the PETM period about 56 mil yrs ago, the researchers concluded that annual maximums for C was in the vicinity of 1 B tons and as you have noted we are in the 10 B+ range of C emissions…… just for anthropogenic emissions. They seem to think the increase then was probably methane compounds. If we continue our present course and kick in the methane clathrates and hydrates going fwd, it will be Katie bar the door with no old models applicable. Your comment?

Comment by cal48koho

My comment is that February 2016 was unexpectedly and freakishly warm.

Because of that, climate bad news is (suddenly, finally) getting more press. The news has been bad for years, but it’s not clear whether it’s going apocalyptic because that’s what the studies are saying, or it’s that the reporters have finally slipped their chains thanks to the bad weather we’ve been having, and they’re making sensational claims.

I can’t tell at this point, because I haven’t read more than the abstract on this paper.

From the abstract and the news coverage, what the researchers did was to infer how fast the PETM warmed up, based on ocean sediments. It’s an indirect measure, not a direct measure, but it seems to show that it took awhile (4,000 years in their study). They’re also getting information that the PETM release was rather smaller than earlier models (5oC instead of 8-12oC), and using this information to say that we’re blowing GHG faster.

That’s my understanding of what they found.

Earlier studies have claimed that the PETM warmup could have happened in decades if not 10-20 years, and they were also based on sedimentary studies. I honestly haven’t followed the literature closely enough to understand why these lower numbers were blown off. It’s likely they are wrong for some reason, but it could also be that they simply came at the wrong time and were ignored for political reasons. Right now, there’s intense (and good) political pressure for everyone to do something serious about climate change, and that’s affecting reporting.

A couple of other notes: global average annual temperatures have long been postulated to spike mostly at the poles and mostly in the winter. In an icehouse world, there’s a strong temperature gradient from the tropics to the poles. In a greenhouse world, that gradient mostly goes away. The way that gradient disappears is for the poles to heat up more than the equator, and for the winters to heat up more than the summers (which can get >30oC during Arctic summer heatwaves even now).

The methane mess is worrisome to me for two reasons: the big one is that no one seems to know how much methane could be released from the Arctic, from permafrost and from subsea clathrates (estimates range from unexpectedly low to omgwe’reallgoingtodie). IIRC not all the methane in the permafrost can release, because the permafrost gets up to one kilometer thick in places, and it’s not all going to melt even with 100,000 years of ice free soil above it, IIRC. Anyway, they’re working on quantifying methane pools, and right now they’re one of the biggest unknown human extinction guns sitting on the planet The subsea clathrate problem is compounded, because bacteria in the water seem to be pretty good at metabolizing methane before it gets to the surface, and they emit CO2. The problem, though, is that CO2 ends up in the ocean, which makes it harder for the ocean to absorb what we put into the air. I’m not sure how this all plays out, but the worst scenario is that the ocean buffering capacity gets so overwhelmed that a lot of methane gets into the air, and temperatures really spike for a decade or so. That could be really bad.

And if you want to get really concerned, getting CO2 into the deep ocean depends on surface waters making it into the abyss (diffusion’s a lot slower). What happens when the downwelling part of thermohaline circulation shuts down, as Hansen is claiming is already happening?

Hope that clarifies the confusion. Yes we should be worried, yes we should be happy that there’s alarmist reporting, and yes, we should all do whatever we can to keep the CO2 underground.

Comment by Heteromeles

Hansen is upping the ante with speed of sea level rise and other effects such as superstorms and changing ocean circulation.

The speed of sea level rise may make coastal city protection much more difficult to achieve. These need time to finance and build, If he is right, this will need a crash program. Almost certainly some cities will not try and just be abandoned. I hope European cities don’t do that as the loss of culture in the architecture will be a big loss.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Agreed. I read the draft of Hansen’s paper back when it first came out, and I’m planning on reading the revised version. Unfortunately, places like Shanghai and especially Venice are going to be difficult to protect.

Comment by Heteromeles

Has anyone looked at the possibility of putting dam/barriers at the Gibraltar Straits to protect the cities around the Med? It would be heroic engineering, dwarfing even the once proposed bridge, but just maybe cheaper than protecting every city along the coast. While the depth is 900 m, we don’t need to build a wall to hold back water at that depth, just a barrier to prevent water from moving. Only the top few tens of meters need to hold back the Atlantic waters with locks to allow ship passage.

Comment by Alex Tolley

The New Scientist has a piece on mega-engineering projects with the old dam idea linked:

I read the Quora comments. While useful, they were somewhat general and followed the predictable ideas. One could make many of teh comments fit almost any large project that would disrupt the existing geography and environment.

On another note, I see that Ivanpah might be in trouble. The same article noted that solar thermal appears no longer competitive with PV in the US. That is a surprise, but rather welcome IMO. If Ivanpah was to be mothballed, what are the requirements to restore the desert?

Comment by Alex Tolley

So far as Ivanpah goes, shutting it off would be a really good start. As for restoration…oy. I don’t know a lot about desert restoration, but water is critical to plant growth, and not much happens during dry years (meaning, nothing happens unless there’s a big rain year). The Mojave is a place where Patton’s tank tracks from WWII training exercises are still clearly visible. It’s going to take a long time to either repair it or to let it heal on its own. Fortunately, I do know that people were working to conserve/restore native habitat in tiny patches within the Ivanpah plant from the beginning, so it’s not entirely a wasteland in there. Just mostly.

Comment by Heteromeles

All of this new information makes me think that eastern inland cities are definitely going to be an interesting place to be in the next hundred years. Obviously this is coming from the fact that I live around the Great Lakes, where projections into the future show much more uncertainty in both directions (from what I’ve been able to decipher), and I’d like to think we’ll benefit the short term. But I could imagine that a lot of folks, from Cadillac Desert people to arrivals from the coast, will flock to any inland city they can and will find that living in the upper Mississippi and the Great Lakes to be a good course of action. Then again, if we go with the idea of peek everything as your scenario touches upon, then the burgeoning East inland settlements will become exceptionally terrible in the slightly farther future.

Comment by Whachamacallit

I do hope you’re right. I recently found that someone else had done a “black flag weather” map (here, from this article) that came up with a different danger zone, centered on Illinois. I’ve been busy with other stuff, so I haven’t tried to work out whether these maps are congruent or not, but at the moment, I’d aim for the wetter spots in the Rockies. Personally, I hope the Great Lakes and upper Midwest remain habitable (heck, I hope the whole continent remains habitable), but unfortunately we’re now dealing with dueling models.

Comment by Heteromeles

Off, definitely did not find that little black flag map, I was mostly focusing on what’ll happen to the Great Lakes themselves. But I think I do have to make clear that the “growth” that I’m talking about would all likely happen in the 21st century and then fade out to oblivion the oncoming years. Maybe it’ll turn out that by 2200 there’ll be old and declining city states around the Great Lakes moaning about how they used to be top dog, while some Eastern Rocky state is actually growing out.

Comment by Whachamacallit

I looked at the maps on Bloomberg that you linked to and there is some interesting stuff there. The text doesn’t talk much about the individual maps, but from the looks of them, there’s a good deal of variability in where the too hot to live in areas will be in the future. The last two maps especially are curious. First the map is all green and then the eastern US turns all red with the west all green, even down to the Mexican border. Assuming that temperatures will continue to go up everywhere, fluctuations in black flack weather seem to have more to do with humidity than with temperature. If that’s true then it implies that while temp increases monotonically, moisture of the air fluctuates wildly.
My other comment on the maps is that they are unfortunately just focused on the US. The people publishing the articles seem to assume that everyone will just stay in place while the weather gets worse or if they do decide to migrate, they will only migrate within the US. I imagine that Canada will have fewer black flag days than the US and that Mexico will have more. My guess is that the general trend will be for people to move north across to get to wherever the weather is tolerable and that that may involve crossing borders.
The maps also seem to imply that the US will continue to exist with its current borders 180 years hence. This kind of seems to imply that there will be no collapse of industrial civilization in the next two centuries and that even if there is, the US will continue as a nation state and can avoid fragmentation even in the face of financial and ecological collapse. The worst the author of the article seems to be able to imagine is a 3 percent decline in worker productivity. Perhaps they need to read a copy of Hot Earth Dreams.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

There’s a whole large chapter section on this in Hot Earth Dreams. The tl;dr version is that the map of where high heat, high humidity could be lethal isn’t a function of latitude. For example, that weather has already showed up around the coasts of the Arabian and Red Seas. What I’m going to have to investigate is that the map in the Bloomberg report and the global map I used for Hot Earth Dreams don’t agree, but one’s a risk map and the other one’s a maxima map, so it’s possible they’re showing the same thing in different ways. Unfortunately, in Hot Earth Dreams I guessed that the Great Lakes area would be relatively safe, which is not what the Bloomberg report shows. This is one area where further research is definitely warranted.

Comment by Heteromeles

Some pictures of what flash floods in death valley do to cars. The last big rain was apparently in 2004.
Also a link here to housing in Trona CA, a town in Panamint Valley just to the west of Death Valley for a preview of what towns in sothern CA might look like after a prolonged drought. video tours of Trona also available on youtube.
ah, the romance of desert living.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

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