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UCSB Scientists See End to “Normal” Climate

From the Independent in Santa Barbara, a story I pulled together on two young scientists exploring the data underlying the megadrought in which SoCal finds itself today:

By Kit Stolz
Mon Sep 19, 2022 | 4:49pm

In August, Governor Gavin Newsom and officials from the Department of Water Resources released a new Water Supply Strategy, saying that because of California’s “hotter, drier climate,” the state needed to find at least 10 percent more water to supply its farms, cities, and industry by 2040. 

“We are experiencing extreme, sustained drought conditions in California and across the American West caused by hotter, drier weather,” states the plan. “Our warming climate means that a greater share of the rain and snowfall we receive will be absorbed by dry soils, consumed by thirsty plants, and evaporated into the air.”

The plan says that steadily rising temperatures will overcome even a year or two of better-than-average or average rainfall in Southern California — as in 2018 and 2019 — and will not close what state officials call an “evaporative gap” that threatens California’s water supply.

This new state plan follows the climate science on “aridification.” That’s the scientific term for the “drying trend” that young climate scientist Samantha Stevenson of UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Engineering identified this year in an extensive global study of the 21st-century hydroclimate

Danielle Touma | Credit: Courtesy

Stevenson said that she wanted to provoke new thinking about what we call drought.

“Drought is already normal in much of the western United States and other parts of the world, such as western Europe,” Stevenson said. “Part of the reason I wrote the paper was to try to say that we need to think about what we mean when we say ‘drought,’ because we’ve been using these definitions based on expectations from 40 years ago. What happens if you know the drought is never going to end?”

Stevenson’s work finds that “the soil moisture changes are so large that conditions that would be considered a megadrought” in western Europe and North America will become average. Stevenson said that the team’s modeling shows that the drying trend has in fact already emerged from the data in our region. What scientists call “megadrought” has become our norm.

Peter Gleick, a prominent researcher in water and climate in California at the Pacific Institute since the 1980s, seconded Stevenson’s finding that the concept of a “normal” climate has become profoundly misleading in the West.

“In general, the science about increasing drought severity and “aridification” is strong and worrisome, and builds on concerns about climate and water that scientists have been raising for literally decades,” Gleick said. “The climate is changing. What used to be normal is no longer normal, and we’re not approaching a new, stable normal — a ‘new normal.’ Rather we’re entering a period of rapid, unstable changes, and we’re not adequately prepared.”

An example of the breakdown of climate normality leading to rapid, unstable changes in the West could be found right next door to Stevenson in the work of Danielle Touma, her post-doctoral researcher at the Bren School last year, who this year published with Stevenson and others a paper on the deadly debris flows and floods that can occur when a deluge follows a firestorm.

This happened in January 2018 in Montecito, a scene that shocked Stevenson, Touma’s mentor at the Bren School, to the core. 

“I moved to Santa Barbara in October of 2017, two months before the Thomas Fire. I’m from the East, but I’ve lived in the West a long time, and I thought I knew about fires from places like Colorado,” Stevenson said. “But then I got to California and the Thomas Fire happened. It was apocalyptic — very scary. And then the rainstorm happened and the debris flows and it was kind of a wake-up call for me. I wondered how climate change would affect these sort of ‘compound events.’ And then Danielle arrived and was actually interested in quantifying that.”

Touma said that she was unusual as a climate researcher in that she had experience with both extreme fire weather and extreme rainfall events. Despite her familiarity with the data, she herself was surprised by the findings from the climate models, which show a 100 percent increase in such “compound events” in California by the end of the century, and a 700 percent increase in the Pacific Northwest. The study finds that extreme fire weather events will be followed within five years by three extreme rainfall events in the same locations in the West 90 percent of the time.

That means that this century, extreme wildfires in the West will usually be followed in short order by extreme rain, with the potential for massive damage. Daniel Swain, a colleague of Touma’s at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, described the significance of her study.

Samantha Stevenson | Credit: Courtesy

“The risk of post-fire hydrologic hazards is not just increasing because we’re seeing more intense wildfire burning conditions, although we are and that’s part of the story,” Swain said. “The other half of the story is that the very most extreme precipitation events are likely to increase rapidly as well. And so you put these two and two together, and we’re getting more extreme wildfires on the one hand, and more extreme precipitation on the other hand.”

“These kinds of signals are emerging a lot earlier than you would think,” Touma said, speaking gently of potential disasters. Both Touma and Stevenson said that they did not intend to become climate scientists earlier in their careers, but were drawn to the field for idealistic reasons.

“I didn’t start out as a climate scientist; I was an astronomer when I first went to grad school,” Stevenson said. “I wanted to tried to understand those big questions in space, but I found that given the magnitude of the climate crisis that was already unfolding in 2006, that those questions aren’t the ones we need to be focusing on when things were literally starting to heat up. I wanted to do science that will actually help humanity in some way.”

Touma began her career as a civil engineer interested in designing water systems, but when she began to look into the design work, she discovered that engineers had not adequately integrated the climate models to understand the impact on streams and rivers since the 1970s.

“So when I went to do my PhD, I decided to focus on climate change and its impacts,” she said, adding that Stevenson was the first woman mentor she had had in her career.

“It was really important for me to have that mentorship,” she said “Not only because Sam’s a woman, but because she’s an amazing scientist.”

As for Stevenson, she said that she is the designated climate modeler at the Bren School, and she is excited to work with graduate researchers and students in the cross-disciplinary environment of the graduate school. She especially likes working with students interested in climate.

“In California, when I tell people what I do, the reaction I often hear is: ‘Save us!’” she said. “It’s hard to argue that climate change doesn’t exist when we’re seeing the hottest temperatures we’ve ever seen and the largest fires that have ever happened year after year.”

Featured

Beatrice Wood stars again

This summer I explored a new book about Ojai’s greatest artistic hero — or arguably, hero of any sort — and heard many wonderful stories from many people in Ojai who knew the spectacular artist and character in her salad years. Here’s the story in the Ojai Quarterly and here’s the opening page:

on a new book about Beatrice Wood and Marcel Duchamp in the Ojai Quartlery: read the whole thing via the link above or here.

The Eternal Return of the Grateful Dead

Here’s a story I wrote for the Ventura County Reporter on the Skull and Roses festival coming up next week at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Let me post the published version (below) and add some color, for those who like a little extra.

From the VCR:

At the end of 1995 the much beloved jam rock group the Grateful Dead disbanded by mutual agreement of the members, a few months after their founder and musical genius, Jerry Garcia, died of a heart attack. The Grateful Dead — the band — is no more, and has been gone for decades.

“It’s a sad day,” said Dennis McNally, the biographer (A Long Strange Trip) and publicist for the band, when he spoke on the record about the disbanding of the Dead at the time. “But you know, they’ve made their decision. All I can say . . . as a follow-up is that the individual remaining members of the band will continue to express themselves musically. And the Grateful Dead Productions, the business end, will support those efforts.”

Today McNally continues to work for the Grateful Dead. Many of its members still perform, to great acclaim, and in the case of one particularly popular incarnation, Dead and Co., to sell-out stadiums. This year, the band will embark on what is said to be a final farewell.

McNally also promotes one of the biggest of all Grateful Dead festivals, Skull and Roses, which will bring dozens of bands that play the music of the Dead to the Ventura County Fairgrounds…as well as thousands of fans. Skull and Roses takes place April 19-23.

Deep Devotion

The headliner will be Phil Lesh, of the group known simply as Phil Lesh and Friends. Lesh was the original band’s brilliant bassist and occasional songwriter, known among Deadheads for his classic “Box of Rain,” from one of the band’s best studio albums, American Beauty. This is Lesh’s second time headlining; his band’s successful engagement at last year’s Skull and Roses was a thrill to 2022 attendees.

Phil Lesh

McNally — who’s seen hundreds of Dead shows — was unsurprised at Lesh’s reception. He knows how his old pals from the Dead are beloved. What has surprised him in recent years is a burgeoning resurgence of the Grateful Dead as a musical movement. It’s an apparent grassroots uprising of bands and audiences, largely unconnected to the originators.

“There are now over 800 Grateful Dead-themed bands!” said McNally in amazement.

A tribute band website, www.gratefuldeadtributebands.com, lists and links to nearly 700 such bands in this country, some of whom have been pumping the Grateful Dead into the subculture for decades, such as Cubensis; or distinguishing themselves through the authenticity of their devotion to the music, such as the Dark Star Orchestra; or delighting local audiences with their sheer joyous energy, such as the Ventura-based band Shaky Feelin’. All of these well-known bands will be present at Skull and Roses, with the Dark Star Orchestra headlining the festival on Friday, April 21.

McNally noted the deep devotion of Dark Star Orchestra, explaining that the band not only recreates exactly the setlists from particular Dead shows from past decades, but will even alter and rearrange its equipment to best match the sound of that particular era of the Dead.The faithfulness of the recreation — the lengths to which the band and its fans go to recreate the Grateful Dead experience — awes him still, after all these years.

Musical and social phenomenon

McNally bonded with Jerry Garcia in the late 1970s over their mutual interest and admiration for Jack Kerouac, the subject of McNally’s first book Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America, published in 1979. McNally has been as surprised as anyone to see the Grateful Dead reborn as a musical and social phenomenon, long after they fell apart as a group in the l990s. Though band members continued to play in various Dead splinter groups after Garcia’s death — including Lesh and Friends, the Other Ones, and Furthur — McNally felt a decline, and expected the phenomenon to fade.

The band decided to stage one last big reunion on the 50th anniversary of their founding in 2015. All the surviving members — augmented by three star musicians from other jambands, including Trey Anastasio from Phish on lead guitar — played together in massive football stadium shows in San Jose and Chicago, performing in five dates to more than 350,000 people and taking in over $50 million, according to the promoters.

McNally figured that these “Fare Thee Well” shows would, in his words, “put the stake through the heart” of the band’s popularity.

I thought that the Fare Thee Well shows would put an end to it, but what I came to realize was it just reignited everything,” McNally said. “I think it clarified for the audience what they thought about the Dead, and I think what they decided — although maybe not consciously — is that they weren’t fans of the Grateful Dead, as in the band, they were fans of the music. Who played that music has now become a matter of personal taste. There are fans of Dead and Co., fans of the Dark Star Orchestra, fans of Jerry’s Middle Finger, and so on . . . I think there are more Dead fans now than there were in l995, when Jerry died.”

So . . . how can a band that no longer exists be more popular than ever? What explains the growing interest — among many young people, as well as hordes of boomers — in an ensemble that disbanded more than 25 years ago?

In his magisterial biography of the Dead, A Long Strange Trip, a 736-page book published in 2003, McNally — who spent decades working with the band — quotes Garcia and other band members talking about their long, shambolic history, casting about for a good understanding of the popularity of a group that contains multitudes of hard-to-reconcile contradictions amidst curious ironies and strange events.

Despite their unconventionality and frequent screw-ups, the Grateful Dead were one of, and possibly the most popular and lucrative, of all touring rock bands. Over the decades, since the band was founded in San Francisco in 1965 and into the 1980s and 1990s, the Dead played dozens of dates annually, year in and year out, all across the United States, to what would eventually become millions of people.

Casting a spell

Yet their numerous studio albums rarely sold well, and almost never captured the communal spirit, the “magic,” that Deadheads speak of experiencing at their concerts.

Garcia was nicknamed “Captain Trips,” and the Dead will forever be known as the house band for the “acid tests’’ that famous novelist and infamous Merry Prankster Ken Kesey conducted with LSD at concerts for three months in their early days in the ’60s. Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack in his early 50s, but by then his health and his relations with his complicated family had been all but destroyed by his rampant abuse of cocaine, heroin and many other drugs. Garcia was also by universal acclaim a musical genius of the first order, a virtuoso among stars, and a virtual God to many — even though Garcia himself abhorred the idolation.

One of the Dead’s many thoughtful and conflicted followers, Andrew McGann — a retired trial attorney from Chicago, and a Presbyterian — points out that only two of the band’s over 200 songs mention drugs.

Andrew McGann

He argues that the Dead are vastly underestimated as storytellers. He believes that as storytellers seeking to speak to vast audiences, they were drawn to the deeply resonant stories and characters in our culture’s tales and the Bible, including the prophets (“Estimated Prophet”), the saints and sinners (“St. Stephen,” “Samson and Delilah”), and the travelers on a fateful journey (“Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” “Stella Blue”).

Many followers see overt spirituality in the Grateful Dead, and think that’s part of their appeal. On Dead.net, the band’s message board, a fan named Mike S. Singin’ posted on the subject of “Box of Rain,” the Phil Lesh song that touches on life and death and what it all means, commenting: “Grateful Dead music has always been ‘my religion’ and lyrics like this just reinforce the cosmic connectedness that is always happening…the magic that’s always just around the corner…I have to think that you all have the same magic in this music.”

“Believe it if you need it — if you don’t just pass it on,” sang Lesh, who wrote “Box of Rain” as a young man visiting his dying father. Lesh called on Robert Hunter, the band’s foremost lyricist, for the right words with which to render his complex melodies and his troubled thoughts into singable lyrics. Hunter rose to this challenge with an unobtrusive grace, memorably substituting the evocative “box of rain” in the lyrics for this place called Earth:

What do you want me to do?
To do for you — to see you through
A box of rain will ease the pain
and love — will see you through


The gentle, compassionate words for a soul in pain still speak loudly to the band’s countless followers, the self-identified Deadheads, and the millions of others who have faithfully attended shows over the years . . . even if, like attorney McGann, they skipped the tie-dye, the LSD and the other psychedelic forms of enlightenment.

Spiritual journey

Today McGann is pursuing scholarly studies of the Dead after a long legal career, writing essays for online publications and papers for the academic Pop Culture Association. He argues that although “the Dead were not proselytizing and not selling a religious message, they intentionally made use of a Biblical story to draw a deep connection with their fans over notions of exile.”

He sees this in the structure of a Dead show. McGann points out that the band often began shows with the Chuck Berry classic “The Promised Land,” and then over the course of a few hours took their fans on a musical journey from a kind of Paradise — The Promised Land — through disorientation, the long “Space” and “Drums” improvisations that harkened back to the Dead’s formative experience with the “acid tests,” to a slow reorientation and return, as expressed in their familiar song “Ripple”: “If you knew the way, I would take you home.”

“Garcia talked about this,” McGann said, “He doesn’t say that it’s in the middle of ‘Drums’ and ‘Space’ where I hope the crowd is thinking, ‘I saw God.’ He says it’s when we [the band] come out of it. I think what they learned through performance in connection with psychedelics, is that the real power comes in the resolution, in bringing people back home.”

McGann’s personal experience with the Dead over time almost parallels the Biblical journey from Paradise, into exile and dissolution, and then a return home, a reorientation back to connection and Paradise.

“I went through a personal experience after Garcia died,” he said. “It was a big, big bummer, and it’s not because the early ’90’s Dead shows were any good — they weren’t. But it was just a marker that it was over. What made the Dead great is not something easy. A bar band could play ‘Casey Jones,’ and it’s just okay. So I ignored it, and then a friend in 1998 took me to a bar in Chicago where every Tuesday night a band would recreate the Dead by playing a setlist from a past show, and at the end of the show, they’d tell you what show they played. I didn’t really want to go, but my friend took me to a show, with about 30 people there, and John Kadlecik was playing the Garcia lead guitar part, and they were playing ‘Black Throated Wind’ and it was just . . . chills.”

That band was the Dark Star Orchestra, which has become a favorite of McGann’s and countless other Dead fans, probably because they can take fans on that familiar mythological journey, through the struggle of exile, the chaos and confusion, before bringing them back home.

“I’m 61 and I know that there are plenty of Deadheads older than me that still crave that deep spiritual connection,” he said. “I think the Dead created something that others can continue to access. It’s like if your favorite minister in church dies, there will be another one to come along and take the pulpit.”

McNally, the band’s publicist, doesn’t reject the idea that spirituality is part of the Dead’s message, but he looks at it warily. On the one hand, he says, the band regarded the stage as a “sacred space,” and many of their songs touch on matters of fate and destiny and can include the mention of God or the Devil, such the spin of “The Wheel,” the cards in “Deal,” or the murder in “Me and My Uncle.” On the other hand, he quotes Garcia questioning himself about one of the most emblematic Dead songs “Ripple,” with its reference to “a fountain not made by hands of men.”

“When I sing that song,” Garcia wondered out loud in A Long Strange Trip, “I say to myself, am I really a Presbyterian minister?’”

A uniquely Ventura experience

The Grateful Dead have a long and prosperous history at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, where they played annually from 1982 to 1987. The shows are remembered fondly today by fans and non-fans alike.

Timothy Teague of Ojai went with friends to shows in 1985 and 1986. He was “not a Deadhead” he said, and still isn’t, and didn’t really know the band, but he loved the ecstatic and joyful scene and noted how intently the crowd focused on the music. For the 1985 show, he recalled the band opening with “Fire on the Mountain,” in tribute to the out-of-control Wheeler Fire burning at the time in the mountains north of Ojai, and got a huge response.

“Ventura is one of the classic Grateful Dead sites,” said McNally. “It’s beautiful, with the ocean as a background, and the fairgrounds are funky and dusty and old and that was one of the things that the band loved about it. The shows were terrific then, and at Skull and Roses last year I looked around at the crowd and what struck me was that the demographics were precisely the same as at the Grateful Dead shows years ago. The people range from 15-year-olds to 75-year-olds. There might be a slightly heavier sprinkling of the older crowd but the energy is the same, it’s only grown over the years.”

Improvisational genius

McNally points out that the Dead revered the improvisational genius of John Coltrane, and the spirituality of “A Love Supreme.” In their own way the band followed the jazz legend, playing without a setlist and improvising collectively.

Today McNally no longer considers the Grateful Dead to be a band so much as a genre, a kind of music, and points out that people all over the country can play and dance to it, as if it were jazz or the blues.

Jeff Hiller, the bassist for the Ventura band Shaky Feelin’, also sees Grateful Dead music as a genre, and one closer to jazz than rock in its improvisational nature. He plays in an eclectic band, but frequently jams with other Grateful Dead-style bands, just for the joy of creating music.

“It’s like a jazz scene today,” Hiller said. “There’s a huge group of musicians who know the catalog and get together and sit in and improvise. I grew up back east: I know this goes on all around the country. I equate it to the jazz scene, it’s really the standard songbook for a lot of musicians.”

As an example of the phenomenon, Hiller mentions that his son, also a musician who plays bass, attended a summer program at the Berklee College of Music, the leading contemporary music college. He said that when the summer school kids got together to jam, they often played Grateful Dead music.

“I think the Grateful Dead have just really notched out a big part of the musical culture today,” he said. “Much more than it might appear.”

Skull and Roses takes place April 19-23 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, 10 W. Harbor Blvd., Ventura. For full schedule, passes and more information, visit

skullandroses.com.

Storm vs. Drought: After weeks of flooding, how can CA still be in drought?

Climate scientists who have studied the Southwest largely agree that the vast region — which includes Southern California — has been in drought almost since the beginning of the 21st century. It’s a historic megadrought — meaning a drought of twenty years or more — with the driest soils in the West in at least 1200 years.

Yet here in 2023, after at least six atmospheric rivers hitting the state since the beginning of the new year, people naturally ask:

Will these storms end the drought?

The media rushes to answer the hopeful question, and virtually without exception reporters end up at the same uncomfortable conclusion. Which is that the water coming into the the reservoirs will help, and if the snowpack builds through the winter into spring, that will help even more but no, the drought in California is not really over. Maybe because it wasn’t really a lack-of-rain drought in the first place.

Examples:

KCLU: Lance Orozco: https://www.kclu.org/local-news/2023-01-04/its-been-raining-a-lot-but-its-only-a-fraction-of-whats-needed-to-break-drought-in-tri-counti

Ventura is at 121% of average rainfall for this time of year, Ojai 131%, Santa Barbara 165%, and Lompoc is at a whopping 221%. The numbers sound impressive. But, in 2022 we were also well above average for the start of the New Year. Then, we had the driest January, February, and March on record.

“We went bone dry…we ended up below normal (for the rainfall year),” said Patzert. “I don’t want to see any headlines about this being a drought buster.”

“People are getting it in their mind we’re in the rainy season, getting some rain, we can kind of let our foot off the gas a little bit,” said Mike McNutt, who is a spokesman for the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District. It serves part of the Conejo Valley.

“It’s human nature. But, you just can’t make the assumption that because we’re having some rain, that it’s pulling us out of a historic drought…because it is not,” said McNutt.

Numerous major publications have written the state version of this story. They’ve all reached pretty much the same conclusion.

The BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-64213908

Why California’s Storm is unlikely to reverse its drought

The AP: https://apnews.com/article/science-weather-california-droughts-storms-04a759ff7f9db227d226ce098ad62b6d

Explainer: How much will the rain help California’s drought?

Key paragraph:

“Experts say it will help drought conditions, but it isn’t yet clear exactly how much. And the rain and snow won’t be enough to fix some of California’s long-term water problems that climate change is making worse.

“We are transitioning to a climate that is warming and more arid,” said Jeannie Jones, the interstate resources manager at California Department of Water Resources.”

Reuters chimes in:

On Dec. 14, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California declared a drought emergency for all 19 million people in the region. A few weeks later, the state was underwater with major flooding.

Despite a deluge that by one estimate has been expected to dump more than 20 trillion gallons (80 trillion liters), the state’s major reservoirs remain well below their historic average. The largest reservoirs, at Shasta and Oroville, are still at 42% and 47% of capacity, according to state data.

https://www.reuters.com/world/us/why-weeks-rain-california-will-not-end-historic-drought-2023-01-12/

Its my sense that these stories featuring interviews with experts and current reservoir numbers aren’t convincing to most people living through floods, so I appreciate the Washington Post making an attempt to provide a detailed scientific explanation, trying to bring scientific depth and detail to the discussion. The explainer, called “Atmospheric Rivers won’t end California’s Drought,” by a team of reporters, frames the question around this statement:

“Why rain alone doesn’t solve dry conditions has much to do with what happens to that rain once it falls and how climate change is disrupting that cycle.”

The story quotes researcher Daniel McEvoy, who recently published a study on how spring heat waves ate into the Western snowpack in the 21st century. His timeline indicates that the Western snowpack no longer can be depended on. Drought looks increasingly like the norm for the state as a whole.

The non-profit media outlet CalMatters helpfully publishes a data-rich drought tracker, that follows various indices for water — such as reservoir storage, number of wells at their low points, and the amount of the state in drought, and shows the impacts at a glance. I thought this chart — showing the amount of water stored in state reservoirs, versus the onset of statewide drought — made the crucial point about the prevalence of drought from the standpoint of water stored.

Despite an estimated 20+ trillion gallons of water pouring down on the state in the last couple of weeks, we in California are still in statewide drought. Believe it or not.

To be fair, it’s true that some of our smaller reservoirs around the state are filled or have filled rapidly (as for example, in Santa Barbara and in Marin county). A detailed story in the San Jose Mercury News by Paul Rogers makes the point:

“Since Dec. 1, California’s 154 largest reservoirs have gone from 67% of their historical average capacity to 84%, adding roughly 4.7 million acre feet of water in six weeks — or enough for the annual consumption of 23 million people.

Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir at 35 miles long, has risen 37 feet since Dec. 1. The second largest, Oroville, in Butte County, has risen 97 feet, barely a year after state officials shut off the hydroelectric turbines in its dam for the first time in its 50-year history because of extremely low water levels.

“We’re all ecstatic,” said Lesley Nickelson, owner of Oroville Cycle, a store that sells boating and motorcycle equipment a few miles from Oroville Dam. “The marina has been way down at the bottom of a dirt hill for the past few years. People haven’t been going out on the lake. Now the boat ramps are underwater again. People are going back.'”

To this observer it’s time for a story or study that looks drills down into the short-term (the next year or two or three) versus the long-term, to see how much the deluge will stem the decades-long drying trend in California. But in the meantime, this morning the NYTimes publishes a story with interactive graphs that makes the by-now-familiar point that no, the drought in California is not over. They conclude:

“California’s recent spate of storms will not reverse three years that have been the state’s driest on record. It’s taken multiple years to get to the current state of persistent drought, said Gus Goodbody, a hydrologist at the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Water and Climate Center. “It’s going to be hard for a single season to counteract that.'”

Yvon gives away the store (Patagonia)

On the morning of September 14, Yvon Chouinard, the founder and owner of Patagonia, spoke to several hundred Patagonia employees and former employees at Patagonia’s Brooks campus in Ventura. In an address taped and transmitted to Patagonia stores and employees around the world, Chouinard announced that he and his family, the owners of the voting shares of Patagonia stock, will give the Patagonia corporation, worth an estimated $3 billion, and all its revenues, estimated to be about $100 million a year, to a new non-profit holding company called the Holdfast Collective.  

The Holdfast Collective, which will be headquartered in Ventura, will donate Patagonia’s approximately $100 million in annual profits to non-profit environmental groups focused on reducing the harms of climate change and on preserving habitat and wildlands. Patagonia has already endowed the collective with an initial grant of $50 million, with $100 million more expected this fiscal year and in years to come. 

Patagonia will remain a for-profit company, overseen by the Chouinard family — who are the voting stockholders in a trust, the Patagonia Purpose Trust, which retains 2% of the company — in order to continue to generate revenues and fund environmental actions. 

The company, estimated to be worth about $3 billion, will not be sold, because Chouinard has a low opinion of the stock market and corporations focused on short-term profits. 

Dr. Geoffrey Jones, a historian at the Harvard School of Business who has written about Chouinard and Patagonia, said that this gift of a major corporation to a charitable cause is unprecedented in American history. 

“I believe this is a first in the US, but not in Europe,” he said, mentioning for comparison the Bosch auto parts company in Germany and the John Lewis Partnership, a retailer, in the UK. 

In an interview with the New York Times, Chouinard spoke bluntly about why he gave away the company. 

“Hopefully this will influence a new form of capitalism that doesn’t end up with a few rich people and a bunch of poor people,” Chouinard, now 83, told the NYTimes. “We are going to give away the maximum amount of money to people who are actively working on saving the planet.” 

Patagonia stores around the world — 34 in the U.S, of 109 stores in total — closed for a day, and Patagonia employees came into their workplaces to see the recording of Chouinard making the announcement about the future of the company. The news about the new holding company was kept secret from all but a few executives: at the Brooks campus the announcement kicked off a celebration. 

“They kept the news incredibly secret,” said Tania Parker, the deputy director of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, which has been supported by Patagonia, both by small annual contributions, and by employees who are paid by Patagonia but volunteer for assignments at the Conservancy. 

“Even the Patagonia staff working there didn’t know about it. I was just blown away. As soon as the news was announced, my phone started blowing up with people sending me the [NYTimes] article.” 

Kim Stroud, who worked for Patagonia in Ventura for many years, and remains close to the company as over several years she developed and launched the non-profit Ojai Raptor Center, said that Yvon wanted to break the news to the whole company at once. She added that he’s always had doubts about capitalism with a capital “C.”

“Yvon has always been kind of against capitalism,” she said. “At least the way it’s currently run. Patagonia will continue as a business. We’re not really anticipating a great number of changes, but the Holdfast Collective will be a separate non-profit, with its own board of directors and mission.” 

Although the company’s business “core values” have not changed since its early days, in 2018 Patagonia announced a new mission statement: “We’re in business to save our home planet.” 

Patagonia insiders say that in truth it’s not a new idea: Chouinard was giving Patagonia company profits away to small non-profit environmental groups long before the company became prosperous, a decade before the company had formalized its philanthropic ideals.

It all began with the Ventura River, and a handful of activists trying to save the river from being transformed into a channel made of concrete, which was the fate of the Los Angeles River.  

PATAGONIA’S FIRST ENVIRONMENTAL GRANT 

In an outtake for a talk filmed for what eventually became an American Express commercial in 2010, Chouinard explained how Patagonia became involved in the fate of the river.  

“In the 70’s, the City [of Ventura] wanted to channelize the Ventura River, and there was a city council meeting, so we decided to all go, because we were concerned about the sand flow,” he said. “So we showed up and there were all these scientists there saying it’s not going to hurt the river because it’s a dead river. So just forget about it. And at the end of the talk, a young grad student got up and showed a slide show of all the life along the river; all the eels, and the birds that nest along the river, and the raccoons, and there were still fifty steelhead who went up that polluted river every year. It wasn’t dead at all. And that brought the house down, and it showed me what one individual can do.”

That “young grad student” was a biologist named Mark Capelli, who went on to become the Steelhead Recovery Coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Council, where he still works today. He recalled a subsequent conversation with Chouinard back in the 1970’s that changed his life. 

“On a late afternoon forty-plus years ago I bumped into Yvon leaving the parking lot where the Friends of the Ventura River had their office in the Patagonia headquarters,” he said. “Our conversation only lasted a couple of minutes, and Yvon may have forgotten it ever occurred.”

After a brief discussion of the surf at Rincon Point, because both Capelli and Chouinard were surfers, Capelli asked Chouinard for a small donation to defray the costs of a lawsuit contesting an agreement between the City of Ventura and Casitas Municipal Water District to divert almost all of the Ventura River into the Casitas reservoir. This meant the river would go dry in stretches in the summer, which would devastate its wildlife, and likely end the remaining steelhead run. 

“Without hesitation, Yvon said sure, how much do you need,” Capelli recounted. “I said about $3000. He said just go up the stairs and have Clovis — who was Patagonia’s bookkeeper at the time — write you a check.”

The safe had already been closed for the day, it turned out, so the bookkeeper wrote Capelli the check the next day. “This financed the case all the way through to the California Supreme Court  and prevented the dewatering of the Ventura River,” Capelli said. 

“It was the first environmental grant Patagonia ever made,” Capelli added. “Yvon was so impressed with the return on his “investment” that he later initiated the “1% for the Planet” program, which has now culminated in Patagonia’s recent planetary grant.” 

HOW PATAGONIA FUNDS OVER 1100 ENVIRONMENTAL NON-PROFIT GROUPS

In Ojai, Tom Maloney, the executive director of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, said that even a month after hearing the surprise announcement that Yvon was giving away Patagonia, he still can’t talk about it without tearing up. 

“It’s a little crazy,” he said. “But that’s the way I feel about it. I think it’s a transformational change. At least I hope it’s a transformational change.”  

The Ojai Valley Land Conservancy that he leads garnered $24,000 in grants from Patagonia in 2019, the most recent year for which tax records for such donations are available from the IRS. Maloney said that Patagonia prefers to donate to activists, rather than towards land acquisition, but he thinks that Patagonia recognizes that the Land Conservancy is working to “enhance natural capital,” including fish and wildlife, as it works to protect the lands around the town. 

“I want to live in a world that includes steelhead in an intact watershed,” Maloney said. 

In Oxnard, Lucas Zucker, the communications director for the non-profit organizing outfit CAUSE, the Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, said that although Patagonia’s support — which totalled $15,000 in 2019 — adds up to no more than a small fraction of his organization’s budget, their willingness to fund environmental justice campaigns and to challenge the powerful oil and gas industry in Ventura County has made them invaluable.

“Patagonia was our first funder in the westside power plant campaign against the Puente Power plant proposed for Mandalay Beach by NRG Energy [in 2014],” he said. “This was a four-year battle led by us and environmental groups against the largest power plant operator in the U.S. No one thought that a low-income heavily immigrant community up against a huge company would ever win. It’s very rare that these plants ever get rejected.”

Zucker said that CAUSE had not been directly funded by Patagonia before taking on the fight against NRG Energy. 

“This was an environmental justice issue in their backyard,” he said. “Because Patagonia has a culture of paying their employees to volunteer for environmental causes, employees came to south Oxnard. They saw the pollution and their staff was exposed to the community abuse there and they realized, hey, we need to prioritize equity, we want to see more of a diversity of organizations being funded, not just traditional environmental groups.” 

Although Patagonia the corporation has long funded environmental groups, the corporation has also empowered employee volunteers at the retail stores to form councils to judge the smaller grant applications that are submitted in a local area. Every few months the employees grant council will meet after hours, on salary, to go over a stack of grant applications and determine which groups deserve funding. Zucker thinks the employees grant councils in Ventura pushed the company to take a harder stand against oil and gas companies than they had in the past. 

“It’s rare for companies in the private sector to take on the oil and gas sector,” he said. “Oil and gas companies will spend millions of dollars and turn out their employees for governmental meetings. Patagonia has become kind of a countervailing force in Ventura County, as they realize that if they’re really about saving the environment, then they’ve got to get just as involved as the polluters.”

This year, in the most expensive ballot proposition fight in the history of Ventura County, the oil and gas industry, led by Aera Energy, spent a total of $8.2 million dollars over three years to overturn regulations on the industry imposed by the Board of Supervisors in November of 2020. These measures required oversight and permitting on all oil wells, even those drilled in the wildcat days before environmental laws such as the Environmental Protection Act. Powered by over $6 million in advertising, and claiming the oversight would “shut down” the industry, the industry won a hard-found election by less than 6,000 votes out of a little over 200,000 cast, or about 3%.

In the weeks before the June election, Patagonia donated $455,000 to the Westside Clean Air Coalition, in which a number of environmental and community groups, including CAUSE, came together to campaign for the proposition against the oil industry. 

Among those groups was CFROG (Climate First: Replacing Oil and Gas), currently led by Haley Ehlers. Ehlers, who said that Patagonia granted CFROG $10,000 in 2020, said that Patagonia’s substantial support for advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts on behalf of Propositions A + B “gave the Coalition a chance against Big Oil.” 

“They’re generally very supportive of our efforts. Their employees actively participate in the Westside Clean Air Coalition,” she said. “They’re great in their willingness to support our meetings and efforts, and I would say that it’s unique for a for-profit business, not a community foundation, to support environmental justice and not be afraid to stand up against fossil fuels.” 

For Hans Cole, the current Vice-President of Environmental Activism at Patagonia, this willingness to fund large campaigns against fossil fuel industries speaks to the reason the Holdfast Collective was created in the first place. 

“Frankly, the scale of our participation in the 1% for the Planet focuses on small grassroots grants,” he said. “These grants usually range from $10,000 to $20,000. The collective will continue to support those grants and values and the community engagement, but I think the scale of the grants from the Holdfast Collective can be larger, in the hundreds of thousands or over a million for particular grants.” 

In 2019, according to tax records, Patagonia contributed small grants from its 1% for the Planet fund to over 1100 organizations around the country and the world, adding up to a total of $28,619,329. In the future Cole said that the Holdfast Collective will donate about $100 million a year to environmental causes and climate action. Under IRS rules the Chouinard family chose to establish the new organization as a 501(c) 4 charity, which allows for political activity and lobbying, and not the more conventional 501(c) 3 charity, which limits political activity on the part of grantees. The family could have enjoyed a substantial tax break, had they chosen the more conventional route, but instead paid $17.5 million dollars to establish the Holdfast Collective as an entity that can fund political activities on behalf of the environment without restriction.   

“Patagonia prides itself on paying its taxes,” Cole said. “We have actually advocated for increased corporate tax rates to enable more dollars to come to things like climate funding at the national level. We believe in taxes. And I can tell you there was never a time when Yvon or the family or our leadership ever said to me or anyone working on this, hey, let’s try to lower our tax burden. Truly, that was never part of the decision-making.” 

Cole pointed out that in 2018, when the Trump administration passed a huge tax break for corporations, instead of taking profits, as did most corporations and corporate officers, Patagonia donated its $10 million in tax savings to groups fighting the climate crisis. 

Cole added that also this year, concurrent with the announcement that Patagonia was giving the company away to a non-profit holding collective, Patagonia initiated another new fund, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit called the Home Planet Fund, which will be backed by an initial donation from the corporation in December of $20 million. 

“The reason we helped create this fund, which is a public charity, a 501(c) 3, is because that entity, as a separate public charity, can receive donations,” he said. “Each of these funding entities, whether it’s the Holdfast Collective, or 1% for the Planet, or the Home Planet Fund, has capabilities that we believe can help advance and put more resources towards our mission.” 

THE LOCAL REACTION

Caryn Bosson, a grant writer from Ojai who became an expert in non-profit governance working as a founder and executive director for the Ojai Youth Foundation in the 1990’s, as an executive for many years with the non-profit TreePeople in Los Angeles, and for The C.R.E.W. in Ojai, sees the giving of an entire multi-billion corporation to planetary health as “super inspirational.”

“I think this is how we have to go forward at this moment in history,” she said. “This is a time to invest in the planet, and to demonstrate what’s truly important in the world. I hope this will be a model for other corporations, because what’s the point of holding on to piles and piles and piles of money, when so much is being destroyed all around us?” 

Several local non-profit leaders, including Haley Ehlers, of CFROG, Jeff Kuyper, of Los Padres ForestWatch, and Alasdair Coyne, of Keep the Sespe Wild, spoke gratefully of Patagonia’s willingness to support small grassroots groups engaged in political actions or lawsuits. Often businesses and community foundations shy away from that sort of controversy, they said.

“Businesses are often willing to support conservation efforts or cleaning up the beaches or create living trusts but when it comes to environmental justice or climate action most businesses aren’t interested,” Ehlers said. “Patagonia is definitely not afraid. They’re willing to put their influence and their logo on the line. And when other donors see that Patagonia supports us, that confidence on their part influences other people to give.”

Patagonia for its part shows no signs of backing down. When asked for an example of the sort of environmental action we might see the Holdfast Collection take in the future — the sort of action that Patagonia in the past has not taken — Cole pointed to Patagonia’s donation of nearly half a million dollars to take on the oil and gas industry in the election this June over Propositions A + B, a far greater contribution to one cause than the corporation has made in the past thru 1% for the Planet. Patagonia believes that the planet is in crisis, and is giving all it can to restore its health and balance. 

“If we have any hope of a thriving planet — much less a thriving business — 50 years from now, it is going to take all of us doing what we can with the resources we have,” Chouinard wrote in a public letter explaining the gift of Patagonia to the planetary fund. “This is another way we have found to do our part.” 

Patagonia’s environmental activism: a timeline

1960’s:    Yvon Chouinard, a competitive rock climber, takes up blacksmithing to improve the quality of steel pitons and climbing gear. He quickly establishes a reputation for worth and reliability, and begins selling climbing gear to other climbers out of the back of his car. 

1970:      Chouinard Equipment is the leading supplier of climbing equipment in the U.S., with an excellent reputation for quality, but meanwhile Chouinard has seen that his steel pitons are scarring rock faces in Yosemite and on other climbing routes. He finds an alternative, aluminum chocks, that doesn’t damage the rock, and abruptly stops selling pitons. 

Forty years after first learning blacksmithing to build better climbing equipment, Chouinard still at times likes to experiment in the shop.

1972:       In Chouinard Equipment’s first catalog for the public an article is published calling for “clean climbing” using gear that doesn’t mar rock faces. With just a handful of employees, including Chouinard, the company sets up shop in a tin shed in Ventura, not far from the surf. 

Yvon Chouinard teaches ice-climbing in his early days, to make some money as a mountain-climber, and to fully learn the technique.

1973:       Chouinard launches Patagonia, an adventure clothing company. Originally intended to support the climbing equipment company, Patagonia’s clothing line soon became dominant in sales. (Chouinard Equipment struggles with low profit margins for years, eventually goes bankrupt under legal pressure, but is bought out by its employees. It’s rebranded and successfully relaunched as Black Diamond in 1989.) 

1973:        In its first environmental action, Yvon Chouinard in a moment agrees to give Mark Capelli and Friends of the Ventura River $3000 to file a lawsuit to prevent the city of Ventura from “dewatering” the river near its headquarters. This action saves the wildlife in the river. 

Yvon Chouinard and Make Capelli, years after Chouinard enabled Capelli and Friends of the Ventura River to file a lawsuit to save its wildlife.

1979:      Patagonia names Kris McDivitt its first CEO. Under her leadership, the company innovates with fleece clothing, bright colors for adventure wear, and polyester fabrics, among other new ideas. Sales boom, going from $20 million to $100 million in revenue in the 1980’s, and the company begins to expand into Europe and Japan. 

1984:       Patagonia launches a childcare facility for its corporate employees in Ventura, one of the first corporations in the nation to do so. 

1985:       Yvon and Malinda Chouinard develop a new form of fleece, called Synchilla, with Polartec, as an alternative to heavy wool sweaters. Synchilla becomes an industry standard.

1986:       Patagonia formalizes its long-standing practice of donating to small nonprofits devoted to habitat restoration and environmental causes by announcing a policy of annually giving 10% of its profits to environmental organizations. 

1991:     After growing its revenue from 30-50% a year throughout the 1980’s, the end of the decade brought a recession that cut growth at the company in half. Under financial pressure from lenders, the company retrenches. In July Chouinard reluctantly lays off 120 employees, which was at the time nearly one-fifth of the company.

When forced to downsize Patagonia to survive a recession, Chouinard led a full-scale rethinking of the business with staff leadership.

1991:       Led by Chouinard, Patagonia launches a lengthy full-scale rethinking of its own philosophy, working to control its growth to about 5% a year, and intending to create a model for environmental stewardship and sustainability that other businesses could look to for guidance. 

1996:         After years of research and preparation, Patagonia moves to 100% organic cotton, rethinking the product line to reduce the necessarily higher material costs. 

2000s:        Patagonia has always offered “ironclad guarantee” and a willingness to take back defective products, but this decade they extended that guarantee by offering to repair damaged items that are returned for free. Patagonia in time offers a “Worn Wear” option in which they buy back and resell Patagonia items at a reduced cost. 

2002:      With renowned fly-fisher and friend Craig Matthews, who owns the company Blue Ribbon Flies, Chouinard and Patagonia partner in a new effort called 1% for the Planet, which enlists for-profit corporations to pledge 1% of their total sales annually to environmental action. This “earth tax” that they vow to pay is equivalent to (or greater than) Patagonia’s earlier pledge of 10% of profits, and the 1% of sales turns out to be a figure more resistant to manipulation. 

2009:         On Black Friday, Patagonia runs a full-page ad in the New York Times, urging people “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” Sales on that day soar, ironically, convincing Patagonia of the link between environmental ethics at the company and public perception of the worth of its products. 

2011:       An internal audit discovers examples of “human trafficking, forced labor, and exploitation in Patagonia’s supply chain” among 2nd and 3rd tier supplies based in Taiwan. Led by Rick Ridgeway, an Ojai resident and Patagonia executive, the company goes public with the issue. “We have to tell people about the problem. We have to get the supply chain involved. We have to get the government involved. You can’t fix a system without all the players coming together. That is our default position,” Ridgeway later explained to a Harvard researcher. 

2011:     Patagonia joins a new standards movement for transparent and ethical corporate behavior, called the “B Corporation,” in which corporations pledge to follow a “triple bottom line” ethos that calls for respecting people and the planet as well as profit, with verification audits. 

2018:       After passage of legislation from the Trump administration that dramatically lowered the corporate tax rate, “Patagonia took the $10 million they received from that tax break and donated it to groups fighting the climate crisis,” said Hans Cole, VP of environmental activism. 

2020:       Thinking of how best to position Patagonia for a future of environmental action, Chouinard thinks of selling the company, and tells Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert that he’s ready to start cold-calling fellow billionaires. But he wasn’t happy with their response. “So we created our own [plan],” he wrote in his letter released this September, to “save our home planet.”

2022:    A survey by a business group, the Edelman Trust Barometer, found that most people felt capitalism was more harmful than helpful. The Chouinards’ grown children Fletcher and Claire agree. They told Patagonia CEO Gellert that they didn’t want to inherit the company, worth about $3 billion, because they didn’t want to be seen as benefiting from capitalism. 

“They felt very strongly about it,” Gellert, the CEO of Patagonia, said. “I know it can sound flippant, but they really embody this notion that every billionaire is a policy failure.”

From “Let My People Go Surfing,” Yvon Chouinard’s memoir, and other linked sources. 

Orwell and the earth

When [the critic] Woodcock compared Orwell to Antaeus, who draws his strength from the earth, he might have also meant that he drew his intellectual strength from the specific and the tangible and from firsthand experience. It set him at odds with an era in which ideologies led many astray, not least as doctrines defending authority and delegitimizing dissent and independence.

From “Orwell’s Roses,” by Rebecca Solnit

Ventura County heats faster than Lower 48

by Kit Stolz [published in the Ventura County Reporter April 14, 2022]

Ventura County is warming faster than any other county in the continental United States, according to data compiled by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (1). The county has warmed 4.75 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895, which is about a half a degree warmer than either Los Angeles or Santa Barbara counties, and one degree hotter than the global average of warming that will be catastrophic around the world, according to climate scientists.

To meet the challenge of the increasingly hot climate, and to keep residents up to date about the risks from Santa Ana winds, heat waves, wildfires, storms and debris flows, meteorologists at the National Weather Service station in Oxnard have taken advantage of advances in forecasting technology as well as increased use of social media to better alert and inform the public. 

Meteorologists believe that high-resolution modeling of storms has enabled them to continue to forecast the weather accurately, but they worry about their ability to effectively “message” the risk of climate extremes to a public weary of catastrophic firestorms, heat waves and downpours.

GOING TO EXTREMES

Mark Jackson, the meteorologist in charge of the Oxnard station, points out that the increase in warming in the county, from an annual average of about 72 degrees in the 19th century to over 76 degrees in the 21st century, doesn’t really tell the story.

From 1991-2020, temperatures in the Western U.S. rose dramatically compared to 1981-2010. Source: NOAA

“The reason that number is alarming is not the difference between an average of 72 degrees and of 76 degrees,” Jackson said. “The shift in that mean value means that you have increased the probability of extreme temperatures that cause the greatest impact.”

Jackson added that extremes as a general rule are a greater challenge for forecasters. Climate change by its nature pushes weather towards the extremes.

“Climate change is kind of like a silent killer,” said Jackson. “The beauty of a storm is that we see it, we witness it, and it’s right there. We can’t see climate change as directly. Fortunately our forecasting technology has kept pace with climate change and we’re better prepared. From a statistical standpoint our seven-day forecasts are as accurate now as our five-day forecasts were a few years ago. This allows us to give our overall message to the public and our public safety partner agencies earlier, but we still are limited in our ability to forecast the extremes.”  

The Montecito mudslide of Jan. 9, 2018, killed 21 people and continues to be the largest known post-fire debris flow in California history. Three days before, on Jan. 6, Jackson and his colleagues could see on their screens a narrow band of extreme rain heading toward the ridge overlooking Montecito and nearby coastal cities. 

“With debris flows it’s all about high-intensity, short-duration rainfall, and as we were marching closer to the time of the event, we were seeing more and more intense rainfall. Our high-resolution physical models go out 36 or 48 hours or so, and as the event gets closer, we’re jumping up and down and screaming louder,” said Jackson, whose Oxnard station serves four Southern California counties, from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles. 

“This was a perfect storm in terms of making a debris flow possible,” added Jackson. “This was falling on a burn area that had never been rained on before, from the Thomas Fire that was still not contained. When we were about 45 minutes away from the event early that Tuesday morning, we knew there was going to be a debris flow but we just didn’t know exactly where.”

Weather forecaster Eric Boldt of the National Weather Service working at the Oxnard station. Photo submitted

Eric Boldt, a forecaster who has worked closely with Jackson at the Oxnard station, pointed out in a joint interview that the National Weather Service and a team of public safety officials from Santa Barbara County gave an outdoor press conference in the area on the Friday before the event, warning of the possibility of extreme rain and and then again on Monday, warning of the likelihood of an extreme rain and debris flows, and asking residents to prepare to evacuate.  

“On Monday we announced that this would be an extreme event, with rates of 2-4 inches of rain an hour. These are really bad rates,” Boldt said. “For us as meteorologists, we’re thinking, ‘holy cow, that’s crazy.’” 

FORECASTING LIMITATIONS

Although the meteorologists accurately forecast the time and duration of the rainfall event, and warned of its seriousness and prepared residents to evacuate, they could not foresee exactly how hard the rain would fall, or exactly where. And the intensity of the rainfall exceeded their most extreme estimates. 

“We still have limitations on our ability to predict that kind of extreme event,” Jackson said. “We may have reached a ceiling — I doubt we will ever be able to accurately forecast an event that produces five or more inches of rain an hour. In Montecito we had a half inch of rain in five minutes at one point.”

Jackson and his team of meteorologists were well aware of the danger, but could not convince most of the public at risk to evacuate despite their warnings.

“It was very frustrating because what else could we have done?” Jackson said. “We had prepared and we had prepared our agency partners. Santa Barbara County had issued their very first non-fire evacuation order ever, but it wasn’t enough. Why wasn’t every person in that Santa Barbara front country away from their house? We try to make sure people understand that they can’t wait for the debris flow to happen before they respond, because it’ll be too late, debris flows are too fast.”

A post-disaster report from the California Geological Survey(2) found that the debris flows in Montecito in January of 2018 moved about 1.5 million cubic meters of earth at a rate of 10-15 miles an hour. The debris flows were as much as 25-30 feet deep, and carried boulders as large as a truck. In one night they destroyed 100 houses and damaged 300 more, killed 21 people, and buried a section of Highway 101 in debris. Two people are still missing in the aftermath. 

“Could we have even imagined half the mountain coming down on Montecito?” asked Jackson. “No, because we’ve never seen anything like that happen before.”

INCREASED FREQUENCY OF “ONE-TWO PUNCH”

But many more such climate-fueled events are coming to western states,

Climatologist Samantha Stevenson of the Bren School, University of California, Santa Barbara. Photo submitted

according to a new study co-led by Samantha Stevenson(3), a climatologist at the Bren School at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which found “compound events” such as those seen in Montecito — a firestorm followed in short order by a torrential downpour — will become increasingly frequent this century in California and the west. The modeling study showed that the frequency of such “compound events” will increase by 100 percent this century in California, and by up to 700 percent in the Pacific Northwest. 

“Yes, unfortunately, this type of one-two punch — as we’ve been calling compound events — will become more frequent this century,” Stevenson said. “I can’t predict how often this will happen, because that will depend on our future climate choices, and also on how many ignitions happen during those conditions, but they will become more frequent.” 

Stevenson herself had not been at UCSB for long before the Montecito catastrophe,  and was shocked by what she saw. It motivated her to look at the risks of “compound events.”

“I’m a relatively recent transplant,” she said. “I arrived in the fall of 2017, just two months before the Thomas Fire. I thought I knew something about wildfire from living in Colorado, but after that happened — oh my God. California wildfires are a whole different animal.”

A co-author on Stevenson’s paper, climatologist Daniel Swain of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability as well as the National Center for Atmospheric Research, has been warning for years that climate change will mean increasingly extreme weather and “climate whiplash” in California, in which hot, parched lands will be abruptly hit with torrential downpours, just as happened in Montecito after the Thomas Fire.  

Part of that increased risk comes from a greater likelihood of drought. Another recent study from Stevenson’s team (4) shows that the drying out of the soil has outpaced the variability of rainfall in many places in the West, including Ventura County. This means that the county and Southern California have been drying out since the 1990s, despite occasional years of above-average rainfall, and have little chance of returning to a “normal” pattern of average rainfall from the past. 

Stevenson said that megadrought — a drought that lasts 20 years or more — must now be considered “normal” for Southern California. 

“If we reach a stable concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, then at some point we’ll stabilize, but the models are saying that we’re not there yet,” Stevenson said. “In a world where we are continuously increasing our greenhouse gas concentrations, that drying trend in the West will persist throughout the 21st century.” 

“WE’RE CHANGING THE NORMALS”

When it comes to measuring what is “normal” in our climate, Boldt noted that every 10 years the “normals” are updated by NOAA, and that since the most recent update (which covers the period of 1991-2020, versus the old “normals” of 1981-2010) California as a whole has warmed one degree at night and one to two degrees during the day. 

“These are rapid changes — in only 30 years, we’re changing the normals, to be warmer and drier,” Boldt said. “What we’re seeing in this new century is that time after time, we’re breaking records. We’re routinely breaking records that have stood for 80-100 years, and sometimes the new records we’re setting are for all-time highs.” 

Another occurred in the first week in April, in which a heat wave set all-time records in county locations. Another drought record occurred in January and February this year, when California set an all-time low for rainfall for those winter months. State climatologist Michael Anderson in Sacramento said that he expected precipitation to drop off after a very wet December, but he couldn’t estimate the change. 

“I had a feeling it would become drier, but not to this degree,” he said. “That’s the challenge. Will it be drier? Will it be extremely dry? Or will it be record-setting dry? I’m trying to get that sorted out.” 

The forecasters in Oxnard face a similar challenge. They suspect a ridge of high pressure in the North Pacific, known among forecasters as the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge,” is making it difficult for storms from the Gulf of Alaska to slide down the coast to California as in the past, while also encouraging Santa Ana wind conditions. But at the same time, they didn’t think that the rain would vanish in what typically has been the two wettest months of the year. 

“In December in some areas we had three times the normal precipitation,” Jackson said. “We joked about it and said — now watch the spigot get turned off. Maybe we shouldn’t have joked about it.” 


  1. “2°C: Beyond the Limit: Extreme climate change has arrived in America,” Steven MufsonChris Mooney , Juliet Eilperin and John Muyskens, Washington Post, Aug. 13, 2019.
  2. “Post-Fire Debris Flow Facts,” California Geological Survey, Department of Conservation.
  3. “Climate change increases risk of extreme rainfall following wildfire in the western United States,” Danielle Touma, Samantha Stevenson, Daniel L. Swait et al, Science Advances, Vol. 8, No. 13, April 1, 2022.
  4. “Twenty-first century hydroclimate: A continually changing baseline, with more frequent extremes,” Samantha Stevenson, Sloan Coats, Danielle Touma et al, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, March 14, 2022.

Antidote to Despair: “Occupy the Y” in Ojai

Broadcasting from the Mojave wilderness, last week The Desert Oracle — also known as Ken Layne — in his wised-up late night radio voice delivered “a sermon,” as he described it, in podcast form. called Antidote to Despair (about climate). It spoke to me, so let me bring it to your attention in an easy-to-access and readable form.

The episode on the Desert Oracle site opens with this inspirational picture, of the great painter and wanderer, Georgia O’Keefe.

“Georgia O’Keefe never went to a Zumba class…but she managed to keep moving across the Texas plains and New Mexico’s high desert…the places she called home for so many years…usually just walking and roaming like our artists and sages and outlaws have always done” (Ken Layne)

Why O’Keefe? Because she was one of those rare souls, many of them artists or savants of various sorts, possessed by the beauty of the desert. John Muir. Mary Austin. Edward Abbey.

Layne speaks of the desert in a raspy voice of experience, surrounded by an encompassing soundscape all around him, from a fellow denizen of the dark known as [RedBlueBlackSilver ]. Layne sounds as old as the hills. His melds a laconic enjoyment of the harsh desert with a deep appreciation for the writers and adventurers of the desert and the West. In this episode he reveals more. He may live in Joshua Tree with the AirBnBs and the tourists, but he still cares about the desert. Deeply. And he points out that almost as as soon as we humans stop burning fossil fuels and pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, the atmosphere will stop warming.

[Here’s a “Talk of the Town” profile of the involving Oracle from The New Yorker, complete with a perfectly charming drawing]

Ken Layne, from a “Talk of the Town” profile in The New Yorker

He says, from last week:

“It’s the best time of year to walk, in North America anyway, these days, so I hope you’re doing that…this is our time…the only time we are alive…every age has challenges — disasters plagues war cruelty — every age has what seems to be cataclysmic ends-of-the-world likelihoods and possibilities….but we have to live in our time and make the most of it…looking back most of our greatest revolutionaries and thinkers, especially in the field of ecology and environmentalism, have been cheerful and energetic souls…think of John Muir, who witnessed the deforestation of much of America yet found in this horror a cause to give his life to a joyful direction in the face of adversity…despair eats away at our souls…the most Orwellian thing we can do is wake up in the morning and say to ourselves: I wonder how the war is going today? And then submerge our one and only soul in the depths of Internet content that is designed to make us feel bad. What is the antidote to such despair? 

[And then — to my surprise and delight — the cynicism falls away, and Mr. Layne reveals himself as a man who cares!]:

A lot of its local….local in terms of inside your head, what you’re doing, where you live…there are community gardens that could can use your hands and your attention, local land trusts and volunteer groups who help with trail maintenance and wildfire restoration, people who go to the beach every weekend and collect trash…when you do rewarding things with other people it works against not just the global despair but the personal loneliness of feeling like others don’t care. If the people around you right now don’t care find another group of people who do. 

Well, following that path, here in Ojai I will attend a gathering organized by my caring friend Jeff Otterbein and allies from Meiners Oaks, called “Occupy the Y!” A climate action for next weekend the 25th and 26th of March. This means taking residence of a tiny patch of grass near a major intersection, at a crossroads of two small state highways, to inspire action, with speeches, music, poetry, and camping.