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September 13 2015 BACKPACKER ALERT: Fire and El Nino | High Sierra Backpacker

September 13 2015 BACKPACKER ALERT: Fire and El Nino

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 13 September 2015

Here's my typical approach to Fall:

 Typical Year: The chances of early season cold and even an unexpected snow storm require we gear-up for the expected and the unexpected.

   Each month is bringing colder conditions with increasing potentials for some serious unexpected early snow with each passing  day. Though hiking the Fall conditons of  September, October, and November presents some of the most spectacular views and beautiful experiences the High Sierra Nevada Mountain Range offers, we're also under expanding threat and increasing potential for a wide range of Winter weather conditions. We've got to keep an eye on the sky, as always. But especially during Fall.

This Year

I love the crisp feel of Fall Air, the sharpness of contrast on the terrain as Sun drops lower in Sky, and the merciful end of the mosquitoes. But this year is-has-been different. Though August conditions have finally tilted towards more typical weather, we've seen and felt higher temps and humidity than "normal."
 This year the crispness of approaching Fall Air has been flattened by the high humidity and heat. The rising sharpness of Fall contrasts are being dulled by smoke, and thankfully the mosquitoes are following tradition and dying on cue. The heat is good for something!

These different "feelings" this Fall clue us in to emerging trends and threats specific to this year's transition from Summer to Winter Conditons. And this year's an important one for man and nature, so let's take a look at how it's playing out.

September 2015 


For backpackers this year's unique conditions require awareness of potential dangers from Fire, Smoke Danger, and the possibility of heavy Tropical Downpours with Lightening. 

Fire and Smoke Information

El Nino Report

Fire from the Sky
(This is 24 hour tropical storm acitivity)

 Weather conditions are out-of-wack approaching fifth year of historically unprecented drought. The potential for tropical rain is increasing in mid-September just as fire conditions are reaching historic highs, and vast destructive fires are burning up and down the state.

El Nino Predictions
  High temperatures and a boiling El Nino make snow seem like an unlikely memory and an impossible future. Cauldrons of hot water off the West Coast of Seattle, The "Blob,"  and off the SW Coast of Mexico down to the tongue of El Nino reaching West across the Central Pacific have created a center of fierce tropical storm production in the Central-East Pacific. This vortex of hot water is generating unprecedented lines of hurricanes pushing East-Northeast across the Central Pacific. WOW.

8 Km SE Pac and W US Sat

All Sats

A persistant trough over California has been sucking vast unconsolidated chunks of this tropical moisture North in the early days of September. Here's what I see:

No El Nino
  El Nino storms will miss California if the weird tropical high pressure zone that has been establishing itself over the North Pacific during the drought Winters reestablishes itself and persists this Winter.
The North Pacific High, and the heat of Summer over the N Pacific has been "retreating" Southward less and less each Winter during the last twenty years, 

If this High re-establishes itself again this Winter there are good chances that it will transport El Nino moisture around California and the High Sierra. This High pressure zone appears to be forming up as strongly in mid-September as are El Nino conditions. That makes sense, as it's the same un-natural heat in water and sky driving both. 

We can watch this mechanism through the North Pacific 96 Hour Surface Forecast. Select the North Pacific 96 Hour Surface Forecast on a 14 day loop to observe the previous 10 days' patterns and the next three days' predictions.
The North Pacific High transported a tropical storm around its perimeter between September 6 and 9.

These type of legasy presentations are why we keep Flash in our browsers, if not activated. (Translate: NOT ACTIVATED, but available.)

Big El Nino 
We may see a historic flow of tropical moisture into California and the High Sierra If the Winter High Pressure Zone does not set up over the North Pacific, and North Pacific Surface heating and Arctic "weakness" (Another warm Winter Arctic) perpetuates the breakdown of the North Pacific Jet Stream.

Warming Arctic Winters are deflecting the N Pac Jet Stream. This change empowers the growing pattern of Winter storms coming out of the tropics from the West and Southwest, rather than (out of the Arctic, from) the Northwest.
This is the growing pattern which has been starving the High Sierra of its snow pack over the past twenty years that has accelerated over the past five years. 

El Nino driven tropical storms generate their own Westerlies, which will transport vast streams of tropical mositure to California and the Sierra if not deflected by a North Pacific High.

The scenario of a warm Arctic Winter developing without building a Winter High over the North Pacific could create the conditions necessary to transport  vast amounts of tropical moisture West to California and the High Sierra.
 This historically unparalleled El Nino is generating unprecedented storm activity that is currently throwing vast amounts of moisture into the atmosphere.

 I believe the possibility of its being steered across California and the High Sierra is dependent on the evolution of  the Winter temperatures and atmospheric pressures in the North Pacific and even the depth of Winter Cold that the Arctic Circle can achieve. 

In other words, we could get slammed or shut down.

  In either case these conditions are unique in the span of human history. At this point it is clear that sombody is going to get hit with a vast amount of tropical moisture. Vagaries in the development of the transport mechanism prevents us from determinng who.

My instincts are telling me California and the Sierra are going to get slammed. My mind is telling me that North Pacific High has been consistently and powerfully evolving over the past twenty years, and is going to form up again this year to carry grand flows of tropical moisture around the North perimeter of Ca.

We will see.



September 2015 

The threats are fire and tropical weather.

The enduring trend of shortening Winters and the subsequent significant diminishment of Rain and Snowpack during the last 25 years has evolved into a completely different weather pattern. The storms out of the Northwest, in fact the whole North Pacific Weather Pattern has been disrupted. I would say it has been shattered

The various unhinged elements of our old pattern have not re-established a new pattern (they are still changing!), but two facts are crystal clear. First, our traditional pattern of Winter storms out of the Northwest has been shattered.
It will likely re-occur every 3 to 7 years on a diminishing cycle. It could happen this year, but Winters dominated by storms out of the Northwest is done as the dominant reliable  feature driving Winter weather on the whole Northwest Coast of the US.

 I see two factors driving the Degradation of the North Pacific Winter Weather Pattern: 

Factor A> The significant warming of the Arctic Circle during Winter has diminshed the polar region's ability to draw West Pacific storms up to the perimeter of its once powerful spinning vortex of brutal cold, to "power them up," and toss them across the Bearing Straight down to the West Coast of the US.
(Added edit: This has gradually altered the path of the North Pacific Jet Stream over the past two decades. This has changed the directions and timing of changes in seasonal wind directions, which has changed the timeing of oceanic "upwellings" of deep ocean currents off the West Coast of the US.)

  Factor B> The warmth of the North Pacific ocean surface and atmosphere during Winter in N Lattitudes has created a vast, persisting, "North Pacific High" that has deflected the path of the typical North Pacific Winter Jet Stream across the Northeast Pacific to our East, leaving the West Coast of the US dry.
(Added edit: This has contributed to the altered the path of the North Pacific Jet Stream, and changed seasonal wind patterns, affecting Pacific Upwellings driving Hot Spots and "blobs.".) 

(Edits added 1-3-16)

   The combined effects of the warming Arctic Circle and persistant North Pacific High have driven Jet Stream changes responsible for the great "slides" of Cold Arctic air masses South over the Mid-West, South and East Coasts over the last few Winters, those events labelled as "polar vortexes."

   The Arctic Circle has lost its weather "mojo," and the North Pacific is turning into a warm tub of water no longer deflecting, pointing the Jet Stream at the West Coast of California as we are historically accustomed to, but away from the West Coast. The North Pacific has been consistently supporting a powerful Winter High.

This is much more than a "drought."

  Typical Winter storm patterns are not being drawn up to the Arctic Circle in the West Pac, they are not being fired up by the spinning vortex of the North Polar Region during Winter, nor are the resulting super-charged storms riding the Jet Stream over the cold North Pacific down to California.
  That's the pattern that's over, ended, the old pattern that drove fertility in California and the High Sierra for countless centuries.

Let's be clear: WE Turned It OFF.

   Second, the temperatures and humidity have risen to levels at 38 N LAT un-natural for the North Lattitudes. We appear to be moving towards a tropical "Wet and Dry"-season type of pattern at 38 N. We'll see. 
We've loosened the forces of chaos into the water and sky, now we will see what we reap, and where these profound forces of Nature end up balancing out again. 

  Well, we will see once we stop feeding the problem itself. We have not even gotten to the point of openly, honestly identifying our greed, cheating, and irresponsible growth problems, and stopping this destructive foolishness.

Our "Western" and specifically our U.S. political "system," as well as individual "value systems," all boldy reject the environmental consequences of our behavior. They tell us various things about how we should be "Green."
The irony is that they are promoting exactly the same policies of growth and development that unhinged our environment at exactly same time they are pretending to be "Green."

What we are observing in the "Political Greening of America" is nothing more than a "repackaging" of the exactly the same growth and development policies, exactly the same behaviors that created the structures of greed, wealth, and the criminal political power structure that unhinged our environment in the first place.
We are merely watching "leadershp" tailoring themselves to the devolving circumstances they themselves created, while maintaining exactly the same "policies" of endless growth and consumption that have been simultaniously draining man and Nature.

I Call it "riding the horse into the ground."

But it's a green horse.

 Nonetheless, our establishment of new basline meterological conditions in the North Pacific and Arctic Ocean assures that this new weather pattern has just now begun to re-order the type and distribution of plant and animal life rapidly under its changed and still changing footprint.
 This is forcing all man and Nature to adjust to the new reality as quickly as reality changes.
 Here in California this is happening through fire for the trees, and lack of water for the animals, humans, and everything else.

   New plants, animals, and trees more suited to the hotter, drier climate will (are) replace (ing) those burned, until they too are supplanted, only ending when our new climate cycle is finally established.. 

The Mainstream Press is not really catching up, but is unable to ignore the destruction and collaspe of whole ecosystems:

As Fires Grow, a New Landscape Appears in the West,
NYT, September 21, 2015.

Yet the mainstream press cannot identify the "American" process of massive irresponsible growth and offshoring our manufacturing to countries producing massive pollution as the driving forces supercharging these ecological changes far beyond conventional definitions of disaster.

Our current situation indicates the weather pattern has already shifted. Those ecosystems not already "transformed" are about to be.

Climate set for 'sudden shifts,'
BBC, 2008.

We must change direction now. We must dismantle these Engines of Disaster, and restore Nature's Engines of Life.

  For backpackers this means that the rising threats into this year's Fall Backpacking Season are environmental in nature, caused by man's folly. These threats come from massive fires, the smoke pouring out of them, and unexpected tropical downpours with fierce lightening.

The "Backend"
An El Nino Winter could put a huge, warm, wet, snow pack onto the Sierra. A rapid Spring Thaw, not unheard of in these warm times, opens the possibility of a precipitious Thaw during the Spring of '16.

I figure radical Spring Thaws typically happen about every 75 years? The last one was in 1998, and the previous in the 1920s, by my loose recokening. Hell, I think we will be lucky if we even have snow on the Crest in April.

But if the El Nino hits with full force we could see twenty feet on the Crest in late Spring!

We may be setting up for an event like that of The Great Flood of 1862.

Also See
California Megaflood: Lessons from a Forgotten Catastrophe,
Jan 1, 2013, Scientific America.

 We will continue to carefully watch the evolution of conditions to find the range of possibilities that compose the horizon of our future. Keep me posted about what you see,

Happy Trails,



DECEMBER 11, 2015

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