We’ve had .42 of an inch so far today (it’s 1:30 p.m. daylight-saving style) to go with the 6.48 over the past nine days.
The rain has prompted me to return to an old wet-weather routine that Kate and I have called, in a nod to a favorite writer and a favorite series of articles in The New Yorker, “the control of nature.”
When we moved into our house in April 1988, it was noted in some document somewhere that there was a sump pump on the premises. I found out where the pump was and why it was there the following winter.
Our house has a crawl space. Our lot is on a slope paralleling the course of Schoolhouse Creek. The stream itself has been moved underground, but as we found out one very wet December day a little more than 10 years ago, too much water arriving all at once can, along with a clogged storm drain upstream, bring the creek back above ground.
Water appears less dramatically in our crawl space, and that’s why there’s a sump pump down there.
Usually, a murky pool will gather in a spot that’s been excavated to allow access to the crawl space. Sometimes, as in deluge that arrived early the morning of New Year’s Day 1997, the space will start to fill. That was the one and only occasional the pump, installed in a little concrete well built around our floor furnace to keep the heater from getting flooded, turned on.
Perhaps one reason the pump hasn’t been more active is because I try to keep the crawl space drained when I see water gathering there.
Control of nature requires gravity and a garden hose. I take the full hose, stick one end of it into the watery crawl space. Then I run the hose down the driveway — 30 to 40 linear feet and 3 to 4 vertical feet -- to the street.
I set the hose running last night about 9 o’clock. It’s still running. How much water has come out of there in that time?
I tried to calculate the rate by measuring the flow into a 1-cup measure (yes — this has the possibility of introducing a large error; but let’s just agree I’m not being perfectly scientific). In four trials, the cup filled up in about 6 to 7 seconds. Based on that, I figure somewhere between 32 and 38 gallons are draining out every hour. And that would put the total for the 15 hours or so the thing has been running at 480 to 570 gallons. Which is more than I would have guessed.
While I’m poring over state and federal databases and pondering what it would be like to live through a year with 145.9 inches of rain (Cooskie Mountain, in the King Range of southern Humboldt County, in 2006) or a month with 43 inches of rain (Gasquet Ranger Station, on the Smith River in Del Norte County, December 1996) or 42 inches in nine days (yes, it happened: Bucks Lake, Plumas County, in January-December '96-'97), let me record what we have actually seen here in Berkeley the last week or so:
Friday, March 4: .46 inches
Saturday, March 5: 2.61 inches
Sunday, March 6: .50 inches
Monday, March 7: .46 inches
Tuesday, March 8: 0
Wednesday, March 9: .13 inches
Thursday, March 10: .87 inches
Friday, March 11: .46 inches
Saturday, March 12: .99 inches (and counting)
Among the slow-motion trends we observe in our corner of Berkeley is the proliferation of white elephant items left on the streets -- everything from ratty furniture to unwanted books to antique all-in-one office machines (complete with manuals) -- with signs saying, "Free."
It's not that the stuff is all garbage. Kate and I found a kind of abstract art print in decent condition a year or so ago and brought it home and hung it up. Maybe that's more of a statement about relaxed taste than artistic merit, but we felt it was worth the effort to pick up and carry home and didn't change our minds when we took a second look at the thing.
For the most part, though, what you see out on the curbs and at the end of driveways is crap of dubious utility. It's stuff put out on the street with the hopeful delusion that even though your dog finds the old couch repulsive, someone out there would be happy to have it. They would welcome the chance to fumigate and reupholster it. After all, it's free.
Every once in a while, though, someone dumps their castoff item in the public right-of-way with a note that seems to say, "Who are we kidding? This is junk, but we're leaving it out here for the amusement of you, the passer-by. Maybe you'll even take it away."
Witness the item above (and attached message, below), a dated piece of office equipment with a topical note appealing to those who wish for the days before everything we do could be captured on a server somewhere and preserved forever.
Dramatic evidence of the frigid depths of Berkeley's brutal winter: ice in the improvised backyard watering dish for the chickens. This has happened twice even though the recorded air temperature from a sensor about 6 feet off the ground in back of the house hasn't been lower than 36 degrees this week and I don't see reports from any of the many Wunderground and other stations in the area of readings of 32 or lower. Berkeley's record low for Dec. 29, for what it's worth, is 30, set in 1905, and the average low for December, going back to 1893, is 43.7. (The town's all-time low was set Dec. 22, 1990, and coincided with a Christmas visit by family members who thought they were visiting someplace warmer than Chicago.)
Yes, there are some physical explanations for how water can freeze even if the ambient air temperature isn't yet freezing -- evaporative cooling, for one, and the fact the ambient temperature can be colder at ground level then it is a few feet above.
It's been a little colder than normal here in Berkeley -- and as wet as the weather annals say we have a right to expect -- so ants are looking for warmer, dryer digs. They like it when you give them a little extra encouragement. An open sugar jar or compost container might attract an overnight bug invasion. And so might a smidgen of orange marmalade left over from breakfast.
It took a few hours, but the ants found that little bit of sugar, which had spread out into a nice globule on the stainless steel at the edge of our range top. They gathered around the marmalade like they were at a trough. There weren't a lot of them coming and going; mostly, this group found the good stuff and I think they were forgetting to run back and tell their pals about it.
Unfortunately, I have to acknowledge wildlife was harmed after I made this picture. I got a sponge and wiped up the marmalade and the ants with it. Their cousins are still around, though, scouting out the next feed.
Above: From NASA's Worldview site, an image of California's first real storm of the wet season (click for a larger version, or check it out on Worldvew). Here's (a slightly edited version of) how the National Weather Service's San Francisco Bay Area forecast office described the weather system as it was shaping up early Sunday:
AS OF 09:59 AM PST SUNDAY...NORTH AND CENTRAL CALIFORNIA ARE CURRENTLY POSITIONED IN THE BOUNDARY BETWEEN TWO LARGE FEATURES. TO THE SOUTH...THE HIGH PRESSURE THAT HELPED TO BRING CLEAR SKIES AND UNSEASONABLY WARM TEMPERATURES OVER THE PREVIOUS FEW DAYS. TO THE NORTH...AN APPROACHING STORM SYSTEM WITH A POTENT MOISTURE TAP. A COLD FRONTAL BOUNDARY IS SEPARATING THESE TWO AIR MASSES AND IS EVIDENT ON BOTH RADAR AND SATELLITE FROM THE THICK BAND OF CLOUDS AND CONTINUOUS RAINFALL REFLECTIVITIES ASSOCIATED WITH IT. THIS FRONTAL BOUNDARY IS CURRENTLY DRAPED FROM NORTHWESTERN CALIFORNIA THROUGH SOUTHEASTERN OREGON AND HAS BROUGHT UP TO 2.5" OF RAIN ALONG THE HIGHER TERRAIN OF THE OREGON COAST AND UP TO 2" OVER THE HIGHER TERRAIN OF THE NORTHWESTERN CALIFORNIA COAST. THESE HIGHER VALUES ARE SUPPORTED BY A TROPICAL pMOISTURE PLUME WITH PRECIPITABLE WATER VALUES RANGING FROM 1.2"-1.6" WHICH ARE 150-200 PERCENT WETTER THAN NORMAL. LOWER ELEVATION LOCATIONS IN THESE AREAS HAVE NOT PICKED UP NEARLY AS MUCH... RANGING FROM SEVERAL HUNDREDTHS TO A FEW TENTHS. WE WILL LIKELY SEE SIMILAR ELEVATION BASED PRECIP SCALING FROM THE FRONT AS IT MOVES THROUGH OUR AREA THIS AFTERNOON AND INTO EARLY MONDAY.The rain started here in Berkeley about 9 p.m. or so. It's been more than a drizzle: .29 of an inch in the last couple of hours, on the off chance that the backyard rain gauge (which I got just after the last rain of the spring) is correct. That seems to line up with other rain gauges around town that report on Weather Underground. We'll see how accurate it looks tomorrow.
Here we are: It was midday Thursday in the middle of a week off, and I was still looking to make a mark on the world. While idly pondering what that mark might be, I behold the very end of my morning coffee, resting cold at the bottom of a mug. I wonder for the one hundredth time why the half-and-half in the cooling coffee settles into flowerlike or starlike patterns. (Actually, it's a little alarming to me to read one of my past speculations on this topic; my thinking on the question doesn't really seem to have evolved at all, and I wonder whether that might be emblematic in some way of being sort of stuck in some kind of barren intellectual loop. On the other hand, coffee stars are kind of interesting.)
As in earlier musings, I more than half-expect that someone research chemist somewhere can explain this. Now I will go in search.
About a month ago, Piero and Jill, our neighbors across the street, presented us with a mystery: the seemingly ubiquitous appearance of tiny blobs of clay on their cars, their front porch, and on cars up and down our block of Holly Street, a couple blocks from North Berkeley BART.
Where had these blobs, probably in the thousands, come from? The theory I came up with: Maybe the dirt had been precipitated out from dust in the atmosphere. You know, dust that had been picked up in the Gobi Desert, say, and blown in the stratosphere clear to Berkeley, where it rained down on our street.
The idea isn't entirely loony: Dust from Asia and Africa is known to play a role in precipitation over California's mountains. But in that case, we're talking about minuscule particles that serve as nuclei for ice crystals that later fall as snow or rain. (Yes, sometimes there's so much dust in the air that it will precipitate as a muddy rain -- but that's different from what we were seeing on Holly Street.)
Kate, science teacher and certified California naturalist, appears to have come up with the most probable answer to the blob source: yellowjackets. Here's what the University of California's Integrated Pest Management site has to say about the nesting habits of these wasps:
Yellowjackets commonly build nests in rodent burrows, but they sometimes select other protected cavities, such as voids in walls and ceilings of houses, as nesting sites. Colonies, which are begun each spring by a single reproductive female, can reach populations of between 1,500 and 15,000 individuals, depending on the species.
The wasps build a nest of paper made from fibers scraped from wood mixed with saliva. It is built as multiple tiers of vertical cells, similar to nests of paper wasps, but enclosed by a paper envelope around the outside that usually contains a single entrance hole. If the rodent hole isn’t spacious enough, yellowjackets will increase the size by moistening the soil and digging.
The writeup doesn't say what the yellowjackets do with the material they excavate. But a Georgia gardening website does. In trying to answer readers' questions about the source of mysterious dirt balls, the site consulted an entomologist a University of Georgia entomologist, who said:
The yellowjacket is almost certainly the culprit here.
First is the time of year. Nests are expanded rapidly and grow almost exponentially during late June through September. To allow for this expansion the original nest hole must be greatly enlarged to accomodate the growing nest that will ultimately be at least soccer ball-sized and often larger.
After a good rain, excavating activity often approaches a frenzy level, and if you watch the traffic at the nest entrance 7 out of every 10 wasps will emerge with a chunk of clay in their jaws. They always airlift it generally out to within a few yards of the nest and drop the pellets like small bombs from several feet high, then immediately return to repeat the process. In this way they make room for their nest to grow, and it takes a lot of mouthfuls of mud to do so!
When Kate found this description, Piero said he'd been seeing a good number of yellowjackets around. Unknown, so far as I've heard, is whether the nest this industrious group has been working on has been located.
The photo above: a closeup of one of the clay blobs in question; below, to give an idea of scale, how they looked on the rear window of a Volkswagen Bug. More photos here. (Regarding the picture above: More alarming to me than the mystery blob is all the crud surrounding it; that, no doubt, is simply our normal urban fallout of dust, grit and particulate byproducts of burning hydrocarbons. We're breathing that stuff.)