Thursday, July 10, 2008

Don't Trust Air You Can't See

Ok, so here's the ironic thing. Nearly five years ago, my wife and I moved to the Sacramento area from Silicon Valley because of a whole host of quality-of-life issues.

Now, to many denizens of Silicon Valley, the preceding sentence will generate snorts, guffaws, and the occasional coffee-spewed keyboard. The Silicon Valley is a nice place to live, no doubt about it. The weather is about as comfortable as you can get in the Continental US. There are plenty of high-paying jobs there. There are numerous cultural venues nearby, from symphonies to Opera companies to professional and college sports franchises to museums. The country around it is lovely, especially when you start getting up into the hills on the peninsula. And for that matter, Tonya had plenty of family living nearby, and it's nearly always useful to have that--you have your choice of trusted babysitters, for example. There are always an extra pair of hands or two a few minutes' drive away, if you need them.

But... anywhere you live, there are drawbacks as well. And even if 95% of the population loves the quality of life in an area, if those drawbacks get under your skin, then it may actually make sense to move. Silicon Valley also has extremely high property values, where half-a-million will get you an extreme fixer-upper on the wrong side of town, if you're lucky.

And it has horrible, horrible, approaching-LA-levels traffic. And there's something about traffic that just drives me bonkers.

And its air quality is usually pretty nasty, too--partly as a result of all that traffic. The Bay Area has over the last two decades or so developed this ugly pall of brown smog that just sits there. The trouble is, the place is ringed by mountains on nearly all sides; the smog has nowhere to go, unless there's a good stiff breeze. (And when that's the case, the smog blows into California's Central Valley, where it gets trapped by the mountains and all winds up on top of Bakersfield. That poor town has some of the worst air quality in the country, and it's not their fault.)

So my wife and I moved to the Sacramento area, and we have very few regrets about our decision. Mainly, Tonya misses having her family nearby, which I can understand. But aside from that, and a few weeks each summer when it gets to 110°, we have no complaints.


Well, if you've been following the news from Northern California lately, you've probably seen that our air quality has taken a wee turn for the worse lately. We had a thunderstorm a couple of weeks ago that dropped little or no rain, but had lots of lightning--and which started over a thousand wildfires through our part of the state. It got pretty bad two weeks ago, but then the winds shifted, the temperature came down, and last week was pretty comfortable.

Then the winds shifted back the other way, and the smoke came back. I understand that the town of Folsom--less than ten miles from here--was reporting visibility at less than a quarter mile yesterday. The air outside positively reeks, and we've been seeing a lot of people who have to be outside (like mailmen) wearing filter masks.

I went outside today and took some pictures of the sky, just to show you (my dear internets) what we're dealing with here.

Now, what does this picture look like to you? To me, it looks a little like a peaceful scene in a quiet neighborhood, on an overcast day.

Well, part of the reason it looks that way is that the camera, for whatever reason, didn't capture the color of Mr. Sun very well. The sun was right in the middle of this picture. In real life, it was positively pink. I'm not sure why the camera didn't get it. But it left enough of a mark in the picture that I was able to edit the picture's colors to get it to come out. Note, the colors below aren't supposed to look natural; I only changed them to show the sun.

Aside from all the smoke, the sky in that picture is clear. Today was a clear day--not a cloud in the sky. The sky would have been blue, had it not been for all that soot.

Oh--and when I took these pictures, it was about seven in the evening, and the temperature outside was still pretty close to 100°. And this was about ten degrees cooler than it was yesterday, for which we're quite thankful.


Ok, so it's pretty bad out there. But we can take a few bad weeks a year, can't we? After all, since we moved to the Sacramento area, we've only had this rotten air quality for a few weeks

So yesterday, I found this story from the Sacramento Bee, with a hat tip to Anthony Watts. The upshot is that these days, we tend to average around a quarter-million acres of wildfire in California each year. But prior to the arrival of the White Man and his land-management techniques, California burned about 4.4 million acres per year--or close to eighteen times the current average, and much more than has burned this year even.

And as much as we like our clear skies, the fact that we've eliminated so many of the fires has some serious ramifications to the ecology of the state. The trouble is:
  • Those fires cleared out a lot of the dead underbrush, which allow saplings of many species to get started. In fact, several species of native conifers require fire to germinate. No fires, no saplings.
  • Without the fires, the underbrush (and the dead clutter) just builds up on the ground from one year to the next. California is a semi-arid zone, and all those dead leaves, dead pine needles, pine cones, and fallen trees just don't decay like they would in a temperate rainforest. But if you let too much of this stuff build up, eventually a wildfire will come along, find all this fuel, and get really big--becoming so excessively hot that it even kills the fire-resistant species (like the redwoods) and sterilizes the soil.
So what does this mean? Well, it means that these clean skies that I've been enjoying since we moved away from the Bay Area are themselves unnatural; that all that smokiness is the norm, and that our attempts to fix it may have been making it worse in the long run.

Frankly, I don't think I care about this at the moment. The air feels sticky on our skin and grimy in our lungs. I seriously look forward to the next clean air day. We'll worry about our long-term doom when it gets here. ;-)


Anyway, Anthony Watts has another post up about the air quality--with some photos that show the real color of the sun as I saw it this evening. He must have a better camera than me.


silvermine said...

Down here in Silly Valley the weather reports are starting to include the smokiness factor.

I'm tired of going outside and seeing the sky brown/reddish with smoke. It can't possibly be good for our lungs!

I would wish for a nice stiff breeze (sorry Bakersfield) but that just makes the fires a million times worse.

Anonymous said...

Because of this, people need to contribute so we can have a cleaner air. One thing we can do is to check and test the smog in our cars. In San Francisco, there is a smog check and test center. Check their site at