Monday, March 9, 2020

Daylight Spendings Time

We are 10 days from an early equinox and the Sierra winter is melting away already. The Merced watershed has 38% of average snowpack water content and Yosemite Falls is running with the water that's not supposed to flow until June. Horsetail Fall didn't produce appreciable 'firefall.' The big storms just didn't come this season. The low-elevation canyon west of the park has a decent quantity of flower species and numbers, but the slopes look surprisingly dry instead of their usual green. Redbuds punctuate the verdure now.
Rough-winged swallows, white-throated swifts, and turkey vultures are all flying overhead in El Portal. This foothill region also has singing flickers and orange-crowned warblers; ruby-crowned kinglets are warming up with partial songs.

We are curious to see what COVID-19 does to Yosemite visitation this season, where people over 60 are advised to stay home, large gatherings are to be avoided and many people don't want to travel. My May trip to our sister national parks in China has cancelled, but I hope to go in September. With our park getting at least 25% of its visitors from other countries, we expect to see less of the world in Yosemite. The park will be here nonetheless.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Build Me Up, Kumlienia

The first waterfall buttercup of the new season has bloomed in the Merced Canyon across from Ned's Gulch. A couple of the dippers that keep their toes cool in this part of the canyon have started to sing, as well. Solstice has just passed and the greening of spring is underway in the lower reaches of the Sierra. Quite visible (thousands of feet) just above, new snow is accumulating on the healthy base we've acquired in the past month or so. Ski season is young at the same time the first flowers emerge; altitude is everything.

Slash piles are putting up smoke in the Valley now.

Most of these are cleanup from all the ponderosas that have died (overstock, warming, drought, and lastly, beetles) and been felled (hazards to people while they stand). Some of the downed trees and burn piles are from meadow restoration near the Ahwahnee and from vista clearing. I am one who does not lament the shocking mortality of the pines; because of fire suppression they'd grown too dense. The small fraction that is gone from the Valley has opened up fantastic views that no one has seen in generations, a real win. Yosemite Falls is flowing nicely again, though the Merced is running below average volume. Our Christmas Bird Count had good weather and fine birders, and turned up an average number of species and individuals.

We are disappointed that our well-regarded Superintendent has been re-assigned to Denver by NPS HQ, but we are pleased to have the respected Cicely Muldoon arriving to cover in a temporary role that we hope will become permanent.

We've just renewed our sister park arrangement with Huangshan National Park in China for another five years.

I had a good visit there in September and look forward to returning there and to Jiuzhaigou in May.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Tioga Corridor

NPS opens the Tioga Pass Road on 1 July. Our big snow year made clearing snow, avalanche zones and downed trees more laborious than usual. Because water and wastewater systems in Tuolumne Meadows both have problems, it's not easy to have park staff living up there yet. These important people are needed to staff the entrance gate, patrol the road, provide information to visitors, oversee Wilderness access and permitting with backpackers, patrol trails, manage a huge campground, clean public restrooms, set up seasonal housing and make sure that all utility systems are functioning well. It's been our disappointing experience that when the Tuolumne Meadows area isn't staffed by NPS, some visitors can be more destructive to the high country's values.

The partial opening of Tioga during the past week, with one-hour morning and afternoon windows is something new. While cars can't stop on the transit (except to drop-off or pick-up backpackers with permits), the windows have been heavily used by visitors and locals moving between eastern and western California.

NPS has generously allowed bicycles to ride Tioga during all daylight hours. This is one of the best bike rides on earth and is a terrific national park experience. Birds, running water, and the purr of bike tires - so nice!

Of course, as mentioned elsewhere, Tioga is open all year - just not to vehicles. Plenty of people travel this corridor all through the winter months. Those contemplating hikes in the next few weeks should expect lingering snow, difficult creek crossings, and wet, muddy trails. We hope that visitors will be gentle on the landscape as it dries out.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

April Flowers Bringing It

The Merced River approaches 'minor flood' stage tonight, with the previous two night's flows being near 5300 cfs, which is roughly double the average peak spring volume. Valley meadows are wet, some trails are under water, some campsites unusable, and it's a great time to be a duck. While exciting, this is the normal and predictable outcome from a winter that brought the Merced watershed 153% of average snowpack water content as of 1 April (and 176% in the Tuolumne watershed). The waterfalls are ripping right now. You may recall that (after vehicle accidents) swiftwater is the number one factor for visitor fatalities in Yosemite; respect the water. April has been warmer than usual (only one day of wist ice [frazil] in its typically most productive month) and we wonder if peak runoff has come 3-4 weeks earlier than the late May average.

There is still a huge quantity of snow at 7000' and above. While we did have some warm storms this winter that brought rain to high elevations, we had far more storms that delivered snow down to 2000'. Several recent SAR call-outs have resulted from people getting up into deep snow where they didn't expect it. Some have been getting their intel from various posts/photos about nice April hikes that others did last year - that was a very dry winter. The Fourmile Trail and the JMT below Nevada Fall (ice cut) are still closed and dangerous. The High Sierra Camps won't open this season. Expect stream crossings to be challenging and snow to persist well into mid-summer in the high country.

Dogwood flowers are at the puppy stage in Yosemite Valley. Tanagers, orioles and grosbeaks are singing and shining brightly. Peregrines are at their eyries. The green dragons are rolling. "This grand show is eternal..."

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Night Equals Day

Yesterday we were treated to the unusual intersection of vernal equinox and a full moon. Here was a nice moment when hours of sunshine were balanced by hours of - wait - moonshine? Let's say moonlight, rather. If you follow your horoscope (and if you don't) this coincidence of full moon and equinox means no more than an interesting astronomical curiosity in your life.

I am guilty of neglecting regular posts for most of the last year, but I'll try again to stay more up to date.

It's been a strong winter in the Sierra, with much more than average snowpack on the ground. It seems like we've had just one week without a storm since the end of January. As in other recent years, the snowline is higher than the historic average although Yosemite Valley got some heavy storms in February that damaged a lot of trees and the buildings beneath them. The Merced is running above average and the waterfalls are all at healthy volumes. Here's hoping for a gradual warming of spring that'll have the falls flowing well through the summer, instead of draining snowfields in a short burst.

The burned area of last summer's Ferguson Fire (shown here with a skier) has shed a bit of sediment (mostly from the South Fork) in storms but nearly all of that fire was of low intensity and is greening up nicely now. For all the rain and runoff we've had, there wasn't much intense rainfall and we haven't had the rockfalls along Hwy. 140 that we worried about. Not many trees were killed by that fire (lots of already dead trees didn't even burn) and the forest is healthier for it. Burned or not, as with much of California, it's looking like a good wildflower season. Kumlienia started in January, and the rocky banks that were cooked black in August are now coated in greenery and flowers. Poppies, popcorn flower, baby blue-eyes and fiddlenecks are already at photogenic quantities in the Merced Canyon, but are still densifying toward their peaks.

I am again leading trips to Yosemite's sister national parks in China. Mountain Travel Sobek has us headed to explore the natural and cultural history of Jiuzhaigou and Huangshan and to meet with park rangers to learn about China's park management. Hiking in both parks is truly astounding and I can't wait to get back there.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Wet Spring

After another very dry winter, Yosemite has had a bit of recovery with a wet spring. We had warm storms in March and April and are now enjoying a string of about 10 days of cool, cloudy afternoons. The first weekend of April we had the markedly unusual experience of a very late, warm, winter-scale storm. This atmospheric river brought high elevation rain instead of snow, a flood forecast, and a successful pre-emptive evacuation of Yosemite Valley. Sure enough, the Merced River came up through the campgrounds, over the roads, through Housekeeping Camp, and filled the meadows. NPS has nice footage online. There's a persistent myth that these 'Pineapple Express' storms melt a lot of snow, but they really don't. It's the high elevation rain over thousands of acres of bare rock and thin soils that fills the river. This flood event wasn't from a 'monster' rainstorm, just a pretty big storm up high. Lower elevation side streams barely rose, compared to what the river did.

Because of the poor winter and the late-season rains, our springtime runoff peaked a month ahead of normal. The Merced and the waterfalls are already declining in volume, especially with the cloudy conditions we've been having. The clouds are delaying our minimal runoff a bit, which will help waterfalls last and forests to stay watered a bit further into the summer.

The park is still busy felling hazard trees, the small portion of our dead trees that might fall on people/roads/infrastructure. This year's below-average precipitation and above-average warmth will continue to stress Sierra forests (over-thick with trees due to decades of fire suppression) and we'll see more of the weak trees succumb to native bark beetles. Despite changes in Washington, D.C., the NPS in Yosemite is sticking with science and is not dodging the reality of climate change in its training of new rangers. The climate IS changing, it's changing NOW, in ways more rapid than ever, it is because of OUR hydrocarbon use, and it'll have serious consequences for US. It's disappointing that some political leaders think they know more than NASA or the National Academies of Science. Among other things, our fire season is longer, more severe and is costing us all more money to deal with. I'll be heading up to Lyell and Maclure Glaciers with Yosemite Conservancy groups in August and I expect to see those small ice bodies closer to leaving Yosemite entirely glacier-less.

Luckily, because we are causing the current rapid changes in climate, we should have some influence over it. Let's work to reduce our mistake and bring back snowy winters.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Winter Bypass

We really have skipped past winter here again. Aside from last winter, this has been a season much like those winters of 2011-2016: mild and dry. There's still time for some catch-up precipitation, but it's extremely unlikely to make up for the absence of storms so far. I was up at 7500' along the shoulder of Half Dome with BK the other day. We explored an abandoned trail and stopped by G. Anderson's spring and cabin site; there was barely any snow to speak of.

Above Rancheria Flat (El Portal), numerous flowers are blooming: poppies, red maids, Erodium, woodland star, Nemophila, popcorn flower, fiddlenecks, blue dicks, Stellaria, dead nettle, birds-eye gilia, etc. Some buckeyes are still tight buds, while others are dazzling green with 10cm leaves out. Elderberries are also leafing out. Redbud still seem a ways off.

The Merced River is running below average. It's displaying the diurnal cycle of snowmelt, draining the water that's supposed to flow off in April/May. The aridity of the season means a poor showing for the Horsetail Fall 'firefall' phenomenon but crowds are coming nonetheless; viral imagery from other years seems to matter more than natural reality on the ground. NPS and YC have arranged an impressive structure for managing access to the main viewing areas. Without more than a wet streak at Horsetail, at least the system gets a dry run. (Yes, intentional.)

Summer stars are rising before dawn now: Scorpio and the Triangle. The Falcon Heavy orbital burn was visible for a few minutes over Yosemite last week, an unexpected celestial apparition.