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What's up with the wind?

June 29, 2012

The Eastern Sierra was already bracing for a dry summer but the last few weeks of near constant wind has made things even worse.

It’s been windy almost every day for the past three weeks, stretching a pattern that usually occurs for one to two weeks in late May and early June to almost a month long event.

And the pattern responsible for creating the wind—two large high pressure systems to the far west over the Pacific Ocean and another one over the Midwest—shows no signs of weakening anytime soon, according to Dawn Fishler, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno.

“There’s a large high pressure ridge in the Central Pacific and another one stretching from the Dakotas to Texas and Louisiana,” she said. “We are in the valley in between these blocking highs. When the jet stream, which is farther south than normal for this time of year, hits a high, it goes up and over it and descends into a trough, then climbs up the other high again. That’s where we are, in the trough. It’s kind of like a roller coaster.”

The wind we are experiencing in California is created by the temperature differential between the top and bottom of the trough, cold air colliding with warm.

“Until this long range pattern changes, until these highs shift east or west, we will continue to get wind,” Fishler said.

The shift might happen early next week and push the winds to Canada, but it is too soon to tell. The highs have been pretty persistent, she said.

The same roller coaster pattern has resulted in the sharp differences in temperatures that have marked June, she said. This week, Eastern Sierra gardeners wondered if they would have to cover their gardens (they didn’t)—a worry unusual for late June.

On June 17, the region was one degree short of a record high of 80 degrees. Other areas of the Sierra—Markleeville, Lovelock, and Fallon—did break high temperature records.

“We’ve had almost record highs followed by nights at freezing in places like your Bridgeport Valley just this week,” Fishler said.

The wind is more than just irritating to anglers, campers, and bicyclists.

It’s also pushing the fire danger in the Eastern Sierra to epic proportions. The same big picture pattern that Fishler noted is the one creating much of the wind in Colorado and the rest of the interior West, making California firefighters as edgy as their overwhelmed counterparts across the Great Basin.

Just last week, Mammoth’s Fire Department officials noted the situation was already similar to what it would be in most years in August—and worse—after a wet winter in 2010-11 left the ground carpeted with a thick blanket of cheat grass. The cheat grass acts like gasoline to a match and “carries” a fire from one stand of brushes or trees to another rapidly. Until 2011, the cheat grass never existed in large amounts in Mono County where open ground between clumps of vegetation was the norm—a physical feature that slows fire from spreading.

The fire danger this July 4 weekend has almost never been higher, officials said, pleading for extreme caution from all visitors and locals.

And as of this week, every federal land agency in the Eastern Sierra has gone into “fire restrictions” status, meaning no campfires are allowed anywhere outside of designated, developed campgrounds.

The monsoon-like moisture that can hit the Eastern Sierra about this time and persist for about four weeks is so far nowhere to be seen, Fishler said. But there might be some hope on the horizon—maybe.
“The one month outlet for July shows a 50/50 percent chance of normal precipitation and a 30 to 40 percent chance of above normal temperatures,” she said.

Those aren’t exactly good odds—but they could be worse.

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