El Niño promises buckets of beauty

Winter clouds above Brentwood, California.

"The present (El Niño) event still has some potential to become the strongest on record (it’s already in the top three, and by some datasets already leading the historic 1997-1998 event)."

– Daniel Swain, Weather West, October 28

The party’s over.

Like a convict whose sentence got lost in the clerical shuffle, we were braced for the bad and were given the good: a stretch of clear October skies to kick off the monsoon season. But Mother Nature has stumbled onto our paperwork. It’s time to serve the sentence; it’s time to get wet. Out at sea a cortege of clouds is assembling and getting itself pointed down the time-honored parade route. Straight at us.

We should see this as a good thing. Our Golden State, no tropical rainforest under the soggiest of conditions, could use a thorough dousing. Some sectors of the San Francisco Bay Area have been sideswiped by only 1/10 inch of rainfall since June. Pray that the weather gurus got it right when they predicted an El Niño winter for 2015-16. How wet will it get? The jury’s still out, but don’t leave your umbrella at home.

The summit of Round Valley Regional Preserve.

It might be too much to ask Bay Area folk to pray for rain – especially those involved in winter soccer leagues. But it shouldn’t be too much to ask us to pray for snow. Lots of it. In the mountains, that is. A deep and enduring Sierra snowpack, which accounts for 40 percent of California’s fresh water, means a healthier Delta. One cause of our Delta crisis is the increasing influx of salt water from the Pacific and decreasing fresh water runoff from the Sierra. As the sea level rises and the Sierra snowpack thins, the squeeze on the Delta – the West Coast’s largest freshwater estuary – will get worse. We Northern Californians should be the first to hop onto the wet-winter bandwagon.

Need another reason to be dreaming of a wet Christmas? Those magnificent clouds, of course. As winter clouds roll in, sky memories are awakened and new memories made. From the Ridge Trail at Antioch’s Black Diamond Mines I’ve seen the December sky become an ocean. On its vastness sailed an armada of cumulus in disciplined formation like an invasion fleet bearing down on an enemy coastline. And from Big Break in Oakley I’ve witnessed a sunset sky straight out of the Book of Job, spread out “hard as a molten mirror.”

I know, I know. It’s easy to rhapsodize about the beauty of clouds from the safe haven of East Contra Costa. In our microclimate no mighty rivers escape their banks; no mudslides bury our homes. Better yet, no sub-zero temperatures crack our water pipes; no blizzards send our cars careening into ditches. Winter in East County: if this is as bad as it gets, we’ve got it good. Residents of the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard might take a less upbeat view of clouds. When clouds are given names (Katrina and Sandy come immediately to mind), aesthetics tend to go out the window.

The summit of Round Valley Regional Preserve.

If clouds are hazardous to our health, they’re also indispensable to life on Earth. Four and a half billion years ago not a single cloud graced the skies of our planet. Earth was a sphere of molten rock, a victim of countless high-speed collisions of asteroids, planetoids and comets. Earth's oceans were red, not blue. The collisions tapered off and our planet, like a pastry whisked out of the oven, cooled and its magma ocean formed a crust. Then it happened: the invisible gas we call water vapor escaped from the crust and condensed in Earth’s primitive atmosphere. The first clouds were born.

Those primordial clouds lashed our planet with rains that cooled the surface further and flooded its hollows to form the first seas. Then, about three billion years ago, another miracle took place: the seas gave birth to single-celled organisms. Life on Earth was off and running.

It’s November, the run-up to our holiday season, time for the canvas of our lives to be embellished with light and music and cheer; time for the canvas of the sky to be brushed by mare’s tails, piled high with anvil heads and stained in crimson and magenta. Things are looking up. And so should we.