California Institute for Water Resources
California Institute for Water Resources
California Institute for Water Resources
University of California
California Institute for Water Resources

Follow Our Blog: The Confluence

Researching California’s extreme weather, storm-by-storm

Tashiana Osborne on the Scripps Pier. Photo by Jeff Dillon.

Tashiana Osborne is a PhD student with the Scripps Institution for Oceanography at UC San Diego where she works within the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes on atmospheric river research.   

As a graduate student, you already have an incredible amount of experience, including working as a storm chaser and intern at NASA. Can you tell us a little more about your current research?  

I investigate extreme rain and snow events that affect the western U.S., where many extreme weather events are tied to atmospheric rivers. Atmospheric rivers are like rivers in the sky. They are long, narrow bands of enhanced water vapor traveling in the lower atmosphere.

When atmospheric rivers reach land, they can have widespread impacts. While the precipitation they produce provides water for residential and agricultural use, they can also lead to destructive flood or snow events. At the other end of the spectrum, a long absence of atmospheric rivers can lead to prolonged droughts. Overall, there are implications for public safety, water and food security, and the economy, including costly droughts, wildfires, snow events, floods, and mudslides.

Currently, I'm exploring using radar data to investigate the behavior of the atmospheric snow level, where falling snow melts to rain. Especially in higher-elevation regions like the Sierra Nevada, the snow level is key in determining whether a basin receives rain or snow, which then determines the impact of the event. For example, snow accumulates and contributes to water supply gradually, though heavy snow may lead to power outages, traffic delays, and even avalanches. Rain, on the other hand, flows into rivers and reservoirs more quickly, and can rapidly contribute to flooding events. It is crucial, therefore, that we understand how the snow level fluctuates to prepare for impacts of precipitation events.

Launching weather balloons surrounding atmospheric river periods in Ukiah, CA. Photo by Maryam Asgari-Lamjiri.

You've said that it's important to you to work to empower younger students, and share the possibilities of STEM with disadvantaged and marginalized communities. How are you working on these issues?

Although we faced struggles at times, my brother and I were fortunate to be exposed to nature thanks to some of our quirky, nature-loving family members. Yes, nature is chaotic, but it can also provide an escape; a way to connect with something bigger than myself through some of life's most challenging times. I want others to have access to these bigger experiences too.

As a Voices for Science Advocate through the American Geophysical Union, I've committed to activate in science outreach, communication, and policy. As Advocates, we unofficially call ourselves the Science Avengers, taking action to empower others to “show their cape”!

It's also important to acknowledge that higher education programs, especially in STEM, can present additional challenges for students from underrepresented groups. We've seen that diverse perspectives contribute to better science, and that diversity initiatives without inclusion are not enough. In my eyes, investing in youth and amplifying community voices often left out of political conversations can directly help strengthen the nation and world.

For the past four years, I've served as a science mentor for the Preuss School's Girls in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) Conference, encouraging girls who strive to become the first in their families to graduate from college. For the past two years, I've volunteered during the Garibaldi Bowl, an ocean sciences competition for San Diego high school students. I've also been fortunate to interact with students by sharing my experiences during panels and visiting classrooms.

Exploring Rocky Mountain National Park as a Rocky Mountain Science and Sustainability Network Summer Academy alumna. Photo by Miguel Trejo Rangel.

I recently returned to Colorado as a Rocky Mountain Science and Sustainability Network Summer Academy alumna. The Academy aims to develop a diverse population of undergraduate students ready to collaborate on issues relating to sustainability and community engagement in the protection of natural resources. For some students, visiting a U.S. national park as part of the program was a first.  

Finally, I strive to reach politically-minded groups through science policy efforts and training. For example, I've had the honor of serving as a Scripps delegate for United Nations Climate Change Conferences. At the conferences, I share with and learn from a global crowd comprised of government representatives, journalists, and others. I've learned that research has the power to inform effective and responsible policy decisions to help us become better protected and prepared in our changing climate, which affects us right here in California.

Teaming up with fellow Scripps students Meredith Fish and Kara Voss to present on atmospheric rivers for a press conference during the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Photo by Brittany Hook.

What do you find most exciting or challenging about your research?

There are many things that add excitement! Not to mention many others that create challenges from which to grow. As one example, from December through March, I sometimes do field work in northern California. I sign up for a couple weeks where I'm essentially “on-call.” This means, if forecasts suggest there will be an atmospheric river, I might suddenly be contacted to pack up and book a flight.

During field work, we work together to launch weather balloons every three hours to measure atmospheric variables at different altitudes in the atmosphere – yes, even overnight and in rain and wind! Field experiences like this, and other interactions and collaborations with fellow scientists from various backgrounds, rev-up my excitement for science, and make me feel part of a mission.

In science, one of the big challenges is constructing and investigating questions that have complex, unexplored answers. We push limits and learn new skills while applying what we've stored in our knowledge toolbox. We also find ways to creatively represent and communicate results. In doing so, we may realize our efforts make up just one piece of the larger puzzle. This can be disconcerting, but also motivating because we care a lot about the world around us.

My long-term goal is to explore questions that directly address problems society faces, and share findings in ways that help contribute to solutions. That way, there's a chance those individual puzzle pieces can fit into broader efforts focused on protecting people and ecosystems and, optimistically, improving the world we live in.

You can find Tashiana on Twitter @TashianaOsborne and the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes @CW3E_Scripps.

Posted on Monday, July 15, 2019 at 5:16 PM

California’s idea of “natural” beauty may have shifted during the drought

Santa Barbara’s iconic palm trees. Photo by Alex Beattie.

From beaches to canyons, southern California is well-known for its iconic landscapes. Palm-lined streets are so ingrained in the popular imagination that it's easy to forget the trees haven't been there all that long. In fact, much of what is commonly thought of as the area's natural beauty has been created to match a specific human idea of what nature should look like. However, a new study indicates that what many residents and visitors see as the ideal coastal landscape may have evolved during California's prolonged drought.

Andrew McCumber, a doctoral student in cultural and environmental sociology at UC Santa Barbara, published a study in the journal Nature + Culture on the interplay between drought and concepts of nature in the coastal city of Santa Barbara. While often thought of as a sort of paradise, Santa Barbara "is also the product of significant human interventions in its 'natural' landscape," says McCumber. He asserts the place we see today arose through a concerted effort to develop an idyllic semitropical beach town in what is an otherwise semiarid climate.

"When Santa Barbara is lauded for its natural beauty, part of what that means is the city's appearance fits a culturally preferred aesthetic," writes McCumber. The seeds of that aesthetic were planted at least as far back as the 19th century with the conversion of oak and sage woodlands to ranchlands, and furthered with the intentional 20th century introduction of hundreds of varieties of trees and plants from around the world. There are now over 450 kinds of trees in Santa Barbara, all of which contribute to a relatively lush urban forest considered central to the city's natural beauty.

Santa Barbara's Moreton Bay fig tree, believed to have been originally shipped from eastern Australia. Photo by Konrad Summers.

As part of his study, McCumber, a lifelong resident of Santa Barbara, spoke with the city's arborist Timothy Downey and learned just how much work goes into maintaining the trees. "It's not surprising that the trees are managed, but because it's done to cultivate a specific experience of the city, you come to take it for granted. The true extent of the bureaucratic management of the city's aesthetics really intrigued me."

At the same time, McCumber's research found that the drought led to a shift in the city's preferred aesthetic. On one level, water restrictions simply meant less water for landscaping. More broadly, the very idea that a green urban forest is what makes Santa Barbara a paradise also changed, in part due to an active "gold is the new green" campaign.

Like many in California's coastal cities, Santa Barbara's residents generally pride themselves on their environmental values. While "green" is often used as a substitution for "environmental" the drought led to a rethinking of what those values really mean in a semiarid climate. Instead it became a "badge of honor to have a brown lawn" said the city's water conservation manager, Madeline Ward.

Madeline Ward, Santa Barbara’s water conservation manager, on the city’s “gold is the new green” campaign during the drought.

This shift in aesthetics had indirect effects on some in Santa Barbara. "For many middle- and upper-class residents who cared about the drought, the easiest thing to do initially was to let their landscaping go. The people most affected by that change were the largely Latino laborers in the landscaping industry who lost work when clients stopped watering," says McCumber. That doesn't mean the shift shouldn't happen, or that new landscaping opportunities won't emerge, but rather that "it's hard to disentangle these cultural, social, and environmental threads when there is a pre-established economy for maintaining an aesthetic that is ecologically out of touch."

McCumber hopes his research can help illuminate the complex relationship between aesthetics, environmental conditions, and people. In the time since he finished his research, two more disasters have hit the Santa Barbara area – a devastating wildfire and mudslide. McCumber says he is worried that in a few years people will talk about the fire and mudslide as separate events. "I think we should also include the drought when we're talking about these disasters. It's important to talk about all of them, and more broadly climate change, as parts of a larger socio-environmental process."

Posted on Monday, January 29, 2018 at 5:11 PM

Practical advice on drought tolerant landscaping in California

Photo from UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners of Marin County.

This is a guest post from Missy Gable, UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardener program; Dave Fujino, California Center for Urban Horticulture, UC Davis; Janet Hartin, UC Cooperative Extension; Chuck Ingels, UC Cooperative Extension; Loren Oki, UC Davis; and Karrie Reid, UC Cooperative Extension

Water scarcity is part of life in California, which has been made even clearer in this fourth year of drought. The state's long-term forecast includes less snow pack and increased demand on our diminished water resources. In response, Californians are evaluating their water use, both in the landscape and the home. An obvious sign of changing landscape practices are the ‘golden' lawns that were once green. Many water districts have restricted the installation of new residential lawns and implemented “cash-for-grass” programs.

A variety of options exist for gardeners implementing landscaping changes. Trading in your turf for concrete, rock, or artificial turf are options. However, none of these selections promote healthy soils and other ecosystem services. In fact, all of these options can be problematic because they create a heat island effect and may have water infiltration or runoff issues.

Gardeners can also change the type of turfgrass they are growing. Warm-season turfgrass such as bermudagrass and buffalograss can be substituted for traditional cool-season grasses such as tall fescue and ryegrass. Warm-season turf goes dormant in fall and winter but impressively uses about 25% less water than cool-season counterparts.

Increasing the uniformity that water is applied across a lawn, fixing broken sprinkler heads, and irrigating based on climate zone can reduce water waste by 20-50%. Consult the UC ANR Lawn Watering Guide for specific information on these topics. Switching from a fan spray irrigation system to a multi-stream rotary system that waters more evenly and more slowly over the surface of your turf can also save water and decrease water and chemical runoff.

If you intend to suspend irrigation to your lawn, be sure to provide water to trees that have relied on that water. Watch trees for water stress symptoms such as change in color, wilting, or unseasonal leaf drop and provide water if necessary. As needed, apply water using a temporary drip or sprinkler device or a garden hose. Irrigate away from tree trunks in the dripline of the tree slowly and deeply. Gradually lengthen the interval between watering.

Other planted landscapes can provide similar ecosystem services to turf. For those considering a landscape conversion from turfgrass to native or Mediterranean climate-adapted plants, there are some important practices to take into consideration. These include:

  • Delay conversion to a low water-use landscape to the mid-fall or early winter. New plants have small root systems and are not immediately water conserving when planted. In fact, they require quite a bit more water initially to become established in your landscape. Planting in cooler months allows root growth to begin with little added water and takes advantage of seasonal rains to support the healthy establishment of your new landscape. Be sure to select water-efficient plants that grow well in your climate.
  • Control weeds. A weed is a water thief in the landscape when you have limited irrigation events. Remove weeds so they do not compete with your landscape plants for water.
  • Install drip irrigation. Drip irrigation is a targeted way to ensure water is being applied directly to a plant's root zone and not ‘lost' outside the reach of those roots. Contact your local University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Master Gardener Program for more information about the frequency and timing of your irrigation system. Periodically examine the soil several inches below the surface to make sure you're adding the right amount of water.
  • Maintain 3-4” of shredded bark or wood chip mulch. Mulch is an insulator. It shields the soil from sunlight so weed seeds don't sprout, reduces evaporation of moisture from the soil, and protects plant roots from harmful temperatures so they don't die. Apply up to 4” deep but be sure to keep mulch several inches away from the base of tree trunks to avoid potential rot.
  • Avoid overuse of fertilizers. Fertilizers increase plant growth, which in turn increases a plant's water need. When water is limited, do not apply fertilizer.
  • Become familiar with your irrigation controller. You are not alone if programming your irrigation controller is a daunting task. Many people do not understand how to set their irrigation controller.Helpful tipsare available as a guide to adjusting irrigation controllers and scheduling appropriate irrigation events for your landscape.
  • Consider installing a ‘laundry to landscape' graywater system. The state and most local jurisdictions have lifted or greatly lessened restrictions on graywater systems which allow irrigation of plants with water from a washing machine. Contact your local county or city public works department for specific information on local laws.

Whatever your water-saving strategy, connect with your local UCCE Master Gardener Program for information and support. Program volunteers are uniquely trained to extend University research and knowledge to California residents. They staff county phone helplines, attend local farmer's markets, and conduct public workshops. They are located in 50 counties across California and are a free and accessible service that supports Californians in creating and maintaining responsible landscapes. Many county Master Gardener web sites have extensive information about managing plants during drought.

The California Institute for Water Resources also has many links to drought tips, videos, and other useful resources.

Posted on Thursday, August 20, 2015 at 9:57 AM

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