California Flows, Vermont Freezes

This weekend, for the first time in a long time, the canyons of southern California roared with high water. At the same time, the shores of lakes and most rivers and streams in Vermont were oddly still.

The creeks in California were fed by a miracle of sorts. Not of the magnitude of the Miracle March of 1991, which marked the end of a seven year drought, but a miracle nonetheless. The deluge dropped several inches on LA and over 10 inches in the wetter parts of the Transverse Range above Ventura and Santa Barbara. These rains were similar in magnitude to the rains associated with Tropical Storm Irene in Vermont, but instead of a disaster they brought relief. (In addition to VERY dry preceding conditions, extreme rains of 10+ inches are more common in California’s mountains than in Vermont).

At least four feet of snow fell in parts of the Sierras. There has been nearly no snow before this point, and those mountains often have 10, 15, or even 20 feet of snow in early March… so the drought is not over. But four feet of snow is a heck of a lot better than four inches, which is about what we were working with before. Meanwhile, the sometimes incredible Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve picked up almost four inches of rain. Desert flowers like those that occur on this edge of the Mojave Desert are experts at taking advantage of sporadic extreme rainfall events, so there may be a poppy display this year after all. (It probably won’t be a banner year, but may be worth seeing. A full poppy bloom is one of the most vibrant plant displays I have ever seen, its only rival I know of is Vermont’s maple forest in a good fall foliage year).

Of course, in the long run, one storm doesn’t end a drought. Especially one storm with torrential rains – much of the water probably rushed down creeks into the ocean, or worse, into gutters and thus into the ocean along with oil anyod garbage. If you have a rainwater collection system set up, even a massive cistern would now be full, but otherwise much of the water has returned to the sea. It’s still not a small thing. Despite the drought, for at least a few days the canyons will sing with the roar of creeks and seasonal arroyos filled to the brim. Life moves on, with what it is given to work with.

So why are the rivers of Vermont mostly silent? Has the drought spread across the continent? Nope… but the cold of winter has settled in to March with no sign of leaving. A bit over a week ago there was a brief thaw, and it rained on our copious snowpack. This did not melt all the snow, but mashed it down to a crusty foot or so. Then the weather got cold. The forecast is for around -15 here tonight. The March sun has been working on evaporating way some of the snow on steep south-facing slopes, but most of the snow is hanging tight or even deepening with a few quick snow showers. (Most of the big storms on the news are missing us to the south, since we are firmly on the cold side of the jet stream). Lake Champlain is frozen across from shore to shore, which means any other lake in Vermont is frozen also. Nearly all of the rivers are frozen over or close to it. The North Branch in Montpelier at the little mill dam is about as frozen as it can get.

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Of course, areas of fast-moving water are still open… or at least some of them. I saw one river in Barre where one of the thaws had lifted up the ice on a fast flowing section of river, and the lower water is now hidden completely under the ice. It sure wouldn’t be safe to walk on, but it’s frozen over.

During the brief thaw last week, I got the chance to visit an ‘ice cave’ in an old quarry.
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Despite the thaw that had melted soe of the snow and ice outside the quarry, this sheltered east-facing cave showed no signs of melting of any sort. Icicle stalactites hung from the roof and walls.
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I’m always very reluctant to walk or skate on ice unless I am certain it is safe. After all, despite the cold winter, there had been a thaw at least outside of the quarry. But it turned out there was no cause for concern here, and it didn’t take an ice auger to test the thickness of the ice. Because no snow and very little wind affects the little pool in the ice cave, the ice that forms here is perfectly clear. It was possible to see the thickness of the ice because it was filled with surreal bubbles trapped within.

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The ice was well over a foot thick… probably much thicker… throughout the entire pool. In theory the ice would be able to support a large truck, though thankfully there was no way to get one in there.

Despite knowing the ice was thick, there was something a bit scary about skating on clear ice speckled with bubbles. It felt a bit like levitating over an ocean full of jellyfish.

The ice on the rivers and ponds is not going anywhere any time soon. There may be brief dips above freezing this Friday and Saturday, but no significant thaws look likely for the first half of the month. As for California, unfortunately no other storms are on the horizon. It may end up being a year of just one miracle.

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