Category Archives: Berkeley

The Control of Nature: Primitive Hydraulics

Sunday morning: Still raining.

We’ve had .42 of an inch so far today (it’s 1:30 p.m. daylight-saving style) to go with the 6.48 over the past nine days.
The rain has prompted me to return to an old wet-weather routine that Kate and I have called, in a nod to a favorite writer and a favorite series of articles in The New Yorker, “the control of nature.”

When we moved into our house in April 1988, it was noted in some document somewhere that there was a sump pump on the premises. I found out where the pump was and why it was there the following winter.

Our house has a crawl space. Our lot is on a slope paralleling the course of Schoolhouse Creek. The stream itself has been moved underground, but as we found out one very wet December day a little more than 10 years ago, too much water arriving all at once can, along with a clogged storm drain upstream, bring the creek back above ground.

Water appears less dramatically in our crawl space, and that’s why there’s a sump pump down there.

Usually, a murky pool will gather in a spot that’s been excavated to allow access to the crawl space. Sometimes, as in deluge that arrived early the morning of New Year’s Day 1997, the space will start to fill. That was the one and only occasional the pump, installed in a little concrete well built around our floor furnace to keep the heater from getting flooded, turned on.

Perhaps one reason the pump hasn’t been more active is because I try to keep the crawl space drained when I see water gathering there.

Control of nature requires gravity and a garden hose. I take the full hose, stick one end of it into the watery crawl space. Then I run the hose down the driveway — 30 to 40 linear feet and 3 to 4 vertical feet — to the street.

I set the hose running last night about 9 o’clock. It’s still running. How much water has come out of there in that time?

I tried to calculate the rate by measuring the flow into a 1-cup measure (yes — this has the possibility of introducing a large error; but let’s just agree I’m not being perfectly scientific). In four trials, the cup filled up in about 6 to 7 seconds. Based on that, I figure somewhere between 32 and 38 gallons are draining out every hour. And that would put the total for the 15 hours or so the thing has been running at 480 to 570 gallons. Which is more than I would have guessed.

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Berkeley Rainfall: Six and a Half Inches in Nine Days

While I’m poring over state and federal databases and pondering what it would be like to live through a year with 145.9 inches of rain (Cooskie Mountain, in the King Range of southern Humboldt County, in 2006) or a month with 43 inches of rain (Gasquet Ranger Station, on the Smith River in Del Norte County, December 1996) or 42 inches in nine days (yes, it happened: Bucks Lake, Plumas County, in January-December ’96-’97), let me record what we have actually seen here in Berkeley the last week or so:

Friday, March 4: .46 inches
Saturday, March 5: 2.61 inches
Sunday, March 6: .50 inches
Monday, March 7: .46 inches
Tuesday, March 8: 0
Wednesday, March 9: .13 inches
Thursday, March 10: .87 inches

Friday, March 11: .46 inches
Saturday, March 12: .99 inches (and counting)

That’s a total of 6.48 inches in nine days, as recorded on our cheap, semi-dependable (it’s very close to neighboring totals reported on Weather Underground) Oregon Scientific wireless rain monitor.
A pretty rainy spell, the rainiest this winter by far.

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Berkeley Love Affair: Free Crap

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Among the slow-motion trends we observe in our corner of Berkeley is the proliferation of white elephant items left on the streets — everything from ratty furniture to unwanted books to antique all-in-one office machines (complete with manuals) — with signs saying, “Free.”

It’s not that the stuff is all garbage. Kate and I found a kind of abstract art print in decent condition a year or so ago and brought it home and hung it up. Maybe that’s more of a statement about relaxed taste than artistic merit, but we felt it was worth the effort to pick up and carry home and didn’t change our minds when we took a second look at the thing.

For the most part, though, what you see out on the curbs and at the end of driveways is crap of dubious utility. It’s stuff put out on the street with the hopeful delusion that even though your dog finds the old couch repulsive, someone out there would be happy to have it. They would welcome the chance to fumigate and reupholster it. After all, it’s free.

Every once in a while, though, someone dumps their castoff item in the public right-of-way with a note that seems to say, “Who are we kidding? This is junk, but we’re leaving it out here for the amusement of you, the passer-by. Maybe you’ll even take it away.”

Witness the item above (and attached message, below), a dated piece of office equipment with a topical note appealing to those who wish for the days before everything we do could be captured on a server somewhere and preserved forever.

A note to entice you, the passer-by, to consider owning a piece of crap left on a Berkeley sidewalk.

A note to entice you, the passer-by, to consider owning a piece of crap left on a Berkeley sidewalk.

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New Year’s Eve

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It isn’t exactly a New Year’s Eve tradition, but the last few years Kate and I have wound up spending a good part of the last day of the year outdoors. The last couple of years, we took walks up onto local ridges with wide vistas and clear views of the sun setting on 2013 and 2014. Today was a little different: We did something of a public service outing, with the goal to pick up trash along Lagunitas Creek in Marin County. Beyond being a beautiful stream through the redwoods — a forest regenerated after the area was clear-cut in the 19th century — Lagunitas Creek has one special claim on the region’s attention: It’s home to a run of endangered coho salmon. We actually heard, and saw, a couple of the big fish on a little-visited stretch of the creek. And there was plenty else to see too in the forest: ferns (like the one above) and moss and fungi galore. There’s a slideshow of the day’s expatiation here: Lagunitas Creek, New Year’s Eve. The day’s haul: about 10 pounds of crap. The only semi-exotic object we captured was a single Nike flip-flop. Beyond that: beer bottles, beer cans, some candy wrappers.
And, that’s it for 2015. Have a fine 2016, one and all.

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Ice, or The Grip of Berkeley’s Frigid Winter Revealed

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Dramatic evidence of the frigid depths of Berkeley’s brutal winter: ice in the improvised backyard watering dish for the chickens. This has happened twice even though the recorded air temperature from a sensor about 6 feet off the ground in back of the house hasn’t been lower than 36 degrees this week and I don’t see reports from any of the many Wunderground and other stations in the area of readings of 32 or lower. Berkeley’s record low for Dec. 29, for what it’s worth, is 30, set in 1905, and the average low for December, going back to 1893, is 43.7. (The town’s all-time low was set Dec. 22, 1990, and coincided with a Christmas visit by family members who thought they were visiting someplace warmer than Chicago.)

Yes, there are some physical explanations for how water can freeze even if the ambient air temperature isn’t yet freezing — evaporative cooling, for one, and the fact the ambient temperature can be colder at ground level then it is a few feet above.

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Marmalade + Winter = Ants

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It’s been a little colder than normal here in Berkeley — and as wet as the weather annals say we have a right to expect — so ants are looking for warmer, dryer digs. They like it when you give them a little extra encouragement. An open sugar jar or compost container might attract an overnight bug invasion. And so might a smidgen of orange marmalade left over from breakfast.

It took a few hours, but the ants found that little bit of sugar, which had spread out into a nice globule on the stainless steel at the edge of our range top. They gathered around the marmalade like they were at a trough. There weren’t a lot of them coming and going; mostly, this group found the good stuff and I think they were forgetting to run back and tell their pals about it.

Unfortunately, I have to acknowledge wildlife was harmed after I made this picture. I got a sponge and wiped up the marmalade and the ants with it. Their cousins are still around, though, scouting out the next feed.

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Rain

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Above: From NASA’s Worldview site, an image of California’s first real storm of the wet season (click for a larger version, or check it out on Worldvew). Here’s (a slightly edited version of) how the National Weather Service’s San Francisco Bay Area forecast office described the weather system as it was shaping up early Sunday:

AS OF 09:59 AM PST SUNDAY...NORTH AND CENTRAL
CALIFORNIA ARE CURRENTLY POSITIONED IN THE BOUNDARY
BETWEEN TWO LARGE FEATURES. TO THE SOUTH...THE
HIGH PRESSURE THAT HELPED TO BRING CLEAR SKIES AND UNSEASONABLY
WARM TEMPERATURES OVER THE PREVIOUS FEW DAYS. TO THE NORTH...AN
APPROACHING STORM SYSTEM WITH A POTENT MOISTURE TAP. A COLD
FRONTAL BOUNDARY IS SEPARATING THESE TWO AIR MASSES AND IS EVIDENT
ON BOTH RADAR AND SATELLITE FROM THE THICK BAND OF CLOUDS AND
CONTINUOUS RAINFALL REFLECTIVITIES ASSOCIATED WITH IT. THIS
FRONTAL BOUNDARY IS CURRENTLY DRAPED FROM NORTHWESTERN CALIFORNIA
THROUGH SOUTHEASTERN OREGON AND HAS BROUGHT UP TO 2.5" OF RAIN
ALONG THE HIGHER TERRAIN OF THE OREGON COAST AND UP TO 2" OVER THE
HIGHER TERRAIN OF THE NORTHWESTERN CALIFORNIA COAST. THESE HIGHER
VALUES ARE SUPPORTED BY A TROPICAL pMOISTURE PLUME WITH PRECIPITABLE WATER VALUES
RANGING FROM 1.2"-1.6" WHICH ARE 150-200 PERCENT WETTER THAN NORMAL.
LOWER ELEVATION LOCATIONS IN THESE AREAS HAVE NOT PICKED UP NEARLY
AS MUCH... RANGING FROM SEVERAL HUNDREDTHS TO A FEW TENTHS. WE
WILL LIKELY SEE SIMILAR ELEVATION BASED PRECIP SCALING FROM THE
FRONT AS IT MOVES THROUGH OUR AREA THIS AFTERNOON AND INTO EARLY
MONDAY.

The rain started here in Berkeley about 9 p.m. or so. It’s been more than a drizzle: .29 of an inch in the last couple of hours, on the off chance that the backyard rain gauge (which I got just after the last rain of the spring) is correct. That seems to line up with other rain gauges around town that report on Weather Underground. We’ll see how accurate it looks tomorrow.

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Coffee Stars (or Are They Flowers?): The Sequel

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Here we are: It was midday Thursday in the middle of a week off, and I was still looking to make a mark on the world. While idly pondering what that mark might be, I behold the very end of my morning coffee, resting cold at the bottom of a mug. I wonder for the one hundredth time why the half-and-half in the cooling coffee settles into flowerlike or starlike patterns. (Actually, it’s a little alarming to me to read one of my past speculations on this topic; my thinking on the question doesn’t really seem to have evolved at all, and I wonder whether that might be emblematic in some way of being sort of stuck in some kind of barren intellectual loop. On the other hand, coffee stars are kind of interesting.)

As in earlier musings, I more than half-expect that someone research chemist somewhere can explain this. Now I will go in search.

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Mystery Clay Blobs in Berkeley Neighborhood

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About a month ago, Piero and Jill, our neighbors across the street, presented us with a mystery: the seemingly ubiquitous appearance of tiny blobs of clay on their cars, their front porch, and on cars up and down our block of Holly Street, a couple blocks from North Berkeley BART.

Where had these blobs, probably in the thousands, come from? The theory I came up with: Maybe the dirt had been precipitated out from dust in the atmosphere. You know, dust that had been picked up in the Gobi Desert, say, and blown in the stratosphere clear to Berkeley, where it rained down on our street.

The idea isn’t entirely loony: Dust from Asia and Africa is known to play a role in precipitation over California’s mountains. But in that case, we’re talking about minuscule particles that serve as nuclei for ice crystals that later fall as snow or rain. (Yes, sometimes there’s so much dust in the air that it will precipitate as a muddy rain — but that’s different from what we were seeing on Holly Street.)

Kate, science teacher and certified California naturalist, appears to have come up with the most probable answer to the blob source: yellowjackets. Here’s what the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management site has to say about the nesting habits of these wasps:

Yellowjackets commonly build nests in rodent burrows, but they sometimes select other protected cavities, such as voids in walls and ceilings of houses, as nesting sites. Colonies, which are begun each spring by a single reproductive female, can reach populations of between 1,500 and 15,000 individuals, depending on the species.

The wasps build a nest of paper made from fibers scraped from wood mixed with saliva. It is built as multiple tiers of vertical cells, similar to nests of paper wasps, but enclosed by a paper envelope around the outside that usually contains a single entrance hole. If the rodent hole isn’t spacious enough, yellowjackets will increase the size by moistening the soil and digging.

The writeup doesn’t say what the yellowjackets do with the material they excavate. But a Georgia gardening website does. In trying to answer readers’ questions about the source of mysterious dirt balls, the site consulted an entomologist a University of Georgia entomologist, who said:

The yellowjacket is almost certainly the culprit here.

First is the time of year. Nests are expanded rapidly and grow almost exponentially during late June through September. To allow for this expansion the original nest hole must be greatly enlarged to accomodate the growing nest that will ultimately be at least soccer ball-sized and often larger.

After a good rain, excavating activity often approaches a frenzy level, and if you watch the traffic at the nest entrance 7 out of every 10 wasps will emerge with a chunk of clay in their jaws. They always airlift it generally out to within a few yards of the nest and drop the pellets like small bombs from several feet high, then immediately return to repeat the process. In this way they make room for their nest to grow, and it takes a lot of mouthfuls of mud to do so!

When Kate found this description, Piero said he’d been seeing a good number of yellowjackets around. Unknown, so far as I’ve heard, is whether the nest this industrious group has been working on has been located.

The photo above: a closeup of one of the clay blobs in question; below, to give an idea of scale, how they looked on the rear window of a Volkswagen Bug. More photos here. (Regarding the picture above: More alarming to me than the mystery blob is all the crud surrounding it; that, no doubt, is simply our normal urban fallout of dust, grit and particulate byproducts of burning hydrocarbons. We’re breathing that stuff.)

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Non-Natives in California: Snails and Other Species

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It’s September, and just about time for the chrysanthemums we’ve been nursing through the summer with buckets of dishwater to enjoy their autumn moment. Looking at the hundreds or thousands of unfolding buds this morning, I noticed a familiar garden visitor: Cornu aspersum, also known as the brown snail, garden snail, brown garden snail, European garden snail, or European brown garden snail (in French, its common name is apparently petit-gris, or little gray). Some of the snails were young, smaller than the just-opening buds they’re presumably feeding on.

The University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources reports there are about 280 species of snails and slugs here in the Golden State, of which 242 are believed to be natives. Cornu aspersum (formerly Helix aspersa) is one of the many non-native species, including eucalyptus, striped bass and Homo sapiens, that make California what it is today.

C. aspersum is native to the western Mediterranean, probably originating in North Africa and migrating millions of years ago into Europe. Thanks to much more recent human genius and/or carelessness, the snail is reportedly now at home on every continent except that very cold one well to the south of us.

How did this land mollusk come to California? I remember hearing when I had newly introduced myself into this bioregion that they were the same species as one served to gastrophiles as escargot. In fact, I was told that Bay Area locals had been known to capture snails, feed them cornmeal to cleanse their digestive systems of whatever vile material they might have been eating, then consume them. I can’t say I’ve ever met someone who claims to have done this themselves.

The April 27, 1900, number of the journal Science includes an article titled “Exotic Mollusca in California,” by Robert Edwards Carter Stearns of Los Angeles. Stearns related a very specific genesis story for the European snails in California:

“This species was intentionally introduced or ‘planted’ in Calfornia over 40 years ago by Mr. A. Delmas, of San José, Santa Clara county, who brought the stock from France and turned it out among the vineyards on the west bank of the Guadalupe, a small river that flows northerly through Santa Clara Valley and empties into the southerly end of San Francisco bay near Alviso. The soil where the snails were placed is a rich sandy loam and the place well shaded. When the summer heats reach the maximum, the Helices descend into the ground several feet, hiding in the cracks that form, as the ground dries, and the gopher-holes also furnish cool retreats and protection. The region above named is one of exceeding fertility. It was settled by a few French families. The introduction of H. asperse by Mr. Delmas was made for edible purposes, or in common parlance ‘with an eye to the pot.’ Mrs. Bush, of the Normal School in San José, informs me that the snails have thriven, and have extended their territory from the starting point on the west bank of the stream to the easterly side, and have multiplied to such an extent, that in some instances they are troublesome in the gardens.”

Stearns also reported Delmas had planted the snails in San Francisco, where they did not do well at first, and Los Angeles, where they apparently thrived. By 1900, it had taken hold in other locations.

“A. Delmas,” it turns out, was Antoine Delmas, a French émigré who had arrived in California in 1849. He established a nursery and vineyards in the Santa Clara Valley and is credited in “A Companion to California Wine” with being the first to import French wine-grape vines, including merlot and cabernet, into the state. Another claim for Delmas: that he brought an obscure varietal to California that became known as zinfandel.

Between the grapes, the wine and the snails, that’s a big mark for one man to have made on this place.

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