A snowy Tioga Pass, fall color in Lee Vining Canyon and sun dogs over Tuolumne Meadows

Gaylor Lakes and Gaylor Peak (photo by Beth Pratt)Yesterday I ventured up to Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass to do some wandering. My orginial intent was to climb Mammoth Peak, but the almost full snow coverage on its shoulder forced me to reconsider. Instead I had a nice hike to Upper Gaylor Lake and the Great Sierra Mine area on the border of Yosemite. As I traversed snow fields and walked by creeks reinvigorated with the newly melting snow, it was almost reminiscent of a spring landscape. Yet the vegetation attested to it being fall, painting the hillsides in browns, reds and yellows.

Fall color in Lee Vining Canyon (photo by Beth Pratt)

After my hike, I drove down Lee Vining Canyon to gaze at the aspen trees (and of course make my usual stops at the Whoa Nellie Deli and Latte Da Coffee Cafe (oh, the pumpkin spice coffee cake!). The canyon is about midway through its fall color transformation and I am guessing it will peak this week. I'll be interested to learn how this early dumping of snow (over a foot in some places) impacts the fall color.

I followed the delightful specter of sun dogs on my drive back up the pass. Ice crystals refracting the sunlight create sun dogs and halos. The two hexagonal crystal types most likely to create these optical phenomena are shaped like six-sided wafers and columnar pencils. Both have eight surfaces capable of refracting light. As depicted in the photo with this entry, sundogs and halos can accompany each other.

Sun dog over Mt GibbsSundogs appear in a diverse cross-section of history and literature, as a entry in Wikipedia demonstrates. Artistole's work mentions "two mock suns," and Cicero's On the Republicexamines the parhelion. In The War of the Rosesthe appearance of sundogs was viewed as an omen of victory for the Yorkists.

In modern times, sundogs appear in Nabakov's novel, Pale Fire, provides the title for a Stephen King novella and Jack London short story, and even warrant a mention in the rock group Rush's song "Chain Lightning" (band member Neil Peart is a weather fanatic).

Being a dog-lover, I wanted to know the origin of the name and oddly enough most of my weather books remained mute on the topic. But I dug up the answer in my Weatherwise magazine archives (yes, I am that much of a weather geek). In the November 2002 issue, author Stephen Wilk answers the question 'whose dogs are the sun dogs?' in the article "Every Dog Has Its Day." He provides a few explanations, one of them being that the Germanic sky god Odin possessed two hounds/wolves, Geri (Ravener) and Freki (Glutton). For more information on sun dogs, you can read an excellent description on The Weather Doctor's site.

More photos from my wanderings:

Dana Meadows, Mt Gibbs and the Kuna Crest from Gaylor Ridge (photo by Beth Pratt)

Aspen trees in Lee Vining Canyon (photo by Beth Pratt)

Mt Dana, Gibbs and Mammoth Peak from Tuolumne Meadows (photo by Beth Pratt)

Unicorn and Cathedral Peaks from Gaylor Lake (photo by Beth Pratt)

Sun dog over Mt Gibbs (photo by Beth Pratt)

Musings about trips to the Mobil Station, the Sierra snowpack and climate change

With Chef Tioga (Matt) Toomey at the Whoa Nellie DeliOne of my favorite non-wilderness destinations in the Sierra is the Whoa Nellie Deli at the Mobil Station in Lee Vining. Aside from the allure of the scrumptious fish tacos and mango margaritas, I love talking baseball with Chef Tioga Toomey as even with his (misguided) affinity for the Kansas City Royals, he still appreciates my hometown Red Sox.

After gorging myself on the great food, I usually stop and take a photo of one of my favorite views of Yosemite right outside the Mobil Station entrance. If my topo map reading skills are correct (not always a safe bet) the view features the side of the Dana Plateau (my favorite place on earth) and Mt Gibbs. Being sort of a weather geek, I like to snap this view at the same time every year to compare the snowpack. I missed it only in 2008 and 2009 when I was working in Yellowstone.

View from the Mobil Station on June 23, 2007 (Photo by Beth Pratt)The Sierra Nevada has experienced a phenomenal snow year—certainly one of the strangest I have experienced in my twenty years in the state—with the snowpack registering at over 200% of normal (and higher depending on the location). Yet as noted in a recent article by Peter Fimrite in the San Francisco Chronicle, the unusual pattern isn’t due to the amount of snow that fell (which was still a bunch), but the timing of the snowfall.

“The issue, experts say, is how the cold weather has lingered…preserving the ice pack long after it normally would have melted. Mike Pechner, a longtime Bay Area weatherman who runs Golden West Meteorology, said monitoring in nearby Soda Springs shows that it is the deepest snow at this date in the high elevations since records were begun in 1868 by the folks who built the Transcontinental Railroad.”

View from the Mobil Station on June 24, 2011 (Photo by Beth Pratt)As every Californian knows, once summer arrives, it begins to get hot. Very hot. Temperatures rise quickly and a snowpack that is still preserved in June is apt to become liquid very fast. And for the same reason that Yosemite’s visitors are delighting in the late season waterfalls this year, residents downstream in the foothills and the Central Valley have been on flood alert. The Central Valley historically served as a major floodplain that absorbed water from snowmelt, but the region today is one of the largest hydrologically altered areas on the planet and human development has largely replaced natural river flow.

Yet even with this above average snowfall and late season precipitation, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada and the West is declining—on average the snowpack in the western states has declined 30% in the past fifty years. Why is this significant? Because 70% of our water in the west comes from snow. The repercussions of climate change on our water supply are frightening even if the best-case scenarios prove to be the worst.

The inevitable response to this unusual snow year for the Sierra Nevada has been to debunk climate change. The accurate counter to this false claim is that anomalies in a single year do not disprove the overall trend, which in this case is a long-term decline. A recent blog post by Alyson Kenward on Climate Centralexplores this issue and also offers the interesting graphic illustration below of snowpack levels as of June 1 from 2004 to 2011.

So I’ll continue to snap photos of my favorite view in Yosemite after my fish taco feasts and baseball chats at the Whoa Nellie Deli. And I’ll enjoy the abundance of snow decorating the granite cliffs this year (and lament how late hiking season will come in Tuolumne), but my hunch is I’ll see less and less white on my favorite peaks in the Sierra for years to come.