Sierra Summit

Conversations and observations about California's mountains

January 19, 2009
Thin to Win - Forests, carbon, fire and climate change
A new study finds that thinning Sierra Nevada forests helps store more carbon over the long haul, making them more effective in the battle against global warming. 
The study, scheduled to appear in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, a publication of the Ecological Society of America, can be found at:
All trees sequester carbon, of course. But across the Sierra - and much of the West - most trees also burn. Using computer models, the study's authors - Matthew Hurteau at the Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff and Malcolm North at UC Davis - found that after a century of growth, unburned stands stored the most carbon.  But when wildfire was taken into account, much of the carbon went up in smoke. If stand density was reduced before the forest burned, however, less carbon was lost. 

And the more big trees that remain, the better.

"If you want a make these stands more stable, so they can survive these fires, and not make large carbon releases, you need to direct them so they start putting a lot of growth into the large pine trees, which are very fire resistant," North told me not long ago. 

"People generally believe that with fire suppression, you get all this in-filling, all the stems are growing in there, that they would store more carbon - but we found that's not the case," North added. "There is actually less carbon in the stands because you've lost a lot of the big trees. So the small trees, you may have gazillions of them, but it doesn't make up for the fact that you had more large trees in the past."

So what do we do now with the Sierra climate warming and high-intensity, stand-destroying fire a growing threat?

"You need a combination of low-intensity thinning and prescribed burning," North said. "It's one of the great advantage we have in the Sierra: trees that are large and fairly old, if you release them, they actually start growing like a juvenile youngster again. They just start packing the carbon on.  And we have the potential, if we pay this short-term penalty, to make the forests in the Sierra a substantial sink for carbon - and off-set the fossil fuel release underway with human activity."

But the Hurteau and North study also suggested California carbon accounting practices actually contribute to the problem by counting timber harvest stock loss  as a carbon emission. "However, accounting for emissions from wildfire is not required," it says. "Current carbon accounting practices can be at odds with efforts to reduce fire intensity in many western U.S. forest types."


January 13, 2009
Not Just Another Tree Hugger: Chuck Leavell @

A Rolling Stone - as the saying goes - gathers no moss.

While I'm not sure what Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie are up to these days, there's no doubt that Chuck Leavell, keyboardist for the legendary rock band, is keeping himself very busy.

Chuck - that's him, sandwiched between Charlie Watts and Keith Richards - is one of the founders of a new web venture focusing exclusively on the environment - the Mother Nature Network - which debuts this month. MNN is not just another green web page. It's aimed at what Chuck, a tree farmer from central Georgia, would call regular folks - people who love the outdoors but aren't  die-hard supporters of traditional green groups.

When Chuck first told me about the idea last fall, I sent him an e-mail, applauding the concept, saying: "Too often, blue collar folks are forgotten by environmentalists. And they shouldn't be."

"Exactly," Chuck replied. "We found a study that showed something like 25 percent of the people in the U.S. are really not concerned with environmental issues and not likely to be. Fourteen percent are very concerned and do a lot of research about it.  But the remaining 60 percent or so are the ones that are becoming aware and want to know more (but) just don't quite know where to go on the Net to get good info.  This will be our main target audience."

If you haven't seen the Mother Nature Network, by all means, check it out at:                           

And just for fun, have a look at the profile of Chuck that I wrote for the Bee back back in 2006:

Among other things, you'll find a story about a 50-something rocker who appears to love trees as much as music - and is dedicated to improving the health of America's woodlands by thinning, burning and developing new strategies to keep private forest land from being sold and developed.

At MNN, there's something for just about everyone - including a special video segment featuring Chuck called Love of the Land. It's not prime time yet - but is already more substantive than much of what you see on cable news shows. So tonight, instead of sitting on the sofa and clicking on the remote, log on to MNN and check out what Chuck and his friends are up to.  To get directly to Chuck's segment, click on this link:

 Web sites come and go, of course, but Mother Nature Network has the feel of one that will be around for a while. As Time Magazine reported earlier this month in an article about MNN: "Thanks in part to the countless media layoffs around the country, MNN has been able to assemble a surprisingly accomplished staff for such a new property, including Peter Dykstra, the former head of CNN's science unit, and bloggers like the New York Times's Jim Motavalli, a transportation expert. That talent has enabled MNN to get a fast start on harder environmental news, even as it does the yeoman's Web work of aggregating content from other sites."




January 8, 2009
Fire, climate and thinning

My recent article about the Moonlight Fire in Plumas County - and how scientists now believe climate change is helping to spark more destructive wildfires  - drew a number of responses about the value of thinning  over-crowded stands before a fire starts. You might think of it as preventative medicine - and while controversial among some environmentalists - it has been shown to reduce the damage caused by today's increasingly severe fires. 

From Chester, Jay Francis, forest manager at the Collins Pine Company - wrote to say that the same day the Moonlight Fire began (Sept. 3, 2007), another fire started on his company's property about 15 miles to the west.  "Officials estimated it had been burning for about 10 hours (overnight) when they first arrived on scene yet they were able to catch it with just 1 engine and a water tender," Jay wrote in an email. "Human caused, probably a cigarette, but probably not intentional.  The big difference is that our fire was in an area that had been biomass thinned about 12 years ago and then logged again (for the 4th time) about 3 years ago.  Quite a contrast."

Jay attached a photo of the Collins Pine fire, shown immediately below. A few smaller trees    


 have obviously been killed, but many more  bigger ones survived. Now compare that with a different photo - one at the bottom of this blog.  That picture, which I took this fall, shows an over-crowded mixed conifer stand in the Plumas National Forest north of Indian Valley that not been thinned and was severely burned by the Moonlight fire. Not much living remains. 

Which forest will sequester more carbon dioxide in coming decades - and help California meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets?  Which forest will be home to a greater variety of wildlife? Which will yield higher quality water? As fires continue to burn, some fear Sierra Nevada forests will become an overall source of CO2, not a natural green `sink' that soaks it up. What are your thoughts? What role should thinning play in keeping forests healthy? Do you know of examples where thinning has helped - or hurt - our western forest? Let me know. With your input, I hope to continue a dialogue on this subject in coming months.  To read my original Bee report on climate change and wildfire, go to:

moonlight 1b.jpg
Here - to the left - is the forest burned by the Moonlight fire. 

For more information about Collins Pine, one of the West's most environmentally responsible timber companies, can be found at:

January 6, 2009 blogs about climate change and California
Nature magazine's new online climate page has an interesting blog post about global warming and California. The Golden State has long been a climate policy leader, the blog points out. But such leadership, it adds, is also a matter of common sense, given the gloomy projections about how global warming is expected to impact the state. 

Reporting from last month's American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco, Nature's Olive Heffernan ticks off a list of those impacts, based on presentations by climate specialists. They include a much diminished spring snow melt, less precipitation overall and more frequent severe heat waves. To read the actual blog, which is titled On the Home Front, go to:

To read all Climate Feedback posts from the AGU conference, go to:

January 6, 2009
California and Sierra weather 2008 - Year in Review

         Some 100 miles east of the Sierra Nevada, Death Valley has a well-deserved reputation as one of the planet's hottest places. In 1913, the temperature reached 134 degrees, a world record at the time. (Libya has since topped it by two degrees.)

         Last year, Death Valley - shown here -  set a different kind of warming record: It reached 120 degrees on May 19th, the earliest ever recording for that temperature.

         That is just one of many noteworthy weather events recorded by the Western Regional Climate Center at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, which tracks climate and weather patterns across the western United States.

         Overall, it was another hot, dry year for California: here in the Sierra, it warmed up early - and burned early - then stayed toasty and largely snow-free nto early December. To see my piece on the tardy debut of winter in the Sierra, click on this link:

        Climate scientists say the western U.S. is more vulnerable to climate change  than the rest of the country and it sure seemed like that last year.  Two-thousand and eight toyed with us - it started with a bang (big snows in January) and then tapered off into the second year of a statewide drought. The climate center's monthly reports, which are prepared for the federal government, reflect the drama. Here are some of the highlights:

                     January 4-7, 2008: One of the more powerful storms in the past few years slammed into California adding much needed snow in the mountains. Wind damage was severe wiith gusts to as high as 165 mph on the Sierra ridge crests.  Snow pack in the Lake Tahoe area increased from 51% of average on the morning of January 3rd to about 104% three days later.

                     Heavy snow in the mountains of the West pushed the snow pack to near or above normal in nearly all locations by February 1st. In the Sierra Nevada the snow water equivalent increased from 53% of normal at the beginning of the month to about 115% by the end. Rainfall totals range from 8 inches along the north coast to 12 inches in the southern California mountains. Up to 10 feet of snow fell in the central Sierra. In the Owens Valley, Bishop measured an astonishing 4.29 inches of rain on the 4th and 5th, an amount that is 85 percent of its annual average.

                   February  -- A moderate La Nina (cooler-than-usual ocean water on the equator between Peru and the Date Line) has been under way for most of this winter. Typically, this condition is associated with dry winters in the far Southwest and wet winters in the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies.  

·      March was extremely dry in much of California, tying the driest in 68 years at Sacramento airport with 0.05 inches.  The Sierra Nevada snow pack dropped to about 95 % of normal as of the important April 1st survey; only 17 inches of snow fell near Donner Summit for the month.

·      In April, precipitation was below normal throughout the West.  Many stations in California and Nevada reported their driest March-April total precipitation. While mountain snowpacks were healthy in the Rockies and the Northwest, the central Sierra Nevada snowpack dropped to a dismal 56% of normal.  The Central Sierra Snow Lab, near Donner Summit, CA, measured only 26 inches of snow for March and April combined.  The average is 112 inches."


·      In May, temperatures ranged from 2 to 4 degrees above normal in parts of California. Las Vegas, NV, reported a record high of 108F on the 19th  - the same day Death Valley National Park, seen below, topped out at 120. DSC_0279.jpgOn May 23, Bakersfield reported .08 inches of precipitation, breaking an 87-day period with no measurable rain. The climate center reports that statewide, California experienced its driest spring (March-April-May) in over a century.

·      In June, temperature across the 11 western states were almost perfectly split with the northern half two to four degrees  below normal and the southern half two to four degrees above normal. From the 19th to the 22nd southern California suffered through record heat. On the 20th, Santa Maria, on the south coast, recorded it all time highest temperature with 110 F.  Also in June, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought after 2 consecutive years of below normal rainfall, especially from late winter to early summer. By June 30, much of California had received only 75 percent of its normal precipitation, after a promising start. Many locations recorded less rain over the previous two years than their annual average. June 21st brought dry lightning to much of the northern half of the state sparking over 800 fires and producing very thick smoke.  Unhealthy air quality persisted through the end of the month in numerous California, Oregon and Nevada locations.

·      On July 9th 110-degree heat northwest of Bakersfield led to a vineyard worker dying due to the excessive heat conditions. Parts of the Intermountain West were extremely warm, as well, with Denver recording its second warmest July on record dating back 60 years. On July 12th an intense thunderstorm just north of Mt. Whitney near Independence dropped heavy rain, reportedly 6-7 inches, causing a flash flood and a 300-yard wide mudflow that seriously damaged 25 homes near Oak Creek and closed U.S. Highway 395 for 2 days.

·      In August, temperatures across the West ranged from above normal in the Great Basin and the Southwest to below normal in the Pacific Northwest. California was very warm inland. Redding and Modesto recorded their warmest Augusts on record, as did Reno, NV.

On August 31, a climate station atop White Mountain Summit measured a daily mean speed of 60.6 miles per hours. Another station on Mt Warren, near Yosemite National Park, recorded a mean daily wind speed of 66.3 mph and five hours over 100 mph, highly unusual for summer.  Cottonwood trees were blown over north of Lee Vining, and a kayaker drowned during reported 80 mph winds on adjoining Mono Lake.

§      In September, temperatures were very near normal across the West with slightly below readings in the intermountain region and northwest to slightly above normal in the southwest. Precipitation was generally below to near normal throughout the region.

·    In October, numerous Santa Ana events in southern California led to the highest average maximum temperature (dating back 103 years) in downtown Los Angeles at 84.9 deg F. On the 13th, strong high pressure produced windy and warm conditions across southern California and fanned fires that eventually burned over 20,000 acres and destroyed over 50 residences. One fatality was reported.  A gust to 87 mph was noted at an automated station in the San Gabriel Mountains with extremely low humidities.

·    In November, temperatures were above to well above normal across the West. The average maximum temperature in downtown Los Angeles was 77.7 degrees which combined with October's average maximum temperature of 84.9 was the warmest Oct-Nov average maximum on record.

·    By Dec. 1, warmer temperatures had dropped mountain snowpacks across the region to well below average.  The Lake Tahoe drainage was at 3% of normal and the lake level had dropped to just 2 inches above its natural rim. measured in 2007.

Through December 12th, New Orleans measured more snow than Lake Tahoe, but that changed quickly.  By the end of the month, the Sierra Nevada snowpack had risen from 3% of normal to 85% of normal.

Overall, temperatures across the west, including California, were mostly below normal in December but the dip was not enough to offset another warmer than average year for California and the Sierra Nevada.

In the Sierra, the mean annual temperature in 2008 was 50 degrees, one degree warmer than normal. Overall, 2008 was one of the 20 warmest years in the range since 1895 but more importantly it comes on the heels of nine consecutive warmer-than-average years - a pattern that holds true statewide, too. And that is a concern to scientists who believe it is yet another indication that rising levels of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels are already starting to influence the state's climate.

"It continues a recent pattern," Kelly Redmond, deputy director of the Western Regional Climate Center told me this week. "Taken as a group, there is no other set of years that looks like that. It says to me there is something new going on."

Photos by Tom Knudson, Sacramento Bee

January 5, 2009
Climate Change in California - Costs and Opportunities

         Not long ago, I was visiting with S.P. Parker - co-owner of the Sierra Mountain Center - about the impact of climate change on his mountaineering business in the eastern Sierra Nevada.

         "We constantly hear that business can't afford to do anything about this," Parker said.  Then he added: "My business is being hurt right now. We can't do the trips. There's no snow and ice. The snow and ice is becoming more and more limited."

         I thought about Parker's observations this week as I read a lengthy new report about the risks of climate change in California. In short, the report by two UC Berkeley researchers says that trying to lessen the blow of climate change will help - not hurt - the state's economy and ecosystems. And the costs of inaction could be catastrophic.

         On page after page, they detail the potential price-tag of delay, which includes more destructive wildfires, less Sierra snowmelt, a shorter ski season, increasing crop damages, heat waves and so on. But some change, they warn, is inevitable, no matter how California responds. "Whether these trends are moderate or extreme will depend on policy," the authors, Fredrich Kahrl and David Roland-Holst, say in the report.

         California is already a climate leader with its historic legislation, known as AB32, aimed at shrinking greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. But the report, which is part of a series of studies into alternative energy and resource strategies at the Center for Energy, Resources and Economic Sustainability - or CERES -  concludes more needs to be done. 

         "A real commitment to this would begin immediately by establishing and extending capacity for technical assessment and policy analysis, followed by timely and sustained policy activism," the report says. "California's historic AB 32 initiative is a positive model for this, but only a beginning. The scope of long-term climate issues is much wider, and could sustain a longer-term agenda for economic stimulus...."

         Making California more climate-friendly could pay substantial dividends. "We find that if California improves energy efficiency by just 1 percent per year, proposed state climate policies will increase the Gross State Product (GSP) by approximately $76 billion, increase real household incomes by up to $48 billion and create as many as 403,000 new jobs," the report says.

         "Again and again ... we have seen policy initiative transform adversity into progress," Kahrl and Roland-Holst conclude in their report. "Just as the Depression inspired the New Deal, World War II induced unprecedented economic mobilization and satellite envy launched the space program and the IT revolution, California can turn the threat of climate change into a growth opportunity with the right policy leadership."

 If you'd like to read the report, it is posted on the following web page:

About Sierra Summit

The Author
Tom Knudson lives in the Sierra Nevada and travels widely throughout the range. His hobbies include fly-fishing, backpacking and cross-country skiing. He is the recipient of numerous journalistic awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes, one for a 1992 Sacramento Bee series "Sierra in Peril," a watershed work about environmental threats to the mountain range. E-mail Tom at

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