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Friday, September 09, 2005

Travel West

We flew to Southern California by way of Chicago. Two impressions from the flight:

1) The mid-West (Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio) is pretty flat. That often makes for good farming. You don't have to be far from Chicago to see farm-land.

2) There are huge chunks of land in the southwest (AZ, NM, CO, CA) where there's no sign of human habitation or vegetation as far as the eye can see. An occasional line indicates a seldom-used road, and there may be houses and plants, maybe even trees, too small to see from a few kilometers up, but there aren't many. This area, although seemingly barren land, is beautiful. There are textures and geological features all over the place. Most of it isn't flat. If you've never done it, get a window seat (I always let my wife have those, but I can see over her) on a commercial flight over this area, during the day, so you can see, and spend a quarter of an hour or more just looking out.

Some observations (based on a few days near San Diego, CA, and a few days driving around Washington and Oregon--I'm not an expert):
The West isn't the East. One aspect of that is mountains. There are lots of high mountains in CA, WA, and OR--mountains that have glaciers on them. This creates ecological niches (such as for mountain goats, but also for less obvious organisms) that don't exist in Eastern North America.
Another aspect, related to the first, is the prevalence of conifers, cone-bearing trees like pines, firs, hemlocks, redwoods, spruce and others, in the West. A couple from Seattle who were familiar with South Carolina and Virginia told us that the leaf changes in the autumn were much less showy in the West. The reason is that most of the trees are not deciduous--they don't lose their leaves in the fall. Conifers tend to be taller, and perhaps closer together, than deciduous trees.
Organisms are different. In the East, there are blue jays, noisy but showy birds. We saw no such bird in the West. We did see other jays, including Steller's Jay, a noisy bird that is also blue, but clearly different.

Why the desert in so much of the Southwest? Climate is always a complex matter, but the simple answer is ocean currents, prevailing winds, and mountains. The California Current is cold. Prevailing winds, in this area, blow from West to East. Hence the air coming onto the land usually warms up as it comes onto Southern California. Warm air holds more moisture than cold. Air cooled by moving over the California Current does not pick up a lot of moisture. When it comes over the usually warmer land, it warms, so becomes able to hold even more moisture, hence there is seldom rain in Southen California. The mountains (considerably higher than those in Eastern North America) cause the air to rise, and as it rises, it cools, and so it can hold less water than when it first came to land. As a result, it may dump moisture it can no longer hold. Then when this air comes down on the Eastern side of these mountains, it warms up again, and so holds more water, so it seldom rains in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada.

Even though San Diego, Los Angeles, and other Southwestern cities are in deserts, they are green. They are green because they are artificially watered. Where does this water come from? It comes from the water in the ground, or from rivers elsewhere in North American. The water table in most of the Southwest is dropping, and, if something isn't done, eventually there will be little or no water underground to tap. This problem, like others that experts know exist, is one that is only going to get worse, and that not enough is being done about. If a brave politician should tell us about this problem (or some of the others coming in the future), he or she probably would not be elected. We don't want to hear about trouble, and tend to "shoot the messenger."

For pictures of some Southern California plants, check out the Walk in Southern California set in our photos on Flickr. It also shows that, if not watered, this area is desert--rocks, bare soil, and a few hardy plants. For photos from Oregon and Washington, including mountains, check out the Washington & Oregon Trip set. If you like a particular photo, and want to see it at highest quality, click on it. There is an All Sizes icon above the picture, which allows access to the highest resolution.

Thanks for reading.

Note: I added the next-to-last link, on water problems, nearly 12 hours after the original posting.


Brandy said...

Interesting post! My family enjoyed our trip to California two years ago. The one thing that surprised us all was how cold the Pacific Ocean is. We went in August and the water was like ice.

Bonnie said...

Being a fellow Easterner, I have also found the topography of the West fascinating. I remember the amazing view of colors/patterns from my window seat when I flew to Tempe, AZ (this was about 20 years ago). We spent some time around Sedona, AZ and the red rocks, which are a photographer's dream :-).

Several years later, my husband and I spent several summer weeks in Bellingham, WA, where we had opportunity to hike in the N. Cascades and take a ferry around the San Juan islands.

Next month, I will be traveling to the LA area to attend the GodBlogCon, and hope to get a chance to see some natural features of that area.