We roll into camp at Lassen Volcanic National Park in California around 4 p.m., tumble from the car eager to stretch our legs, and are soon scrambling to dig winter clothing out of the heap of gear and garb that swamped the back seat somewhere in Oregon. The weather ought to be at least warm, but a biting wind is driving hard pellets of rain through the trees and the thermometer clipped to my pack says it's 40 degrees.
Having traded shorts and sandals for fleece jackets, boots and gloves, my son and I set up camp and are soon trying to build a fire using damp wood. After repeated attempts, we succeed in coaxing flame from resinous bits of Ponderosa pine. Then, as darkness falls, so does the temperature, and soon we retreat to our sleeping bags.
The next morning, we awake to snow, insubstantial flakes driven by the brisk wind. We set out on a hike, following a well-worn trail to the foot of a cinder cone. The miniature volcano rises 800 feet above a surreal landscape of jumbled lava flows and ash dunes, and we climb to the summit through flurries, which drape a mantle of white over the black and red rock. The sun soon breaks through the clouds, and as it warms the dark ground, the snow turns almost instantly into vapor, engulfing the barren plain in a mist that swirls and dances in the wind like something alive.
Regardless of what the calendar says, meteorologically it's April here in the mountains of Northern California. It's not uncommon to encounter unsettled conditions in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada in early summer, but our trip south from Portland has provided ample evidence of a season more unsettled than usual.
After a topsy-turvy winter, in which a vagrant jet stream funneled moisture-heavy storms directly into Central and Southern California rather than along their usual course through Oregon and Washington, the West Coast finds itself greeting an unusual summer: no snowpack in the Pacific Northwest, twice the usual snowpack along California's mountainous spine.
Short-term weather patterns should not be confused with long-term climate trends. Yet it's worth thinking about the odd pattern of precipitation that marked this past winter and spring along the West Coast, for it is a reminder of how even a technologically sophisticated civilization relies on nature for essential resources. It's a reminder, as well, of how fickle nature can be, with potentially far-reaching consequences for those dependent upon its gifts.
The wacky weather pattern last winter created winners and losers. If you ran a ski resort in California, you were anticipating snowboarding into July; if you ran a similar enterprise in Washington state, you were trying to figure out in February whether you could persuade mountain bikers to use your abandoned lifts and barren runs. If you enjoy river rafting, this was a rare year on the west slope of the Sierra, as rivers swollen with snowmelt promised big water well into the dry season.
In a similar way, the process of climate change — the effects of which are already being felt in the western United States — will create winners and losers, although the economic effects will extend well beyond the ranks of ski resort owners and water-sports enthusiasts.
In a preview of the future throughout the west, the stingy snowpack exacerbated bitter conflicts in the Pacific Northwest among river constituencies: hydroelectricity executives and cheap-power addicts seeking to hold back water until demand peaks in the long, hot dry season; growers and shippers pressing for sufficient flows to float grain barges down the Snake and Columbia rivers; environmental advocates pushing to have water spilled over dams to aid the migration of beleaguered salmon from the Rockies to the Pacific. Irrigators in high-desert Idaho, Oregon and Washington wonder whether there will be anything left later in the summer to bring their crops to maturity.
And if you run or rely upon a water agency in California, particularly one that delivers snowmelt from the northern Sierra to the semi-arid southland, you can look at the Pacific Northwest and see your likely future, as a warming climate causes the snowline to retreat ever higher and deprives foothill reservoirs of late-season runoff.
As we head south from Lassen, the weather grows warmer and drier, and starting a fire becomes absurdly easy. There’s a lesson for the West in that, too, for those who care to listen.