Lightning Storms Are Not Created Equal

California cannot endure summer lightning.

Julie Moreno
Oct 5, 2020 · 4 min read
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Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

I-80 in the ’80s

Growing up in Colorado, away from my mother’s family in California, meant annual road trips to grandma’s house along Interstate 80. The season would vary, sometimes we would go in the summer when we were out of school or in the winter for the holidays.

After making more than ten trips, I was used to the routine of sitting in the back of the car for a day and a half. I would count road markers, looking out the window to avoid any motion sickness.

In the winter, I noticed that we would leave Colorado, brown and dead, to enter a lush and green California. It was the opposite in the summer, Colorado was green from frequent afternoon thunderstorms, and California was always sunny, but brown and dry.

California’s weather used to be boring.

I used to think a lightning storm every afternoon was ordinary. Even though Denver only gets about 16 inches of rain every year, most of it comes in the summer months.

In Colorado, they say if you don’t like the weather, just wait 10 minutes. Many times, I would get caught in an afternoon thunderstorm and come home drenching wet.

I spent my high school summers lifeguarding at the swimming pool, counting the Mississippi’s between lightning flashes and thunder booms. We would watch the storms get close enough to order the kids out of the pool.

I’ve lived in California now more years than I lived in Colorado. When asked about what I miss, I usually mention the monotonous weather. I’ve made fun of the AccuWeather forecasts, trying to describe sunny in ten different ways as the 100 °F days run on and on.

Our California weather is still boring, but it only takes one day to gum up the works.

California was built on a system of dams.

Even though California was settled in the 1700s, compared to the east coast most development here didn’t happen until the 1950s. Part of the reason that everything is so new is that the technology needed to build dams as large as ours has only been around for about 100 years.

California couldn’t grow without water.

In 1919, a statewide water project was proposed to help alleviate the winter flooding and save water from one year to the next during our cyclical droughts. This water project started the construction of the dams we have today.

Our winter snow in the mountains melts in the spring and is collected in reservoirs to have available until the rain comes again the next year. Our current agricultural system and our population’s livelihoods are based on this ability to save water.

Without the water, our state would not be the same.

Lightning storm on a Sunday morning.

The sky was overcast. The morning cooler than any in the past two weeks. I was excited for the clouds to cool off the incessant August heat.

We drove to the Bay Area and witnessed the lightning coming down every few minutes along the way. Guessing how far away the storm was.

With only a handful of trees growing over the Altamont pass, there are majestic views in all directions as you climb up and over into the Livermore valley.

The landscape is entirely dry grass used primarily as winter cattle grazing and as a wind farm. The prevailing west winds blown in from the ocean allow for electricity production when the weather is “normal.”

But this day was not normal.

Fires along the west coast.

As with many who live in the west, the fires touched closer to home this week. My sister and her family evacuated as the fire came within a mile of her home outside Medford, Oregon.

Just two to three thousand acres, this small fire started in open space about 10 miles away from her house. Within a few hours, the fire line burned along the main thoroughfare that goes through town, with buildings on one side decimated, and on the other still standing.

If summer lightning storms in the West continue, we will all eventually be fighting our own fire.

I now have a plan for what I can physically grab in 5 minutes if I have to evacuate my house — laptop and birth certificates. Or if I have an hour, there is a plan for that too — toiletries and my favorite sweater. I’ve heard you always forget your toothbrush.

I now listen to survival stories with an avid interest in learning how people saved their homes. Leaving on the automatic lawn sprinkler system is helpful.

Will we change, or will the weather change us?

With fire danger in our region becoming so frequent in our suburban settings, we soon won’t be able to get homeowner’s insurance protection from fire, like the Gulf Coast residents can’t get flood insurance.

Without seeing the lightning and dry grass in action, can you imagine what it looks like?

I know I don’t understand the weather in other climates across the Midwest and eastern states. I’ve never experienced a rainstorm with more than an inch of rain in one day. I hear on the East Coast, they can get an inch in one hour.

But one lightning storm on a dry California summer day is not an option. It has changed life on the West Coast.

Climate change is a prominent issue, but can we switch back?

Is this our new normal?

Start cooking with my five essential kitchen tools

Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her blog at The Wooden Cutting Board on Twitter @juliehouse and Facebook @thewoodencuttingboard

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