Goodbye California: Reminiscences of a climate refugee

There are a lot of reasons why I’m moving from California to Washington, including family and other personal considerations. But one reason, one big reason, is California’s rapidly changing climate.

It was late February in the Coast Range of northern California when I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Dust swirled around my car in the dirt parking lot at Cold Canyon. The car thermometer, warmed by a sun that felt imported from Palm Springs, said 87 degrees; it was actually only 77. A hint of ash, omnipresent since The Fire last summer, remained in the air.

Its oaks torched with little hope of return, Putah Creek Canyon is quickly resembling a sun-scorched canyon in Arizona. Until 2018, only one fire in the area had burned more than 15 square miles. Then the County Fire burned 140 square miles. In 2020, the LNU Complex Fire burned 570 square miles.

The hillsides were green with the new growth of non-native grass, which was responding to a recent heavy rain. That was deceptive. More than half the rain we’d had in the previous eight months came in that single event. We had six inches of rain in all of 2020. Looking beyond the grass, nearly every tree – blue oaks and gray pines – on the hillsides was dead, burnt black and orange monuments to a previous era. For our local blue oak woodland, that era ended last year and, given that recruitment of saplings is unlikely due to heat, fire, and cattle, it was an era that will never return.

Massive die-offs are eliminating blue oaks from the southern third of their range. Black oaks are marching up the Sierra, displacing Ponderosa pine, which are marching up, displacing firs. Everyone is on the move. Oak woodlands are becoming oak savannahs, oak savannahs are becoming grasslands, grasslands are becoming rocky high deserts. Arizonification is happening quickly, thru heat, drought, and ultimately, thru fire.

Virtually all of the east slopes of the Coast Range between San Francisco Bay and the Trinity Alps has burned in the past ten years. In the Sierra, one can practically predict where the next fire catastrophe will happen, because it hasn’t burned yet (hint: Lake Almanor, Placerville, Arnold).

The Fire, the LNU Complex Fire, was part of 2020’s 4.3 million acres of scorched earth. The LNU Fire exceeded the total acreage of all previous fires that impacted my county over the last 50 years combined.

It was a beautiful day—for April. But February has become April, April has become May, and June, July, August, September, and even October and November have become unrecognizable. Every year more heat records are broken. Hottest summer, hottest month, most days over 100, most days over 90. The list goes on, each year breaking the records set the previous year. Weather data is normally highly variable; now it is a straight line—warmer and warmer. And smokier.

My cape honeysuckle and bougainvillea, both planted with a degree of optimism outside their recommended zone, used to die back so badly in the winter that each spring I was tempted to declare them dead and pull them out. Now they bloom year-round, looking like they’re in a courtyard at a hotel in the tropics. We haven’t had a real freeze in seven winters.

The songs of lesser goldfinches on my street are a depressing warning. I can’t take two steps outside without seeing or hearing a bird that reminds me that our climate has seriously changed. Western tanagers, house wrens, and turkey vultures are regular in winter now. The lesser goldfinches have come out of the arid hills and are quickly becoming one of the most ubiquitous nesting birds in Davis. (I know this definitively because one included an imitation of a canyon wren in its song.) What’s more, at least four Say’s phoebes, essentially a high desert species, are scouting for nests in town now. A fifth arrived on my block last week, singing as if on territory. They’ve been doing this for a few years and their numbers are growing.

The graphs of acres burned in California (and in other western states) and the expansion of some bird species into the Pacific Northwest (in this case, Anna’s hummingbirds in winter), are strikingly similar.

I’m leaving. I’ve lived in California fifty-five years but it’s no longer the state I grew up in.

We’re headed to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. We are fortunate to be able to do so.

Besides the cooler summers, one of the best things about moving to a new place is that I won’t be reminded of climate change on a daily experiential basis. Because the ecosystem will be new to me, I won’t know what’s different, what is changing, except maybe for the brown boobies, a tropical seabird, that are now showing up in Puget Sound each year. Or the family of California scrub-jays that have just established residence on my new street. Like Anna’s hummingbirds, black phoebes, great egrets, red-shouldered hawks, and people like me, scrub-jays are moving north. I expect more of California’s birds to follow me, just as I follow some of them. Yes, lesser goldfinches are coming north too; they’re already established southeast of Tacoma.

I feel like a frog in a boiling pot. I’m getting out. I’m saying goodbye to California, but I feel it has left all of us without saying goodbye to anyone.

The view from Point Wilson, a mile from my new home in Port Townsend, which has had only a few nights below freezing all winter. Climate change is occurring there too, but remains well within temperate ranges.

I do believe that Homo sapiens may ultimately win the climate battle and bring atmospheric CO2 back down to 300 ppm or something. But that’s a hundred years off. And there’s no guarantee we can stop the tide of Greenland and Antarctic ice melt to prevent sea level rise. In the meantime, in the next 50 to 100 years, it’s going to get a lot warmer. And we may ultimately lose New York City, Singapore, Mumbai, and every other low-lying coastal city. My new home is fifty feet above sea level. Well, probably forty-nine and a half now.

Helping forests migrate: Planners race to plant trees adapted to the future climate

Researchers from UC Davis collect acorns in arid west Texas to plant on their campus in northern California. They estimate their climate in 2100 will be similar to that of Barstow or even Phoenix today. City staff from a town near Portland, Oregon travel to California and Arizona for seedlings they can take home and plant along their city streets. They are preparing for Portland’s weather to become like Sacramento today.

The range of Arizona oak. For one town near Portland, Oregon, the list of potential future street trees includes this species, as well as California buckeye, California laurel, and silverleaf oak.

With these regions breaking new heat records annually – Sacramento just topped 90 degrees for the 110th day (and counting) in 2020—and given that trees take decades to mature, the race is on. Birds can fly, mammals can walk, but trees expand their ranges very slowly. Most acorns from an oak end up within a few hundred yards from their home tree.

Climate velocity, the speed at which ecotones are shifting north, is much faster than that. Our climate is changing ten to one hundred times faster than during a global warming event 55 million years ago known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). During that “rapid” spike, palm trees successfully migrated to the Arctic circle, but they had thousands of years to make it there.

Dead blue oaks in Fresno County, California. They experienced excessive mortality during the 2012-16 drought. These hills may revert to grassland. Researchers want to use the genes of the survivors as stock for the future in the north. For a full presentation of blue oak gene-assisted migration see this presentation by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

While trees can’t walk, they can die. Range contraction of trees along their southern xeric (dry) edge is happening in the American West right with the speed of climate change. Blue oak die-offs are widespread in the southern third of their range. From California to Colorado, conifers such as Ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir are disappearing from lower elevations. To quote Davis et al (2019), “In areas that have crossed climatic thresholds for regeneration, stand-replacing fires may result in abrupt ecosystem transitions to nonforest states.” When people talk about California becoming Arizona, the cleanup hitter in that process may be fire, but the first batters are heat, drought stress, and bark beetles. After fires, decreased soil moisture and increased vapor pressure deficit (VPD) associated with climate change are leading to reduced probability of regeneration (Davis et al 2019). In short, many forests are not coming back.

Ponderosa pines are disappearing from lower elevations of the Sierra in California. This has been documented in Colorado as well.

Range expansion of trees northward has been documented, but the pace is anemic, insufficient to keep up with the changing climate. One study in the east found that ranges in adult trees expanded north less than 150 yards per year (Sittaro et al 2017). They concluded, “our results add to the body of evidence suggesting tree species are mostly limited in their capacity to track climate warming…”

Recent mega fires include many of the drought-killed conifers in the southern Sierra. Research suggests regeneration may be imperiled due to a warming climate.

Researchers have discussed facilitating tree migration due to climate change for over a decade (Aitken et al 2008). For over a hundred years, botanists have recognized regional differences within the same plant species, and simple garden experiments have shown that local varieties do better. The standard rule of thumb has always been that local varieties are best; they are adapted to the local ecological niche. Now that is changing.

Recent research is showing that trees are now in the wrong places; the climate has shifted past them. Valley oaks, white fir, Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, Western hemlock, and lodgepole pine seedlings all do better when removed from their original home and moved north (Aitken and Bemmels 2015).

The local trees are becoming misfits in a world that is changing around them. Many researchers are hesitant to fully embrace assisted migration; introducing non-native species has a horrid track record. But they are beginning to study “assisted gene flow”, moving hardy trees from the southern end of a species’ range to the north end. Cities, on the other hand, are beginning to see trees as more than just aesthetically pleasing; they are critical infrastructure, providing shade and reducing urban temperatures. So the cities and towns are moving faster, boldly cultivating trees from the dry Southwest into the Pacific Northwest.

This photo from Aitken and Bemmels (2015) shows a series of Sitka spruce, all eight years old, planted together in British Columbia. The trees from the south, adapted for a warmer and drier environment, are out-competing the locals.

Tree migration is also critical for the range expansion of animals. Without the trees and other vegetation, many birds, mammals, and other forms of life have no habitat rungs on the ladder to enable them to move north as well. Anna’s Hummingbirds now winter in Canada and even Alaska, largely due to ornamental plantings. The Oak Titmouse, on the other hand, is dependent on oaks, tightly constraining its ability to expand north. It may be that, in the coming decades, oaks and other tree species planted in cities and towns will provide critical refugia for a wide variety of birds and insects seeking cooler climes.