Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sunset 2014

A December sunset transforms water and air to fire and gold at Malibu's Westward Beach. 2014 was an amazing year for sunsets. All Photos © 2014 Suzanne Guldimann. All rights reserved.

In November, I reported on a talk by environmental artist Lita Albuquerque for the Malibu Surfside News. The talk was the third Malibu Salon Series event, sponsored by the Malibu Cultural Arts Commission. This was a rare opportunity to meet with a remarkable artist and visit her studio. You can read the article here. One of the things the artist said that continues to resinate in my imagination is:

"This place is interesting. The thing about Malibu is it faces south.”

Albuquerque explained that she views Malibu as a sort of natural solar and lunar observatory, enabling the observer to track the path of the sun and moon across the sky throughout the course of the year.

She suggested that Malibu residents who spend time outside observing nature develop an almost instinctive understanding of the annual path of the sun and moon across the summer and winter skies.

This NOAA graphic illustrates the angle of earth at the time of the winter solstice.

It's certainly true that the Chumash, Malibu's first residents, had a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and the annual solar cycle. For the Chumash, as with so many other cultures around the world, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the turning point when the days begin once again to lengthen, was an important occasion. Ethnographic records indicate that the moment of the solstice was observed with the aid of  a carefully prepared wooden pole that was used as a solar observatory. The arrival of the moment of the solstice was accompanied by ceremony. 

The solstices and the equinoxes are still observed each year at the Wishtoyo Chumash demonstration village at Nicholas Beach—the ceremony reconstructed by contemporary Chumash elders and led each year by Chumash activist Mati Waiya. The event's organizers didn't respond to this reporter's request to cover the ceremony this year. However, the Malibu Times was invited and has good coverage of the event.

The website solarplots.info features this graphic representation of the angle of the winter sun. It's easy to forget just how far the sun "travels" away from due west and due east during the year. 

There is evidence that Point Dume, which faces due south, was once an important Chumash shrine site. Today, it is still a fine place to mark the solstice and to track the path of the sun across the sky throughout the year.

On the winter solstice—3:03 p.m. on December 21 this year, the sun reached its most southerly declination, which means that the North Pole is angled away from the sun to the farthest extent possible, -23.5 degrees. 

For the Malibu observer, the sun at midwinter appears to rise south of due north—over Palos Verdes, instead of Los Angeles, and sets south of due west, over the open ocean. Although there is the potential for spectacular sunsets throughout the year, winter skies are often the most beautiful. The fact that the mountains aren't in the way as they are in summer when the sun sets farther north, is a contributing factor, so is the low angle of the sun, but the most important ingredient for a good sunset is clouds. There has to be enough cloud cover to catch the sun but not so much that the clouds swallow the light.

Sometimes weeks or even months go by without the slightest glimmer of celestial fire. May gray and June gloom are not conducive to sunsets: when there's too much cloud cover the day simply fades into darkness. But at any time of the year, when conditions are right, the sky is transformed into flame and glory.

This year seems to have have provided a surprising number of spectacular sunsets, or maybe  I was just fortunate to be in the right place to see them. At any rate, as the sun sets on 2014, here's a look at the past 12 months of sunsets.

Wet sand is transformed into a mirror that reflects the mother-of-pearl colors of the sky at Zuma Beach. January 2014 brought some of the most spectacular sunsets I've ever seen. It was hard to select just one image, but this one seemed to best capture the etherial beauty. 

The setting sun breaks through the clouds of a February storm, turning the sea to liquid gold and revealing the Channel Islands, a mysterious vision that evokes the myth of Bali Hai or the Garden of the Hesperides far in the west, where the golden apples of the sun grow, nurtured by the daughters of night.

The aftermath of a March storm brings powerful surf and a sunset the color known as ashes-of-roses. 

By early April, the sun has moved halfway to the mountains in the north. 

In May, as we approach the summer solstice, the sky watcher at Westward Beach sees the sun set behind the mountains.

The Summer solstice—the longest day of the year—occurs around June 21, but its rare to see a good sunset during what is often Malibu's grayest month. I photographed this sunset on July 7 at Sycamore Cove, looking towards Point Mugu. It seems to exemplify the quality of the light we experience in June, when the sun may only appear for a few minutes in the afternoon.

A Mexican monsoon brings brilliant colors to this late July sunset at Westward Beach. Although the summer is only half over, the sun has already begun to move back towards the south.

We had a whole succession of unusually spectacular skies this summer, thanks to a series of powerful Mexican storms that also brought big surf to the Southern California coast. This was a surprisingly rainy and humid August sunset at Paramount Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Here's another August sunset. If you compare the location of the sun in this photo with the April sunset photo, you can see exactly how far the sun has "moved" to the north during the course of the summer. 

September's sunsets often include the eerie lights of the squid boats off shore. This is the scene from County Line on a cloudless September evening.

Depending on where the clouds are, sometimes the sunset colors appear in the east rather than the west. This strange and enchanting October sunset at Westward Beach occurred the evening before Halloween. The mysterious white dome on the top of the cliff is an amazing private observatory that is part of a Cliffside Drive house.

We had Westward Beach to ourselves for this windswept, opal-colored November sunset.

December again, and a sunset on the beach at Ventura that evokes Homer's "wind-dark sea." 

The secret to catching a good sunset is simple: you have to make the time to go out and look for it. Any westward-facing location with an unobstructed view will do, but whenever conditions look promising, we try to head for the beach.  Zuma or Westward are marvelous places to watch the sun set. Other good local public sunset viewing places in Malibu are Bluffs Park, Nicholas and County Line beaches, Leo Carrillo's North Beach, and Point Mugu. 

Here at the Malibu Post we find its always worth the effort. Even if the sunset doesn't materialize, it's an opportunity to look at the sky and the ocean, listen to the waves, and to breathe.  Sometimes we see dolphins or whales or sea lions. It's always a time for meditation and reflection, and sometimes we are rewarded with dazzling colors that grow more and more intense until they fade into darkness.

Whatever 2015 brings for you, dear reader, I hope it includes time to watch for sunsets.

Happy New Year!

Suzanne Guldimann
30 December 2014

Monday, December 15, 2014

Winter Tides

The Pacific rocky intertidal zone is one of the most punishing and extreme environments on earth but it contains amazing diversity and beauty, and this week offers one of the best opportunities of the year to explore this strange world. Above, a starburst anemone, Anthopleura sola, lives up to its name, displaying a dazzling array of tentacles that resemble the petals of a flower. All photos © 2014 S. Guldimann

... All things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and the expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tidepool again.

—John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Winter brings spectacular daytime low tides to the Malibu coast, offering earthbound mortals a glimpse of the bizarre and wonderful microcosm that exist between the ocean and the shore.

This year, some of the lowest tides of the year will arrive just in time for Christmas. This "king tide" occurs during the new moon and peaks from December 21-23, but there will be low tides in the afternoon all week, starting on Wednesday, December 17, with a .65-foot low tide at 12:45 p.m. The lowest tide—minus 1.24—will arrive on December 23 at 4:30 p.m.

It can be hard to make time for anything extra—even mundane necessities like laundry—during the holidays, but an hour at the beach is a wonderful thing for restoring equilibrium.

Park visitors explore the rocky landscape revealed during a minus tide in November. December's new moon low tides should be even more revealing. This was a minus .44 tide. On December 23, the tide will be minus 1.24.

Visitors, and even locals, often fall into the comfortable pattern of picking a beach and sticking with it. The winter low tides are an invitation to step out of that habit and explore.

Leo Carrillo, El Matador, Point Dume and Surfrider all offer good opportunities for tidepooling. These are all State Park beaches,  and while there are parking fees for the official lots there's always plenty of free parking near by on PCH or, in the case of Point Dume, along Westward Beach Road, where a half-mile walk along Westward Beach and up and over the Point Dume Headlands to reach the access stairs down to Pirate's Cove provides an opportunity to watch for dolphins and the first winter whales.

The most accessible tidepools in the Malibu area are at Leo Carrillo, where the intertidal zone starts just a few hundred feet from PCH. They are also some of the best. Despite its proximity to the road, this area is still home to an amazing array of marine life.

The starburst anemone at the top of the page is open, active, and waiting for prey to come its way. This one is exposed during the low tide. It's pulled its tentacles in while it waits for the water to rise again and is attempting to avoid becoming prey itself with a camouflage of broken shells and urchin spines that it glues to its outer layer with a tough, waterproof cement.

The California sea hare, Aplysia californica, can move fairly rapidly in the water, where it grazes on algae, but it's entirely helpless out of the water.  Just like the anemone, the sea hare has a strategy to wait out the low tide. Like its distant garden slug relatives, this sea slug conserves moisture behind its thick, slimy skin. It can survive for several hours this way, even in full sun,  until the tide returns. This sea hare is just a couple of inches long. If it survives, it can grow to be 16 inches long and weigh up to five pounds. 

Most encounters with the sea hare are on the shore, where this unfortunate animal, unable to move and armed only with purple ink to discourage predators, resembles a black blob. In the tidepool, they're actually rather spectacular, with a pattern of gold and red spots, and a graceful undulating motion when they swim.

Empty California cone shells often wash up on the beach, or turn up in tidepools as the home of hermit crabs, but it's rare to get a glimpse of the live mollusk. This small sea snail is a veracious predator that feeds on a wide range of species, including purple olive shells and, believe it or not, fish, which the snail paralyses with a fast-acting venom. There are a number of tropical species of cone shell that are deadly to humans. This little snail is only a threat to other snails, worms, and tiny fish. However, cone venom shows promise as a pain medication for humans.

The tidepool sculpin, Oligocottus maculosus, is one of the species the cone shell preys on. In fact, it's one of the species all kinds of things prey on, which is why it, too, has a weapon: sharp spines on its fins. Some sculpin are also equipped with venom but I've never heard of anyone getting stung by a tidepool sculpin. It may look fierce and somewhat dragon-like, but it seems to depend on being fast moving and hard to see for survival. This remarkable small fish can breath air if it finds itself trapped out of water or in a pool with low oxygen levels during low tide. It's the most commonly observed fish in our local intertidal zone. 

Here's someone who isn't impressed by cone shells, except as a source for housing material. This is the blue-band hermit crab, Pagurus samuelis. This one has taken up residence in a somewhat battered Acanthina shell. Blue-bands are one of the most common Southern California intertidal hermit crabs, and always fun to watch—they're fast moving and usually very active.

If you are fortunate, you might see one of these. This is a live California  cowrie, also known as a chestnut cowrie or Neobernaya spadiceaAlthough it's hard to see here, this mollusk has, arguably, one of the most beautiful shells found in Southern California waters, and it has been collected to the brink of disappearing along the local coast, although their numbers appear to be increasing recently. I've seen more chestnut cowries at Point Dume this year than I have in the past 10 years. I don't know what that means, but hopefully it's good news.

Humans aren't the only ones taking advantage of the winter minus tides. This great egret has just snagged a fish—probably a sculpin—in a bed of surf grass and is in the process of turning it right-way-round to swallow it.

The shorebirds also take advantage of the low tide. Godwits have specialized bills that have evolved to enable them to probe the sand for sandcrabs and other tasty morsels. This bird is sometimes mistaken for the curlew, another shore species with a long bill. An old birdwatcher told me long ago that the way to tell the difference is to remember that the curlew's beak curves down, while the godwit's beak curves slightly upward—towards God. 

I am extraordinarily blessed to have had the opportunity to grow up by the ocean and to still spend many hours there. I've seen many tides—high and low—but I still see things that amaze and astonish me. The curious object in the photo above is called a mermaid's purse. It's actually the egg case of a dogfish shark or a stingray. I've read about them all my life, but this is the first one I've ever seen. I found it among the tide wrack at Surfrider Beach last week. The Christmas season brings many gifts, literal and figurative, but sometimes one of the best gifts is finding the time to step away from everything. There's no reason why a day at the beach, or even just an hour, shouldn't be part of holiday tradition. The king tide offers a perfect incentive. However, there's another chance to catch a spectacularly low afternoon minus tide during the first king tide of the new year, the week of January 20, 2015.

It's important to remember that the reverse side of this week's minus tides are formidable 8-foot-plus high king tides. Beachgoers should double-check the local tide tables and plan to leave when the tide begins to come in. This is especially critical at beaches like Leo Carrillo, El Matador, and Point Dume, where the low tides provide access to sea caves or otherwise inaccessible rock formations that are rapidly reclaimed by the returning tide and can trap unwary visitors. That sounds preposterously melodramatic, but serious injuries—and the need for rescue—result more often than one would think. 

It's a good idea to keep an eye on the surf report as well as the tide chart. Waves like this one at Point Dume on Sunday are great for surfers but less than ideal for tidepool explorers.

Winter storms bring joy to the surf community but they can complicate the tidepooling experience, generating big surf and "sneaker" waves even when the tide is at its lowest. The warnings about staying off piers and breakwaters during high surf events also applies to reefs and rocks, and it's good to remember that old advice about never turning your back on the waves. 

The website for NOAA tide predictions offers an easy to access, accurate online source for tides. Surfline is a good basic surf report site. This is their page for Point Dume. There are also dozens of tide and surf report apps.

See you at the beach!

Suzanne Guldimann
15 December 2014

Looking for the perfect Christmas gift? A selection of cards and photographic prints from the Malibu Post is now available at Fine Art America.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sturm und Drang

Rain rolls in at Westward Beach, bringing plenty of Sturm und Drang—storm and stress—to Malibu and other disaster-prone parts of the Southland. Photo © 2014 Suzanne Guldimann

Once or twice each decade, Hawaii sends Los Angeles a big, wet kiss. Sweeping far south of its usual path, the westerly jet stream hijacks warm water-laden air from the Hawaiian archipelago and hurls it toward the Southern California coast. This “Kona” storm system—dubbed the “Pineapple Express” by television weather reporters—often carries...the equivalent of half Los Angeles' annual precipitation.

—Mike Davis, The Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster

This week, the Pineapple Express delivered the first extended Southern California rainstorm in almost two years, bringing between two and four inches of rain to most parts of Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains. 

Raindrops glisten on the leaves of a blueberry bush in a Malibu garden. This was one of those rare storm systems that wasn't immediately followed by Santa Ana winds, which meant plants and soil had an opportunity to absorb the moisture. Malibu received between two and four inches of rain from this weather system. The Malibu Post's rain gage recorded 2.25 inches. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

Malibu residents found themselves almost entirely isolated from the rest of the world on December 3, when mud, rockslides, traffic accidents and downed power lines caused all of the major roads in and out of town to be shut down for a time.

The impact of the storm may have caught some of our newer residents by surprise, but longtime Malibu residents expect the canyon roads and Pacific Coast Highway to be blocked by rocks and debris during storm events, especially when heavy rains follow wildfires like the 2013 Springs Fire.

Nearly 10 miles of PCH north of Yerba Buena remained closed until late Thursday this week, while crews cleared mud and rocks out of the road, but on the whole, Malibu got off lightly this time. That isn't always the case.

Pacific Coast Highway—or what was left of it—looking towards Malibu from the intersection at Chautauqua during the Great Flood of 1938. The photo is from Water and Power's collection of early Santa Monica photos.

During the 20th century, Malibu experienced major "100-year" storm flooding in 1914, 1934, 1938, 1956, 1969, 1978, 1980, 1983, 1992, 1993, 1995. That's more than 1000 years' worth of 100 year storms in just a century, and the list doesn't include smaller but still destructive storm events. 

The 1938 flood, a five-day rainstorm that deluged Southern California with 11 inches of rainwas so bad that it rates capital letters: The Great Flood of 1938. That flood is credited with triggering the massive civil engineering campaign to chain the Los Angeles River and transform it, and all its tributaries, into the bleak, sterile concrete channels that are now recognized as one of the biggest ecological disasters in Los Angeles history.

It's hard to visualize it, but that's Victory Blvd. in the San Fernando Valley during the Great Flood of 1938. All that runoff water ended up in the Santa Monica Bay, carrying with it hundreds of road signs, cars, trees, fences, bridges, and entire buildings. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In Malibu, the Great Flood of 1938 washed houses and parts of PCH out to sea. On March 4, 1938, “Sections of Roosevelt Highway, main coastal highway, were shifted to the sea like chips,” the Prescott Evening Courier reported. “Other sections were covered with landslides 15-16 feet deep...Malibu Beach, the swanky seashore movie colony, was as isolated as Robinson Crusoe’s Island.” 

Here's another view of the highway. This image is from the Santa Monica Public Library's excellent collection of digital images, and shows PCH before the floodwaters had entirely receded. It took weeks to dig out from the aftermath of the 1938 flood.

The 1938 flood transformed Santa Monica Canyon into a white-water river that swept everything in its path out to sea. Access to and from Malibu was interrupted for weeks during the cleanup.

In January of 1983, high surf and a series of powerful storms swamped a ten-mile stretch of PCH from Malibu Canyon to Trancas Canyon in mud and damaged more than 100 homes. That was the now legendary storm that destroyed the Paradise Cove Pier and badly damaged the Santa Monica Pier. Giant pylons were tossed around like Tinker Toys, and almost every creek crossing in the Santa Monica Mountains was flooded, stranding residents.

Low-lying areas, including the Corral Beach section of PCH and areas near the Ventura County Line were swamped by waves during a high surf episode on Jan. 19, 1988, but its more common for the road to be closed due to rock and mud slides, rather than waves. 

Rockfalls on PCH occur after almost every major storm event. These boulders are from a major 2010 rockslide on PCH near Point Mugu. The biggest rock in the photo is about the size of a washing machine. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

On Dec 20, 2010, long before the Springs Fire, the same 10-mile section of Pacific Coast Highway, from Kanan Dume Road in Malibu all the way to Point Mugu in Ventura County was closed to through traffic while Caltrans engineers and geologists worked to stabilize large sections of coastal bluff.

An effort in the late 1970s in the same vicinity involved helicopters positioning metal nets on the cliffside in an effort to mitigate rockslide activity near Point Mugu. Dynamite was used in the 1920s to blast the road through coastal terraces and along the sea cliffs. The precipitous cliffs and geologically unstable rocks continue to make rockslides along this stretch of coast inevitable, but they also occur in more densely populated parts of the coast route in Malibu.

The caption by the Santa Monic Public Library for this 1943 PCH landslide photo describes the trucks clearing the debris as amphibious "ducks." I couldn't find an image from the 1956 slide, but it occurred in the same area.

The Oxnard Press-Courier on Feb 11, 1956, reported that “The Pacific Coast Highway was reopened to all lanes of traffic Friday, six days after it was blocked by a landslide [near] Pacific Palisades … Crews remained on the job around the clock since the landslide tumbled tons of dirt from the 275-foot bluff onto a 600-foot section of the highway."

The popular story that a quartet of elderly bridge players arrived mostly unhurt at the bottom of the slide when the deck they were seated on separated from its house and slid down the cliff may be apocryphal, but plenty of decks and gardens ended up at the bottom, including a large section of lawn, complete with sprinklers.

My mom kept a collection of newspaper clippings chronicling the floods and rockslides of 1980. This is the front page of the April 17, 1980 issue of the Evening Outlook, showing the Big Rock slide that shut down PCH for months. The caption warns that the road will be closed "indefinitely."

But the rockslide in April 1980 that closed PCH at aptly named Big Rock for more than a month is the one most people remember. Two days after the road officially reopened on May 7, a new slide closed the highway again.

“‘The rocks are falling in a steady stream,”’ state department of Transportation spokesperson Milt Stark told the media.
The road remained closed for months. A water taxi ferried commuters and visitors from the Malibu Pier to the Santa Monica Pier and back for the duration. Commuters who had access to more than one car left one vehicle on each side of the slide. Others took bicycles with them on the ferry. At least one enterprising resident kayaked past the slide to his parked car each day.

Here's another clipping, this time from the Malibu Surfside News, showing the Big Rock slide from above.

I remember taking the ferry to Santa Monica with my parents. It was a marvelous adventure for a child. Watching the coast slip past, arriving at the Santa Monica Pier from the water, seeing the ferris wheel growing closer and closer across the bay, was enchanting. We spent a never-to-be-forgotten day walking around Santa Monica and ate dinner at a long-vanished Indian restaurant on 4th Street called the Gypsy. I got to ride the carousel on our way back to to the ferry. It was wonderful.

The water taxi "Shirley Ann" ferried commuters from the Malibu Pier to the Santa Monica Pier while PCH was closed at Big Rock. This is another clipping from the Evening Outlook.

For me it was a treat, for the grown-ups it was a major ordeal. And there was no high school in Malibu in those days, so all of the older students had to navigate the road closure on their way to and from Santa Monica High School twice a day, adding extra aggravation to the already-too-long commute.

Flooding wrecked havoc in the canyons, too, during the 1980 storms. Here are several photos of Topanga from the Malibu Surfside News.

In 1980, 300 businesses in Malibu and along PCH sued the state for millions of dollars in loses, alleging that efforts to stabilize the cliff created a more serious problem. Local businesses in the Malibu Civic Center area also had to contend with four feet of water and mud when Malibu Creek overflowed its banks. 

This clipping from the Malibu Surfside News had especial immediacy for my mom. My family's gallery was located in the building next door, which was on slightly higher ground and escaped the worst of the flooding, but many friends and neighbors had to deal with feet of mud and water in their shops.   Combined with the months-long road closure, it was a devastating blow for local businesses. The bulldozer in the photo is right in front of where the high-end chain restaurant MR Chang is currently located. 

In 1995, severe winter storms again flooded the Civic Center and rockslides closed portions of PCH in Malibu. The Malibu Creek Bridge was damaged during a major storm on Jan. 10 of that year. State transportation officials asked drivers to “avoid Pacific Coast Highway for several months,” while the bridge was repaired and the landslides stabilized. Residents would be escorted by sheriff’s department vehicles through a single muddy lane on PCH while crews worked 24 hours a day to clear the road. 

I have a vivid memory of traveling past that mudslide, too. This time in my own car, in the middle of the night, waiting in the rain and darkness to be allowed through, and dreading the thought of being turned back and having to drive all the way around through the valley to get home. The mud was so thick that the pavement and k-rails were completely buried except for that one narrow lane. A sheriff's black-and-white that was almost entire covered in mud and a snowplow were on duty, guiding traffic, one side at a time,  through miles of debris.

An all too frequent warning sign on PCH. © 2014 S. Guldimann

Landslide remediation measures have ranged from dynamite to complex barriers of steel and concrete. None of it would be much use in a storm like the 1938 event. Anyone who wants to live at the coast has to learn to live with disaster as well as beauty. It's one of many good reasons why the the City of  Malibu's official vision and mission statements talk about the community's willingness to forego urban conveniences.

When developers tell us that extensive commercial development will be the salvation of Malibu, or when they propose a 55,000-corpse cemetery in an area with a notoriously high water table, I am reminded of the manically optimistic philosophy of the 19th century manifest destiny movement, which preached that "Rain follows the plow." It's not too different from the newer "if we cover every square inch of a floodplain with development it won't flood any more" mindset. Good luck with that.

An 1938 aerial photo of Malibu Creek and what is now the Civic Center shows standing water all over the floodplain following the "Great Flood." The lagoon has been entirely washed out and only a small portion of the sandbar, or berm, remains. Just because a flood like this hasn't happened in a while doesn't mean it won't happen again.
Floods and storms have always impacted Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains. There is geologic evidence of ancient landslides and flood-related geology. The current storm is a good reminder, even in the middle of the holiday rush, for everyone to check and restock emergency supplies and make sure they have an adequate supply of food, water and medicines for humans and pets. 

It's also a good idea to review emergency evacuation plans.  Becoming familiar with the more challenging canyon roads like Latigo, Encinal and Decker during daylight when it's not raining can be a big help if you even have to drive them at night during a rain storm.

We've traded floods for drought in recent years, but the pendulum will inevitably swing the other way again in time. It's too soon to tell if the current storm is the first salvo of a wet winter, or just a temporary break in the prolonged dry spell. Either way, the rain is welcome, but it can be a challenge when it all comes at once.

More rain is in the forecast for next week. Be safe out there.

Suzanne Guldimann
5 December 2014

A rainbow signals the end of the recent storm at Point Dume. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann