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- Dr Dreadful’s Letter from America: It Sure Ain’t the Boat Race
- Dr Dreadful’s Letter from America: The Concrete Savanna
Spring has come to the San Joaquin Valley. After a month of almost continuous winter rain, the normally brown foothills are briefly washed in a watery bloom of green. The rain has purged the smog and particulates, drawing them back like a lace curtain and revealing the snow-laden Sierra Nevada mountains, rarely seen from the city but now crisp and immediate in the suddenly clear air.
It’s sunny and warm now, and aside from a likely few showers over the next month or so, it won’t rain again until after the county fair in late October.
The reason I can be so assured in this prediction is that I live in one of the world’s most stable climate zones: a Scotland-sized expanse of flat, featureless farmland, stretching from Sacramento and the San Joaquin Delta in the north to Bakersfield and the Kern County mountains in the south, sandwiched between the 14,000-foot Sierra Nevada massif and the lower, but no less imposing, Coast Range. Air masses blowing in through San Francisco Bay and the Delta hit a dead end in this vast basin, trapped by an inversion layer which exerts a death grip on any weather it brings with it. And as the summer goes on, the mountains suck away all moisture and the dry air beneath gets hotter and hotter. Any rain that does fall evaporates long before it reaches the valley floor.
San Joaquin Valley, one of the most fertile places on Earth
Valley people don’t invest much in the weather. Unless you like to ski or snowboard at one of the nearby mountain resorts, you can get by quite nicely with a wardrobe of spring and summer clothing and a light jacket or two. Go out on even the frostiest January day and you’ll encounter at least one youth walking around quite happily in shorts and flip-flops. Even sunscreen isn’t a major priority, because on those hot July afternoons, if you have any sense, you don’t go outside – you stay someplace where there’s air conditioning.
Being a meteorologist here is a thankless job, especially during the long dry summer. The local TV stations go to extraordinary lengths to try to make the weather interesting, plugging technological toys that claim to be able to home in on the most tenuous of rain showers and plot their paths down to which streets will get wet and which will stay dry. Great significance is extracted from a two- or three-degree fluctuation in temperature, as well as constant comparisons with the record high and low for that date. Local forecasts are padded by wistful looks at distant corners of the country, where things might perhaps be more atmospherically lively.
The climate here may be stable, but it can be, ironically, just as deadly as anywhere else. In winter, local newspapers in Britain run stories about elderly people in danger of hypothermia because they can’t afford to heat their homes. Here, the stories appear in high summer and the OAPs are in danger of heatstroke because they can’t afford to run their air conditioning. Flooding is a worry, too, because it rains so little that the city’s drainage system can’t cope adequately with a sudden downpour or a more prolonged spell of wet weather. Tornadoes are about as common as they are in Britain, but they’re paid much keener attention to here because once they start, there’s very little geography available which might help to slow them down.
Hailing as I do from perennially cool and damp London, it took a while to get used to the effect of weather here, like the way a light shower is referred to as a ‘storm’, or the way the power goes out and traffic grinds to a halt with the first rain of autumn. Old-timers still get mileage from the winter long ago when snow actually reached the valley floor and settled for an hour. In July and August, at the other end of the graph where daytime temperatures can climb above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius) for weeks on end, it’s amusing to listen to the news anchors looking forward to a ‘balmy’ 95 degrees the next day.
It’s a two-way street, of course. Those examples are no less ridiculous on their face than the way Londoners flounder in half an inch of snow and call it a blizzard. And American expat Bill Bryson, in his book The Mother Tongue, recalls his hilarity when the London Evening Standard once ran the headline ‘Britain Sizzles in the 70s’.
We humans are adaptable, and we can get used to pretty much any alien climate. On my first visit to California, I recall a trip to the coast on Boxing Day and how incongruous it seemed to be walking around comfortably in a T-shirt and sunglasses, through streets bedecked with festive lights and past stores piping out Christmas carols. Now, I don’t bat an eyelid if it’s 70 degrees at Christmas. And I can assure you that after weeks of enduring triple-digit summer temperatures, wading through air like hot porridge and risking third-degree burns from touching your car’s steering wheel, a 95-degree day really is balmy.