WeatherWhys Blog

Nature plays its wild card as spring starts

Nature plays its wild card as spring starts
Smoke rises from Unit 3 of the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, Monday, March 21, 2011.

Spring began on Sunday at 4:21 PM. It has occurred amidst novelties that continue to astound. Those novelties include a Super Full Moon, unusually high tides, an historic earthquake and tsunami last week and the resumption of our “sandwich” rainy season.

Spring began on Sunday at 4:21 PM. It has occurred amidst novelties that continue to astound. Those novelties include a Super Full Moon, unusually high tides, an historic earthquake and tsunami last week and the resumption of our “sandwich” rainy season.

Whew! Everything is happening at once in the geoscience department. Obviously, the horrendous 9.0 earthquake and subsequent devastating tsunami in Japan has taken center stage. The Sendai quake was the 4th largest earthquake in modern history and generated a tsunami that will most likely have taken more than 10,000 lives when the grim statistics are ultimately compiled. Many of the unfortunate Japanese were probably sucked out to sea and lost, their number impossible to discern. And then, as if it couldn’t get any worse, radiation fears from a breached nuclear reactor grabbed the attention of the world. This rapid escalation of tragedy was reminiscent of 9-11 for me. Every half hour the scope of disaster got worse that September day in New York. For Japan, an initially reported 7.9 earthquake became 8.8, then 8.9 for about a week and finally recalculated at an amazing 9.0 magnitude. Images of the tsunami will remain etched in my mind forever, the force of water and debris unstoppable engulfing anything in its path. And now four nuclear reactors at one site, in crisis mode, unable to be cooled and releasing radioactive particles into the free atmosphere. The similarities to 9-11 did not escape me, especially when noting that these two events are symmetric- at the opposite side of the world from New York on 3-11, 6 months to the day on the opposite side of the calendar.

But this radiation release has also bred the most remarkable illogical fear I may have ever seen. The unfounded anxiety of so many on the west coast, that radiation might find its way into their backyard, has become palpable- almost to the point where people want to be afraid. The fact is that a limited amount of radioactive Iodine-131, Cesium-137 and Strontium-90 have been released. These isotopes, with varying half-lives, are heavier than air for the most part and disperse well before completing their 5000 to 6000 mile trip to the west coast. Of immediate concern was Iodine-131, which has a half-life of about 8 days. Potassium Iodide pills were flying off the shelves in the misguided belief that they are an “anti-radiation pill”. In short, your thyroid (a butterfly shaped gland in your throat) absorbs iodine from food you eat and then combines the iodine with other minerals in your body to form a hormone that regulates metabolism. Since it absorbs iodine you thyroid would quickly absorb Iodine-131, the radioactive “bad” iodine. Taking the pill saturates your thyroid like a sponge with “good” iodine so that there is no room for the radioactive version, hence protecting the thyroid from radiation damage and potential cancer. That is all. The rest of your body is still susceptible to radiation damage. To think the pill is a “cure all” is wildly erroneous. But people believe it is a Silver Bullet anyway.

As far as the real radiation hazard goes, very sensitive instruments have indicated the presence of radioactive isotopes from the Japanese disaster right here in southern California. However, the dosage is so incredibly small as to be trivial and of no concern. Radiation dosage is measured in milli-Sieverts (mSv). This is radiation per unit of time. The minimum threshold level for initial concern is a dosage of about 100 mSv. Observed new radiation has been measured at 1 pico-Sievert (which is a trillionth of a Sievert) or about 10 billion times less than the minimum threshold for concern. If that threshold was a man 6 feet tall, then the current threat would be the size of a water molecule! Hence, the real threat from Japanese radiation on the west coast is essentially ZERO.

Meantime, the west coast has been pummeled with precipitation. The “sandwich season” with heavy rainfall at the start and end, but dry in the middle, is in full evidence. Bakersfield has now risen above normal for March precipitation, after receiving .89” on Sunday. That broke the daily record. Snowfall was massive in the Kern Mountains with up to 12 inches in the Tehachapi area and an amazing 48 inches falling in Frazier Park. April 1st is the benchmark date for snowpack appraisal in the Sierra, and levels were at about 125% of normal BEFORE this weekend’s storm. We should be fine (hydrologically) in California this summer if our current snowpack is any measure of confidence. A very wet and cool weather pattern is expected to persist for at least the next week.