Environmental History

The (Temporary) Rebirth of California’s Once-Huge Tulare Lake?

The southern half of California’s vast San Joaquin Valley is almost never depicted as a desert nor is it officially classified as one. But it clearly is a desert by climatological criteria. Most of the San Joaquin Valley gets less than 10 inches of precipitation a year, with much of the southern valley receiving less than seven, and it has an extremely high rate of evaporation from late spring through early autumn. But with abundant water flowing from the adjacent Sierra Nevada range, the southern San Joaquin Valley is a verdant, intensely cultivated land. Before the late 1800s, it was the site of the third largest freshwater lake entirely within the United States (as measured by surface area). But when the rivers that formerly flowed into Tulare Lake were diverted into canals to irrigate crops, the huge lake disappeared. Today, the former lakebed is highly productive farmland with only a few small seasonal wetlands providing natural habitat.

As the paired maps posted below indicates, the extent of Tulare Lake varies greatly in different cartographic depictions. This is because the lake itself varied significantly in size on both a seasonal and multi-year basis. As Tulare Lake did not drain in most years, it would expand in winter and spring and then contract through summer and early fall. It would also grow to an especially large size in wet years and shrink dramatically in dry ones. In particularly wet years, the lake would rise high enough to drain to the sea through the San Joaquin River, thus flushing out any accumulated salt and ensuring that its water remained fresh.

A shallow and nutrient-rich lake, Tulare was extremely productive. The Yokuts people who lived around its shores were reputed to have had one of the highest levels of population density of any indigenous American ethnic group. For several decades after the gold rush, Tulare’s aquatic resources from were shipped in huge quantities to San Francisco. As the Wikipedia article on the lake notes:

Even well after California became a state, Tulare Lake and its extensive marshes supported an important fishery: In 1888, in one three-month period, 73,500 pounds of fish were shipped through Hanford to San Francisco. It was also the source of a regional favorite, western pod turtles, which were relished as terrapin soup in San Francisco and elsewhere.

Turtles in Tulare Lake were so abundant that they were even fed to hogs. Today the western pond turtle is classified as a vulnerable species, suffering from competition with invasive exotic turtle species and undermined by the loss of habitat.

Environmentalists occasionally dream about bringing back Tulare Lake, emphasizing the vital habitat that it once provided and contending that its revival would be a relatively easy way for California to store excess runoff. Such a scenario, however, is extremely unlikely. Not only is the former lakebed highly productive farmland, but it also contains the city of Corcoran, home to some 22,000 residents.

But regardless of human plans and desires, Tulare Lake will probably reappear this spring, if only for a short period, owing to the extremely heavy precipitation that has been experienced this winter in the southern Sierra. Tulare County has already seen levee-breaks and the flooding of several towns, and water is now beginning to accumulate in the old lakebed. Local flooding could easily persist as snowmelt begins in April or May. Noting such factors, a recent article by Dan Walters claims that “It’s almost certain that Tulare Lake will once again spring to life.” Walters concludes by arguing that, “the probability is generating some hopeful, if unrealistic, speculation that state and or federal governments could buy up the lakebeds fields and bring back to Tulare lake permanently.”

This season’s reborn Tulare Lake will probably evaporate over the course of the summer, which will almost certainly be hot and bone dry – as is always is in the San Joaquin Valley. But if California enters a multiyear wet cycle, which is possible although not probable, winter and spring drainage could become a big problem for the farms and towns of the Tulare Basin. The city of Corcoran well known for its continual subsidence, dropping in elevation by about two feet a year due to the overuse of groundwater. Subsidence has already created major headaches for Corcoran. As noted in The Science Times,

The town levee had to be reconstructed for $10 million after the casings of drinking-water wells were crushed, flood areas changed, and the town levee had to be rebuilt. The situation has increased homeowners’ property tax bills by around $200 a year for three years.

Another powerful storm is slated to slam into California on Tuesday, March 21. Like most of this year’s major storms, it will be most pronounced in central and southern California, largely missing the normally much-wetter northern third of the state. More than 48 inches of additional snow is expected in the southern Sierra, which drains into the Tulare Basin. Thus far this winter, the southern Sierra has received an astounding 268 percent of average annual snowfall.

As can be seen on the map posted above, the northern and central parts of the Sierra have also received much higher-than-average amounts of snow this winter, but not to the same extent as the south. This pattern is highly unusual and was not expected. Until recently, the eastern Pacific was under La Niña conditions, which usually means a drier than average wet season, especially in Southern California. By winter 2024, El Niño conditions may assert themselves, which usually means a wetter than average winter for southern and central California. If so, Tulare Lake might fill up yet again.

The (Temporary) Rebirth of California’s Once-Huge Tulare Lake? Read More »

A Photo Tour of How Russian Billionaire & New Jersey Nets Owner Mikhail Prokhorov Made His Billions













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(Translation: About the Planet and the Children, )







Mikhail Prokhorov is the former CEO and billion dollar shareholder in the Norlisk Mining and Metals company, as well as rapper Jay-Z’s current business parter, as majority owner of the New Jersey Nets. HIs photo has been intentionally excluded from the series above, so that his name will be associated with pollution, above all else. He once was the baron behind, Norlisk, a secretive siberian smelter city, tabbed by the BBC as the world’s largest producer of acid rain.

Prohkorov, a charming 45-year old, has made more headlines recently for hisflamboyant private life, than pollution, but. Prokhorov’s dossier, aside from chronic pollution, also includes bribery, seizure of public property via emminent domain, and business deals with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

The Smelter city of Norilsk was originally founded as a Stalinist Gulag in 1937. The temperatures are so extreme that between 1939 and 1959, the gulag claimed at least 16,806 lives. Ten degrees above zero (Fahrenheit) is warm weather in Norilisk. The sun does not shine for six months a year. Temperatures can fall to seventy below. There is a nineteen mile wide dead zone surrounding the city, few babies are born healthy, and the acid rain blankets an area the size of Germany. These are the daily realities of those who toiled to form the base of Prokhorov’s fortune.

This man could be LeBron James’s new boss, for all we know. He’s going to be signing the checks to former Stanford Star Brook Lopez. Yet it is unlikely the press, or national basketball association will make any mention of his pollution of the world’s air and Russia’s water. While Prokhorov has since sold his stake in Norlisk, the environmental damage that occurred during his leadership as director has been devastating.

National Basketball Association’s willingness to turn ablind eye to political, geographic, and environmental is unsurprising. While the Norwegian government sold their shares in Norlisk because it did not want the environmental damage on their conscience, the NBA is not nearly as progressive an organization. Ecological morality is once again overlooked for the prospect of an extra few millions.

It’s fitting that Prokhorov is set to be the boss in New Jersey, of all places, because when you think Prokhorov, think Pollution (with a capital P).

The images used in this post were all generated in google earth from screenshots or the panoramio tool.

For a flyover tour of Norilsk in Google Earth, download this file.

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Deepwater Horizon Oil Spillustrated in Google Earth

The last few Geocurrentcasts have featured environmental disasters on a massive scale, and this week’s spill in the Gulf may top them all. If the fissure in the Ocean continues to spew anywhere near its current rate, and attempts to plug it have failed decidedly so far, the Deepwater Horizon spill is likely to become the largest oil spill in history.

Google Earth aficionados have been on the forefront, tracking and illustrating this disaster.
This week’s Geocurrentcast is a compilation of the work done this week in theGoogle Earth Forums, with a short lecture attached.

To view the Oil Spill, first download Google Earth, then download and open this KML file.

For those interested in tracking the official response and latest figures, use this website as a primary source.


The total damage is expected to be a number of billions monetarily, but the real loss comes in terms irreversible environmental damage. Not only is the Gulf thick with millions of gallons of sludge, but fires are being set to control the spill, leading to plumes of smoke on a scale previously unseen outside of the Gulf War (see also: Werner Herzog’sLessons in Darkness).

If you thought the originalGulf Dead Zone was getting lonely, just until the casualty estimates for this accident are finally tabulated. For example, don’t look for a jump in sea turtle populationsthis decade, or maybe ever again.

After the Exxon-Valdez Oil spill, less than 25% of the wildlife in the affected area survived. Still, the sting did not resonate with many worldwide, because of its relatively desolate Alaskan location. The Deepwater Horizon’s spill has hit the core of our country and has only just begun to menace fishing, agriculture, air traffic, and the environment.

Some have sprung into action for the cleanup, with a Philippine cleanup crew, starting a hair donation program soak up. Still, as they say, you can’t unfry an egg, so stock up on shrimp before its too late.

As the slick approaches the shore today, it begs the question, is this wake-up call the world needs to begin acting in earnest against the rape of our planet, or is it but another astounding milestone in the history of crimes against the planet?

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Exhausting the Inexhaustible: Ogalala and Aral Illustrated

Earlier in the week, Professor Lewis left us with a dazzling posting on the Death and Partial Rebirth of the Aral Sea.

To see the decline of the Aral and the Ogalala at its most dramatic,download this week’s Google Earth File, as the companion and informational heart of this post.

For those of you whom are still, unfamiliar, The Sea of Aral was once one of the four largest lakes in the world. However, massive mismanagement, inefficient irrigation channels, overuse, poor crop choices, were at the core of Stalin’s unwavering “Great Plan for Tranformation of Nature,” and continued by the Uzbek and Kazhahk governments until a last ditch effort to save the Lake (called a sea), turned to a puddle.


At the peak of the Aral’s water loss, the cubic volumes of entire cities would pack up and leave in a single month. What’s left are rusting caracassess of ships, and empty deserts where water once flowed. The burgeoning trade in muskrat furs is gone too, with the tides.



What’s interesting about the case of the Aral was that there is no physical change to the water level on the satellite images, until it was far too late. Of course, the real problems with the Aral were discovered after massive hubristic, expensive, and inefficient construction projects had been in the works for years. The ironic part of this decline is that during the period of the greatest drain, the satellite imagery of the water level’s decline isn’t quite there. But when the countries finally realize their error, and put measures in place, the Sea sprints into its final decline.

But this problem does not just apply to former Soviet States. The breadbasket of the United States, as well, is guilty of heinous crimes in water mismanagement with the Ogalala Aquifer.

This vast underwater freshwater system was thought to be inexhaustible by US Farmers, even later into the 20th century. Recent estimates show that the Aquifer could be dry in as little as 25 years if consumption and replenishment rates continue as they are.

US farmers will be hard pressed to switch, considering their congressional power, but seeing the Colorado River dry to a near trickle has prompted a proactive response from the USGS.

The solution in the case of the Ogalala, as well as the case of Aral, may be to simply switch away form Irrigation dependent agriculture. In other words, we should avoid costly, terraforming, “Great Plans for the Transformation of Nature.” If the Soviet Government had simply decided not decided to grow cotton in an unnatural environment, the Aral would likely be a cohesive body of water today.

The decline of the Ogalala threatens the freshwater supply of the whole of the Central United States, and merits more significant political attention. This issue was brought to my attention in such a striking manner in the google earth forums, by a fellow cyber-cartographer- Diane, whose work was to good not to share with you all.

If you also work in Google Earth, or would like to contribute and correspond with GeoCurrents, please send us a message on our twitter, or contact us here.

Also as a bonus, for those of you interested in tracking the Icelandic Volcanic Eruption (which we correctly predicted a few weeks back) in Google Earth, please refer to this KML file.

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Unmitigated Environmental Disasters Illustrated

This week’s Geocurrentcast is entirely dedicated to about baker’s dozen sites that epitomize the nasty human footprint that comes with heavy metals, heavy industry, and heavy consumerism.

 

The histories of Stalinist industrial wastelands, leaking oil Nigerian pipelines, massive American landfills, Brazilian Deforestation, smog filled Chinese cities, and towering Sarin gas smelters are all illustrated in this weeks in Google Earth tour on Geocurrents.info.

In order to view the tour, first download Google Earth.

Then download this KMZ file, with complete with descriptions, waypoints, and overlays to increase your understanding of these man made tragedies.

Rather than lecture over the tour, the areas speak for themselves. I’ve provided basic historic information, but I encourage all to see this as a call for social justice.

Unmitigated Environmental Disasters Illustrated Read More »

Mining Scars & Smokestacks: Industrial Topography Illustrated in Google Earth

Our Geocurrentcast this week, aims to illustrate some of the most awe-inspriing images of the impact of industrialization. This week’s Google Earth tour looks at man’s physical impact on the surface of the earth through our thirst for mining ore, gold, boron, diamonds, uranium salt, natural gas, oil, and even the wind.

The tour takes time to stop with the army of Alexander the Great at the Khewra Salt Mines of Pakistan, resists Pinochet at El Teniente and El Chuquicama in Chile, and adds an extra karat of guilt to your grandfather’s wedding ring during its stop at the hand dug mines of South Africa.

The goal of this tour is to instill a deeper curiosity on issues extraction, energy use, consumption, land reclamation and industrialization through satellite illustration.


To view this tour, first download Google Earth.

Next, download the tour as a KMZ file, and double click the movie icon the places menu of Google Earth to play the tour.

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