Monday, January 21, 2013

Santa Rosa Mountains & Climate Change - Will Anyone Pay Attention ?

University California Riverside
Looking down the throat of Deep Canyon towards Palm Desert and the rest of Coachella Valley below. A view of the landscape where Scientists found plants have shifted uphill for over 30 years. But was this shift in upwards movement an actual climate change phenomena from a once wetter period to the now present drier one ? Well surprise, it's another human component.There has always been some sort of speculation and controversy surrounding the San Jacinto Mountains, and especially the Santa Rosa part of those mountains, as to just how far down and extensive the forest areas once occurred at lower elevations. Some call it a fable and myth, others saying it was thousands of years ago when when the climate was wetter than today and it had a more vegetative state than at present. But the date is almost always pushed very far back.

Recently I touched on this subject in a post on the Santa Rosa Mountains and the story behind the old  Sawmill Trail  and the man who helped build it Jay Dee McGaugh of Radec (Aguanga) California. To make a longer story shorter, Jay Dee McGaugh said that the road was built to harvest thousands of Jeffrey Pine trees some Forestry Official said were 'Bug Trees' and needed cleaning out. Dee McGaugh , who not only cattle ranched, but also had a heavy equipment business and who was contracted out in the old days for road building, said that the forest then extended much lower than you see it at present. Well, he certainly should have known he was after all, there and an on the spot eye witness. You also have to understand that this man had no political or environmental agenda for saying this, it was simply the facts as he related them to me when I first met him in 1983. As was common back then, no reforestation tree planting program was undertaken back in those days to replace what they had obliterated. That land was pretty much stripped bare and left to it's own regeneration processes for which even today you will still see along that road some stunted Jeffrey Pines which tried to make a comeback. Mostly now it is Desert Ceanothus (Ceanothus greggii) and Redshank chaparral. But I had found even evidence before that period (1930s logging venture?) where there was clear evidence of a one time existing large old growth forest Jeffrey Pine Trees whose stumps still exist much, much lower than even the present Highway 74 near Spring Crest which was at one time referred to or known as the old tourist stop called "Ribbonwood" named after the very abundant chaparral species around there called Redshank (Adenostoma spasifolium). The ONLY reason these stumps still existed in the late 1980s when I first discovered them on a hunch I had of an area once forested, is because they were charred solid by fire which allowed them to resist rot which would have rapidly disintegrated any tree remnants which would have otherwise been logged at such a lower easier accessible location. At least, these old Jeffrey Pine tree stump locations were pockets of woodland areas in among chaparral plant community, which of course today no longer exist. 

Fast forward now to the present, and that's where a recent study was done around 2008 and a reprint of it in August of 2012 & the comparison to a further study by other researchers which does shed some fascinating light on the subject and gives a credible explanation for a different scenario of change in vegetation from tree forest to one presently now more dominated by a Chaparral Plant Community. I find both studies intriguing and exciting, though the early 2008 authors or group are at odds with each other 2012 Research Group in a bit of the usual intellectual spitting contest that science can be known for in these modern times. This should not surprise us as this is characteristic of most of our world's leadership. In this case it is mostly on the part of Anne Kelly and Mike Goulden against Keeley & Schwilk.  In fact, in these studies I personally found both to have credible bits of gold as far as important findings, though they (researchers) may not have seen the other's point of view through the murkiness of resentment which clouds judgement. Well, moving on, here is a link to the older article in Live Science which also appeared as reprints in other online News. I'll explain what I saw in both Researcher's findings and my own personal experience from living in this area for almost 24 years.

First we have a debate between two studies. The first of the Studies saying plant movement uphill into higher elevations is caused only by climate change and it's the increase in this area's temperature and droughts that have caused the plants in the study to migrate uphill in elevation. Okay makes sense, since we find certain plants not doing so well in warmer temps and drought conditions. The first study was conducted in 2006/2007 by graduate student Anne Kelly and Mike Goulden both of the University of California Irvine. What they did was to retrace a 1977 vegetation survey that covered sites from sea level at the desert floor to high upper conifer forests at elevation 8,400 feet (2,560 meters). Now basically this Kelly & Goulden believed that climate change has caused plants to move further up the mountainside of Santa Rosa as climate has warmed. But as we all know, climate change is more than just warming, it's about extreme events of all types. They look at a couple of interesting phenomena and they looked at the 10 dominant native plant species that have appeared to have made the change higher up Santa Rosa Mountain. Now they say that Fire or even smog played no part in ecosystem changes, though they do acknowledge the historical Cal-Forestry Fire data. But they were wrong, Brush or Forest Fires are a major part in plant redistribution which ALSO has resulted in the localized climate change.  I've already addressed this when I spoke of my experience in observing back in the 1980s the Cahuilla Mountain cloud formation anomalies during the monsoonal rain season each summer and how the phenomena stopped after the well known Diego Flats Fire in 1996 that I wrote about  HERE!  That entire localized situation changed completely after that 1996 fire on Cahuilla Mountain which is just west of the Santa Rosa Mountains. The old growth Trees and Chaparral were removed and the almost engineered looking cloud formation I described in my post almost immediately disappeared and never came back the next few summer monsoon seasons. Okay back to this study, there were some other problems I have with their view of smog pollution and/or fire smoke effects on vegetation which would influence Jeffrey Pine more than any other plants. Here is a quote from the study.
"Some montane regions in Southern California are exposed to high levels of ozone and nitrogen deposition, resulting in increased vegetation mortality. However, five considerations lead us to reject air pollution as the main cause of plant redistribution. First, the Deep Canyon Transect is comparatively distant from Los Angeles’ emission sources, and ozone-related conifer mortality has not been reported in the Santa Rosa Mountains"
Having lived and worked in and around these mountains between 1980 to 2003, I can attest to smog movement by extremely strong prevailing winds from Los Angeles through San Gorgornio Pass into the Coachella Valley for which a possible influence could indeed effect those mountains. I also remember a time when the region west of there in and around Temecula & Murrieta west of Anza Valley had mostly crystal clear days and baby blue skies in those early years, but that all changed to filthy air over time to the present with the building boom. Did they account for this ? No they did not,  because they weren't present and were ignorant of these facts and probably didn't think to interview or attempt to ask these questions of locals which was a loss. No doubt such local residents would be considered not scientifically credible enough, which seems to fit the pattern of many research papers these days. Although attitudes are changing.

Credit: 'Deep Canyon' Blog
Now some other fascinating details in the paper are about rainfall average totals and one of the rainfall charts which shows the historical rainfall averages to the San Jacinto Mountains which were actually less in average between the years 1947-1976 to a increase in rainfall between 1977-2006. Although I have to say these data averages were taken from several reporting stations 75 kilometers away throughout Southern California, and certainly don't reflect the local conditions of these specific mountains. Again, I have to go back to local residents and my own personal experiences with rainfall anomalies in these and any other mountain ranges. Everything is not equal. Some regions have downpours and others get spit on, but they do acknowledge this in another similar paper  HERE!  I've often watched the TV News weather reports with irritation knowing how radically different each location can be. Clearly it's a tough call, but they should have done more homework locally with their own stations at differing location/elevations. Just too many variables to not get accurate specific readings and making assumptions and speculations on these. There was also more lower level snow in the early dates, than in the later. I thought this was interesting because it would be important in that water release by snow pack in those early dates would be gradual and percolate much more slowly, which would hydrate the plant community over a longer period, as opposed to rainfall which would mean immediate runoff and water quickly heading downstream for the Desert's Alluvial Fans or Bajadas Plains on the desert floor.  There is no doubt that they missed some very important points here, but I think the climate change locally speaking was important never the less. Another extremely important event they make no mention of  whatsoever is the historical heavy logging which happened back in the 1930s/40s. Clearly this would influence the upper regions where the absence of  Jeffrey Pines & Oak allowed habitat inroads from other chaparral species which were always present as opposed to anything with climate and prove a more rapid removal and immediate relocation of plants as opposed to climate change over a long time. This would also influence local weather and other lack of cloud formation anomalies or mechanisms which would account for warmer temperatures. 
Here again is the full paper of the study done by Anne Kelly & Jon Goulden.
Rapid shifts in plant distribution with recent climate change

Photo Credit Calphotos: Pinyon Flats Fire
The more recent study by Dylan Schwilk, of the Texas Tech University, and Jon Keeley, of the U.S. Geological survey and University of California Los Angeles, (which I agree with more) resurveyed the some of the same sites but rather focused on a single plant species instead, Desert Ceanothus (Ceanothus greggii). They found an interesting pattern of this particular shrub becoming less common at lower elevations and more common at higher elevations. This triggered conclusions about the movement of the chaparral plant which may have been due to the brush & forest fire history more than anything else. And yet, while they tended to dismiss or cast some doubt on local climate changes, I am more inclined to add it to the unusual plant rearrangement phenomena. I mean there is no argument about vegetation removal creating desertification patterns. What they did was to study plant ring growth history because these Desert Ceanothus plants are known to not sprout until after a fire. They also followed the same fire history as referenced in the other study which indicates a huge major fire 91 years ago which would put that around 1922 and another major fire around 1947. Sure enough you can check Cal-Forestry historical fire records and the early 1920s and late 1940s had major fires in the Santa Rosa Mtns. Here is a link to this website for fire records:  Cal Dept of Forest & Fire  In fact they have a map on their website with various colours representing different historical date time periods. I believe the later fire burned from Santa Rosa Mountains all along the north face of Thomas Mountain to Lake Hemet which obliterated that entire forest. Only a very few burnt snags remain on that Thomas Mountain in key areas, but this fire was very complete in it's destruction of the ecosystem. Once again, it had a human cause component. Forestry folks always said it was the local Santa Rosa Indians who started that fire, but who knows. Either way the cause was human. Interestingly, they also do not make mentioned of any of the logging up on the north face of the Santa Rosa Mountains along the switched back Sawmill Road trail. Clearly this would have made a difference in their Jeffrey Pine study. There also is no mention of the trees and woodlands around Spring Crest and the Santa Rosa Reservation on both sides of Hwy 74 which would also have been important, even if the trees were in small woodland pockets in among the chaparral which would have been common. Here is the link to their fire hypothesis study. "A Plant Distribution Shift: Temperature, Drought or Past Disturbance? Dylan W. Schwilk & Jon E. Keeley
Here is the Kelly/Goulden reply to the Schwilk/Keeley Brushfire Hypothesis:
Reply to: Schwilk & Keeley (2012), "A plant distribution shift: temperature, drought or past disturbance?"
This is a pity, Kelly/Goulden were clearly irritated in their rebuttal of the Keeley/Schwilk study for which I most agree with BTW. It is logical and can be verified by not only official fire history, but also eyewitness account by older ones living at the time, but now presently gone. There is also the mechanism factor of plant (trees/shrubs) vegetation removed and if not replaced, causing a change in weather or climate. Vegetation facilitates rainfall, especially during monsoonal moisture summer seasons. The second fire wiped out what re-establishment taking place after that first fire and was coming back to not only the Santa Rosa Mountains, but Thomas Mountain and parts of Eastern Anza area of Burnt Valley and Table Mountain. Forest trees need ample time to mature and produce more seed. There was never enough time lapsed between fires. There are no longer any viable heavy forest cover there anymore, though the evidence is still in existence and I'll write a future post with photos on that later. There are other regions of the planet that also express similar plant movement in elevation have been studied, as this one in the video below around Madagascar. Like the San Jacinto Mountains which have clear distinct life zones which start at below Sea Level to high Alpine Elevations, many of these typical mountains have a change in temperature every few hundred or thousand feet, depending on the circumstance. Micro-climates with both plants and animal species are common. But on average cooler temps mean different life zones. Incredibly, if you take all of these 1000s human caused localized plant destruction and plant community pattern changes and combine them all together around the global, it is clear these have effected the macro-climate patterns around the Earth which is why we have Climate Change, despite what the political debates want to argue.

Here are some interesting facts about the plants studied. Table 1. from the first study by Anne Kelly & Mike Goulden where 10 plants were studied. The second study by Dylan Schwilk & Jon Keeley followed on Desert Ceanothus. Change in cover-weighted mean elevation of ten most widely distributed species in the Deep Canyon Transect Species
Mean elevation, in meters from 1977 & 2006–2007 
Abies concolor (evergreen needleleaf tree)
2,421 meters to 2,518 meters elevation = +96 increase in elevation.

Pinus jeffreyi (evergreen needleleaf tree)
2,240 meters to 2,267 meter elevation = +28 increase in elevation.

Quercus chrysolepis (evergreen broadleaf tree or shrub)
 1,987 meters to 2,033 meter elevation = +47 increase in elevation.

Rhus ovata (evergreen shrub) 
1,457 meters to 1,518 meter elevation = +61 increase in elevation.

Ceanothus greggii var. perplexans (evergreen shrub)
 1,602 meters to 1,671 meter elevation =  +70 increase in elevation.

Quercus cornelius-mulleri (evergreen shrub)
 1,485 meters to 1,522 meters elevation = +37 increase in elevation.

Larrea tridentata (Creosote Brush evergreen shrub)
 317 meters to 459 meters elevation = +142 increase in elevation.

Ambrosia dumosa (drought deciduous shrub)
 630 meters to 748 meters elevation = +118 increase in elevation.

Encelia farinosa (Brittlebrush drought deciduous shrub)
 574 meters to 674 meters elevation = +100 increase in elevation.

Agave deserti (evergreen succulent)
693 meters down to 643 meters in elevation = -50 decrease in elevation. 
Illustration Credit: University of Arizona 
Dominant plant species along an elevation gradient shifted synchronously with one another over a 30-year span that has a concurrent temperature increase, based on a new study by Kelly and Goulden (13). The ranges of the plant species' distributions remained the same, resulting in an overall "leaning" of the vegetation gradient toward higher elevation. At the very least, this clearly illustrates the Jeffrey Pine forest retreat over the historical early time period to the present day.
Another one of the more interesting anomalies in that plant list was the fact that the Desert Agave actually dropped in a lower habitat elevation by 50 meters (164 feet). No mention was ever made or explanation of this strange fact was given. There was a massive fire which hit the entire Pinyon Flats area in the 1990s, but I doubt they never even took that into account. For me the historical forest line in elevation has an intense fascination. I've always hypothesized myself that the Ancient Lake Cahuilla (present smaller Salton Sea) had more than one means of water source than the Colorado River. In the early 1980s when we had heavy yearly rainfall amounts on record between 1980s and 1986, the Deep Canyon Horsethief Creek, Whitewater River, Taquitz & Andreas Canyon Creeks, Palm Canyon Creeks among others had tremendous amounts of water pouring down through them all the way to the Salton Sea and in some cases most of the year. Maybe some valley resident peoples remember all the road and golf course closures back then ? Much of that water ran yearly down those normally dry washes. If in ancient times those forest levels were far lower and rainfall far more plentiful, then these tributaries would have contributed to Lake Cahuilla's water level maintenance. There is evidence for this as well. 

This Spring I'll photograph some of the old charred Jeffrey Pine stumps I found on both sides well off of Highway 74 (Palms to Pines Scenic Route) which is nothing more than Chaparral Plant Community and I'll post them on a separate link and attach this page to them. What is both interesting and sad with both these studies is that both Research Groups are correct in Fire destruction and Climate Change and but in that very order. But clearly these imperfect human 'Egos' got in the way as a result of this incessant obsession with fame, glitter and glory which can be infectious to many in Science today. Clearly I find  Keeley's and Schwilk's study more compelling. Can you imagine what they could accomplish in working and cooperating together as opposed to all this fighting ? It's too bad because many different Research Groups today miss out on a lot of important findings which could lead to rebuilding these ecosystems. While I like the Keeley/Schwilk Study, I was disappointed a bit on the lack of mention of any off the logging operation which harvested large numbers of Jeffrey Pines from Santa Rosa Mountain which also could have also effected climate, though on a localized level, or greater if adding the fire component. - Stay tuned for update!

Update:  This is an update with regards the subject matter within this post. I have recently documented some out of place plant anomalies I first discovered back in 1984. They are now photo documented and reveal an older forest location of Jeffrey Pine at the foot of Santa Rosa Mountains where no such pines exist today. This is a much lower elevation than even Hwy State Route 74 between Santa Rosa Indian Reservation and the planned housing Community of Spring Crest. This location is specifically explained and easy for anyone to document. Caution, always be careful here - Enjoy
Plant Forensics in Discovering a Climate's Ancient Past


  1. Oh, yes...I remember the FLOODS of 1976 and 1979. We weren't hit by any water in 1976, but in 1979, when I had a 1 year old and when I was pregnant with our son, our home in Palm Desert was flooded. I was alone at the time (my husband was in Los Angeles on business) and I had to grab our daughter, my purse, and our German Shepherd and get out of our house. Fortunately, the house stood (we are still living in it) and some firemen let us stay at their house that night. It was scary. And, YES, I'm sure those canyons, especially Deep Canyon, carried that water to the Salton Sea. We really haven't had rains like that since, but I still get nervous during the monsoon season every time it rains up in the Santa Rosa mountains! Interesting article...WHERE exactly would I look for the tree stumps?

    1. They would actually be in the hills and canyons on both side of Hwy 74 between Spring Crest and Santa Rosa Indian Reservation. It's hard to pinpoint, but you have to do a bit of bushwacking to find them. Many are actually not in washes or creeks areas, but on dry rocky chaparral covered ridge tops and knolls, which is further away from water sources, even temporary runoffs.

    2. Thank you for answering. I assume you will take photos of them during your trip in April? All of this is fascinating and new for me! :-)

    3. Yes I'll be taking numerous pictures of these and documenting everything as possible. Something I should have done back in the 1980s.

  2. And, yes, I remember the Pinyon Flats area fire. Our daughter's best friend lived in a cabin at the edge of where the fire stopped (thank goodness). Their home would have been the next to go...

  3. I also remember the Temecula Valley when the vineyards were first planted. I imagine all the smog has wrecked havoc on them. We hardly ever get out there anymore, but there are many, many more vineyards in Temecula now. Frankly, I prefer Spanish reds and Alsatian wines, although I also love Zinfandel!

  4. In 1976, while I was working on my master's degree from UC Riverside, I did a survey for the county. Boy, was it different then! There were only a few apartments in Temecula and it was mostly horse ranches! Awww....the "olden days"...

    1. Yeah, it's hard to believe how rapidly things have deteriorated.


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