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A visitor to aerial photos on my Flickr site asked me where one should sit on a passenger plane to shoot pictures like mine. This post expands on what I wrote back to him.

Here’s the main thing: you want a window seat on the side of the plane shaded from the Sun, and away from the wing. Sun on plane windows highlights all the flaws, scratches, and dirt that are typical features of airplane windows. It’s also best to have a clear view of the ground. In front of the wing is also better than behind, because jet engine exhaust at low altitudes distorts the air, causing blur in a photo. (At high altitudes this problem tends to go away.) So, if you are traveling north in the morning, you want a seat on the left side of the plane (where the seat is usually called A). And the reverse if you’re flying south.

Here in North America, when flying west I like to be on the right side, and when flying east I like to be on the left, because the whole continent is far enough north of the Equator for the Sun, at least in the middle hours of the day, to be in the south. (There are exceptions, however, such as early and late in the day in times of year close to the Summer Solstice, when the Sun rises and sets far north of straight east and west.) This photo, of massive snows atop mountains in Canada’s arctic Baffin Island, was shot on a flight from London to Denver, with the sun on the left side of the plane. I was on the right:

As for choosing seats, the variety of variables is extreme. That’s because almost every airline flies different kinds of planes, and even those that fly only one kind of plane may fly many different seat layouts. For example, there are thirteen different variants of the 737 model, across four generations. And, even within one model of plane, there may be three or four different seat layouts, even within one airline. For example, United flies fifteen different widebody jets: four 767s, six 777s, and four 787s, each with a different seat layout. It also flies nineteen narrowbody jets, five regional jets, and seven turboprops, all with different seat layouts as well.

So I always go to for a better look at the seat layout for a plane than what United (or any airline) will tell me on their seat selection page when I book a flight online. On the website, you enter the flight number and the date, and SeatGuru will give you the seat layout, with a rating or review for every seat.

This is critical because some planes’ window seats are missing a window, or have a window that is “misaligned,” meaning it faces the side of a seat back, a bulkhead, or some other obstruction. See here:

Some planes have other challenges, such as the electrically dimmable windows on Boeing 787 “Dreamliners.” I wrote about the challenges of those here.

Now, if you find yourself with a seat that’s over the wing and facing the Sun, good photography is still possible, as you see in this shot of this sunset at altitude:

One big advantage of life in our Digital Age is that none of the airlines, far as I know, will hassle you for shooting photos out windows with your phone. That’s because, while in the old days some airlines forbid photography on planes, shooting photos with phones, constantly, is now normative in the extreme, everywhere. (It’s still bad form to shoot airline personnel in planes, though, and you will get hassled for that.)

So, if you’re photographically inclined, have fun.

I did a lot of shooting recently with a rented Sony FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS II lens, mounted on my 2013-vintage Sony a7r camera. One result was the hummingbird above, which you’ll find among the collections here and here. Also, here’s a toddler…

…and a grandma (right after she starred as the oldest alumnus at a high school reunion I where I took hundreds of other shots):

This lens is new, sharp, versatile, earns good reviews (e.g. here) and is so loved already that it’s hard to get, despite the price: more than $3k after taxes. And, though it’s very compact and light (2.3 lbs) for what it is and does, the thing is big:

So I ordered one, which Amazon won’t charge me for before it ships, on May 23, for delivery on the 24th.

But I’m having second, third, and fourth thoughts, which I just decided to share here.

First, I’m not a fine art photographer. I’m an amateur who mostly shoots people and subjects that interest me, such as what I can see out airplane windows, or choose to document for my own odd purposes—such as archiving photos of broadcast towers and antennas, most of which will fall out of use over the next two decades, after being obsolesced by the Internet, wi-fi and 5G.

All the photos I publish are Creative Commons licensed to encourage use by others, which is why more than 1600 of them have found their way into Wikimedia Commons. Some multiple of those accompany entries in Wikipedia. This one, for example, is in 9 different Wikipedia entries in various languages:

Here is the original, shot with a tiny Canon pocket camera I pulled from the pocket of my ski jacket.

In other words, maybe I’ll be better off with a versatile all-in-one camera that will do much of what this giant zoom does, plus much more.

After much online research, I’ve kind of settled on considering the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 IV. It has a smaller sensor than I’d like, but it is exceptionally versatile and gets great reviews. While my Sony a7r with its outstanding 24-105mm f/4 FE G OSS lens is versatile as well, and light for a full-frame DSLR, I really need a long lens for a lot of the stuff I shoot. And I suspect this “bridge” camera will do the job.

So here is the choice:

  1. Leave the order stand, and pay $3k for a fully fabulous 70-200 zoom that I’m sure to love but will be too big to haul around in many of the settings where I’ll be shooting.
  2. Cancel that order, and instead pay half that for the DSC-RX10 IV—and get it in time for my trip to Hawaii next week.

[Later…] I decided to let the order stand. Two reasons. First, I’ve shot a couple thousand photos so far with the 70-200 zoom, and find it a near-flawless instrument that I enjoy playing. One reason I do is that it’s as close to uncompromising as a lens can be—especially a zoom, which by design involves many compromises. Second, I’ve never played with the DSC-RX10 IV, and that’s kind of a prerequisite. I also know that one of its compromises I won’t be able to overcome is the size of its sensor. I know megapixels are a bit of a head trip, but they do matter, and 36.4 Mpx vs 20.1 “effective” Mpx is non-trivial.

Additionally, I may choose in the long run to also get an a7iv camera, so my two lenses will have two bodies. We’ll see.



Back in 2009 I shot the picture above from a plane flight on approach to SFO. On Flickr (at that link) the photo has had 16,524 views and has been faved 420 times as of now. Here’s the caption:

These are salt evaporation ponds on the shores of San Francisco Bay, filled with slowly evaporating salt water impounded within levees in former tidelands. There are many of these ponds surrounding the South Bay.

A series microscopic life forms of different kinds and colors predominate to in series as the water evaporates. First comes green algae. Next brine shrimp predominate, turning the pond orange. Next, dunaliella salina, a micro-algae containing high amounts of beta-carotene (itself with high commercial value), predominates, turning the water red. Other organisms can also change the hue of each pond. The full range of colors include red, green, orange and yellow, brown and blue. Finally, when the water is evaporated, the white of salt alone remains. This is harvested with machines, and the process repeats.

Given the popularity of that photo and others I’ve shot like it (see here and here), I’ve wanted to make a large print of it to mount and hang somewhere. But there’s a problem: the photo was shot with a 2005-vintage Canon 30D, an 8.2 megapixel SLR with an APS-C (less than full frame) sensor, and an aftermarket zoom lens. It’s also a JPEG shot, which means it shows compression artifacts when you look closely or enlarge it a lot. To illustrate the problem, here’s a close-up of one section of the photo:

See how grainy and full of artifacts that is? Also not especially sharp. So that was an enlargement deal breaker.

Until today, that is, when my friend Marian Crostic, a fine art photographer who often prints large pieces, told me about Topaz LabsGigapixel AI. I’ve tried image enhancing software before with mixed results, but on Marian’s word and an $80 price, I decided to give this one a whack. Here’s the result:

Color me impressed enough to think it’s worth sharing.



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My parents (that’s them, Eleanor and Allen Searls) were married on 17 August 1946, seventy-five years and two days ago. I would have posted something then, but I was busy—though not too busy to drop something in Facebook, where much of the readership for this blog, plus the writership of others listed in my old blogroll, has drifted in the Age of Social Media. Alas, blogging is less social than Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the chatterteriat. But that doesn’t stop me from blogging anyway.

The wedding took place in Minneapolis, for the convenience of Mom’s family of second and third generation Swedish members of the homesteading diaspora, scattered then around Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin. Pop was from New Jersey, and all his immediate kin were there and in New York. After the wedding the couple came east to briefly occupy the home they rented in North Bergen, New Jersey while mostly hanging at Grandma Searls’ house in Fort Lee (where Pop grew up with his two sisters), and then a short drive west of there in Maywood, where Jan and I grew up. I was born less than a year later, and my sister Jan less than two years after that.

In a comment under my Facebook post, Jan writes,

Mom from ND and Pop from NJ met in Alaska in the middle of WWII. He’d already served in the Costal Artillery in the early 30s but after D-Day came home to join up. They courted by mail after the war while he was with SHAEFE (he loved that acronym: Supreme HQ Allied Expeditionary Forces Europe), and Mom with the Red Cross at a Naval Hospital in Oregon. When he got home, she flew to NJ for 6 days of courtship – at a small shack at the NJ shore with Pop’s entire family! He came to MN the night before the wedding. They fell in love with the dream of having a family and future together, and always said they really fell in love with each other on their honeymoon and were devoted to each other. Mom was 33, Pop was 38, and they’d already lived lives of adventure, full of friends and family. We grew up knowing were blessed to have them as our parents.

I’ve added links. The Shack is still there, by the way.

Alas, Mom passed in ’03 and Pop in ’79. But they were exceptionally fine parents and grandparents. Not all kids are so lucky.

So, a belated toast, in pixels.

The best new phones come with the ability to shoot 108 megapixel photos, record 4K video with stereo sound, and pack the results into a terabyte of onboard storage. But what do you do when that storage fills up?

If you want to keep those files, you’ll need to offload them somewhere. Since your computer probably doesn’t have more than 2Tb of storage, you’ll need an external drive. Or two. Or three. Or more. Over time, a lot more.

Welcome to my world.

Gathered here for a portrait in a corner of my desk in Manhattan are 22 hard drives, plus three SD cards that each exceed the capacities of the drives they’re laying on. And then there’s the 2Tb one in the laptop I’m using now. That one has 357.33Gb available. Most of the others you see are also full, dead, or both. Five have FireWire connections, which my current laptop doesn’t comprehend at all. I also have a similar collection of drives in Santa Barbara, and several more in Bloomington, Indiana. (Yes, I live in all three places. This is much less fancy than it seems.)

Photos occupy most of the data I’ve stored on all those drives. Currently, my photo archives are spread between two portable drives and my laptop and total about 7Tb. I also have a 5Tb portable drive for videos, which is back in Santa Barbara awaiting dubs off tapes. The portable photo drives are among those in the picture above. Earlier today, my laptop gave me this news about the main one, called Black 4Tb WD Photo Drive:

That’s why I’m transferring its contents over to the 10Tb drive called Elements, on the far left. A progress report:

About 5Tb of Elements is occupied by Apple Time Machine backups. After the transfer is done, there won’t be room for more backups. So my project now is figuring what to do next.

I could get some Network Attached Storage (NAS), I suppose, but I’d need three of those. My experience with the option so far is with a used 2012-vintage 18Tb QNAP one that was cast off by a friendly university. It sits at the end of an Ethernet cable in Santa Barbara, and I’ve never been able to make work, except (no kidding) at dial-up speeds. (I welcome help.)

The obvious next option, of course, is to put it all in a cloud. Two problems there. One is cost, at least if you’re talking Apple, Azure or AWS. The other is that upstream speeds have been highly sphinctered by ISPs for decades. Here in New York, where our ISP is Spectrum, our speeds have long run 100-400 Mbps down, but only 10 Mbps up. However, I just checked again with, and got this:

And that’s over wi-fi. So color me encouraged. But before I commit to a supplier, I’d like to hear what others recommend. Currently I’m considering Backblaze, which is top rated here. The costs $6/month, or less for unlimited sums of data. But I’m open to whatever.

[Later…] Hmm. At that last link it says this:

What We Don’t Like:

Something I should mention is that some users have had bad experiences with Backblaze because of a not-so-apparent feature that maybe should be a lot more obvious: Backblaze doesn’t function as a permanent archive of all of your data, but instead as a mirror.

In other words, if you delete files on your computer, or the drive fails and you’re connected to Backblaze’s website, Backblaze will see that those files are gone and will remove them from your online account, too.

Granted, signing up for the forever version history option would eliminate any issues with this, but it still poses a problem for anyone using one of the limited version history options.

Alas, the forever thing is complicated.

To be clear, I want more than a mirroring of what I have on my laptop and external drives. I want to replace those external drives with cloud storage. Is that possible? Not clear.

Alas, for all of us, this problem remains.

Oh, and Spectrum now only measures under 10Mbps upstream. So forget the cloud.


On the top left is a photo taken with my trusty old (also much used and abused) Canon 5D Mark III. On the top right is one taken by a borrowed new Sony a7Riii. Below both are cropped close-ups of detail. The scene is in a room illuminated by incandescent track lighting. It is not an art shot, though it does contain photo art by our good friend Marian Crostic, whose Sony a7R she is kindly remanding to my custody tomorrow. (Her main camera is now an a7Riii like the borrowed one I used here.)

Both photos were shot with Canon and Sony’s best 24-105 f4 zoom lenses, at the 105mm end. Both were also set to automatic, meaning the camera chooses all the settings. In both cases the camera chose ISO 3200 at f4. The only difference was shutter speed: 1/125 sec on the Canon and 1/160 sec on the Sony. While 3200 is not the prettiest ISO, I wanted to compare both cameras indoors under less than ideal lighting, because that’s typical of situations where I shoot a lot of people.

One difference between these cameras is the pixel density of the sensor: the Canon’s shot is 5760 x 3840 pixels, while the Sony’s is 7952 x 5304. While that difference accounts for some of the higher detail in the Sony’s shot, it’s clear to me that the Sony lens is simply sharper, as Ken Rockwell kinda promised in this glowing review. (Also, to be fair, the Canon lens has had a lot of use.)

All the images above are screen shots of RAW versions of the photos (.CR2 for the Canon and .ARW for the Sony). Though I don’t have the time or patience to show differences in the .JPG versions of these photos, it’s clear to me that the Canon’s JPGs look less artifacted by compression. The obvious artifacts in the Sony shots have me thinking I may only shoot RAW with the a7R, though I’ll need to test it out first.

The main difference overall, at least in this setting, is in the warmth of the color. There the Canon has a huge advantage. I could say it’s also because the Sony is slightly less exposed (by the higher shutter speed); but I noticed the same difference in test shots I took outdoors as well, under both overcast and sunlit skies, and at ISO 100. The Canon seems warmer, though the Sony has far more detail one can pull out of shadows.

I should add that neither camera got the color of the wall (a creamy white) right in these photos, with the Canon leaning hot and the Sony leaning cool.

Anyway, I just thought I’d share that much before I pick up the a7R, and start using it to shoot stuff in New York, where I’m headed Wednesday night after more than a year away.



What does it mean when perhaps hundreds of thousands of one’s photos appear in articles, essays and posts all over the Web?

It means they’re useful. That’s why I posted the originals in the first place, and licensed them to require only attribution. Because of that, I can at least guess at how many have been put to use.

For one example subject, take Lithium, a metal in the periodic table. Lithium is making news these days, because it’s both scarce and required for the batteries of electric and hybrid vehicles. At issue especially is how and where lithium is extracted from the Earth. As Ivan Penn and  put it in The Lithium Gold Rush: Inside the Race to Power Electric Vehicles (6 May in The New York Times), extraction “might not be very green.”

But it is blue. Or turquoise. Or aqua. Or whatever colors you see in the photo above.

I took that shot on a 2010 flight over Nevada. Looking out the window, it’s hard to miss lakes of bright colors on the desert floor, looking like stained glass windows into the Earth. I didn’t know at the time that the puddles were lithium, but I did know they’d be useful when I published them, along with whatever information a little bit of research would reveal about them. After I did the research, I put 17 photos in an album on Flickr titled Lithium Mines in Nevada and added the same set to another album called Mines and Mining, which is now 329 photos long.

Also on that flight, which produced 130 photos now in an album called 2010_08_06 rno-phx-bos, other topics of interest are the Shoshone Mountains, Yucca Lake and Yucca Flat (with “subsidence craters” over underground nuclear bomb explosions), the Nevada Test Site, (where hundreds of atomic bomb tests took place, among other interesting things, “Doom Town” on Frenchman Lake, Broom Lake in Area 51, Creech Air Force Base (from which military drones are remotely controlled), Grand Canyon, and Buffalo at night. None of the photos of mine at those links (all in Wikipedia) are especially artistic. In fact most of them make me cringe today, because I hadn’t yet mastered Photoshop when I posted them in the first place. Back then I shot only .jpgs, rather than RAW photos, which means I can’t go back do much to improve them. But all are useful, especially to writers and publications covering the topic of lithium mining. For example, my photos of those lithium lakes appear in—

And those are just the first six among 23,200 results in a search for my name + lithium. And those results are just from pubs that have bothered to obey my Creative Commons license, which only requires attribution. Countless others don’t.

Google also finds 57,400 results for my name + mining. On top of those, there are also thousands of other results for potash, river, geology, mining, mountains, dunes, desert, beach, ocean, hebrides, glacier, and other landforms sometimes best viewed from above. And that’s on top of more than 1500 photos of mine parked in Wikimedia Commons, of which many (perhaps most) are already in Wikipedia (sometimes in multiple places) or on their way there.

And those are just a few of the many subjects I’ve shot, posted and annotated to make them useful to the world. Which is why I’m guessing the number of photos actually being used is in the hundreds of thousands by now.

I have placed none of those photos in any of those places. I just put them up where they can easily be found and put to use. For example, when I shot Thedford, Nebraska, I knew somebody would find the photo and put it in Wikipedia.

Shots like these are a small percentage of all the photos I’ve taken over many decades. In fact, most of my photography is of people and scenes, not stuff like you find in the links above.

But apparently my main calling as a photographer is to push useful photos to the edge of the public domain, and to describe and tag them in ways that make them easy for researchers and journalists to find and use. And so far that has been a very successful strategy.


So I have a camera question for the fellow photographers out there.

My main camera is a 2012-vintage Canon 5D Mark III , which replaced a 2005-vintage Canon 5D (source of the lithium lake shots), which replaced a Canon 30D of the same generation, and a Nikon Coolpix before that. All of these are retired or beat up now. Being um, resource constrained, every camera and lens I’ve used in this millennium I’ve either rented or bought used.

Now, out of great kindness, an old friend is giving me a Sony a7R that has been idle since she replaced it with a Sony a7Riii. I’ve played with her newer Sony, and really like how much lighter mirrorless full-frames can be. (And the a7R is lighter than the a7Riii.) The question now is what kind of lens I want to start with here, given that my budget is $0 (though I will spend more than that). The Sony equivalent of the lens I use most, a Canon 24-105 f4 L, runs >$1000, even used.

I suppose I could get non-Sony lenses for less, but … I’m not sure that’s the way to go. I’m kinda tempted to get a telephoto zoom or prime for the Sony and keep using the Canon for everything else. But then I’m carrying two cameras everywhere.

But I just looked at Ken Rockwell’s take on the Sony 24-105mm f/4
FE G OSS Full-Frame E-Mount
, which appears to outperform the Canon equivalent (two links back) so maybe I’ll find a bullet to bite, and spend the grand.

[25 May…] And I did that. The lens just arrived. Now I just need to match it up with a7R, which will probably happen next Tuesday. I trust you’ll see some results soon after that.

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The Los Angeles in your head is a Neutra house. You’ve seen many of them in movies, and some of them in many movies. Some of those are now gone, alas, as is the architect and preservationist who also designed, or helped design, many of the buildings that bear his surname. Dion Neutra died last week, at 93 years of work more than of age. Here is a Google search for his obituary, which brings up a great many entries.

Dion was a good man and a good friend. Here he is in our Santa Barbara back yard a few years ago:

If you read Dion’s obituaries (of which the longest and best is the LA Times’), you’ll learn much about his life, work and legacy. But I know some things that don’t quite make it through those channels, so I’ll fill in a couple of those details.

One is that Dion was a peripatetic correspondent, mostly by email, especially via his White Light newsletter, which he sent out on a schedule that rounded to always. “White Light” meant healing energy, which was directed by Dion and his readers toward friends who might need some. There were many other topics in their midst (he could hold forth at great length on you-name-it), but health was perhaps the biggest one. Over the last few months, Dion’s letter increasingly reported on his own decline (which seemed radically at odds with his high lifelong energy level, which was invested in a great deal of golf, among other physical activities), but always also about what others were up to. The last words of his last letter, on October 24, were “Lots of love to everybody. Bye!”

The other is that Dion was eager to jump on the Internet, starting in the last millennium. I know this because I was the guy he asked for help putting up his first website. Which I did, at a domain name I also helped him acquire. Here is the first capture of it, by the Internet Archive, 21 years and 1 day ago. I remember arguing with Dion about making the whole site a constant appeal to save one Neutra building or another, but that turned out to be his main work, from that point onward. He failed in some efforts, but succeeded in others. Thanks to that work, Neutra architecture and all it stands for live on.

Lots of love to you and what you’ve done for us all, old friend.

In a press release, Amazon explained why it backed out of its plan to open a new headquarters in New York City:

For Amazon, the commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive, collaborative relationships with state and local elected officials who will be supportive over the long-term. While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City.

So, even if the economics were good, the politics were bad.

The hmm for me is why not New Jersey? Given the enormous economic and political overhead of operating in New York, I’m wondering why Amazon didn’t consider New Jersey first. Or if it’s thinking about it now.

New Jersey is cheaper and (so I gather) friendlier, at least tax-wise. It also has the country’s largest port (one that used to be in New York, bristling Manhattan’s shoreline with piers and wharves, making look like a giant paramecium) and is a massive warehousing and freight forwarding hub. In fact Amazon already has a bunch of facilities there (perhaps including its own little port on Arthur Kill). I believe there are also many more places to build on the New Jersey side. (The photo above, shot on approach to Newark Airport, looks at New York across some of those build-able areas.)

And maybe that’s the plan anyway, without the fanfare.

As it happens, I’m in the midst of reading Robert Caro‘s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (Which is massive. There’s a nice summary in The Guardian here.) This helps me appreciate the power of urban planning, and how thoughtful and steel-boned opposition to some of it can be fully useful. One example of that is Jane Jacobs’ thwarting of Moses’ plan to run a freeway through Greeenwich Village. He had earlier done the same through The Bronx, with the Cross Bronx Expressway. While that road today is an essential stretch of the northeast transport corridor, at the time it was fully destructive to urban life in that part of the city—and in many ways still is.

So I try to see both sides of an issue such as this. What’s constructive and what’s destructive in urban planning are always hard to pull apart.

For an example close to home, I often wonder if it’s good that Fort Lee is now almost nothing but high-rises? This is the town my grandfather helped build (he was the head carpenter for D.W. Griffith when Fort Lee was the first Hollywood), where my father grew up climbing the Palisades for fun, and where he later put his skills to work as cable rigger, helping build the George Washington Bridge. The Victorian house Grandpa built for his family on Hoyt Avenue, and where my family lived when I was born, stood about as close to a giant new glass box called The Modern as I am from the kitchen in the apartment I’m writing this, a few blocks away from The Bridge on the other side of the Hudson. It’s paved now, by a road called Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. Remember Bridgegate? That happened right where our family home stood, in a pleasant neighborhood of which nothing remains.

Was the disappearance of that ‘hood a bad thing? Not by now, long after the neighborhood was erased and nearly everyone who lived has died or has long since moved on. Thousands more live there now than ever did when it was a grid of nice homes on quiet, tree-lined streets.

All urban developments are omelettes made of broken eggs. If you’re an egg, you’ve got reason to complain. If you’re a cook, you’d better make a damn fine omelette.

Just before it started, the geology meeting at the Santa Barbara Central Library on Thursday looked like this from the front of the room (where I also tweeted the same pano):

Geologist Ed Keller

Our speakers were geology professor Ed Keller of UCSB and Engineering Geologist Larry Gurrola, who also works and studies with Ed. That’s Ed in the shot below.

As a geology freak, I know how easily terms like “debris flow,” “fanglomerate” and “alluvial fan” can clear a room. But this gig was SRO. That’s because around 3:15 in the morning of January 9th, debris flowed out of canyons and deposited fresh fanglomerate across the alluvial fan that comprises most of Montecito, destroying (by my count on the map below) 178 buildings, damaging more than twice that many, and killing 23 people. Two of those—a 2 year old girl and a 17 year old boy—are still interred in the fresh fanglomerate and sought by cadaver dogs.* The whole thing is beyond sad and awful.

The town was evacuated after the disaster so rescue and recovery work could proceed without interference, and infrastructure could be found and repaired: a job that required removing twenty thousand truckloads of mud and rocks. That work continues while evacuation orders are gradually lifted, allowing the town to repopulate itself to the very limited degree it can.

I talked today with a friend whose business is cleaning houses. Besides grieving the dead, some of whom were friends or customers, she reports that the cleaning work is some of the most difficult she has ever faced, even in homes that were spared the mud and rocks. Refrigerators and freezers, sitting closed and without electricity for weeks, reek of death and rot. Other customers won’t be back because their houses are gone.

Highway 101, one of just two freeways connecting Northern and Southern California, runs through town near the coast and more than two miles from the mountain front. Three debris flows converged on the highway and used it as a catch basin, filling its deep parts to the height of at least one bridge before spilling over its far side and continuing to the edge of the sea. It took two weeks of constant excavation and repair work before traffic could move again. Most exits remain closed. Coast Village Road, Montecito’s Main Street, is open for employees of stores there, but little is open for customers yet, since infrastructural graces such as water are not fully restored. (I saw the Honor Bar operating with its own water tank, and a water truck nearby.) Opening Upper Village will take longer. Some landmark institutions, such as San Ysidro Ranch and La Casa Santa Maria, will take years to restore. (From what I gather, San Ysidro Ranch, arguably the nicest hotel in the world, was nearly destroyed. Its website thank firefighters for salvation from the Thomas Fire. But nothing, I gather, could have save it from the huge debris flow wiped out nearly everything on the flanks of San Ysidro Creek. (All the top red dots along San Ysidro Creek in the map below mark lost buildings at the Ranch.)

Here is a map with final damage assessments. I’ve augmented it with labels for the canyons and creeks (with one exception: a parallel creek west of Toro Canyon Creek):

Click on the map for a closer view, or click here to view the original. On that one you can click on every dot and read details about it.

I should pause to note that Montecito is no ordinary town. Demographically, it’s Beverly Hills draped over a prettier landscape and attractive to people who would rather not live in Beverly Hills. (In fact the number of notable persons Wikipedia lists for Montecito outnumbers those it lists for Beverly Hills by a score of 77 to 71.) Culturally, it’s a village. Last Monday in The New Yorker, one of those notable villagers, T.Coraghessan Boyle, unpacked some other differences:

I moved here twenty-five years ago, attracted by the natural beauty and semirural ambience, the short walk to the beach and the Lower Village, and the enveloping views of the Santa Ynez Mountains, which rise abruptly from the coastal plain to hold the community in a stony embrace. We have no sidewalks here, if you except the business districts of the Upper and Lower Villages—if we want sidewalks, we can take the five-minute drive into Santa Barbara or, more ambitiously, fight traffic all the way down the coast to Los Angeles. But we don’t want sidewalks. We want nature, we want dirt, trees, flowers, the chaparral that did its best to green the slopes and declivities of the mountains until last month, when the biggest wildfire in California history reduced it all to ash.

Fire is a prerequisite for debris flows, our geologists explained. So is unusually heavy rain in a steep mountain watershed. There are five named canyons, each its own watershed, above Montecito, as we see on the map above. There are more to the east, above Summerland and Carpinteria, the next two towns down the coast. Those towns also took some damage, though less than Montecito.

Ed Keller put up this slide to explain conditions that trigger debris flows, and how they work:

Ed and Larry were emphatic about this: debris flows are not landslides, nor do many start that way (though one did in Rattlesnake Canyon 1100 years ago). They are also not mudslides, so we should stop calling them that. (Though we won’t.)

Debris flows require sloped soils left bare and hydrophobic—resistant to water—after a recent wildfire has burned off the chaparral that normally (as geologists say) “hairs over” the landscape. For a good look at what soil surfaces look like, and are likely to respond to rain, look at the smooth slopes on the uphill side of 101 east of La Conchita. Notice how the surface is not only a smooth brown or gray, but has a crust on it. In a way, the soil surface has turned to glass. That’s why water runs off of it so rapidly.

Wildfires are common, and chaparral is adapted to them, becoming fuel for the next fire as it regenerates and matures. But rainfalls as intense as this one are not common. In just five minutes alone, more than half an inch of rain fell in the steep and funnel-like watersheds above Montecito. This happens about once every few hundred years, or about as often as a tsunami.

It’s hard to generalize about the combination of factors required, but Ed has worked hard to do that, and this slide of his is one way of illustrating how debris flows happen eventually in places like Montecito and Santa Barbara:

From bottom to top, here’s what it says:

  1. Fires happen almost regularly, spreading most widely where chaparral has matured to become abundant fuel, as the firefighters like to call it.
  2. Flood events are more random, given the relative rarity of rain and even more rare rains of “biblical” volume. But they do happen.
  3. Stream beds in the floors of canyons accumulate rocks and boulders that roll down the gradually eroding slopes over time. The depth of these is expressed as basin instablity. Debris flows clear out the rocks and boulders when a big flood event comes right after a fire and basin becomes stable (relatively rock-free) again.
  4. The sediment yield in a flood (F) is maximum when a debris flow (DF) occurs.
  5. Debris flows tend to happen once every few hundred years. And you’re not going to get the big ones if you don’t have the canyon stream bed full of rocks and boulders.

About this set of debris flows in particular:

  1. Destruction down Oak Creek wasn’t as bad as on Montecito, San Ysidro, Buena Vista and Romero Creeks because the canyon feeding it is smaller.
  2. When debris flows hit an obstruction, such as a bridge, they seek out a new bed to flow on. This is one of the actions that creates an alluvial fan. From the map it appears something like that happened—
    1. Where the flow widened when it hit Olive Mill Road, fanning east of Olive Mill to destroy all three blocks between Olive Mill and Santa Elena Lane before taking the Olive Mill bridge across 101 and down to the Biltmore while also helping other flows fill 101 as well. (See Mac’s comment below, and his link to a top map.)
    2. In the area between Buena Vista Creek and its East Fork, which come off different watersheds
    3. Where a debris flow forked south of Mountain Drive after destroying San Ysidro Ranch, continuing down both Randall and El Bosque Roads.

For those who caught (or are about to catch) Ellen’s Facetime with Oprah visiting neighbors, that happened among the red dots at the bottom end of the upper destruction area along San Ysidro Creek, just south of East Valley Road. Oprah’s own place is in the green area beside it on the left, looking a bit like Versailles. (Credit where due, though: Oprah’s was a good and compassionate report.)

Big question: did these debris flows clear out the canyon floors? We (meaning our geologists, sedimentologists, hydrologists and other specialists) won’t know until they trek back into the canyons to see how it all looks. Meanwhile, we do have clues. For example, here are after-and-before photos of Montecito, shot from space. And here is my close-up of the latter, shot one day after the event, when everything was still bare streambeds in the mountains and fresh muck in town:

See the white lines fanning back into the mountains through the canyons (Cold Spring, San Ysidro, Romero, Toro) above Montecito? Ed explained that these appear to be the washed out beds of creeks feeding into those canyons. Here is his slide showing Cold Spring Creek before and after the event:

Looking back at Ed’s basin threshold graphic above, one might say that there isn’t much sediment left for stream beds to yield, and that those in the floors of the canyons have returned to stability, meaning there’s little debris left to flow.

But that photo was of just one spot. There are many miles of creek beds to examine back in those canyons.

Still, one might hope that Montecito has now had its required 200-year event, and a couple more centuries will pass before we have another one.

Ed and Larry caution against such conclusions, emphasizing that most of Montecito’s and Santa Barbara’s inhabited parts gain their existence, beauty or both by grace of debris flows. If your property features boulders, Ed said, a debris flow put them there, and did that not long ago in geologic time.

For an example of boulders as landscape features, here are some we quarried out of our yard more than a decade ago, when we were building a house dug into a hillside:

This is deep in the heart of Santa Barbara.

The matrix mud we now call soil here is likely a mix of Juncal and Cozy Dell shale, Ed explained. Both are poorly lithified silt and erode easily. The boulders are a mix of Matilija and Coldwater sandstone, which comprise the hardest and most vertical parts of the Santa Ynez mountains. The two are so similar that only a trained eye can tell them apart.

All four of those geological formations were established long after dinosaurs vanished. All also accumulated originally as sediments, mostly on ocean floors, probably not far from the equator.

To illustrate one chapter in the story of how those rocks and sediments got here, UCSB has a terrific animation of how the transverse (east-west) Santa Ynez Mountains came to be where they are. Here are three frames in that movie:

What it shows is how, when the Pacific Plate was grinding its way northwest about eighteen million years ago, a hunk of that plate about a hundred miles long and the shape of a bread loaf broke off. At the top end was the future Malibu hills and at the bottom end was the future Point Conception, then situated south of what’s now Tijuana. The future Santa Barbara was west of the future Newport Beach. Then, when the Malibu end of this loaf got jammed at the future Los Angeles, the bottom end of the loaf swept out, clockwise and intact. At the start it was pointing at 5 o’clock and at the end (which isn’t), it pointed at 9:00. This was, and remains, a sideshow off the main event: the continuing crash of the Pacific Plate and the North American one.

Here is an image that helps, from that same link:

Find more geology, with lots of links, in Making sense of what happened to Montecito. I put that post up on the 15th and have been updating it since then. It’s the most popular post in the history of this blog, which I started in 2007. There are also 58 comments, so far.

I’ll be adding more to this post after I visit as much as I can of Montecito (exclusion zones permitting). Meanwhile, I hope this proves useful. Again, corrections and improvements are invited.

30 January

6 April, 2020
*I was told later, by a rescue worker who was on the case, that it was possible that both victims’ bodies had washed all the way to the ocean, and thus will never be found.

In this Edhat story, Ed Keller visits a recently found prior debris flow. An excerpt:

The mud and boulders from a prehistoric debris flow, the second-to-last major flow in Montecito, have been discovered by a UCSB geologist at the Bonnymede condominiums and Hammond’s Meadow, just east of the Coral Casino.

The flow may have occurred between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago, said Ed Keller, a professor of earth science at the university. He’s calling it the “penultimate event.” It came down a channel of Montecito Creek and was likely larger on that creek than during the disaster of Jan. 9, 2018, Keller said. Of 23 people who perished on Jan. 9, 17 died along Montecito Creek.

The long interval between the two events means that the probability of another catastrophic debris flow occurring in Montecito in the next 1,000 years is very low, Keller said.

“It’s reassuring,” he said, “They’re still pretty rare events, if you consider you need a wildfire first and then an intense rainfall. But smaller debris flows could occur, and you could still get a big flash flood. If people are given a warning to evacuate, they should heed it.”

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