California sunshine can't warm up the state

Sacramento BeeJanuary 15, 2013 

It's cold everywhere.

It was 27 degrees in Santa Barbara Monday morning, breaking a record set 23 years earlier. Los Angeles recorded a low of 33 degrees, breaking a 2007 record.

Those places are positively balmy compared to the coldest place in California on Monday: 17 degrees below zero at Burnside Lake, an uninhabited spot near Hope Valley, south of Lake Tahoe.

The coldest town on Monday, according to the National Weather Service, was Alturas in Modoc County, which sank to 15 below zero.

In Sacramento, the lows have hovered around 27 and 28 degrees. For this morning, the Weather Service predicts a low of 30 degrees; Weather Underground forecasts a low of 31.

"I walk every morning about 8:30, and I truly look like the Michelin tire person when I go out," said Diane Uebelhart, a Sacramento resident and volunteer weather spotter for the National Weather Service. "It's been cold, but I've enjoyed it. I love weather and all weather phenomenon. So I'm fascinated by it."

The cause of all this shivering is a blocking ridge of high pressure parked off the coast. This is diverting storms far to the north – so far that Portland and Seattle are unusually dry and cold.

Instead of the usual wet, warm storms off the Pacific Ocean, California is getting lots of dry, cold air plunging down from Canada. Clear skies make conditions even colder.

A freeze warning was in effect again through 9 a.m. today over a vast area of the state from Redding to Bakersfield, throughout the Bay Area and along the south coast from Cambria to Oxnard.

Conditions are expected to warm up slightly as the week continues, but still remain frigid.

"These ridges are very slow to break down and they can hang around for weeks at a time," said Drew Peterson, a Weather Service meteorologist. "People shouldn't expect much of a change any time in the next week and a half to two weeks."

Though a few records have been broken, the cold has not been historically extreme in most areas. But it has been persistent.

For example, the low temperature in Sacramento has been below average every night so far in January. In Redding, it has been at or below average on all but two nights in the month.

Adding to that numb feeling is this fact: Daytime highs have also been below average in many areas for the past week. In other words, daytime isn't offering much relief from the cold.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. expects customer gas usage bills to increase about 10 percent this month compared to a year ago due to the cold weather, spokeswoman Brandi Ehlers said.

As a result, the average customer is likely to see his bill increase about $4 compared to January 2012, she said. This is likely even though the utility is charging customers 6 percent less for natural gas compared to a year ago.

Hardest hit have been California citrus growers. They have had five sleepless nights working to protect their $1.5 billion industry.

"Sunday night was really rough," said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, which represents about 2,000 growers. "It was cold and stayed cold for more than 12 hours. And we've still got to get through another cold night (Monday)."

Growers spent an estimated $17.5 million over the weekend to keep their citrus orchards warm enough to ward off damage, Nelsen said. They'll spend about $4 million more each night the chilly weather continues.

The cost comes from frost-protection measures that include flooding orchards, which causes warm air to rise, then running wind machines, which keeps the warm air close to the ground.

Mandarins, which are frost tender at 32 degrees, saw some damage, but oranges – which are hardy to 28 degrees – escaped unharmed. For the most part, lemons got lucky, too.

The timing of this cold snap helped, Nelsen said. The oranges already have a high sugar content, which keeps them from freezing.

"If this had hit Dec. 12, it would have been a disaster," he said. "But we had enough cold nights already for the fruit to toughen up."

This season actually has been relatively mild.

"December 2011 was one of the coldest Decembers we can remember," Nelsen said. "We had so many nights below freezing. We spent more than $500 million just in December (to warm the groves). Hard freezes last January knocked heck out of the mandarins."

The frost warnings sent gardeners scrambling to cover plants or, if possible, drag them inside.

"I covered my jade plant; it was the one that worried me the most," said Sacramento community gardening coordinator Bill Maynard, who lives in North Sacramento. "My lemon tree has a little leaf damage but not too much. But gardeners with tomatoes or peppers still in the ground, they're toast."

"I've lost the fall growth on one of the Meyer lemons, but the rest of the citrus trees have come through this pretty good so far," said Natomas gardener Bill Bird. "Thank goodness, I put these trees in a side yard, against a fence or against the house (where they stay warmer). I don't have time to wrap my trees in burlap. I barely have the time to pull weeds."

At Green Acres Nursery and Supply on Jackson Road, workers spend more than an hour each evening covering plants with insulated frost cloths. In the morning, they spend another hour taking down their cold barriers.

"We don't take any chances," said Greg Gayton, manager of the 6-acre nursery. "If the forecast is for below 38 degrees, we go into our drill." To help keep plants warm, workers thoroughly irrigate the nursery stock in the afternoon. Some sensitive plants also are sprayed with Wilt-Pruf, a polymer that protects their foliage. Irrigation pipes are left to drip; that trickle of moving water prevents freezing.

Although frost can damage many plants, others benefit from the extra cold.

"I tell people, look at your lilacs – they'll be beautiful," Gayton said. "Tulips should be absolutely outstanding. There's going to be some gold out of all this cold."

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