Gray L.A. is Eddy's Fault

Nothing But Blue Sky
Nothing But Blue Sky | Photo: jfchenier | Flickr: Creative Commons License

I walked out on the Seal Beach pier the other day with my old friend Randy. It was around six in the evening. The water inshore was azure to our left, muddy blue-green to the right. Clouds cut the slanting light of the sun into patches that wandered over the water, occasionally lighting up men and women fishing on the pier. It was momentarily hot when the moving light passed over. When the patch of sun relocated, the temperature dropped, and the air grew damp.

The horizon ended some miles away in a wall of gray interposed between an invisible Catalina Island and the end of the pier. An oil tanker and a freighter stood off the breakwater of the the Long Beach and Los Angeles harbors. Further out to sea, darker gray against the horizon, was another tanker or freighter (but only its superstructure rose above the curve of the earth),

The gray lingered at sea while we turned, walked back down the pier, and then down Main Street. The gray was waiting for later that night and the following morning, which began with skies the color of freshly poured concrete.

It's the season for gloom, for noons that appear filtered through a dome of dirty milkglass, and afternoons that play out miserably until the sun -- as a cruel farewell -- roars through a brief slit on the western horizon in colors of magenta and gold.

The climate people say we have two seasons in Los Angeles: wet and dry. But Angeleños know more seasons. Along the coast, it's the season of listless, dull light, of regrets.

The gray of June is made in the Pacific Ocean. A cold, south flowing current passes through the Catalina channel; a persistent high-pressure zone further west in the Pacific pushes warmer eastward over the current. A vortex called the Catalina Eddy (located slightly southeast of San Clemente Island) fabricates gray from the interaction of the colder water and the warmer air. When temperatures inland rise in the morning, the gray is pulled onshore.

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Television weathercasters call it "the marine layer," although what they're really talking about is fog.

The fog ambles over the beaches, flows in wide streams up the former beds of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, and takes general possession of the basin under the same inversion layer that brews smog. On good days, the sun eventually burns down through a mile cloud to half-illuminate a city that seems have been forgotten by color.

The gray had been worse. Until 1900, much of undeveloped west Los Angeles was a damp, semi-marsh well into summer, breeding its own persistent ground fog. Tourists often complained of the haze that shrouded the charms of what had been advertised as a perpetually sunlit, Mediterranean city.

You could look on the bright side. The gray skies of June are part of the natural air conditioning that keeps L.A. cooler in summer. It probably keeps the basin -- in this climatic cycle, at least -- from becoming a true desert.

But it would be better if we just dropped these pretenses and excuses. This is the place we've come to. And it's as much mediocre gray as superlative brilliance.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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