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Vanishing Oasis

I was back at the Salton Sea a few weeks ago and was stunned to see how quickly it’s drying up. Experts say the water level is currently dropping about seven inches per year. It may not seem like much, but it means the shoreline is receding fast, especially along the north and south shores.

The photos above were taken five years apart, almost to the day. As you can see in the bottom image, the water line has moved quite a distance in that short period of time. Elsewhere along the shore, homes that used to be on the lakefront are now hundreds of feet away from the water.

To say that the Salton Sea is an ecological problem would be an understatement. It’s more like a catastrophe. Dwindling inflows and rising salinity represent a very serious public health problem facing southern California. We’re also looking at the loss of one of North America’s most important migratory bird refuges.

The Salton Sea has been neglected for years, but the Obama administration recently earmarked $200,000 to study the situation and come up with a series of restoration proposals. It’s not much, but it’s a start. It means that perhaps there is enough political will to halt, if not exactly reverse, the process of environmental devastation.

I’ve been documenting the decline of the Salton Sea for several years now. I’ve gathered a collection of thirty photographs in a series titled “Vanishing Oasis.” You can view the images here.

Salton-Sea-Pier

A Still Afternoon at the Salton Sea

Beauty is unbearable and drives us to despair, Albert Camus once said, because it offers us for a moment the glimpse of an eternity we would like to stretch out over the whole of time. I was remembering the quote last week on a visit to the Salton Sea, a place where beauty and despair always seem to go hand-in-hand.

Once a glittering oasis set against the Chocolate Mountains in southeastern California, the sea has become a stagnant and toxic wasteland in recent years. Restoration proposals abound, but lawmakers have mostly turned their backs on the sea. As it continues to dry up at an alarming rate—a result of geography, climate change, tough economic times, and ongoing water conflicts—time seems to be running out.

The four-minute exposure shown here was taken near Red Hill Marina on the south shore. It’s part of a personal project I’ve been working on documenting the effects of environmental devastation and decline. For more of my photos, see The Salton Sea: A Photoessay.

Jesusita Fire

The Jesusita Fire took almost everyone by surprise when it began on the afternoon of May 5. It’s the third major wildfire in Santa Barbara in just nine months, and many here are still recovering from the devastating Tea Fire last November.

The blaze is still out of control and details are sketchy, but we know that dozens of homes have already been lost. I witnessed some of them go up in flames myself before being forced out by the authorities.

Here are some of my photos:

Jesusita Fire

This image was taken from Painted Cave Road at 3:30 p.m. on May 5, just a couple of hours after the fire began. The trail of the smoke shows the typical sundowner pattern — blowing across the city and out to sea, just as the devastating Gap and Tea fires did last year.

Jesusita Fire

The Jesusita Fire burns in the hills above Santa Barbara, California. Taken from Camino Cielo in the late afternoon on May 5, 2009. The small black dot in the center is a fixed wing aircraft surveying the hotspots.

Jesusita Fire

Smoke and ash darken the sky above Santa Barbara as night falls on day one of the fire.

Jesusita Fire

On the evening of the first day, the fire was still confined to a relatively small area of less than 200 acres, as seen in this long exposure taken from Elings Park.

Jesusita Fire

Thick smoke drifts out over the city on the second day of the fire, as seen in this shot from Las Tunas Road on the Riviera.

Jesusita Fire

The flames rage in the hills perilously close to Santa Barbara’s historic mission. It seems fitting that local firefighters and police would use the spot as an ad hoc staging ground.

Jesusita Fire

Santa Barbara County firefighters gather at the mission to plan their next assault as the fire continues its spread east and south toward the city.

Jesusita Fire

Fanned by strong winds, flames and smoke wreak havoc in the densely populated neighborhood above Foothill Road, just west of Mission Canyon Road.

Jesusita Fire

Huge flames ravage the foothills above Mountain Drive.

Jesusita Fire

Putrid smoke and ash choked the skies and obscured the sun, bathing the city in an eerie red light.

Jesusita Fire

A chopper dumps water over a structure burning on Mountain Drive.

Jesusita Fire

Intense sundowner winds scatter and fan the flames, as seen in this photo taken from Stanwood Drive.

Jesusita Fire

The size and sheer force of the inferno was staggering.

Jesusita Fire

A terrifying firestorm erupts in the hills above Mission Canyon.

Jesusita Fire

A palm tree scorched in the recent Tea Fire stands on a now vacant lot on Conejo Road, as smoke and ash from the new Jesusita Fire darken the skies above.

Jesusita Fire

The eastern edge of the Jesusita Fire was still burning out of control late on Wednesday night. This photo was taken on Ortega Ridge Road in Summerland.

Jesusita Fire

Strong offshore winds continued to fan the flames of the Jesusita Fire above Santa Barbara, as seen in this image taken at Elings Park.

Jesusita Fire

Intense smoke and ash covered the city of Santa Barbara as the Jesusita Fire continued to burn on several fronts on Wednesday night.

Jesusita Fire

Relatively calm winds during the morning and afternoon of day three kept the Jesusita Fire confined mainly to the mountains near Cathedral Peak.

Jesusita Fire

As the afternoon wore on, the winds intensified and fanned the flames westward.

Jesusita Fire

A dark plume of drift smoke could be seen all the way to Ventura and beyond. This photo was taken from Carpinteria at 6:30 p.m. just as the sundowner winds kicked up and stoked the fires anew.

Jesusita Fire

Strong early evening winds fanned the flames and sent black smoke into the skies above Santa Barbara. This image was shot from Ortega Hill at sunset.

Jesusita Fire

As the sun set on the third day of the Jesusita Fire, the sky turned ominously red and ash started falling like snowflakes. The palmettos on Channel Drive can be seen bending in the strong wind.

Jesusita Fire

By 9:00 o’clock on Thursday, the fire was raging out of control across a wide swath of the Santa Barbara foothills, from San Roque Canyon to the east all the way to Highway 154 to the west.

Jesusita Fire

The Jesusita Fire continued to burn in Santa Barbara on Friday, though lower temperatures and relatively calm winds kept the flames confined mainly to the hills above the city. After sunset, the skies were still dark with drift smoke and ash, as seen in this image taken from Butterfly Beach.

Jesusita Fire

By Friday evening, the Jesusita Fire had consumed 8,400 acres and cut a swath some five miles wide from the ridges above Montecito all the way to Painted Cave.

Jesusita Fire

The Jesusita Fire continued to rage in the hills above Montecito on Friday evening.

Jesusita Fire

Flames from the Jesusita Fire lit up the evening sky above Santa Barbara on Friday evening, as seen in this image taken at the Andree Clark Bird Refuge.

Nobel Peace Prize 2007

Al Gore and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007. They were in Oslo last month to accept the award and take part in three full days of festivities. The Nobel events coincided with the climate conference in Bali, which made the coverage particularly interesting and timely this year. Rarely has the international spotlight been focused more intently on the question of global warming.

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Al Gore drew a parallel between leaders who ignore the climate crisis and those who failed to act as Nazi Germany rearmed before World War II. “Too many of the world’s leaders are still best described in the words Winston Churchill applied to those who ignored Adolf Hitler’s threat: ‘They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent,’” Gore said. He likened the current “planetary emergency” to wartime. “We must quickly mobilize our civilization with the urgency and resolve that has previously been seen only when nations mobilized for war.” Strong words. A powerful lecture.

It was my fifth year covering the Oslo events. More photos and text here.