Grasslands

Exploring Dry Water

Here’s some strange water. Do you see it there, between the wet clouds and the wet lake? It’s within the force that’s drawing Okanagan Lake into the sky.

Here again, on a hot summer day.

It did not rain. In this case, water was being sucked out of the soil, pooled, fell, and was sucked back up in turn. It never reached the ground. The ground became dryer, but was still able to give water up. This is an effect of dry air, yet that “dry” air has water in it. It certainly wasn’t liquid, but it was there. For open water to occur, the stuff normally called “water” in these parts, there would have had to have been a pressure change, to release it from the sky, in the same way that air pressure was drawing it from both soil and clouds. This effect, a creation of the mountains to the west, is common place here. Look at winter:

Pressurized air lies between the open water of Okanagan Lake and the open water of the clouds above. This is commonly called “a pressure inversion” here, but it’s hardly an inversion if it’s normal. One of the interesting things about this normal state of affairs is that the wet water from the Pacific flows over the dry air, in a river.

This air that we breathe here is a river bed!

Dawn River Over Okanagan Mountain

These zones of pressure go deep. When storms come over Big Bar Lake, for example, at one of the meeting points of the mountains and the ocean air, at the top of the air column from the Thompson, right at its collision with wet Pacific air, the pressure differential is so extreme that a storm cresting the Marble Mountains lifts the lake into vertical waves, six inches out of itself, before it suddenly materializes as water in the sky, and the lake collapses back into its bed and is torn by wind rushing out of the plateau…

… towards the newly-materialized storm.

Clear Sky 5 Minutes Before

As the lake’s pressure changes, big trout rise off the bottom, just like these clouds. These moments are when you want to be fishing. Now, look again:

This April soil is dry, yet the sky is still able to pull water up, not out of it so much as out of the bunchgrass, sagebrush and balsam roots. The grasses, each clump an individual, is storing it in its roots and sharing it with any sister in need, the balsam roots are mining it from the shallow zone between the bunchgrasses, and the sagebrush is going deep beneath them, to get any water that has rained out of their baskets. In effect, each bunchgrass is a cloud, and the effects of air pressure on clouds are occurring here below the ground, just as they do for trout in Big Bar Lake. There is, in other words, an atmosphere below the ground, with weather, just as there is above ground. These plants are mediating the transfer point between them. They are, in effect, living in the transfer point between them. So, look again:

They are this dry air. They are dry water, in effect, passing it from one zone of pressure to another. Unlike this air, they live off of the transfer. Now, look at another similarly dry Cascadian zone, formed around the same time as the North Okanagan:

These are the John Day Painted Hills.

They are big piles of volcanic ash. The clays here are wet. The soil around them are dry. Note how much less diverse the grassland community is without seepage from the clay.

It’s a lovely alternative to storing water in lakes held back by dams and flooding productive valleys.

Little grows on the clays themselves, yet life is abundant where water seeping from the clays (which are a kind of earthen lake) by gravity and osmosis. This is the same process that gives birth to the plants themselves. They channel water rising from the soil into the sun’s heat, then give it off, first as leaves (and perhaps blossoms), then as vapour, again at the transfer point between zones of pressure.

Apple Blossoms Pulled Out of the Soil by the Sun

Given that the plants themselves are built around columns of water drawn up by the sun, it would be fair to say that these transfer zones are their habitat, and not water itself. Any water is corralled to pass through them. In a zone of open water, more water gets replenished than taken away, and the transfer is hard to spot. In the dry zone, however, it’s easy to be mistaken, and to think that water is only present in liquid form…

Hanford Reach, Columbia River

…ignoring the sky that is taking it away all the time.

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