December 17, 2016
Although rain may induce drowsiness in humans, it unleashes a flurry of activity outdoors — some visible, some not. From the top of Mount Tamalpais to the groundwater gurgling below the Earth’s surface, rain forges an unstoppable path — one we can’t live without.
While rain simply appears to be Mother Nature’s cleaning lady, washing off dust and leaving a fresh scent behind, scientifically speaking, it is proof that we’re part of the planet’s massive water cycle. Every second of every day, 16 million tons of water evaporate from the Earth and 16 million tons fall back on Earth. Yet another reminder that we are just a speck on a planet.
But that’s not how it feels when it’s raining, when we get to forget about drought and relish the gift of a downpour, maybe even pull on our galoshes and tromp through puddles like little kids. Or wake up to the sound of a gentle shower, or slip on a raincoat and walk the dog, or have the luxury of taking a hot bath and lounging around the house all warm and cozy while a storm rages outside.
It’s human nature to come in from the cold, but have you ever wondered what’s going on out there while you’re padding around in your slippers?
Here’s what happens on a stormy day in Marin.
Clouds form and the ocean roars off the coast, sending a signal to offshore seabirds. Like experienced sailors, they are the first to know a storm is brewing, and immediately take off in search of safe land. Those that don’t beat the storm perish. Elsewhere, land birds take the weather in stride, their water-repellent feathers flicking off raindrops with ease. Chirping sparrows and high-pitched finches gobble up seeds knocked to the ground by wind and rain. Robins and thrushes peck at worms and grubs, flutter in fountains, visit feeders and settle in native shrubs. Hawks tuck in and wait for a break in the rain, then search for a perching post to fan out their wings to dry.
Small animals play defense as the storm unleashes its power. The burrowers — moles, voles and rabbits — block entrance to their holes. Like the seabirds, if they don’t act swiftly their homes will be flooded and their lives imperiled. Squirrels flip their swishy tails overhead as temporary umbrellas, and scrub down so gleefully it’s a wonder we can’t hear them crooning like nightclub singers.
Plants suck up the water with vigor and seeds germinate, encouraging new sprouts that paint the hillsides emerald green and set the stage for a cacophony of wildflowers come spring. Each droplet contains dissolved nitrogen from the air, a natural fertilizer that makes grass appear greener.
Drop by drop, the forest floor becomes a sponge, soaking up rain under a water-retaining layer of fallen leaves and woody debris that keeps down weeds that would otherwise worsen fire danger in the months ahead. The rain kicks underground microorganisms into gear where it touches the ground, increasing soil fertility and sequestering climate-warming carbon dioxide. Earthworms and other dirt dwellers appear, tunneling and aerating the soil like miniature rototillers.
The rain gushes and trickles around the contours of Mt. Tam, carving its own watery trails and recharging our drinking water supply as it settles into our reservoirs, creeks and streams — the crown jewels of Marin’s vital resources. Lake Lagunitas, home to one of the largest populations of wild coho in California, becomes a spawning freeway. Banana slugs emerge, snails sneak into the winter vegetable garden, salamanders slither out to enjoy the weather and frogs joyfully croak off-tune as they peek out of shallow ponds.
These are the sounds and activities made possible by rain. Enjoy!