You think this Central Coast winter is cold? December 1990 was COLD!

San Luis Obispo - The TribuneJanuary 26, 2013 

This month, morning low temperatures dropped below the freezing point for 14 consecutive days in Paso Robles.

These cold mornings reminded me of what occurred in late December, 1990.  A strong, southerly flowing jet stream moved a cold Arctic air mass from western Canada, the so-called Yukon Express, down the West Coast.  There were reports of snowflakes in Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, and even Pismo Beach and Nipomo on the night of Dec. 20, 1990, with overnight lows falling to the low 20s on the north side of the Cuesta Grade.

Back in those days, I was a reservist stationed at Naval Air Station Alameda with an H-3 Sea King helicopter squadron.  On Dec. 21 we took off for a flight near the Golden Gate Bridge. It was one of the rare times we had to turn on the heater in the helicopter while flying around the Bay Area. A bitterly cold and cutting north wind blew across the Marin Headlines on the north side of the Golden Gate towards San Francisco. The sky was overcast, which gave an ash-gray hue to the surrounding mountains.  It was surreal, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area felt and looked more like the rocky coast of Nova Scotia at winter. I can't remember another time when there wasn't at least a few people walking across the bridge. On that day we didn't see anybody on that international orange span.

Further south, the meteorological tower at Diablo Canyon was reporting sustained winds of 35 mph out of the north, flowing towards the south with gusts reaching 45 mph. The temperatures dropped to the mid-30s right along the shoreline.  According to the National Weather Service (NWS) Wind Chill Chart, it felt more like the high teens. Very cold indeed!

By Dec. 22, 1990 the winds at Diablo Canyon shifted out of the north-northeast and the temperature hit the freezing point for the first time since 1976, when Diablo Canyon first started keeping weather records.  It was cold throughout the Western United States -- Denver reported 20 degrees below zero, while Wild Reservoir north of Elko, Nev., plunged to 31 degrees below zero.

Gary Ryan, who was a meteorologist with the NWS in Santa Maria, confirmed record-breaking low temperatures on Dec.  22 and Dec. 23 throughout San Luis Obispo County. Atascadero reached a bone chilling 4 degrees while Templeton reached a numbing 9 degrees. The Paso Robles Airport reported an all-time low of 8 degrees.

San Luis Obispo dropped to 17 degrees. Even the temperatures along our coastline were very cold, with Morro Bay reaching 25 degrees and Pismo Beach coming in at 29 degrees.

The county’s avocado crop was hard hit and numerous water pipes burst.  Plumbers were kept busy for days afterward repairing pipes and fixtures. Many local hardware stores were completely sold out of plastic and copper pipe and anything else to do with plumbing.

Freezing winds blew through the Salinas Valley and killed or severely damaged many eucalyptus trees along the Highway 101.  This was considered a once-in-100-year event.

Scholarships offered

PG&E is accepting applications from students to receive PG&E Bright Minds scholarships, as well as scholarships from the utility’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs).

Through its Bright Minds Scholarship program, PG&E will award up to $1 million to enable high school, community college and “non-traditional” students to complete their higher education goals. Bright Minds scholarship winners will receive scholarships of up to $30,000 per year; program finalists will receive $2,500 towards their studies. In addition PG&E ERGs are also accepting applications for a wide variety of scholarships.

“PG&E believes that advancing educational opportunities is one of the most important ways we can give back to the communities where we deliver gas and electricity,” said Ezra Garrett, vice president of community relations and chief sustainability officer for PG&E.

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a media relations representative for PG&E and longtime local meteorologist. His Weekly Forecast column will be published Monday.

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