Weather Watch

‘It was the worst sunburn’: How to avoid getting burned in SLO County this summer

It was the worst sunburn I’ve ever experienced, and unfortunately, I’ve had quite a few others over the course of my life — mainly in 1998 at Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico.

At that time, I was stationed with VP-91, a Navy reserve maritime patrol squadron that flew the mighty P-3 Orion out of Moffett Naval Air Station (NAS), in the Santa Clara Valley. It’s the former NAS with the three gigantic blimp hangars along Highway 101.

On one of few days off from flying on our deployment to Puerto Rico, our crew went snorkeling along the coast of the former Caribbean naval station, when seemingly out of nowhere an aggregation of manatees swam toward us. These sea cows are big, gray aquatic herbivores, and this chance encounter was a welcomed surprise.

Our crew was so intrigued with them, we spent hours in the water without protective clothing to shield us from the sun’s light. When we got back to the barracks, I noticed blistering on my shoulders from the severe sunburn that I received. I could barely sleep the following night.

Due to this episode and many others that I have subjected my skin too, I visit my dermatologist regularly, as all of us should. Here’s why.

With the days growing longer as we move toward summer, and relentless springtime northwesterly (onshore) winds that make it feel cooler, the risk of sunburn from an overexposure to ultraviolet electromagnetic radiation increases.

An understandable scale was created to help people make informed decisions about the amount of time they spend in the sun. This scale is called the UV Index, and it predicts the amount of ultraviolet radiation that’s expected to reach the Earth’s surface when the sun is at its highest point in the sky (solar noon).

Each day, the National Weather Service issues the UV index forecast; it can be found in the Tribune’s weather section. An index of 1 indicates very weak ultraviolet rays, while an index of 11 indicates extremely powerful rays. In Saturday’s paper, it was rated at 7.

Sunlight is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, with radio waves at the low-frequency portion of the spectrum and gamma rays at the higher end. Within this spectrum, infrared, visible and ultraviolet light falls in the upper half. Infrared light has a longer wavelength and is too red for our eyes to see, but you can certainly feel it as heat on your skin.

Ultraviolet light is on the opposite end of the rainbow and has a shorter wavelength. It’s too blue for our eyes to detect, but unlike infrared, you can’t feel it as heat. However, near-UV light is visible to some insects and birds. The higher your elevation, the more considerable amount of UV you will receive.

A deep marine layer (coastal low clouds and fog) can reduce the amount of UV by 67 percent. On the other hand, water, sand and snow can all reflect ultraviolet rays. Fresh snow reflects as much as 80 percent of UV.

Another severe sunburn that I received was while skiing at Heavenly Valley despite it being partly cloudy that day. A small amount of exposure to sunlight can be helpful; however, overexposure to UV is responsible for significant health problems: skin cancers, including melanoma (a dangerous form of cancer), and cataracts.

Not based upon surface observations, the UV Index is computed using forecast ozone data from instruments on board polar-orbiting satellites, a radioactive transfer model, predicted cloud cover and the elevation of the forecast cities. The UV Index is made available daily to 58 cities throughout the United States.

At least one city in each state has a UV Index forecast. California has two — Los Angeles and San Francisco. The actual UV exposure is usually not the same at the coast, coastal valleys and North County. However, because the data from The Tribune weather page is derived from the Los Angeles index, they are reported as such.

That’s why our interior, coastal valleys and beaches have the same forecast index, despite the differences in altitude and cloud cover.

Here are some tips to reduce your exposure to UV radiation:

▪ Seek shade when the sun’s UV rays are strongest, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Remember the shadow rule when in the sun: no shadow, seek shade.

▪ Generously apply sunscreen using a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 that provides broad-spectrum protection (UV-A, B and C). Reapply every two hours, even on cloudy days and after swimming or sweating.

▪ Wear protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. Robyn O’Leary of Los Osos told me, “In Australia, where the incidence rate of melanoma is quite high, they have a great UV awareness program called ‘Slip, Slap, Slop and Wrap’ — slip on a shirt, slap on a hat, slop on some sunblock and wrap on some shades.”

Celebrate Earth Day

Please join PG&E employees Saturday, April 13, to celebrate Earth Day at Montaña de Oro State Park. The event is one of several service projects sponsored by PG&E and the California State Parks Foundation. It’s heartening to see how much we have accomplished together over the years at Montaña de Oro State Park at this annual Earth Day event.

If you plan to join us, register at the California State Parks website, day/earth-day-registration.html. Rangers will provide tools and supervision at the event.

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at or follow him on Twitter: @PGE_John.
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