It's the dog days of August, and the thermometer says 62 degrees. Out on the beach, no one dares to wear a Speedo. Tourists stand around in heavy fog, shivering in Polartech hoodies. It's easy to read the expressions on their faces: We drove all the way over the hill for this?

On chilly days, it's hard not to curse Santa Cruz's marine layer, the cooling air pattern that drives temperatures down. But the marine layer is responsible for more than just seasonal affective disorder and strange beachwear.

It also brings the fog, which feeds the redwoods and moistens the banana slugs. It keeps Santa Cruzans cool while the masses melt in places like Atlanta and New York City. And it played a decisive role in luring a University of California campus to Santa Cruz, forever changing the Central Coast, while helping to steer the course of the university over 45 years.

A hot and sweaty bus

To those who grew up with a UC in their backyard, it may be hard to imagine the Central Coast without it. After all, the people who designed the UCSC campus worked hard to create the illusion that the campus arose naturally from its surroundings.

The decision to put a UC school in Santa Cruz may also seem obvious, natural, even inevitable now.

But it wasn't then. A half-century ago, when the UC Regents were trying to choose between San Jose's Almaden Valley and Santa Cruz as the site for a new UC campus, Santa Cruz was just a second-place contender.

In 1960, the Regents had all but made up their minds to build in Almaden Valley, the logical choice, thanks to the large population base in the city of San Jose.

According to UCSC founding chancellor Dean McHenry, in his detailed oral history of the campus, a trusted adviser to the Regents "virtually adopted" the San Jose/Almaden Valley site. In other words, for proponents of the Almaden plan, it was their battle to lose. "And then," McHenry said, "Santa Cruz began to fight back …"

After an outspoken group, including then Santa Cruz Sentinel editor Gordon "Scotchie" Sinclair, urged reconsideration, a Regents' committee—including McHenry, who would go on to become UCSC's founding chancellor—decided to humor them in the spirit of fair-mindedness. A delegation, consisting of two-thirds of the UC Regents, boarded a bus in the fall of 1960 to tour both the Santa Cruz and Almaden Valley sites.

McHenry, who was part of that tour group, had few expectations, though he always thought Santa Cruz was "by far the prettier of the two."

First, the group hit Santa Cruz, where a delegation, including Cabrillo College trustee Harold "Hal" Hyde, an ardent proponent of a local UC campus, was there to meet them. Hyde had his hopes up—but at the same time he was well aware that certain outsiders then regarded Santa Cruz as a backwater.

On that fateful day, Hyde—who would go on to become a founding vice chancellor of UC Santa Cruz, playing a key role in campus planning and development—knew the Regents' decision was hanging in the balance.

Mist and mysticism

Elizabeth McKenzieUCSC's pioneers found the marine-layer-cooled weather in Santa Cruz refreshing and inviting, but the climate here also serves as a fount of inspiration for the many poets, writers, and artists who cluster around the campus.

The local weather figures prominently in a story collection by author and Kresge lecturer Elizabeth McKenzie that involves a character named Ann Ransom driving the poet Allen Ginsberg up the coast from the UCSC campus.

"We crawled forward, penetrating the fog as if we were exploring the inside of a mattress ... "

McKenzie said the fog is "essential to the Santa Cruz writing experience. It's a foxy obfuscator of the landscape and one's perceptions. It makes you want to stay inside and drink. Or at least get to work. Fog and confusion are the writer's friends—'the straight way was lost' is the theme of all literature."

The fog transforms the very landscape of UCSC. As McKenzie writes in one of her stories, "It's one of the few things that can make everything seem different when you're in exactly the same place."

"It was an Indian summer day," Hyde remembered, in a recent phone interview. "A beautiful day in the fall and pretty warm for Santa Cruz, but there was just a slight breeze coming in off the coast."

Hyde, in his own oral history of UCSC, remarked that "the whole sweep of the bay stretched out beautifully from the Cowell Ranch out across toward Monterey."

After witnessing the splendor of Santa Cruz in great comfort, the Regents drove off to Almaden Valley, where their "oohing" and "ahhing" gave way to groans of misery. The sun pounded them.

The local chamber of commerce feared their comfy, air-conditioned bus was too wide to make it up a narrow vineyard road leading to the Almaden Valley site, and asked the Regents to board two smaller buses with no air-conditioning. This simple decision turned out to be a game-changer.

"It was very hot," McHenry recalled in the oral history, "and men began to peel their coats off, and we finally got up on top of the hill and looked down, and it was … very warm and wasn't particularly attractive …. You could see the subdivisions creeping up on this area."

Later, when the Regents had settled into a sweltering, non–air-conditioned clubhouse, there wasn't enough ice in the bar to cool the beverages down—yet another fatal error. Finally, one of the Regents shouted out, "Why, it'd cost a fortune to air-condition a campus there!"

"Santa Cruz had real luck on the day that was chosen," McHenry remembered. "If it had been thick fog down here and proper over there, it might have been another story."

The first students began classes at UC Santa Cruz in the fall of 1965.

Marine focus strengthens

Building a campus in Santa Cruz helped establish the campus's priorities, especially in the sciences.

Early on the campus committed itself to marine science, said Distinguished Professor of Earth & Planetary Sciences Gary Griggs, who has taught at UCSC since 1968. As early as 1960—even before the Regents had chosen Santa Cruz as a site—the campus leaders recognized that marine sciences would be an area of "special significance" for a new UC campus, Griggs said. "It was in the early campus plans, and the original faculty had at least a couple of marine scientists."

What is this 'marine layer'?

What is this mysterious force, the marine layer, which helped transform Santa Cruz—an area that was once the exclusive domain of agriculture and tourism?

The marine layer is a body of moist, ocean-cooled air, which forms above the water and floats over nearby lowlands. The thickness can range from a few hundred to a few thousand feet.

This cold air lingers and drives down surface temperatures on land because it cannot escape. The Monterey Bay's chilly waters cool the air that hovers above the ocean, but warmer air rises, capping and entrapping the colder air.

On high humidity days, fog drifts across the marine layer, up over the foothills, and through the coastal redwoods.

But when Santa Cruz became the official spot, supporters of a marine division redoubled their focus.

Biology professor Bill Doyle, though not a marine scientist, helped plan and develop the marine science program. He founded and became the long-term director of the Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS). The late Kenneth Norris, a pioneering whale and dolphin researcher, headed UCSC's nascent marine program in the 1970s.

Both realized the need for a facility with access to running ocean water. UCSC considered Pigeon Point, nearly 30 miles up the coast, but then the Younger family decided to give UCSC the land along the bluffs on the north end of Santa Cruz where part of UCSC's marine lab is now located. Retired developer and engineer Jack Baskin and Longs Drugs co-founder Joseph Long were major early benefactors.

While Griggs feels that a landlocked Almaden Valley UC campus might have had some marine focus, it would have paled compared with the UCSC version.

"Look at UC Berkeley," he said. "It has a few marine biologists, but it doesn't have a marine science institute or an ocean sciences department. The fact that you can get down to the shore in five minutes, you can see the ocean from campus —it makes the difference."

Atmospheric variations

Of course, it would be an oversimplification to say that the Regents chose Santa Cruz solely because of the weather. The board also found that buying the Cowell Ranch site was considerably less complicated than purchasing the Almaden Valley site. The Regents were wary of the multi-million-dollar price tag for the San Jose area properties that made up the Almaden site and of the multiple landowners who might hold out for top dollar.

But the marine layer certainly helped. The new campus was dubbed University of California, Santa Cruz, in early spring of 1961, shortly before McHenry was named founding chancellor.

Aside from merely luring a UC campus to town, the marine layer, in many ways, gave the campus an identity and direction.

As Griggs pointed out, the marine layer is the result of a process known as upwelling, in which chilly water rises to the surface of the Monterey Bay, cooling the air above it.

The same upwelling lifts nutrients from the ocean floor, which activate diatoms and other plankton, which feed sardines, anchovies, and squid, which feed an array of marine mammals and birds, which feed the careers and research of UCSC marine scientists.

Strikingly, the same marine layer that keeps cool air from leaking out also prevents distinguished faculty from leaking out.

"The climate brought the university here—but it also kept people here," said Griggs, who is also director of the Institute of Marine Sciences. "The turnover rate on the faculty is very, very small. In Earth Sciences I know of two people who left—one who did not get tenure and another from Australia who got a big offer to go back there. Most people who come here spend their whole career here."

In fact, Griggs attributed an uncanny combination of climate and university-inspired culture to the flourishing literary scene, arts scene, and the sheer number of potters, writers, explorers, thinkers, and former UC students who settled here for good.

"Certainly, part of it is the fact that we are working at a world-class university," Griggs said. But he wondered out loud if all those faculty members, artists, and students would have stayed if that world-class university were located somewhere inland, smoggy and hot, far from the fabled marine layer.

"I wouldn't have," he said with a smile.