Monday, October 29, 2012

A sand berm disappears and waves crash seawall

nearby seawall

Images and video of Dane Street Beach in the early part of the storm.  Northeast Massachusetts coast.

When we arrived
half an hour later

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Macabre and Primal Wonder of Storms

Hurricane Katrina just before it hit the Gulf Coast

There is a dark majesty to big storms as they remind us that for all our human advances, the force of nature remains paramount to our existence. We exist and are beholden to the supreme countenance of nature and always will be. Perhaps that is why so many people, including myself, are fascinated by storms. Through modern technology we can watch them grow into behemoths of destruction, and anticipate their arrival. We know they will bring devastation, destroy people's lives and property, and yet cannot help feel a rush of excitement as they approach.

Lord of the winds! I feel thee nigh,
I know thy breath in the burning sky!
And I wait, with a thrill in every vein,
For the coming of the hurricane!

               -- William Cullen Bryant (1854)

Is it part of the human condition... this macabre and primal wonder of storms?

Blizzard of 78'
My relationship with massive storms began early. As a sixth grader, I kept the daily weather statistics for my math class, writing the highs and lows on a bulletin board for all to see.  When I heard a big Nor'easter was heading our way, I placed a yardstick below the swingset in our back yard and waited for the snow.  From the kitchen window my eyes were fixed on the accumulating snow until I was sent to bed.  The next morning, my eyes widened in awe.  I could no longer see the three foot marker.  It was completely buried by the Blizzard of '78, and so was my hometown and much of New England.

As a young man, my sister and I left the shelter of our home and stepped out to feel the force of the wind from the "No Name" storm of 1991, a complex weather system that combined a hurricane with a classic North Atlantic nor'easter.  We were only yards from the back door when I heard an explosion above me.  I turned to see a hail of bricks fall behind me.  The wind had knocked down a large chimney from the house next door.  It was a close call for both of us, but experience only helped to increase my fascination. How about you?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Talk about extreme, have you ever heard of a moss piglet?

Who could fail to be amazed by any creature who loves to live in the harshest and even the deadliest of places; in a pond of scalding water, in toxic acid, and even under a blast of radiation. Scientist have coined the term extremophile to describe organisms adapted to severely inhospitable places. Although most are bacteria or microbes, not all are single cell. Have you ever heard of moss piglets, also known as waterbears?

The short, plump, millimeter-long creatures with four pair of legs and little clawed feet are called tardigrades.  Some are vegetarians and some are hunters; there are 500 different species in all. These guys are found in the wildest of places, like hot springs in the Himalayas, and will blow your mind with what they can do.

Yellowstone National Park
Hot Spring in Yellostone National Park
A tardigrade can enter a cryptobiotic state (a very bizarre, death-like state of life) allowing them to survive in a dehydrated condition and highly toxic environment, even for many years. That's only the beginning.  These little guys could hang out with a batch of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven or take a short bath in liquid hydrogen and still scurry away. The vacuum of space is no worry for them either. A vacation in the Mariana trench, the deepest part of the ocean would be no problem. 10Gy doses of radiation would kill you and me, but moss piglets can take 5,000Gy.
Wunderkammer Moss Piglet

There are other types of multicellular extremophiles, like the deep-sea bristle or Pompeii worms that live around hydrothermic vents and sport red tentacle-like gills, or ice crawlers, wingless insects that live atop the coldest mountains, but nothing beats a moss piglet.

If I were an astrobiologist (someone who studies the possibility of life in the universe) I would have one as my mascot, perhaps even a cuddly tardigrade teddy on my desk. Believe it or not they exist too.  You can learn how to knit one at Wunderkammer.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

To feel the presence of stone and time

Colorado Plateau
The Grand Canyon
Traveling the long highways along the high, plateau deserts of the American Southwest, one can stop and visit places like Zion or the Grand Canyon and many other amazing National Parks.

The beauty of the Colorado Plateau is most often portrayed by images of the Grand Canyon.  Visually, it captures you, as it did my son in this picture. And yes, it is a magnificent place, but I want to tell you, there is so much more to discover...

Hiking in the Colorado Plateau is an experience of natural awakening; the area is a geological marvel dotted with bits of intriguing history and culture.  The area’s old nickname, Red Rock Country, comes from the brightly colored sandstone, long ago deposited by an ancient sea that cleaved North America in two.

Lava flow at Hidden Crater
Asteroid Impact
Meteor Crater in Arizona

The scales of time resonate within you, if only one stops to listen.  At the bottom of the Grand Canyon you can pick up rocks more than two billion years old. That’s twenty times older than the end of the age of the dinosaurs.  Not far off, an asteroid impact blasted a kilometer wide crater in the land a mere thousand centuries ago.

Zion National Park
Angel's Landing, Zion National Park
After climbing a particularly stunning trail, my wife and son look out over the Zion Canyon on the peak of Angel’s Landing, a massive rock formation along the Virgin River.  From the river, the way transitions into roughly paved switchbacks until nearly the summit, where people breathlessly cling to heavy iron chains, not so much from the two and a half mile hike, but from the dizzying drop-offs on either side.

Flowers and Cinders
The Colorado Plateau, nestled west of the Rockies in the four corners region of Southwestern United States, is a place of intimate moments, where the very rock speaks to you in a language all its own.

I recommend taking the time to stop at some of the quieter, lesser known spots, like the enchanting landscape of black cinders in Hidden Canyon State Park in Northern Arizona, where as the sun went down, we walked across soft cinders and climbed jagged lava flow, and where our spirit drifted with the cool wind on dry mountain grass.

More pictures of my trip to the canyons in the Southwest

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Coming Storm of Light

Northern Lights
NASA Image, Aurora over Midwestern US
Imagine mysterious curtains of crimson wavering in the night sky, while in a fit of madness, electrical equipment goes haywire.  That’s what happened in early September of 1859.  Literally out of the blue, telegraphs everywhere began to spark and crackle.  There was so much energy inexplicably flowing through telegraph systems that they continued to transmit even after being turned off.   Some operators reported being severely shocked.

In 1859, a particularly powerful stream of particles from the sun hit the earth straight on.  For two days, unusually brilliant auroras could be seen across the planet, even in the tropics.  More than a century later, we still don’t fully understand solar storms and the auroras they generate.  The Inuit people tell us the Northern Lights sing; only recently has science discovered they actually do.

Every eleven years, solar flares become more frequent and can produce coronal mass ejections, massive bursts of solar wind.  If aimed correctly, these storms of energized protons, electrons and a scattering of elements strike the protective magnetic field that surrounds the earth.  The solar wind is deflected towards the poles, charging the high atmosphere like a neon sign, painting rings of light.  The more intense the storm the bigger the effect; in the largest events the energy penetrates to the ground as it did in 1859.
Neon Effect
The next active peak period is almost upon us, and scientists suggest it could be very intense.  Despite all the 2012 predictions, I wouldn’t worry about the end of the world -- after all, our little planet has been orbiting the sun for four and a half billion years; life’s been doing just fine.  Still, it does make one wonder what would happen if a solar storm the size of the one in 1859 were to strike.  Telegraphs marked the beginning of a communications revolution that has come to define our world, but unlike back then, our civilization is now completely reliant on electrical and telecom networks.  

You can find out more at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center.  The last time I saw the shimmering Northern lights was on a Halloween night, during the last solar maxim in 2003.  Have you ever seen them?

See my post: Watch the sun erupt in a rain of fire.