Monday, February 28, 2011

Chicken or Egg

The query of which came first, the chicken or the egg, is a popular riddle, used to illustrate our inability to understand the relationship between two associated events. However, from a scientific point of view, the answer is clear: the egg came first.

In nature, unique species arise when mistakes in the genetic code of an individual lead to traits that offer a competitive advantage; the process of natural selection then assures that these errors are retained in future generations and, over time, a new species, possessing these traits, will emerge. The mistakes may occur due to gene mutations, the insertion of foreign genetic material (e.g. from a virus) or duplication errors during cell division; natural cross-breeding of similar species may also lead to a new species (assuming that the offspring are viable and able to reproduce). Of course, any changes that are detrimental to the survival of an organism are soon removed from the gene pool. This basic process, recurring over billions of years, has governed the evolution of all natural life forms on our planet, including humans. Having learned to manipulate genes and select traits via artificial pollination and cross-breeding, man has dramatically accelerated the production of unnatural species and subspecies.

In contrast to the simplified view of creationists, who believe that a micro-managing deity created two parents for each species, evolution is a gradual process, unfolding over hundreds or thousands of generations. The point at which a chicken emerged on the ever-expanding tree of evolution is open to debate but, without doubt, that first individual came from a fertilized egg.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Nature of Oppression

Human societies have been ruled by warlords, kings, queens, emperors, pharohs, chiefs, generals and other self-appointed dictators throughout the course of history. Surrounded by militias and tied to the power brokers of society, these human gods impose their will on the lower classes by restricting basic rights, especially when it comes to the freedom of expression. Eventually, of course, revolutions occur and the ruthless leader is dethroned.

The recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, sure to spread throughout the region, are the latest and some of the most significant responses to oppression in human history. Capable of imagination, responsive to motivation and committed to individual freedom, humans are prone to revolution when subjected to the persistent injustices of a dictatorship. Once the grip of the ruler is loosened, a wave of freedom is unleashed and his or her reign is doomed. Whether this freedom is temporary, to be stifled by the rise of another dictator, or whether it spawns an era of social democracy, will only become clear as the revolution unfolds.

American society, the most democratic in human history, is not free of oppression. Racism, various forms of discrimination and an outrageous gap between the lifestyles of the rich and the poor, continue to threaten the stability of our democracy. Like the emperors and dictators of human history, the upper echelon of American society seems to feel immune to the power of an increasingly frustrated working class. Time will tell if they wake up before another revolution is unleashed in this country.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

March Preview

An early taste of March has descended on central Missouri today. Caught between two lows along an undulating jet stream, we are enjoying a stiff, northeast breeze with a mix of cold rain and wet snow; the temperature has settled in the mid thirties (F).

Such chilly, gray, damp weather is typical of late winter and early spring as an unsettled jet stream directs Pacific storms across the Heartland. This afternoon, a storm centered over Ohio is sweeping cold air down from the Great Lakes while a more potent system, centered over Oklahoma, is drawing copious Gulf moisture up from the south. Just north of the collision zone, we won't get as much precipitation as areas to our south and east, where up to five inches of rain is expected.

All of this precipitation will, of course, exacerbate flooding from recent heavy snows and leave a sloppy landscape, coated with mud and slush. At our latitude, the sun angle is still too low to ignite heavy thunderstorms; rather, we will be treated to periods of "a wintery mix" that keep spring fever at bay until April. On the bright side, the soggy fields and seasonal lakes are magnets for migrating waterfowl, the frequent rains will thaw the soil and green the lawns, early bulb plants will soon adorn the flower beds and the frenzied calls of peepers and chorus frogs will echo across the wetlands.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Message from Christchurch

Today's tragic earthquake, in Christchurch, New Zealand, is just the latest reminder that the surface of the Earth continues to evolve and that we who live upon its moving plates are potential victims of the tectonic forces that mold our planet. Those of us who reside along the active margins of these plates, where collision or subduction are occuring, are at the greatest risk of earthquakes but the presence of old suture lines, aborted rifts and buried faults within the interior of continental plates make us all susceptible to some degree.

Active zones of volcanism and earthquakes are spaced along the Pacific Rim, popularly known as the Ring of Fire. In most of these areas, the Pacific Plate and its smaller associated plates are subducting beneath the South American, North American, Eurasian and Australian Plates, producing volcanic mountain ranges and triggering earthquakes that eminate from both the oceanic trenches and the rising peaks; the Andes, the Mexican Volcanic Belt, the Cascades, the Aleutians, the Japanese Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the North Island of New Zealand have all formed (and continue to form)in this manner.

On the South Island of New Zealand, the Australian and Pacific Plates are colliding and scraping against one another, forcing up the scenic mountains of that island and setting the stage for catastrophic earthquakes. Today's quake, measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale, is thought to be an aftershock from the 7.1 quake last September; unfortunately, this one was both shallow (less than 3 miles deep) and close to Christchurch, resulting in extensive damage and at least 65 deaths. The message is clear: devastating quakes have and will continue to affect major urban centers across the globe as our planet evolves beneath our feet.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Colorado's State Bird

Since the State is famous for its scenic mountains and canyons, one would think that Colorado's State Bird is a resident of these landscapes; potential candidates might include the white-tailed ptarmigan, Clark's nutcracker, the blue grouse, the mountain bluebird, the canyon wren or the pygmy nuthatch. Perhaps this bird is a permanent resident throughout Colorado, such as the golden eagle or the prairie falcon. One would certainly not choose a small, grassland bird that is only a seasonal resident of the High Plains, which cover just 1/3 of the State's varied terrain.

Nevertheless, for whatever reason (surely political), the lark bunting was named the State Bird of Colorado. This gregarious, sparrow-sized bird nests on the short-grass prairie of the western High Plains, from southern Canada to Texas and New Mexico. While the breeding male sports a handsome plumage of black and white, the females, juveniles and wintering males resemble other grassland species, with which they often mingle. Most disturbing for the purist, lark buntings flee the winter snows for which Colorado is renowned, wintering from southern Arizona, New Mexico and Texas into the mild clime of Mexico.

It is reasonable to conclude that most Coloradans have never knowingly observed a lark bunting in the wild. Though these birds are locally abundant on the Eastern Plains of the State, this geographic region is generally viewed from a speeding vehicle on one of the Interstates and even those who know the identity of their State Bird rarely notice them. Of course, the lark buntings have no reason to apologize; they have managed to thrive in a dry, sun-baked ecosystem and would do just fine without the official recognition.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Waiting for Snows

After spotting a flock of snow geese over central Kansas yesterday, I was eager to visit Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this morning. That fabulous wetland preserve, stretching along the Missouri River, southwest of Columbia, is a staging area for migrant waterfowl and generally hosts huge flocks of snow geese from late February into March.

On arrival, conditions appeared to be ideal. The flooded landscape offered plenty of feeding areas for waterfowl and migrant ducks were plentiful, including mallards, gadwall, shovelors and squadrons of teal. A strong south wind, offering a distinct advantage to migrant geese, was also promising, and thousands of ring billed gulls swirled about the refuge, indicating that migration season was indeed underway. As bald eagles flapped and soared above the wetlands, scattering the ducks and gulls, a chorus of familiar sounds echoed across the floodplain; the latter included the distinctive call of red-winged blackbirds, the distant clamour of Canada geese, the chatter of belted kingfishers, the cries of the numerous gulls and the varied chortles of restless ducks. Unfortunately, not a single snow goose graced the scene.

Though I hung around for an extra hour, peering toward the southern horizon, my favorite birds did not appear. But, in the coming weeks, I will hear them in the night sky, watch their northward journey as I walk to and from work and return to Eagle Bluffs to draw inspiration from those vocal and inspiring wanderers.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Nature of Wind

Wind is the movement of air from atmospheric domes of high pressure, beneath which air is sinking, to zones of low pressure, where air is rising. The temperature of the air, relative to our location, depends upon two factors: the site of the high pressure and the presence or absence of intervening topography. In the U.S., high pressure to our south and low pressure to our north (the current scenario) generally produces a warm, southerly wind; however, should this wind cross a mountain range, it will cool as it rises and warm as it descends. The wind speed is also affected by two factors: the magnitude of the pressure difference between the high and the low and any funneling effects that the regional topography might produce (e.g. canyons, passes, downtown streets). In the case of hurricanes, the pressure within the storm is very low and the winds, which swirl counterclockwise around zones of low pressure in the Northern Hemisphere, are very intense.

Seasonal monsoons, generally thought of as rain events, actually refer to the wind pattern that brings this precipitation; low pressure over a heated land mass, produced by a rising column of hot air, pulls in moist air from high pressure over the adjacent sea. The Santa Anas of Southern California are the opposite of these rainy monsoons; they are the result of high pressure over the Great Basin and low pressure over the Pacific Ocean, which combine to produce hot, dry, downsloping winds that gain speed when funneled through the canyons of the Coastal Range.

During the winter months, conditions in Denver and Grand Junction, Colorado, are often just the opposite. If the wind is from the east, it rises, cools, and drops snow on Denver before plummeting down the west slope of the Rockies to give Grand Junction warm, dry, sunny weather; of course, a west wind across Colorado would reverse these scenarios. Pacific trade winds, produced by high pressure over the eastern Pacific and low pressure over the western Pacific, intensify in La Nina years, increasing heat and humidity off the coasts of Southeast Asia and northeast Australia and triggering heavy rains and cyclones; in El Nino years, this pattern is reversed and drought plagues the region.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Big Melt

After more than a month of extreme cold and heavy snow, the Heartland will enjoy a warming trend over the coming week. Our change in fortune is due to a rebound in the jet stream, which will keep the frigid air in Canada and guide Pacific storms across the northern tier of States. In Missouri, we expect highs in the mid 40s to lower sixties (F) through the end of the week and our deep snow pack should all but disappear under a strengthening mid-February sun.

Unfortunately, the frozen ground and dormant vegetation will not absorb this copious moisture and flooding is sure to result. This, of course, is the typical pattern in late winter and early spring, as swollen rivers and streams spill across their floodplains, setting the stage for human misery.

But the flooded landscape is a welcome sight to migrant waterfowl. Led by snow geese, pintails and wintering ducks in late February, this parade of migrants will extend through March, April and early May as Canada geese, resident ducks, loons, grebes, white pelicans, cormorants and shorebirds join the exodus to northern breeding grounds. Along the way, they will stop to rest and feed on our flooded fields and seasonal lakes, drawing hordes of naturalists down the muddy trails and back roads of America's Midwest.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Evolution of Bare Skin

Walking to work on frigid winter mornings, I often ponder the loss of body hair that occurred as humans evolved from apes. Like every other feature of every organism, this change must have offered an evolutionary advantage. While many theories have emerged, I am inclined to believe that natural selection favored the capacity to disipate heat, leading to regression of dense hair from most of our body.

Moving from the shaded jungles to the open grasslands, early humans had to adapt to the intense sunshine while also becoming more active in their pursuit of game. A coat of dense hair would have complicated both of these lifestyle changes, increasing the risk of heat-related deaths and diminishing our ability to move swiftly over long distances. Some argue that loss of hair would increase solar-induced skin injury but early humans were dark-skinned, protected by high concentrations of melanin; on the other hand, the retention of scalp, facial and pubic hair may have served to protect areas where the skin is especially thin and sensitive.

Today, human populations that inhabit tropical regions tend to have less body hair (and darker skin) than those that occupy temperate regions of the globe, suggesting that reverse adaptation occurred as we emigrated from Africa. Humans that inhabit polar regions have also adapted to their cold environment by acquiring an endomorphic body habitus, with relatively short limbs and increased body fat. Of course, such anatomic changes develop gradually, over many generations, as natural selection acts on the human gene pool.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Nature of Leadership

Despite the growing industry of leadership camps and a huge variety of books on the subject, I have come to believe that the traits of a leader are inborn. While influenced by mentors along the way, natural leaders have an easy rapport with others and possess a deep understanding of human nature.

Not inclined to sit in an office and bark orders at subordinates, true leaders have both the willingness to involve themselves in all areas of their field and the understanding that such involvement is appreciated by those whom they lead. Admiration and respect come with the decision to be part of the solution rather than one whose self importance keeps them above the fray. While a willingness to designate authority is essential and reflects the key element of trust, good leaders must demonstrate that, through direct experience, they truly understand the problems that their colleagues face.

Leaders appreciate the importance of empathy and positive feedback but are also comfortable with providing criticism in a constructive and thoughtful way. While organizational skills are vital, people skills are the true, defining traits of a natural leader.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Musical Interlude

Yesterday morning, the overnight low was 34 degrees F, the warmest in more than a month. On my way to work, in the predawn twilight, I was serenaded by a spring-like chorus, dominated by robins. Northern cardinals, chickadees and Carolina wrens also chimed in and the mellow tune of a mourning dove, the earliest I have ever heard in this region, was an especially welcome sound.

Though more than a foot of snow still covers the landscape, these birds were responding to the lengthening daylight and to the sudden warm interlude. Unlike humans, who consult their calendars and count the days to spring, wild creatures take their cues from nature. They won't nest or migrate until the days are longer but yesterday's tune-up was a sure sign that, despite our winter woes, spring is on the way.

Unfortunately, another blast of Arctic air will hush the singers for the next few days but, in another week or so, the annual tide of birdsong will begin to build. We may worry that this cold, snowy winter will never end but the birds, free of that capacity, know better.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Ritual of Sports

Humans are social creatures and have long been enamored with ritual. Most of these ceremonial activities have centered around religion and political events but sports have always included a certain amount of pageantry. Fans gather to cheer on the contestants, dressed in team colors and raising their combined voice in synchronized chants and fight songs. This behavior gives them a sense of participation in the contest and many wear the number of their favorite athlete to even more closely identify with his or her talents and achievements.

While much of this ritualism is both enjoyable and socially positive, there are some negative consequences. First and foremost, the athletes themselves are often caught up in the celebrity worship of our sports-crazed society and, like many of their entertainment counterparts, sense immunity from behavior that, in some cases, destroys their career or their life. On the other side of the fence, college students, immersed in the social networking of modern culture, seem to have progressed to uniform behaviors that, in my opinion, are somewhat disturbing; having taken the lead from a few prominant institutions, student sections now jump and chant through entire basketball games, shifting the spectacle from the contest itself to the antics of the sixth man. The enthusiasm of the individual sports fan has morphed into a display of herd mentality.

On this annual Feast Day of American Sport, Super Bowl Sunday, celebrities of all kind will flock to the main event, paying phenomenal fees to be seen among the elite of U.S. society. Back in the hinterlands, many other Americans will gather with family and friends to witness the spectacle and to partake in the ritual of food, beverages and TV commercials that complement the game itself. Many will know little or nothing about the teams and their players and some will be satisfied with an occasional glance at the screen. It is, after all, the ritual of the event that brings these fans together.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Mind & Soul

It is our brain power that sets humans apart from other animals. Nevertheless, we are members of the animal kingdom and share most of the anatomic and physiologic features that are present in all mammals. Religious persons, whether they accept evolution or not, believe that man is a unique form of life, made in God's image, and that it is our soul that separates us from animals.

Raised in the Catholic Church, I was taught that the soul is some sort of glowing organ, which brightens or darkens in response to our behaviour, and that our primary goal in life is to save that soul by keeping it pure. Indeed, in the view of devout Catholics, the soul is a celestial score card that will determine one's eternal fate upon their earthly demise.

While not religious, I do respect the concept of a soul; however, in my view, it is the reflection of man's instinctual will to live. In this respect, we are no different than other life forms, fueled by our genes and guided by our experience. Man's image of the soul, which varies among cultures and religions, is just another consequence of our large, powerful brains, which enable us to ponder, reason, imagine and believe.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

From Blizzard to Deep Freeze

Now that the powerful winter storm has moved on to the Canadian Maritimes, the dome of Arctic air that fueled its wrath has dropped into the Heartland. Centered over eastern Kansas this morning, it has brought sub-zero temperatures to the Midwest and a freeze that extends to South Texas.
Beneath this high pressure dome, cold air is sinking, clouds cannot form and heat radiates into the upper atmosphere; in addition, the recent heavy snowfall refrigerates the surface air, counteracting the weak effects of a low February sun.

This sequence is common with winter storm systems. Precipitation, in the form of snow, sleet or freezing rain, occurs along the outer edge of the dome, where an atmospheric low is sweeping warm, humid air above the invading cold front. As the dome drops southward and eastward, the front pushes to the east and the storm spins its way along the front toward the northeast. The air along the edge of the dome is cold enough to produce snow and ice but generally much milder than the frigid air at its center. Once the storm moves off to the northeast, skies clear and temperatures drop; while the snowy landscape is illuminated by bright sunshine and the night sky is ablaze with stars, a deep chill grips the region.

Our next chance for snow will arrive as the Arctic dome moves off to the east and milder air flows in from the west and south; should a disturbance develop along the back edge of the dome, these air masses will mix and freezing rain or light snow will recoat the deep snow. Based on current forecasts, melting will be minimal over the next week and the prospects of an early spring seem to diminish with each passing day.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Deep Snow

The twenty inches of snow that fell across mid Missouri yesterday poses a significant hardship for human residents but may prove to be deadly for many of our wild neighbors. Some mammals, such as squirrels, cottontails, raccoons and opossums den up until conditions improve but, faced with persisent cold, will be forced to venture out within a few days; it is then that they risk detection by hungry coyotes, fox, owls and hawks. Small mammals, such as field mice and voles, are able to forage beneath the snow but they, too, are threatened by the highly developed senses of these predators.

Many flocking birds, such as geese, doves and longspurs, migrate south of the snow line while adaptable insectivores, such as chickadees, titmice and nuthatches, find sufficient nourishment from insect eggs and pupae in the the trees and shrubs. Ground feeding sparrows, towhees and juncos are especially vulnerable to heavy snow cover; some switch to a diet of berries while others scour dried grasses and thickets that project above the snow, consuming buds or residual seeds. For those birds and mammals that feed along open rivers and streams, such as bald eagles, great blue herons, gulls, otters and wintering ducks, the deep snow is of little consequence.

Finally, deer, while able to browse on shrubs and saplings, are hampered by reduced mobility, increasing their vulnerability to coyotes and feral dogs. Those that succumb to predation or starvation also provide nourishment for nature's many scavengers (vultures, crows, weasels, shrews) that rely on winter's victims to fuel their own survival.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Blizzard Warnings

The warnings began a few days ago. What appeared to be a minor disturbance along the West Coast would become the Storm of the Century, a Winter Monster, One for the Record Books. By yesterday afternoon, the first signs of the storm were moving through Missouri, coating the region with a thin film of ice. Shifting into survival mode, employees departed early, schools were closed and food centers were swamped with desperate customers. After all, the Weather Channel was predicting some kind of Armageddon; we might never leave our homes again.

The snow began to fall at six this morning as the storm's central low gathered strength over the Oklahoma-Arkansas line, pumping Gulf moisture over the frigid air that gripped Missouri. Building through the morning, tiny flakes now fill the sky and visibility is down to a few hundred yards. As the storm drifts to the northeast, winds are expected to intensify and blizzard conditions are forecast for this afternoon and evening; when it's all over, at least 12-15 inches of snow should coat the mid Missouri landscape.

It certainly appears that the meteorologists were right on target this time and that their intended audience, prone to weather worries, heeded the warnings. Humans, after all, have been confronted by nature's fury throughout our history and violent storms have long been a source of fear and trepidation. For the most part, patience and common sense will keep us safe but the frantic warnings of the weather moguls ensure that our natural fear is reinforced. So most will stay home, obedient and responsible; snug in their heated caves, they will be entertained by the Weather Channel stuntmen who stand in the wind and snow, begging others to be more sensible.