Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Lessons from Sandy

Though Hurricane Sandy, which evolved into Nor'Easter Sandy and then Superstorm Sandy, has already been labeled "historic, unprecedented and a once-in-a-lifetime event,"  such storms have surely lashed the Northeast many times in the past.  One need only look at the landscape to see the erosive force of glaciers, floods, high winds, waves and storm surge.  While our planet has been evolving for 4.6 billion years, modern, reliable meteorologic records span less than 200 years and weather satellites have only been available for the past 60 years.

Nevertheless, Sandy was a massive, powerful storm that, once again, highlighted the risk of residential and commercial development along floodplains and shorelines; as sea levels rise in concert with global warming, that risk will only increase.  Fortunately, modern communication and advances in meteorology provided an early warning of the potential devastation and mass evacuations saved many lives.  But Sandy proved that our current infrastructure is no match for the power of nature and reminded us that, despite our advancing technology, we will always be at the mercy of natural forces.

Yet, we will rebuild along the coast and on the floodplains, convinced that this was a freak event, never to recur in the course of our lives.  We will refuse to learn from this devastating storm and will fail to respond to its message.  It may be centuries before another hurricane or massive nor'easter decimates the Northeast; then again, it might be next year. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sandy's Left Turn

Most tropical cyclones that move up the eastern coast of North America either veer out to sea or continue to parallel the shoreline, raking the Capes and the Canadian Maritimes.  Sandy, however, is forecast to make a sharp left turn and come ashore somewhere between Washington, D.C., and New York City.  While some may see God's hand in this unusual and potentially catastrophic path, there is a scientific explanation for the storm's westward jog.

Tropical storms and hurricanes respond to steering winds and pressure zones.  Like a billiard ball rolling across an uneven pool table, it is deflected by high pressure ridges and attracted to low pressure troughs (bumps or dips in the table, respectively).  In addition, clockwise winds that circulate around the high pressure domes will push the storm along; in this case, high pressure over the North Atlantic is creating westward winds in the mid Atlantic region that will shove the storm toward the Coast.  Low pressure along an approaching cold front, now crossing Pennsylvania, offers an additional tug on the storm.

As Sandy moves toward the coast, it will push a storm surge ahead and north of its central circulation.  This reflects the fact that its own large wind field is rotating counterclockwise.  Since many of the bays and sounds along the Northeast Coast open to the east, the surge will be exacerbated along the edge of those shallow indentations.  The combination of high winds, heavy rains and a potent storm surge may be devastating for cities and towns along the coast while inland flooding and downed trees may leave millions in the dark for the coming week (if not longer).  Let's hope that the advancing cold front moves in fast enough to pick up Sandy and take her out to sea; unfortunately, the blocking high over the North Atlantic will likely prevent such a rescue.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Starved Rock State Park

The Illinois River watershed extends from the headwaters of the Des Plaines River, in southeast Wisconsin, and the upper tributaries of the Kankakee River, in northern Indiana; these two rivers merge in northern Illinois to form the Illinois River which flows westward and then SSW to join the Mississippi, just north of St. Louis.

Some of the best views of the Upper Illinois River are obtained from Starved Rock State Park that stretches across forested bluffs south of the river.  Accessed from Illinois 71, this popular Park protects a spectacular landscape of cliffs, canyons and recessed caves, sculpted from Ordovician St. Peter Sandstone by torrents of water; most of the erosion occurred during the wet climate of the Pleistocene.  Indeed, the Illinois River Valley and those of its major tributaries are all products of glacial meltwater (including intermittent catastrophic floods) which peaked late in the Pleistocene (10-15 thousand years ago) as the Wisconsin Ice Sheets retreated into Canada.  The Park, which has both a Lodge and a Visitor Center, is accessed by 13 miles of trail loops which lead to overlooks atop the bluffs and into the magnificent chasms.

Named for a deadly confrontation between Native American tribes, Starved Rock State Park hosts a large number of bald eagles during the winter months and offers broad views of the Illinois River, which forms a wide lake behind the Starved Rock Locks & Dam; increasing numbers of American white pelicans congregate along the river during migrations as do a wide variety of waterfowl.  Today, raked by a gusty south wind, we enjoyed summer-like conditions at the Park; by evening, a potent cold front had pushed through the area, bringing rain and a rapid fall in the temperature.  It is, after all, late October.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Up the Illinois River

After zigzagging across the Mississippi floodplain, north of St. Peters, Missouri, we crossed the river on the Golden Eagle ferry as a bald eagle circled overhead.  A second ferry took us across the lower Illinois River and, after a lunch in Grafton, we paid a visit to Pere Marquette State Park, which is draped across forested bluffs east of the River.  A scenic drive takes visitors along the crest of the ridge and offers broad views across the Illinois' floodplain and adjacent terrain but the best views are obtained via trails that lead up and north from the Visitor Center; taking in the River and its associated wetlands, the spectacular vistas make one appreciate why this Midwestern stream is such a magnet for migrant waterfowl.

Heading north on Illinois Route 100, we visited parts of three National Wildlife Refuges: Two Rivers, Meredosia and Chautauqua.  All harbored large, mixed flocks of waterfowl, migrant white pelicans and a variety of shorebirds (primarily yellowlegs).  Bald eagles, great blue herons and a host of other waterbirds were also seen though I failed to spot any migrant cranes.  We're spending the night in Peoria and will continue our tour of the Illinois and its floodplain tomorrow.

The Illinois River may be the least appreciated of America's large rivers.  One often hears about the vast watershed of the Ohio-Missouri-Mississippi River System but most Americans know little about the Illinois and fail to appreciate the vital role that it plays in waterfowl migration.  Per mile, there may be more National Wildlife Refuges, State Wildlife Areas and nature preserves along the Illinois than any other American river.  Winding south-southwest through the heart of the Corn Belt (once a vast Tallgrass Prairie), this River and its spectacular floodplain appeals to human and avian travelers alike.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Duck Weather at Eagle Bluffs

This morning, I arrived at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain, under a blanket of low clouds.  Curtains of rain swept across the refuge and the riverside hills were shrouded in mist.  It was a perfect day for ducks.

Yet, despite the date, approaching the peak of waterfowl migration, the major pools were relatively devoid of birds; only the occasional pied billed grebe and a few double-crested cormorants broke the surface of the calm, rain dappled channels.  Flocks of mallards, gadwall, blue-winged teal and northern pintails were found on the flooded crop fields and bands of coot nodded across the wetlands but, for late October, the waterfowl numbers were underwhelming.  Great blue herons, like water-logged sentries, hunched atop nest boxes, a lone black-crowned night heron flushed from a canal bank and a few belted kingfishers perched along the waterways, waiting out the deluge.  In the end, the only spectacle was provided by massive flocks of grackles and red-winged blackbirds that moved across the refuge.

While the birdwatching was a disappointment, the rain is more than welcome after our long drought.  We'll gladly trade in a dry, crisp, colorful autumn for an excessively wet and cloudy season.  After all, the ducks and geese will welcome those conditions and their migration has just begun.  There will be plenty more opportunities to enjoy their vocal congregations over the next two months.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The McGovern Rift

Back in the early 1970s, as an opponent of the Vietnam War and a potential draftee (if not accepted to medical school), I supported George McGovern for President.  Raised by a Conservative, devoutly religious father, this commitment proved to be the earliest rift in our relationship which, until that time, had been rather tame.

Of course, it is not unusual for a twenty-one year old college student to disagree with his or her parents but, in my case, many of the principles set forth by Senator McGovern set the stage for a philisophical divide that widened over the years.  His campaign instilled a social liberalism in my soul that has lasted to this day; in concert, I have come to doubt the wisdom of military campaigns and have lost trust in both the message and the motivation of organized religion.  Though my commitment to environmental issues stems more from an early interest in natural science, my support for industrial regulation and conservation initiatives assured that the gulf in our political views would never mend.

So, on reading of George McGovern's death this morning, I was taken back to those formative years when, learning to think for myself, I broke from the conservative philosophy that ruled my father's life.  Many will acknowledge similar patterns in their own families and some will mourn the loss of tradition that such divides produce.  But I thank George McGovern for his inspiration and firmly believe that human progress depends upon our capacity to doubt, our willingness to reject failed policies and our commitment to find new solutions for our many social, political and environmental problems.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Junco in the Dark

When I walk to work through the dark early mornings of our colder months, I encounter few of my wild neighbors.  Cottontails scamper across the dry lawns, raccoons or opossums occasionally nose among the garbage bags or a barred owl may call in the distance.  But songbirds are still slumbering in their roosts, awaiting the first rays of dawn.

I was thus surprised to see a small songbird this morning, flitting along the edge of a campus greenbelt.  Smaller and thinner than our ubiquitous house sparrows, it proved to be a dark-eyed junco, the first I have encountered this season.  Summer residents of Canadian woodlands, they are content to winter in the chilly, gray realm of the Midwest and this fellow likely arrived overnight, anxious to fuel up on weed and grass seeds.  He and his cohorts will be conspicuous neighbors through the colder months, feasting under our backyard feeders or scouring for seeds along country roads, flashing their white edged tails as they flee into the nearby brush.

This morning's encounter was just another sign that summer has lost its grip and that cold, northern winds will lash our region with increasing frequency.  Most of our summer songbirds have already escaped to the south and their winter counterparts will soon claim our parks and neighborhoods, joining the legions of permanent residents.  The junco, free to spend to his winter on the Gulf Coast, is not fond of balmy weather and will keep us company until mild April air sends him back to his homeland.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Ridge & Valley Province

Looking at a satellite image of North America, one's eye is drawn to a swath of parallel ridges and valleys, extending from the lower Hudson Valley of southeast New York to the northern edge of the Coastal Plain, in northeastern Alabama.  Sandwiched between the Appalachian Plateau, to its west, and the high spine of the Blue Ridge, to its east, this geophysical province reflects varied Paleozoic sedimentary rocks that accumulated in shallow seas from 500 to 300 million years ago.

As the Continents merged to form Pangea, some 250 million years ago, the Southern Appalachians crumpled upward, lifting the Precambrian core of the Blue Ridge and rippling the Paleozoic strata to its west.  Throughout the Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras (and continuing today), erosional forces have sculpted the landscape, producing ridges of resistant sandstone and valleys of soluble limestone and shale; the largest of the valleys, known as the Great Valley, runs along the east edge of the Province, from central Pennsylvania to northern Virginia, and is renowned for its karst landscape of caves and springs.  Many rivers, large and small, were emplaced before the strata of the Ridge & Valley crumpled and lifted; cutting down through the folded and faulted sediments as they rose, these rivers opened water gaps in seams of sandstone, producing the modern illusion that they bore straight through the linear ridges of the Province.

Most highly developed in south-central Pennsylvania, along the Virginia-West Virginia border and in central Tennessee, the Ridge & Valley Province also cuts across northwest Georgia and enters northeast Alabama, fading into the Coastal Plain southwest of Birmingham.  The elevation of the ridges is rather modest (generally under 2500 feet) in comparison with the Blue Ridge Mountains to their east and the high wall of the Allegheny Front, to their west.  Unlike the crumpled, faulted and overthrust strata of the Ridge & Valley Province, the Paleozoic sediments of the Appalachian Plateau, which stretches from the Poconos of New York to the outskirts of Huntsville, Alabama, are horizontal and undisturbed, broken only by a vast, dendritic network of stream valleys.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Mt. Taylor

In late September of 1975, I caught my first glimpse of a snow-capped western mountain; it was Mt. Taylor, 11,302 feet, rising WNW of Albuquerque, New Mexico.  This majestic stratovolcano stands above the San Mateo Mesa, a Pliocene-Pleistocene volcanic field that overlies sediments from the Cretaceous Sea.  Rifting along an ancient suture line in the Precambrian basement rock is thought to have triggered the volcanism and the formation of Mt. Taylor, which once rose at least 5000 feet higher than it does today; geologic evidence suggests that the peak formed between 3.3 and 1.5 million years ago.

Mt. Taylor looms near the southwest end of the volcanic field which is oriented SW to NE, crossing I-40 at Grants, New Mexico (the peak is ENE of Grants); the entire mesa is east of the Continental Divide and rises above the west edge of the Rio Grande Rift.  A massive amphitheater on the southeast face of Mt. Taylor was initially thought to have resulted from a lateral explosive eruption (similar to that which occured on Mt. St. Helens); however, geologists have since determined that it is the product of erosion along that edge of the central crater.  One of many late Tertiary volcanic fields across northern New Mexico and northern Arizona, Mt. Taylor and its associated peaks are the closest to a large metropolitan area and this prominent summit is surely one of the more recognizable natural landmarks across the Desert Southwest.

Those of us who are fond of mountain landscapes tend to be most enamored with isolated peaks, especially those that rise above arid terrain.  Their gleaming snowpacks are a magnet for humans and wildlife alike, promising a cool retreat amidst the sun-baked plains and canyons.  Like a lighthouse above a cold, dark sea, Mt. Taylor, named for President Zachary Taylor, has long been a beacon of hope for weary travellers, offering a change of scenery and food for the soul.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Nature of Habitat

Mention habitat and most of us think in general terms: mountains, plains, forest, wetlands.  But these large, regional landscapes are each a mosaic of natural habitats and they, in turn, are composed of sub-habitats which possess micro-habitats.  Mountains offer a prime example; since their elevation range is often significant, they harbor multiple life zones, from foothill brushlands to alpine tundra.  Each life zone may contain forest, grassland and wetland areas and portions of these habitats will vary depending upon their exposure to sun, wind and precipitation.

When crossing the vast Plains of North American, many see a monotonous landscape of prairie and crop fields while students of nature recognize vegetation patterns related to streams, soil conditions and sun exposure.  Trees cluster along drainages or on the northern slope of escarpments where the shaded soil retains more moisture.  Even in desert areas, vegetation is more dense along the dry arroyos, reflecting seasonal torrents and their residual, sub-surface moisture.

On a smaller scale, micro-habitats are often produced by minor variations in temperature, sun exposure and soil moisture.  The giant saguaro cactus, a classic symbol of the Sonoran desert, relies on a "nurse plant" that provides protection from the intense sunshine during its early years of growth.  At the other extreme, alpine plants often cluster on the south side of boulders, which absorb and radiate heat and offer protection from brutal northerly winds.  While larger wildlife species are readily associated with the major habitats of Earth and migratory species visit numerous habitats in the course of a year, many plants and small creatures are restricted to micro-habitats; unless we are adventurous enough to visit those remote and highly restricted habitats, we will never fully appreciate the natural diversity that is so vital to the welfare of our planet.  Furthermore, since all life is dependent upon the the health of natural ecosystems, conservation efforts must be devoted to the protection of micro-habitats as well.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Nature's Hoarders

As the days shorten and we move toward the harsh, lean season of winter, wild creatures adapt in a variety of ways.  True hibernators, including most ground squirrels, marmots, ground hogs, some bears and many bats, eat voraciously, putting on brown fat to sustain them through the colder months.  Most mammals that remain active through the winter develop thicker coats, a protection from the frigid air and brutal wind.  Of course, migratory birds and mammals head for less demanding terrain, moving to lower elevations or off to the sunny south.  We humans, equipped with large brains, insulate our homes, check our furnaces, unpack our winter clothes and plan to spend much of the season in our heated shelters and automobiles.

Many species, including some humans, stock up for the lean months, gathering food and stashing it for later consumption.  Tree squirrels, chipmunks, pikas, mice, beaver, muskrats and packrats are the mammals best known for this hoarding activity; while they may sleep during periods of severe weather, they are not true hibernators and awaken to feed on and replenish their larder during mild interludes.  Among our avian neighbors, jays, nuthatches, nutcrackers and some woodpeckers are the primary hoarders, stockpiling seeds, nuts and fruit when natural supplies are plentiful, returning to feast on them in the depths of winter.

While humans anticipate the coming hardships of winter, wild hoarders act instinctively; the waning daylight triggers neurochemical and hormonal signals that induce their preparations.  This annual diligence will help to ensure their survival but, unlike humans, they have no capacity to dread or worry about the physical demands that lie ahead.  In that respect, they are less prone to stress than are humans, despite our supermarkets and cozy homes. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Surge of Summer

After two weeks of cool, dry, autumn-like weather, summer is returning to the American Heartland, courtesy of a potent storm system that first developed over the northern Baja Peninsula.  There, the upper level low produced heavy rain and flash flooding across parts of Southern California and the Desert Southwest before tracking to the northeast.

This morning, the storm is centered over southwest Kansas and is sweeping Gulf of Mexico moisture across the Central and Southern Plains and into the Midwest.  A swath of heavy rain stretches from northern Michigan to western Oklahoma as warm, humid air is lifted by the advancing front.  The strongest thunderstorms, some including tornadoes, will develop along the dry line, south of the central low pressure; as the latter continues to move northeastward, this line of severe weather will develop across eastern Oklahoma, Missouri and northern Illinois, advancing eastward over the coming days.

For now, winter has retreated into Canada and this summer surge should hold for a few days, bringing mild conditions in the wake of the storm; here in Missouri, afternoon highs are expected to remain in the 70s F through much of the coming week.  Winter may have lost this battle but it will eventually prevail as the longer nights take their toll and the jet stream settles across the southern U.S.  By then, summer will have thrown in the towel, resting up across the Gulf Coast and Caribbean for its next challenge in early spring.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Sharp-shin Season

Fairly common throughout forested areas of the U.S., sharp-shinned hawks are especially conspicuous during the months of October and November as local residents are joined by migrants from the north.  The  smallest of our accipiters (which also include Cooper's hawks and northern goshawks), sharpies are a bit larger than crows and feed primarily on songbirds, strafing the treetops early and late in the day.

Equipped with short, powerful wings and a relatively long tail, they careen through woodlands, alternately flapping and gliding as they search for prey.  Like most hawks, sharp-shins also soar overhead at mid day, riding thermals that develop as the sun warms the landscape.  In fall, as their migration peaks, they may appear in flocks, circling southward along mountain ridges.

Sharp-shinned hawks generally breed in coniferous forest but are common in mixed woodlands during the colder months and frequently visit suburban areas.  It is then that they benefit from human generosity; like domestic cats, they have learned that our fondness for feeding birds concentrates their prey and, at times, we lure hapless songbirds into their talons.  Then again, helping to sustain the population of these attractive raptors is an acceptable side effect (not that they need our help).

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Beluga Abuse

Yesterday, an article in the New York Times reported on the controversy related to the proposed  acquisition of 18 beluga whales by the Georgia Aquarium.  Officials and biologists with that institution argue that the acquisition will permit valuable research while helping to sustain a healthy captive population of those cetaceans.  On the other hand, as the article points out, the Aquarium and its affiliated marine parks also use the belugas for lucrative interactive programs that permit visitors to experience up-close encounters with the whales.

While zoos and aquariums certainly play an important role in education and research, the use of intelligent, highly social creatures for entertainment purposes is unacceptable to those of us concerned about the conservation and welfare of wild animals such as apes and cetaceans.  Modern aquariums offer fabulous, naturalized displays of aquatic ecosystems, housing a vast array of invertebrates, eels, fish, sharks and other creatures but the captive display of dolphins and whales is both unnecessary and inhumane.

Conservationists understand that the preservation of natural habitat is the key to protecting our wild neighbors and that the study of animal behavior outside of their natural habitat is of questionable value.  We do not support eco-tours that focus on unnatural, close encounters with wildlife and encourage that those creatures be observed from a safe and nonthreatening distance.  To remove belugas from their family groups in the open northern seas and place them in an artificial pool, however large, is to deny their dignity as intelligent co-inhabitants of Planet Earth.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Abajo Mountains

Anyone who has visited Arches or Canyonlands National Parks has surely noticed a cluster of mountains that rises to their south, towering above the dry, heavily dissected landscape of southeast Utah.  Just west of Monticello and north of Blanding, the Abajo Mountains, locally known as The Blues, are relatively gentle, rounded summits and were thus given a name that means "low" in Spanish.

The Abajos formed as intrusions of magma during the Miocene, some 25 million years ago.  As the Colorado Plateau rose during the Miocene-Pliocene Uplift, this laccolith, like the La Sals to its NNE and the Henry Mountains to its northwest, was uncovered as the softer sedimentary rocks in which it was encased eroded away.  Abajo Peak, the summit of this mountain cluster, tops out at 11,362 feet and is accessed by County Road 102 (reached via Forest Road 105, west of Monticello).  Topographically, the Abajos lie between the Colorado River canyon, to their northwest, and the canyon of the San Juan River, to the south; WSW of the Abajo Mountains, these two rivers merge within Lake Powell.

Remote and uncrowded, the Abajos are one of many "sky islands" across the Desert Southwest, offering a cool retreat in summer, spectacular aspen displays in autumn and a winter wonderland during the colder months of the year.  A ski resort once attracted visitors to the Abajo Mountains but has since closed; well prepared and adventurous hikers can thus explore this range in relative solitude, treated to a diverse population of mountain wildlife and to magnificent views across arid canyonlands to distant peaks and mesas.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Planet, Moon & Suns

On this dark, chilly October morning, the air was crystal clear and the night sky had the brilliance of mid winter.  Bright Venus gleamed high in the east and a half moon glowed overhead.  The Hunter, Orion, loomed in the southern sky with Sirius, our brightest star, to its southeast; just 8.7 light years away, Sirius is also among the closest of our celestial neighbors.

Northwest of Orion was the tight cluster of the Pleiades, commonly known as the Seven Sisters; 440 light years from Earth, they are among the youngest stars in the sky, having ignited during our Cretaceous Period (some 100 million years ago), when T. rex stalked the globe.  Cassiopeia zig-zagged across the northwest sky and the Big Dipper, part of Ursa Major and perhaps our best-known constellation, tilted to its east.

Beautiful and humbling, the night sky, long misinterpreted by man, conveys our relative insignificance in this vast Universe.  How many of those countless suns shine on other civilized planets, perhaps far more advanced than our own?  In what constellations does our own sun appear, viewed from innumerable planets across our Milky Way Galaxy?  Will we, as a species, ever learn of those civilizations or will the rapidly expanding Universe keep us forever in the dark?  Haunting questions on this spectacular October morning.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Value of Government

The coming U.S. Presidential election will likely be a referendum on the value of government in our lives.  Romney and his colleagues want government out of the way, claiming that it stifles free market capitalism.  President Obama, on the other hand, represents those who value the role of government and recognize its importance in ensuring the protection of human rights, the stability of financial institutions and the health of our natural environment.

History is replete with social advancements that were enacted and supported by government, including the civil rights movement, the liberation of women, the protection of children, the extension of voting rights and a host of environmental regulations.  Anyone who denies the key role of government in these and other areas of social progress must be blind to the selfishness, discrimination, intolerance and greed that pervades human society.  Having faith that humans, free of social law and governmental oversight, will act in the best interests of the community is naive at best.

Coming on the heels of the international financial crisis, the BP oil disaster and, most recently, the outbreak of meningitis resulting from tainted steroid preparations, many of us are alarmed by political rhetoric that promises less governmental regulation.  While individual freedoms must be protected, the government plays a vital role in making sure that rich and powerful corporations do not abuse their influence and place others at risk.  As stewards of the environment, we cannot accept their argument for less control over air, soil and water pollution, undoing the vital progress of the last Century.  Modern technology will make government less cumbersome and bureaucratic but its role in protecting the welfare of human society and our natural environment cannot be diminished.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Weather Games

Not long ago, one could tune into the Weather Channel for a timely update on regional, national or international weather.  Today, its programming is a series of celebrity interviews, lifestyle segments and drama-spiced reality shows, separated by brief "On the Eights" forecasts.

Still helpful during periods of severe weather (if you can ignore the antics of their on-site stuntmen), this popular channel and its well-known celebrities seem to be more focused on entertainment than on the science of meteorology.  Their latest gimic, announced this week, is to name winter storms (as we do tropical storms and hurricanes) in an apparent effort to keep viewers interested throughout the bleak season of ice and snow.  Not well received by professional meteorologic associations, this marketing tool may be problematic since winter storm systems rarely have the localized, compact circulations of tropical cyclones.

Then again, meteorology is beside the point.  If Winter Storm Gus keeps eyes glued to the Weather Channel, the name game will be a success.  I can hear the trailer now: "Wake Up with Al for the latest on Winter Storm Rudolph."  And, of course, when Jim Cantore stands in a snowdrift, pelted by driving sleet, he'll have a personalized storm to blame.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Humans & Opossums

On dark, cold, damp mornings like this, I often see an opossum waddling across our road, backlit by a street lamp.  Native to tropical regions of Central and South America, this immigrant marsupial is not well equipped for the cold season of North America's Temperate Zone.  Nevertheless, it has thrived due to its hardy nature, its high reproductive rate and its willingness to eat anything, from dog food to rotten apples to carrion.

We humans are also immigrants from the Tropics.  Designed to dissipate heat, we are not naturally equipped to survive in cold weather.  Our success in colonizing the colder regions of planet Earth is solely a reflection of our large, complex brain, endowing us with both a sense of adventure and the intellectual capacity to adapt to varied environments by utilizing fire, clothing and shelters (not to mention international transport and air conditioning).  Unlike the opossum, however, we often sense our tropical roots and many of us, 80,000 years after dispersing from Africa, are still troubled by the cold, dark season of winter.

Many humans, convinced of our natural superiority and godliness, are likely offended by the implications of this post; indeed, religious persons might consider it to be downright blasphemous.  But all of Earth's creatures, from corals to humans, molded by evolution and natural selection, are designed to propagate our genes.  In the case of opossums and humans, this has included the capacity to leave our homeland and colonize more hostile regions of the globe.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Winter Strikes Back

Banished to the North Country back in February, winter has not shown its face in the American Heartland for almost eight months.  Thanks to a northward displacement of the jet stream, chilly air has remained in Canada and we experienced one of the most prolonged periods of warm weather in recorded history; unfortunately, that stagnant weather pattern also produced a severe drought.

Dropping across the Great Plains, this week's cold front should push through Missouri overnight, bringing scattered showers and much cooler air.  Our highs over the next few days will match our early morning lows of the past few weeks and we might hit the freezing point by dawn on Sunday.  Not unusual for early October, this initial pulse of winter should silence the fiddlers and send the last of our summer birds off to the south.

The semiannual war between summer and winter has begun and, over the next two months, an undulating jet stream will produce an alternating atmospheric pattern of chilly troughs and warm ridges.  After enduring a long, oppressive summer, I and many others are rooting for winter and, of course, Earth's history is on our side.  Indeed, recent climate forecasts suggest that the La Nina should begin to break down by December and that the coming winter will be a more typical one for the Heartland.  Here's hoping that deep snows and heavy spring rains recharge our groundwater, streams and reservoirs.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Reducing Healthcare Costs

As a hospitalist, I have witnessed a steady stream of regulations from both private and federal insurance agencies, designed to reduce the cost of healthcare.  Payment limitations or outright denials, based on admission status, coding accuracy, readmission rates and other parameters have created a costly army of bureaucrats at every medical institution, charged with insuring that all regulations are enforced.  In the end, little is achieved and the cost of healthcare continues to rise.

The only interventions that will truly make an impact on healthcare costs are an aggressive approach to preventive health and a strict adherence to evidence-based, cost-effective medicine, eliminating payment for costly drugs and procedures that have no proven benefit.  When it comes to prevention, vaccinations are paramount in children while healthy lifestyle choices are vital in all age groups.  The combined effect of tobacco, obesity and alcohol abuse is responsible for a large percentage of health care costs and we all end up paying for those conditions. Unfortunately, financial incentives tend to be more effective than public education and every effort must be made to augment the personal cost of unhealthy lifesytle choices, including high taxes on the items of abuse and higher insurance rates for those who assume those risks.  As with many social problems, an attack on poor and costly lifestyle choices must begin during childhood and some traction has been achieved via healthy lunch menus and exercise programs in grade schools across our country.  While cynics might dismiss such efforts, a failure to instill healthy behavior in children will, in the long run, impose a high cost on society.

When it comes to evidence-based, cost-effective care, we must accept the fact that some rationing of resources is essential.  The use of intensive care units for end of life care is perhaps the most egregious example of misspent funds but the rush toward surgical management of obesity is rapidly climbing the list.  Commercial advertising of prescription medications, now out of control, not only adds to the cost of those medications but fosters the mentality that drugs are the answer to all human maladies; in fact, side effects from these agents account for a significant amount of morbidity and mortality, further adding to the cost of healthcare.  Finally, the pressure of litigation must be removed from the equation; when standard of care is delivered, adhering to evidence-based, cost effective measures, physicians should not be held accountable for bad outcomes which, inevitably, will occur.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Nature in her Prime

As winter loses its grip in March, nature gains momentum, spurred on by the fertility and recovery of spring.  Fragrance, color and sound reclaim the landscape and a surge of life spreads through the natural ecosystems of planet Earth.  Come summer, stifled by heat, a period of maturation ensues, taking nature from the unbridled growth of late spring to the mellow ripening of early fall.

Indeed, by autumn, nature is in her prime as her bounty reaches its peak and the harvest begins.  Mild days, colorful foliage and cool, pleasant nights set the stage for this annual feast as our wild neighbors benefit from her produce and prepare for the demands of winter.  In concert, migrant birds and mammals gather at favored feeding grounds, storing energy to escape the coming ice and snow.  For those of us who enjoy nature, it is the best season to explore her varied realms.

As much a part of nature as the colorful plants and wild creatures that we observe, our lives mimic the seasonal progression of nature's year.  Our springtime of youth, carefree and adventurous, is followed by a trial of fire, ensuring our maturation as parents and as productive members of human society.  By late middle age, we enter the prime of our lives, confident, experienced and satisfied with our contribution; it is then, in the autumn of life, that we let ourselves slow down and enjoy the rewards of our demanding career.  After all, we know that the winter of infirmity lies ahead and that we, like nature's other creatures, will succumb to her relentless cycle.