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Showing posts from October, 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 curr…

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 approac…

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…

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).  Ba…

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 an…

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…

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 b…

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 centr…

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 (si…

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 to…

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…

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 s…

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…

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 ca…

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 …

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 …

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 in…

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 ey…

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 di…

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 trough…

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 c…

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 progressio…