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Showing posts from August, 2014

The Nature of Panic

Panic is the over-reaction to a threat, whether real or imagined.  Persons with anxiety disorders are most prone to this emotional condition though it may also be spread through crowds, fed by the words or actions of others.  Throughout human society, panic may be induced by zealous news organizations that, in this highly competitive, 24/7 play for our attention, constantly repeat the global threats of the day, thereby placing too much emphasis on their significance.

In recent weeks, the ebola outbreak in West Africa and the spread of ISIS in the Middle East have garnered such coverage.  While both are serious problems that warrant attention and careful planning, their threat to distant countries has, in my opinion, been greatly exaggerated.  Though ebola is a deadly virus, it is not highly contagious and can be easily controlled in regions with modern medical facilities.  When it comes to ISIS, the savage jihadist organization, a coordinated international economic and military respon…

A Damp August Chill

With plenty of monsoon moisture in place, a cold front dropped through Colorado overnight and its low pressure center moved into the High Plains; this afternoon, it sits in south-central Nebraska.  Behind the front and west of the low, northerly winds are pushing the entrenched moisture across the Front Range urban corridor and toward the mountains.

Rising as it is forced toward higher terrain, the moisture-laden air cools and condenses, unleashing rain showers, scattered thunderstorms and, across the higher peaks, snow.  Beneath the upslope cloud layer, afternoon temperatures have remained in the lower 60s (F), a good twenty degrees below average for late August.

While moisture is always welcome in this semi-arid landscape, soils are becoming saturated and the risk of flash floods or rock slides is rapidly increasing.  Fortunately, this cold front (and a stronger system behind it) will likely cut off the monsoon flow in the coming days and, once the current low moves further to the e…

Colorado's Monsoon Surge

Thanks to persistent high pressure over the central U.S., the Southwest Monsoon has surged over the past week, with bands of heavy rain and thunderstorms pushing northward across the Rockies and High Plains.  Some storms have been severe and a few have produced tornadoes; as sometimes occurs during the Monsoon Season, we have also experienced overnight thunderstorms along the Front Range, developing well after the effect of solar heating has vanished.

By late August, the annual Southwest Monsoon is usually beginning to wane though, last September, torrential rains produced devastating floods from Boulder northward.  This year's surge of precipitation may portend more flash flooding along the Colorado Front Range; hopefully, the atmospheric dynamics, which are currently pumping copious moisture up from the Gulfs of California and Mexico, will shift before catastrophic floods reoccur.

Whether global warming is beginning to fuel a more potent Southwest Monsoon is unclear.  More likel…

Slogans & Intelligence

Slogans pervade human society, appearing on bumper stickers, on yard signs, in commercial ads and, especially during this election year, in the rhetoric of politicians.  Designed to make a point and sway opinion, slogans are simplistic statements that, while easy to remember, have little value in human discourse.

Those most fond of slogans tend to be those who have a black-white, good-evil, right-wrong view of life.  The simple message of a slogan either directly agrees with or directly contradicts their personal belief, reinforcing their conviction that the issues we face have but two solutions, both of which will yield predictable consequences.  In their mind, debate and compromise have nothing to offer.

In my experience, individuals receptive to slogans are less educated, less experienced and more provincial than other members of society.  After all, education, experience and worldliness open our minds to the complexity of human life, including our personal development, our relatio…

Sandbar Willow

Of the many species of vegetation found on the South Platte floodplain, sandbar willow is surely the most abundant and widespread.  This shrub or small tree spreads primarily by suckering and thus forms dense colonies on the banks and sandbars of rivers and streams; since it favors sunny areas, it is less abundant where cottonwoods shade the channel.

Sandbar willows are found throughout Temperate regions of North America and are represented by three subspecies; in the Western U.S., they are also known as coyote willow.  Easily identified by their long, slender leaves, flexible stems and dense colonies, sandbar willows are consumed by a host of mammals, including elk, moose, deer, beaver, muskrats and cottontails.  Male and female flowers, which appear in late spring, are borne on separate plants and seed pods appear by mid summer; the latter contain numerous small seeds that are consumed by riparian songbirds, waterfowl and game birds.

Sandbar willows are pioneer plants, among the fir…

Rearranging California

Anyone interested in the geologic evolution of California is advised to read Assembling California by John McPhee, published in 1993, which describes how the State was pieced together as a puzzle of terranes.  Indeed, all of the U.S. from the Great Basin westward was added to North America in this fashion, arriving as blocks ripped from other Continents or as volcanic island arcs that formed above shifting subduction zones.

While most Americans are familiar with the San Andreas Fault (the border between the North American and Pacific Plates), which runs northwest from southeast California and exits the State northwest of San Francisco, there are many other faults that parallel the Pacific Coast and the Sierra Nevada, Coastal and Southern California Ranges; others straddle the Transverse Range or radiate from the volcanic centers of Northern California.

This morning's 6.0 magnitude earthquake (6.7 miles deep) was centered just north of San Francisco Bay (6 miles southwest of Napa);…

Up to Lower Latham

This morning, I made my annual August trek to Lower Latham Reservoir, NNE of Denver and just southeast of Greeley.  The wetlands along the south edge of the reservoir attract an excellent diversity of migrants in late summer, joining a mix of avian residents that summer in the South Platte Valley.

Highlights today included 18 black-necked stilts, a large flock of Franklin's gulls, a few white-faced ibis and several flocks of American white pelicans.  Other migrants included lesser yellowlegs, long-billed dowitchers and a flock of small sandpipers too distant to identify.  Summer residents were represented by great blue herons, snowy egrets, double-crested cormorants, Canada geese, blue-winged teal, killdeer, American kestrels, Swainson's hawks, barn and tree swallows, western meadowlarks, western kingbirds and those ubiquitous red-winged blackbirds.

While this pastoral scene is usually backed by the majestic peaks of the Front Range, morning fog and mid day cloud cover obscure…

Ice Buckets, Fun Runs & Charities

The ongoing Ice-Bucket Challenge, initiated to raise funds for ALS research, has been remarkably successful and one wonders if similar marketing programs will be initiated by other charities.  Of course, various walks, fun runs and biking events have long been used to raise awareness and money for a wide range of nonprofit organizations.

While most of these organizations are legitimate and provide services and research vital to the welfare of natural ecosystems and human society, I find that some of their marketing tactics rely more on the ego-centric nature of participants than on public interest in the programs that they support.  The Ice Bucket Challenge, while dramatically increasing funds for important ALS research, has become a self-promotion opportunity for celebrities, companies and social organizations while not significantly increasing discussion of the research itself.  Fund-raising athletic events, soliciting donations based on mileage covered by the participant, focus mor…

Arctic Sinkholes

Over the past few decades, climatologists have documented a gradual reduction in both the thickness and the expanse of Arctic sea ice, a result of global warming that has been documented across the planet.  This summer, as was reported on PBS last evening, new and unexpected findings in the Arctic appear to offer additional evidence of Earth's ongoing climate change.

Several large sinkholes have been discovered on the Arctic tundra of northern Siberia; edged by loose soil, there was initial suspicion that they might represent small impact craters.  Others suggested that the holes may have resulted from the eruption of subterranean pockets of methane.  At this point, however, most of the investigators have concluded that they are true sinkholes, having developed due to melting of deeper layers within the permafrost; this process has created water channels, undermining the surface of the tundra.

While the surface of the Arctic tundra has long thawed during the summer months, the dee…

A Rim of Storms

As this week began, a dome of high pressure was building over the Central and Southern Plains of North America.  Within that dome, sinking air and light winds have pushed afternoon highs into the 90s and low 100s (F), accompanied by oppressive humidity.

Meanwhile, clockwise winds along the outer rim of that dome, combined with counterclockwise winds surrounding low pressure over Southern California, have swept moisture northward from the Gulfs of Mexico and California, fueling the Southwest Monsoon.  This copious moisture has caused extensive flooding near Phoenix and produced bands of rain and thunderstorms throughout the Rocky Mountain and Wasatch corridors; indeed, this stormy pattern continues eastward across the Northern Plains (along the northern rim of the dome) and, by tomorrow, is expected to fuel thunderstorms across the Great Lakes region.  This evening, storms are igniting from Kentucky to Georgia, along the southeastern edge of the high pressure dome.

As the dome drifts e…

A Day for Dust Devils

As I crossed the Great Plains yesterday, intense heat, bright sunshine and calm conditions set the stage for dust devil formation and I encountered dozens of those mini-tornadoes on my journey.  Dust devils form when hot surface air breaks through the cooler overlying atmosphere and spins as it moves upward and its axis narrows.  The rising column of air creates a vacuum which pulls in more hot air from the surrounding plain, sucking up dust as well; due to variable friction at the surface, the funnel moves across the landscape, fueled by hot surface air over which it moves.  Atop the dust devil, the rising air cools and vents to its rim, falling back toward the surface and reinforcing the shape of the vortex.

Since they most often develop in dry, flat, open country, these small atmospheric cyclones generally cause little damage though larger dust devils can destroy property.  Their structure is dependent upon stable conditions that permit the inflow of hot air at the surface while pr…

Sorghum Season

Driving across the Great Plains today, I noticed that sorghum covered most of the crop fields, especially in central Kansas.  Native to northeastern Africa, sorghum was first cultivated in that region some 8000 years ago and its use spread to other areas of Africa, India and Southeast Asia.  Historians report that sorghum was brought to North America in concert with the slave trade though, despite its nutritional value, it has not been a major food crop in the U.S.  Worldwide, at least 30 species of sorghum combine to yield the fifth most abundant cereal grain consumed by humans.

Today, sorghum (also known as milo) is primarily grown for livestock feed (especially pigs and chickens) in the U.S. though sorghum flour has been increasingly used to make gluten-free baked goods and pasta; in addition, the plant has gained favor in the production of biofuels, especially due to its drought tolerance.  Indeed, the latter trait has spawned an increased cultivation of sorghum on the semiarid Pl…

After the Rain

Following a night of rain with intermittent thunderstorms, we headed down to the Forum Nature Area this morning.  A mild west breeze had developed behind the storm system and pockets of blue appeared in the overcast as we circled through the bottomland refuge.

On the restored prairie, summer wildflowers were beginning to fade and the scene was now dominated by the bright purple of blazing star, the purple-pink heads of thistle and the glow of various goldenrods; pockets of white hibiscus also adorned the wooded prairie.  Eastern phoebes, eastern bluebirds, American goldfinches and eastern kingbirds foraged on the grassland while indigo buntings, gray catbirds, northern cardinals and yellow-billed cuckoos moved through the riparian woods.  Along the margins of the seasonal lake, green herons and a lone great blue heron stalked the shallows, killdeer and a few migrant shorebirds patrolled the mudflats and small flocks of mallards and Canada geese drifted on the calm waters.

Though we ma…

Honeyvine Milkweed

Walking through our Missouri property yesterday, I noticed a number of vines climbing through one of our eastern redcedars.  As I started to yank the vines from the tree, I found that they had numerous green seed pods; up to six inches long, the thick pods resembled those I have seen on milkweed plants.

Indeed, this was honeyvine milkweed, an aggressive plant native to eastern North America. Favoring moist, rich soil, it grows up through crops, hedgerows and almost any type of shrub or tree cluster, reaching heights of 30 feet or more.  A perennial vine, the plant has clusters of white, vase-shaped flowers, which yield the large, distinctive seed pods; once the pods dry out and crack open, they release numerous, flattened seeds that quickly disperse in the breeze.  While the control of this noxious weed must include removal of the pods before they open, the plant also spreads via horizontal roots and thus becomes a recurrent problem for gardeners, landscapers and farmers; of course, m…

Perseids & Fiddlers

On the past few nights, I went out back to observe the annual Perseid meteor shower, which generally peaks from August 11-14.  Produced by remnants of the Swift-Tuttle Comet, orbiting the sun every 133 years, the Perseids are known for both their abundance and their brilliance, often igniting long trails as they streak across the night sky.

Perseid watching was facilitated by nearly cloudless skies in Central Missouri this year though a bright "super-moon" obscured their clarity in the hours surrounding midnight.  Nevertheless, meteor showers are always inspiring events, reminding us that we are vulnerable to all that transpires beyond the realm of our tiny planet.

Since the Perseids grace Earth's sky during the late northern summer, the observer is serenaded by a host of crickets and katydids; the persistent din of these fiddlers is in sharp contrast to the silent, cold beauty of the night sky.  Surrounded by a riot of life, we gaze toward the heavens, wondering if simi…

Public vs. Private Persona

The recent suicide of Robin Williams shocked most of his fans but was not likely a surprise to his closest friends and family.  While the public knew him for his manic comedy, his engaging personality, his charitable activities and his superb acting skills, those who knew him well were aware of the depression and substance abuse that plagued his private life.

While the untimely death of an entertainment giant may, in the public's mind, be associated with the nature of celebrity itself (especially in the realm of actors and musicians), we all manifest a public persona that, at least to some degree, differs from our private one.  In many cases, a public display of confidence, enthusiasm and happiness serves to mask the pain of our personal life.  In others, a cheerful, quiet and friendly disposition runs counter to violent or aggressive behavior at home.  Indeed, persons charged with domestic abuse or serial murder are often described by neighbors and casual associates as reclusive …

Flying Blind

On my way to a family gathering in northeastern Ohio, I changed planes at Midway International Airport in South Chicago. Before we took off for Cleveland, I noticed that the majority of window covers were in the down position and this remained so throughout the flight.  Despite my initial assumption, few of the travelers were sleeping while most were focused on their cell phones, computers or magazines; perhaps we had a plane-load of frequent fliers who had seen the regional terrain many times in the past.  As one who prefers a window seat in order to observe Earth's landscapes from above, it amazed me that few on the plane shared my enthusiasm.

From my window on the north side of the plane, I watched as we took off to the east, enjoying a spectacular view of downtown Chicago and the Lake Michigan shore.  As we crossed the lake, fleets of sailboats appeared on its calm blue waters and I caught sight of sand dunes along the lake's eastern coast (Warren Dunes State Park).  We th…

Love & Compatibility

Over the past few decades, numerous match-making websites have appeared on the internet and several are heavily advertised on radio and television.  All promise to locate your soul-mate by using personal profiles based on photos, backgrounds, interests and goals; religious sites even enlist God to arrive at the perfect match.

But I suspect that such data, focused on compatibility, has little to do with love.  Rather, romantic love seems to arise from a complex mix of physical, emotional, psychological and biochemical signals, encoded in our genes and designed to perpetuate our species.  Any success claimed by the match-makers can likely be attributed to their role in breaking down social barriers, not to their secret formulas.

Of course, love itself does not always lead to personal happiness and fulfillment, especially when it is unrequited; even when it is mutual, other life circumstances may preclude love's full expression and development.  Compatibility sustains relationships (…

A Kansan Deluge

Heading back to Missouri today, I left Denver under sunny skies and enveloped in cool, dry air.  East of Oakley, Kansas, the air acquired a noticeable haze and, by the time I reached Wakeeney, a thunderstorm loomed to the north, triggered by low pressure along a stationary front that dipped across northern Kansas and Missouri.  I managed to dodge a second thunderstorm north of Russell but, as I approached Topeka, a dark, menacing wall stretched across the eastern horizon.

Torrential rain developed before I passed through Topeka, accompanied by gusty winds and near zero visibility at times.  The latter forced me to pull off at several points along the Kansas Turnpike and I searched the radio channels for news of a possible imbedded tornado; unfortunately, there was no mention of the severe weather though I did hear snippets of country music, anti-Obama rhetoric and Bible passages.  Enduring what amounted to a slow drive through a car wash, exacerbated by intense bolts of lightning, I f…

Hummingbirds and Humans

When we bought our Littleton, Colorado, farm, that section of the Front Range urban corridor was still semi-rural.  Broad-tailed hummingbirds would stop by in spring and fall, on their way to and from their breeding grounds in the foothills and lower mountains.  No doubt, their habits were established when the Colorado Plains and Piedmont were covered by semi-arid grasslands, broken by wetlands and stands of cottonwood and willows along the South Platte and its tributaries.

Over the years, as humans have modified the region with urban parks, suburban landscapes and other irrigated habitats, the Piedmont has become more attractive to many species of wildlife, including broad-tailed hummingbirds.  The availability of water sources, feeders and, most importantly, a wide variety of flowering plants, have encouraged these energetic summer residents to expand their range; while they can still be found in the foothills and at mountain resorts, broad-tailed hummingbirds have become increasing…

Rivers of the Cascades

The rugged, volcanic Cascade Range stretches from southern British Columbia to northern California; it is bisected by the Columbia River, which forms most of the Washington-Oregon border.  When enumerating the primary rivers that drain the Cascades, it is helpful to use major landmarks of the range from north to south: Snoqualmie Pass (on Interstate 90), Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams, the Columbia River, Crater Lake and Mt. Shasta.

The Northern Cascades (north of Snoqualmie Pass) are drained on the west by (north to south), the Skagit, Stilaguamish, Snohomish and Snoqualmie Rivers and their numerous tributaries; their east slope is drained by tributaries of the Columbia: the Okenagan, Methow, Stehekin, Entiat, Swakane and Wenatchee Rivers (north to south).  The west flank of the Cascades between Snoqualmie Pass and Mt. Rainier is drained by the Cedar, Green, White, Carbon, Puyallup and Nisqually Rivers (north to south) while the east side of that segment is drained by the …

Sunday Morning Songbirds

On this mild, sunny morning along the Colorado Front Range, I headed down to Chatfield State Park for a hike south of the reservoir.  There, a swath of riparian woodlands line the South Platte, extending westward as open woodlands on the grasslands and wetlands that stretch below the foothills.  Trails lace this area, providing attractive avenues for both exercise and nature study.

This morning, songbirds were numerous in those woodlands.  Lazuli buntings, yellow-breasted chats, yellow warblers, rufous-sided towhees, American and lesser goldfinches, Bullock's orioles, western kingbirds, broad-tailed hummingbirds and a lone blue grosbeak were found in the open areas while the riverside woods attracted house wrens, downy woodpeckers, northern flickers, gray catbirds, black-capped chickadees, blue jays, western wood pewees and white-breasted nuthatches.  Of course, other birds passed overhead, including double-crested cormorants, great blue herons, tree swallows, red-tailed hawks, Am…

Rock Work on Clear Creek

Today, I participated in my first project with Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado.  The project involved trail restoration work along Clear Creek, in the foothills west of Denver, including improved access from U.S. 6 for hikers, rock climbers, fishermen and kayakers.  The trail will eventually lead from Golden to Loveland Pass on the Continental Divide and connect with western slope trails on that lofty ridge; today's project was funded by Clear Creek County and the Mike O'Brien Trust.

My particular group was assigned to build a rock stairway from the road to the creekside trail.  We were led by Steve Austin, a legendary member of the organization who is approaching his 300th project with VOC; though he is 89 years old, he remains an active participant and, today, taught our group a great deal about building rock stairways.  During breaks in our work, we watched rafting groups negotiate the whitewater of Clear Creek and rock climbers scale the sheer granite walls of the canyon.

Earth's Mass Extinctions

During the course of life on Earth, which began 3.6 billion years ago, the diversity of species on our planet has been determined by a myriad of environmental factors.  Any given factor favored certain species over others (essential to the evolutionary process) while some events have had widespread deleterious effects on life in general.  The latter are known as mass extinction events and have been triggered by a variety of catastrophic alterations in the planet's atmosphere, climate, oceans and terrestrial ecosystems.  Proposed causes have included disruptions in atmospheric and marine chemistry, catastrophic volcanism, massive basalt flows, methane release from sub-marine or subterranean pockets, altered ocean currents due to continental drift and impacts from asteroids or comets.

There is evidence that several mass extinctions occurred during the Precambrian Era and that five major extinction events have occurred since the onset of the Paleozoic Era (542 million years ago); the…