Saturday, September 29, 2018

Mystery Tsunami in Indonesia

Yesterday, following two earthquakes (the second a magnitude 7.5 quake) and a series of aftershocks off the west coast of Sulawesi Island, a tsunami struck Palu, at the end of a long, narrow bay.  Both the Island and the adjacent Makasser Strait lie squarely on a southern extension of the Eurasian Plate, which encompasses all of Indonesia.

Destructive tsunami's are generally triggered by Subduction Earthquakes, where one tectonic plate dips beneath another; such a subduction zone stretches along the outer border of Indonesia, where the Australian and Philippine Plates are subducting beneath the Eurasian Plate.  Yesterday's series of quakes and aftershocks are thought to have developed along a transverse fault, where two microplates (of the Eurasian Plate) are scraping past one another; such faults do not generally produce vertical lift of the overlying sea, the tectonic process that usually generates tsunamis.

Geologists suspect that some vertical movement of one of the microplates may have occurred and that the topography of the narrow bay likely amplified the wave that was produced.  Regardless of the geologic explanation, the tsunami struck Palu and killed at least 384 residents and visitors.

Update:  As of 10-3-18, more than 1400 bodies have been recovered and the death toll is expected to rise.  

Friday, September 28, 2018

Praise for Christine Ford

On behalf of all Americans who care about women's rights and equal justice, I want to commend Dr. Christine Blasey Ford for her courage.  Despite her personal fear and anxiety and the threats made to her family, she was willing to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee to accuse Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault during their high school years.  Her testimony was calm, credible and, in my opinion, 100% convincing.

On his part, Judge Kavanaugh delivered an emotional opening statement but then resorted to dismissive, confrontational and disrespectful behavior when questioned by Senate Democrats.  Repeatedly reminding the Senators and the TV audience of his professional accomplishments and his regular church attendance, the judge surely pleased Trump and his conservative base but likely failed to convince most Independents and Democrats of his innocence.  An innocent individual would not ridicule those entrusted with assessing his fitness for the Supreme Court, he would not answer simple questions with rambling soliloquies and he would welcome an independent investigation to clear his name.

America needs more patriots like Christine Ford and fewer pompous, entitled white males like Kavanaugh; she certainly earned my gratitude and admiration, regardless of the Senate vote.  No doubt, the many women who have experienced sexual assault or harassment share my sentiments.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Pink Egrets at Dusk

Last evening, I went out at dusk to explore our Littleton farm.  Most of the bird sightings were of mallards, great blue herons and ring-billed gulls, heading toward their nightly quarters to our northwest.

A squadron of small bats strafed the farm and our colony of cottontails emerged for a leisurely night of nibbling.  Off toward a corner of the property, a noisy flock of magpies had gathered in a tree, apparently heckling a hawk or owl.  Above it all, jets drifted toward DIA and the clouds took on the changing hues of sunset.  Not to be outdone by Earthly events, Jupiter gleamed from the southwest while Saturn sparkled in the southern sky.

The highlight of my evening stroll proved to be a flock of pink egrets, fourteen in number, flapping toward a roost somewhere north of the farm; of course, they were snowy egrets, painted by the last rays of the setting sun.  Apparently unfazed by the cooler weather, they will spend at least another day along the Front Range before heading south.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Looking for Migrants

On this chilly, autumn morning, with a full moon balanced on the foothills to our west, I went down to South Platte Park, hoping to encounter fall migrants.  The early morning chill had brought out the songbirds, flitting and twittering among the shrubs and trees, but all was relatively quiet on the lakes and river.

During my one hour visit, I did observe two flocks of blue-winged teal, passing overhead, a handful of pied-billed grebes and a pair of Wilson's warblers, down from the mountains.  That was the extent of the autumn migration, a tide that has not yet gained momentum.  I did see plenty of permanent and some summer residents, including an osprey, a great horned owl, gray catbirds, double-crested cormorants and wood ducks, but the migrants have been slow to appear.

Nevertheless, it was a pleasant walk around Eaglewatch Lake.  I got my exercise, enjoyed the fresh, cool air and appreciated the company of the resident wildlife.  The migrants will turn up soon enough.

Addendum:  My ongoing search for migrants was rewarded early this afternoon, when a flock of 5 sandhill cranes circled southward above our Littleton farm.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Earwigs in the Apples

On this bright, warm, autumn morning, our youngest grandson visited our Littleton Farm.  Searching for an activity that might entertain him, my wife suggested picking some of our green apples and making cinnamon apple sauce.

He, of course, enjoyed the collection process and sampled quite a few of the apples before they were processed.  Since we do not use pesticides on the farm, a good number showed signs of insect damage and earwigs emerged from a few of the cavities.  Represented by about 2000 species across the globe, these elongated, flattened insects are easily identified by the pincers at the end of their abdomen.  Females lay their eggs in protected crevices by mid autumn and, in some species, overwinter with them to offer protection; after hatching in late winter, the juveniles undergo at least four molts before they mature to adults.  Throughout these stages, they feed on a wide variety of plant and animal matter, including flowers, vegetation, fruit, other insects and carrion; since they are primarily nocturnal, earwigs are seldom encountered unless found within crops or in basements.  They, in turn, are preyed upon by a diverse group of insectivores, including amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

Despite the earwig damage, most of the apple crop remained edible and the applesauce was enjoyed by all.  Though he is not yet two years old, I'm sure our grandson gained some insight into food production, watching it go from tree to stove to mouth!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Autumn Chill in the Valley

While the afternoons are still summer-like along the Colorado Front Range, the mornings now bring an autumn chill due to the longer nights.  Down on the South Platte River just after dawn, that chill was especially intense and, in response, the wild residents were noisy and active.

Canada geese, mallards, magpies and cedar waxwings were especially conspicuous and migrant ducks were beginning to arrive from the north; this morning's visitors included blue-winged teal, American wigeon and gadwalls.  A few summer residents still remain and a lone snowy egret, huddled on driftwood in the shallows, seemed to be contemplating his escape to warmer climes.  Normally nocturnal, a beaver was active in the post-dawn chill, inspecting his dam before winter arrives.

We humans, like the wildlife, are also invigorated by the chilly air and the riverside path was filled with walkers, bikers and joggers.  After all, the fall equinox arrives this weekend (September 22) and the glorious month of October, which usually brings the first snow showers to the urban corridor, is just around the bend. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Flooding and Federal Policy

As we witness the tragic flooding from Hurricane Florence along the Southeast Coast, we are reminded of the devastation in Houston caused by Hurricane Harvey and the repeated spring flooding along some American Rivers (the Red River of the Northern Plains comes immediately to mind).

Having decided that flood insurance is a money losing proposition, private insurance companies have backed away from such coverage, donating that option to the Federal Government.  As is often the case, the U.S. Government accepted the challenge and is now billions of dollars in the red (even before the devastation caused by Hurricane Florence).

One wonders whether Federal dollars would be better spent buying up properties on floodplains and barrier islands and assisting with local engineering efforts rather than encouraging insurance holders to rebuild in those flood-prone areas.  After all, global warming is threatening coastal communities as sea levels rise and will likely intensify the power of tropical storms and hurricanes.  We cannot expect leadership from the current Administration but both the financial and climate realities will eventually force the Federal Government to take a more intelligent approach to this recurrent and worsening problem.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Love Songs

We often speak of "Love Songs" as one category of music.  But when you think about it, almost all pop, rock and country songs could be categorized as such; even the great majority of instrumental music (including jazz and classical) has been inspired by that emotion.  Exceptions seem to be limited to secular holiday tunes and commercial jingles.

Most of our popular music is devoted to the joy of love, the pursuit of love, the complications of love or the loss of love.  That love may involve another person, a pet, a place (including nature), an activity or a mystical being, among less common subjects.

It is no wonder that the most complex and intense human emotion has spawned so much creativity.  After all, nothing is more important in our lives.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Florence lashes the Southeast Coast

Florence, now downgraded to a Category 2 Hurricane, has grown into a broad storm with hurricane or tropical storm force winds stretching across 400 miles.  The outer bands have come ashore in eastern North Carolina this morning, igniting tornadic thunderstorms and producing heavy, wind-swept rain.

Due to "blocking highs" to its north and northwest, Hurricane Florence is expected to stall near the Coast and then drift southwestward along the southeastern coast of North Carolina and the northeastern coast of South Carolina, perhaps as far south as Charleston.  North of the storm's eyewall, which currently has sustained winds of 105 mph, onshore winds will produce a storm surge of 10 feet or more, as well as inland flooding from up to 2 feet or more of rain.

Due to its slow forward motion (toward the coast and then down the coast), the high winds, storm surge and heavy rain will persist for a long period of time (perhaps 48 hours), increasing the risk of flooding and damage to trees, power lines and structures.  Of course, the Hurricane Stuntmen will be there to bring us the action.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Treating Dementia

This afternoon, I attended a conference on the diagnosis and treatment of dementia.  Several crucial points were made, including the importance of an accurate diagnosis (only 65% of cases are actually due to Alzheimer's Disease).  Furthermore, a variety of treatable conditions may cause dementia-like symptoms (alcohol abuse, depression, certain vitamin deficiencies, sleep disorders, toxins, hypothyroidism and hyperparathyroidism, among others) and, for these, curative measures are available.

Advances in genomics and biomarker technology may assist with early diagnosis, and a healthy life style (a Mediterranean diet, regular aerobic exercise and tobacco avoidance) may diminish the incidence and progression of Alzheimer's Disease.  While certain medications may modify the severity and course of dementia, curative treatments are not available at this point (though ongoing research studies offer hope).

What was not discussed at this conference (and a subject generally avoided by physicians at this stage of human enlightenment) is the option of assisted suicide for end-stage dementia patients.  This group of diseases, which rob individuals of their mind and their dignity, place a great deal of stress on caretakers and a tremendous financial burden on families and on society as a whole.  Should a dementia patient, while still capable of making decisions, request this intervention at a given point in their disease progression, I, for one, strongly support their right to die with dignity.

See: Thoughts on Assisted Suicide 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Late Summer Heat Wave

Following two weeks of relatively mild temperatures and intermittent rain, the next (and hopefully last) heat wave is building along the Colorado Front Range.  Once again, it is the product of a high pressure ridge, expanding northward from the Desert Southwest.  For the next week or so, afternoon highs are expected to reach the lower to mid 90s F, well above average for September.

Fortunately, the recent rains have revived the vegetation and the longer nights, combined with our high elevation and thin, dry air, have allowed overnight temperatures to drop into the fifties.  In addition, rising hot air often ignites thunderstorms above the Front Range peaks, which then drift eastward to provide spotty relief from the heat.

Our risk of these heat waves will continue until the jet stream becomes less stable in mid autumn, undulating across the country and dislodging warm atmospheric ridges with cool atmospheric troughs.  Snow usually dusts the higher peaks by late September and upslope snowstorms generally coat the urban corridor by mid October. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Fall without Football

Watching college football is among my earliest memories, gathered around the black and white with my father and uncles, enjoying both the snacks and their beer-fueled banter.  Throughout high school and college, that pattern continued as I joined friends on Saturday afternoons to watch the games and indulge in our favorite beverages.

My wife and I have also honored that tradition over the years, enjoying the pageantry and the legendary announcers (Jackson, Lundquist et al.) as much as the games themselves; however, other than her devotion to the Wisconsin Badgers, we have not been avid fans of any given teams.  Long disturbed by serious injuries suffered in the name of school pride and big money, we have lost our enthusiasm for college football as the evidence of sports-related CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) has become impossible to ignore.

Despite the enjoyment that college football has provided over the years, we can no longer lend our support by attending games or watching them on television.  This will be our first fall without football.

See also:  Modern Gladiators and Brain Trauma Season

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Delusion of Simplicity

Nothing of consequence in life is simple.  Surely, no one would argue that love or personal relationships are uncomplicated.  And who would suggest that parenting is simple or that their career has been devoid of complications?  To imply that there are simple solutions to our social ills or to the threats that we impose on natural ecosystems is exceedingly naive.

Indeed, life itself is highly complex, having evolved into a vast array of species over the past 3.6 billion years.  Despite our technologic advancements, we still do not fully understand the countless biochemical processes that support life and are far from eliminating the many diseases that threaten its existence.

Those who offer simple solutions to the problems that confront individuals, human society or our environment are delusional, seemingly unaware that all interventions have potential side effects and unforeseen consequences; most of these individuals are poorly educated and prone toward mysticism.  Our Universe, our planet, our civilization, our relationships, our bodies and our natural environment are far more complex and interconnected than most humans appreciate; there is nothing simple about them.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Published Word

Published writing, whether in the form of literature, a news article, an essay, a blog post or an email, must be owned by the author.  After all, it will be a permanent record of that person's ideas, experience, convictions and philosophy.

Those in the business of writing (authors, journalists, bloggers, etc.) come to understand this fact and personally read and re-read their material before it is published.  Subsequent to that publication, their writing (and its implications regarding the author) will often be questioned or criticized and may become fodder for lawsuits or various forms of social persecution.  In that respect, the willingness to produce published content (whether fictional or not) requires a certain degree of courage.

Unfortunately, those who publish via email, text or tweet, do not often understand the permanence and potential consequences of their comments.  Then there are those who publish anonymously, refusing to accept personal responsibility for the content of their pronouncement.  Both of these scenarios are especially disturbing for those of us who respect the published word.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Atlantic Comes Alive

After a slow start to the Atlantic Hurricane Season, a chain of tropical storms, hurricanes and tropical waves has developed in the past few days.  Of course, September is generally the peak month of the annual Hurricane Season (which runs from June to early November) and current atmospheric and oceanic conditions are favoring storm development.

Just yesterday, Tropical Storm Gordon made landfall along the Mississippi Coast and its flooding rains continue to fall near Pensacola and Mobile; in the coming days, that tropical system will inject copious moisture into the Midwest which will interact with a cold front to produce flooding from Arkansas to the Great Lakes.  Next in line is Hurricane Florence, currently a Category 3 storm in the Central Atlantic; its future course remains uncertain but it could potentially affect the entire East Coast of the U.S.  Behind Florence are three tropical waves, emerging from the West Coast of Africa every few days; since wind shear has currently diminished over the Atlantic and sea temperatures are in the upper 80s (F) off the Southeast Coast, the stage is set for potential landfalling hurricanes.

While the incidence of tropical storms and hurricanes will vary with a host of atmospheric and oceanic patterns, our warming climate will surely add fuel to systems that do develop.  Storms in the Eastern Pacific have dominated the headlines in recent months but the Atlantic has now come alive!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Visiting Coastal Colorado

After my recent travel to beaches and coastal wetlands of the Southeastern U.S., I thought I would visit Coastal Colorado today, a term I have previously applied to the lakes, gravel pits, sloughs and canals across the South Platte Valley of northeastern Colorado.

Unlike the Southeastern wetlands, those of the South Platte Valley are not characterized by lush, verdant vegetation.  Rather, in this semiarid climate, trees (mostly plains cottonwoods) are found only along the river, its primary tributaries or irrigation canals.  Since this summer has been especially hot and dry, the natural grasslands have browned, adorned only by clumps of prairie sunflowers and rabbitbrush.  Though I saw hundreds (if not thousands) of American white pelicans (especially at Barr Lake State Park), most avian species were limited in number; among these were Swainson's hawks, American kestrels, western grebes, cattle egrets, Franklin's gulls, American avocets and shorebirds that were too distant to identify.

I have been visiting this region in late summer for more than thirty years, enjoying the mosaic of shortgrass prairie, cropfields and ranchlands that surround the river, lakes and wetlands.  In recent years, however, fracking wells and oil storage tanks have begun to dominate the scene in some areas and one wonders what impact they will have on the quality of the water and the welfare of the aquatic ecosystems.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

River Otter at Eagle Bluffs

On this pleasant morning in central Missouri, a friend and I headed down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain.  Bird sightings were far from spectacular though a large number of great egrets and great blue herons were encountered.  The highlight of this morning's visit was the sighting of a river otter, feeding in a channel at the south end of the refuge.

Nearly extirpated from Missouri in the early 20th Century, river otters have made a dramatic comeback due to a reintroduction program that began in the 1980s.  Now found in rivers, large creeks and lakes throughout the State, these large mustelids feast primarily on fish, crayfish and amphibians; the young are born in late winter and family groups may be found throughout the year.

Since river otters are primarily nocturnal, they are not regularly observed by the general public and are more abundant than most of us might suspect.  This morning's sighting was thus a special and unexpected treat; though I have encountered many mink and muskrats at Eagle Bluffs, this was my "first otter" after hundreds of visits to that fabulous refuge.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Liberal Press

President Trump, like many other conservative politicians, often ridicules "the liberal media."  Of course, our narcissist-in-chief also refers to their reporting as "fake news" and openly suggests that they are the "enemy of the people."

While I despise almost everything that Trump does or says, I must agree that professional journalists tend to be liberal.  After all, they are well-educated, worldly individuals, students of history and well-informed on social issues.  Journalists are generally open-minded and tolerant, strongly devoted to free speech and human rights; more than most citizens, they are repeatedly exposed to the inequities in human society and understand the vital role that a free press plays in addressing those problems.

Unlike zealous politicians, who see the world in black and white, journalists appreciate the many shades of gray and work to uncover the truth, wherever their search might lead.  Truth, in turn, is the enemy of zealots and they fear (and thus denigrate) those who bring it to light.  Fortunately, the harsh rhetoric and threats that come from Trump and his admirers will not prevail in this country.