Friday, October 31, 2008

Euro-Post #3: Three Things About Me & Airplanes

IMG_7230 Flights home from Europe are long and boring. Every time I have one coming up I think about how I’ll use the down-time to think over various things I haven’t gotten around to thinking through, but what I usually end up thinking about is… air travel. So rather than fight it, here at 34,000 feet over the Atlantic, roughly 500 miles East of St. John’s Newfoundland, I’ve decided that rather than fight it, I’ll blog about it.

First Thing

The first thing about me and air travel is I don’t like it. No I’m not afraid of flying or anything (though perhaps I should be- see the Third Thing, below.) I just dislike it. I dislike sitting still, I dislike the lack of control I have over my travel time, delays, and arrival, I dislike the food, I dislike people reclining their seats, I dislike being treated like I’m being admitted to a maximum security prison- I even dislike chatterbox seatmates.

Tangent: I used to politely go along when I had chatty seatmates. Part of it was I didn’t want to be rude, but another part of it is that I work in sales, and salespeople are always telling stories of great leads or contacts they made on planes. But one day about three years(?) ago I thought about it for a while and realized that no “lead” I’d ever obtained from a flight-seatmate had ever panned out, after more than a decade of flying and selling, and I thought- that’s it. I’m done. I’m not “chatting” anymore. Now when I get a chatter next to me, I either bury my face in a book, start working on my laptop and pop in headphones, or if those approaches don’t work, just turn toward them with my nicest, sweetest smile, and say, “You know, I’m not a big chatter.”

IMG_6383I had unlimited time, I’d drive everywhere. Seriously. If I could take as long as I needed to get to any meeting or vacation spot or whatever, I would always drive. I mean it. I love road trips. I’d drive to Ottawa for a meeting. I’d drive to Boston to see my parents or Chicago to see my sister, or Zihuatenejo for vacation.

When I’m flying over the ocean, I wonder what I’d do with unlimited time. I’m fascinated by the endless expanse of water below. When I look down I realize that this is what most of the world looks like- blue and flat. I’m not sure I’d ever become a big-time yachtsman/sailor, sailing back and forth to my company’s conference every year even if I had unlimited time. So I guess in my ideal, unlimited-time life I’d still fly for overseas trips. But I wouldn’t chat.

Second Thing

IMG_7232 The second thing is that when I do fly, I like to look out the window. (Pic right = Newfoundland coastline) Hardly any other frequent fliers I know look out the window. But the way I see it, I love to spend all day or more climbing remote peaks for a view, and yet here I am, more than twice as high as I’ve ever climbed- I should at least look at the freaking window.

AM View from Gooseberry N Rim 12 11 05 There are 2 times I most enjoy looking out the window. The first is when I’ve explored the route we’re flying over by car, bike and/or foot. For example when I fly to Phoenix or Las Vegas or San Francisco or San Diego, I know the geography well enough that I can follow the entire route in my head. (Denver’s trickier- the ranges are too closely packed together…) On the flight to Phoenix I get a wonderful view of Little Creek if I sit on the left side.

The other thing I enjoy about looking out the window is recognizing places I’ve previously seen only on maps. The ice-bound straits between Newfoundland and Labrador have been my favorite so far, but others include the English Channel, Lake Geneva, the Pyrenees, Corsica and Elba.

Third Thing

The third thing is that I survived a plane crash. (I referenced this event in a previous post, in the “Timeline of My Life” graphic.) It was in September 1997. My flight- a Frontier Airlines flight from Salt Lake to Denver had just taken off, when the pilot came on the intercom and said, “Carmen, could you please come to the cockpit?” A flight attendant unbuckled and entered the cockpit. slideThe pilot came on a moment later, announced that we’d had a hydraulic failure and were returning to the airport. That was the only information we got. The plane was quiet as we turned around and descended, and I think we were all thinking our own thoughts, but nobody cried or (visibly) prayed or showed any signs of panic. We landed smoothly, then rolled off the end of the runway- the hydraulic failure disabled the plane’s brakes. We finally rolled to a stop on the grass, and quickly evacuated out the inflatable slide. (Those slides work great. Just like in the diagram in the seatback card.) There were fire trucks and ambulances all round; they’d been ready for the worst. We milled around on the tarmac for a few surreal minutes, shaking the pilot’s hand and slapping him on the back, and everyone realizing we had another 30 or 50 years of living ahead of us.

Tangent: Following the crash I went for a mtn bike ride, and on the way home experienced the 2nd of the 3 bee-stings on the lower lip I mentioned in my beekeeping post. My lower jaw remained swollen for a couple of days, creating the misunderstanding that I’d been injured in the crash.

We’re over Newfoundland now. Mine is the only window open. (Everyone else is watching Movie #3.) The interior of Newfoundland looks like endless woods, hills and lakes. It looks magnificent. Almost home. I’m ready. I miss the Trifecta. I miss the Wasatch. I miss toilets with big bowls full of water.

Tangent: Seriously, what is with those Euro-toilets? They always have about a cup of water in the bowl which is nigh-impossible to bulls-eye with a falling turd, and therefore accounts for the brush beside every toilet.

Euro-Bowl Note to Europeans: Big, water-filled bowls = cleaner toilets

Quick Botany Item

IMG_7223 So I feel I should include at least some botanical nugget in order to save this post from being completely off-theme. Here it is. I’ve written a bunch about pines. The closest pines to me at home are the Austrian Pines in our yard. But I’ve never collected a cone from them for my collection because my rule is that I only collect from native habitat- or at least somewhere in its native range. Yesterday I encountered these Austrian Pines, in Austria! (specifically outside the Kuntehistoriches Museum.) Got my cone.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Euro-Post #2: Two Things About Me, More Euro-Hydrology, And Changing Larches

Here are 2 interesting things about me. And don’t worry, only one of them involves bragging.

Tangent: I keep seeing this thing on people’s blogs that says they got sent some chain-email that says they have to write 7 (10? 12? I can’t remember) interesting things about themselves, and then they go on about how they were born with an extra appendix or once peed next to John Denver in the men’s room of the Kansas City Marriott. But that’s not what happened with me. These are just two seriously interesting things that I’ve known about for a while, but was just reminded of again in the last couple of days.

First Thing

IMG_7177 So here’s the first thing: I heal really quickly. Seriously. After my last post about rolling my ankle, it swelled up way, way bigger than normal. And even though the swelling’s gone now you can see some of the residual bruising in this photo. The day after, Friday, I was hobbling around Prague like a cripple. The next day I felt pretty decent, and yesterday- are you ready?- I ran 3 miles, pain-free. For a mid-forties guy who’s drunk enough Czech beer in the last week to kill a small pony, I think that’s pretty impressive.

Second Thing

The second thing is this: Wherever I go- and I mean like wherever, like other countries where nobody looks like me- people ask me for directions. Really, this is true (and Awesome Wife confirms it.) First off, I travel all the time in the US for work, and people always stop and ask me for directions. But people also regularly stop and ask me for directions in other countries, including: France, England, Spain, Italy, Cyprus, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Netherlands, Monaco and now the Czech Republic. Now admittedly, in a few of these countries I look somewhat like a native, namely in Spain and Cyprus (I was going to include Italy, but I dress way too shabbily to pass for an Italian.) But in no way do I look Slavic or Latino, and what’s more, even when it’s obvious I’m a foreigner, people keep pressing me for directions! Here’s a typical example from last night, in downtown Prague:

WOMAN: Excuse please, do you speak English?

ME: Yes, I do.

WOMAN: Can you tell me please where ees “Abel Coffee House”?

ME: I’m sorry, I don’t know it.

WOMAN: (Thrusting map in my face) I theenk eet ees here, close to Old Town Square.

ME: You know, I’m actually not from around here. But I’m sure you could pop your head in the restaurant up there and ask them if they know where it is…

WOMAN: But look at map, I think ees here, no?

IMG_7154Seriously, you’d think after I opened my mouth, they’d say to themselves: Oh OK, this guy’s a clueless foreigner like me, I’ll move on and ask one of the 2 or 3 million people who actually live in this place… But no, they carry on, somehow under the impression that if they press me just a bit harder I’ll suddenly break down and reveal a hidden wealth of native-inhabitant knowledge that I’ve been somehow holding back under a finely-practiced veneer of Clueless American Tourist.

I can only think of 2 plausible explanations, one only remotely plausible, and the other totally, completely and ridiculously implausible, but way, way cool.

OK, so the first possible explanation is that people sense in me a willingness to help. And in all fairness, I am a reasonably helpful guy. Today for example I actually did give directions to a group of lost Irish tourists in Prague’s Jewish Quarter, and in a restaurant this evening I helped translate for a Spanish couple. So maybe I give out some subconscious, “Ask me, I’m happy to help!” vibe without knowing it (which would be ironic because in most situations- shopping, traveling, in a meeting at work- I’m hoping nobody asks me anything.)

The other, way far out, possible explanation is this: I have a phenomenal sense of direction, and at some subconscious level, people can sense this about me.

OK, I know this sounds totally wacky-tobacky, but the first part is true. I have an amazing sense of direction. I almost never get lost. (OK so I guess both of these things involve me bragging.) I’m particularly good in the backcountry, but I’m even pretty darn good in strange cities. I probably just have good mental-spatial skills, but maybe there’s more.

IMG_7160 Today Awesome Wife and I took a boat ride today on the Vltava, which was lots of fun. One the way we passed a bunch of ducks and swans (and these birds, which I couldn’t identify.) And it was pretty cold, which made me think about how these birds are going to migrate South pretty soon.

Bird migration is an amazing thing, both from a physiological and an evolutionary perspective, but the thing about long-distance migration that’s most amazing is navigation. Ornithologists have spent lifetimes trying to understand how migrating birds navigate, and it’s not 100% clear, but here’s an interesting thing that’s come out of that research: it appears that many birds are able to navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field. Evidence includes successful migration by birds that can’t see, as well as experiments attaching magnets to the backs of pigeons, who are then completely unable to navigate.

Bird Mag Field So what if, just what if, there is a “magnetic sense” in some birds? And if there’s a magnetic sense in some birds, could there, just maybe be a magnetic sense in some mammals? And if… OK you know where I’m going with this: Maybe I have a sense of the Earth’s magnetic field or some other sense of direction that other people can somehow subconsciously sense that I have…

Me Mag FieldOK, this last “theory” is way dumb. But seriously, people are like always asking me for directions.

Back to Euro-Rivers

So let’s get back to something a little more grounded in reality: Hydrology.

Elbe Vltava Route Caption The Vltava winds its way North up to Melnik, CZ, where it joins the Elbe before crossing into Germany, traversing that country, passing through Dresden and Hamburg before dumping out in the North Sea. But here’s the thing; when the Vltava meets up with the Elbe, it’s actually bigger than the Elbe at that point, so it’s not really a tributary so much as it is the Elbe. In Europe rivers are extra fascinating because they so often cross or divide multiple countries and languages.

EU Drainage I’m typing this on a train from Prague to Vienna. Sometime in the next hour, as we approach the Czech city of Brno, we’ll cross the European continental divide. Where we are now, all water eventually drains into the Atlantic/North Sea/Baltic. From Brno on South, all water eventually drains into the Mediterranean. The specific basin we’re entering, the Danube, is particularly interesting. The Danube is the longest river in Europe, originating in the Alps near Basel, Switzerland, swinging up into Bavaria North of Munich, then passing through Vienna, Budapest then Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine before dumping out into the Black Sea, which in to drains into the Mediterranean through the Bosporus in Turkey. That is a ton of countries and languages. Just like back home, road trips always are way more interesting when you know the hydrology.

Larches Changing The train’s passed out of the rolling plains and is climbing between wooded hills covered with some type of PLT. I don’t know European trees well, but even from here I can recognize Spruce and Larch. I’ve never seen Larch in the Fall before; the needles are a beautiful gold, getting ready to drop.

So one other cool thing happened today. Awesome Wife and I love traveling in Europe, but we’ve learned to tolerate the micro-sized hotel rooms. It’s like a law of Euro-Physics that no matter how large the room appears on the website, it’ll be tiny when we get there. This afternoon we arrived in Vienna and completely shattered the law- this room is huge! And reasonable! Wow!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Euro-Post #1: Running Rivers, Rolling Ankles

IMG_7092 For the last 4 days I’ve been in the thick of my company’s European conference. When I’m at the conference, my work-day runs from about 7:45AM to ~11PM, between meetings and sessions here and phone calls/emails back to North America in the evening. This leads to days where if I don’t watch it, I can end up spending 24+ hours inside the same building. This doesn’t work well for outdoorhead/tree geeks. So to preserve my sanity and (pretend to) maintain some base level of fitness, I run early in the morning, typically in the dark.

Tangent: My first morning I ran at Moon-Noon, which with the waning moon, was just before dawn. Prague is at latitude 50 degrees North, and so the 1/2 moon was way up around 60 degrees in the sky- very cool.

Euro-Runner I used to run a lot, but over the last few years as I’ve ramped up the biking I’ve backed way off on the running, now doing the latter when either a) there’s too much snow/ice on the ground to bike, or b) I’m traveling. And because I’ve traveled so much over the US and Europe over the last decade, I’ve run through an amazing number of cities, usually early in the morning, which means I’ve seen the trash picked up in about 25 times as many countries as Sarah Palin has visited. Listing the US and Canadian cities I’ve run in would be a long (and not terribly interesting) list, but foreign cities include London, Paris, Rome, Barcelona, Seville, Toledo, Granada, Bilbao, Monaco, Zurich, Florence, Venice, Munich, Dusseldorf, Tokyo, Limmasol, Gothenburg, Amsterdam… and now Prague.

In so many of these cities, I end up running along rivers- the Thames, the Seine, the Arno, the Isen, the Nervion. And the reason is that in many European cities the riverfronts are some of the few places where you can run for a while without a zillion street crossings, without checking a map every 5 blocks, and where you can get a bit of a view. As a result, in my European downtime, I think a lot about rivers.

Prague Overview Hydrology always fascinates me, and the first that always grabs me about European rivers is the sheer volume of water. In Utah, and pretty much throughout the Intermountain West, there’s no such thing as a navigable river. And by “navigable” I mean as in a real boat or a barge, not a kayak running class X rapids. But in nearly every European city I visit, there’s a huge, deep, placid river smack in the middle. And when you’re not used to big rivers, they’re really freaky- big Interstate-highway-sized lines of water that bisect cities. How weird is that?

hydro basin The thing about rivers that I can never quite get my head around is the flow. Where does all that water come from, and how is it all arriving at this here point at pretty much the same rate minute-by-minute? Rationally, I know the reason: the big river is fed by several tributary rivers which are in turn fed by dozens of smaller rivers which are in turn fed by hundreds of creeks and streams which are fed by tens of thousands of tiny streamlets and rivulets, which are in turn fed by millions of… of what?

IMG_7081 Sometimes, it’s almost ham-fistedly obvious, as with a glacier-fed river, such as Canada’s Athabasca. An eternal snowfield melts constantly, feeding the river. I get it. But think about the Thames. It’s huge- ships sail up it But there are no real mountains- much less glaciers in Southern England. Instead the Thames is ultimately the product of millions, billions of tiny seeps from the ground and misty raindrops drip-dropping off leaves and blades of grass. Each one is infinitely inconsequential, but together they make a mighty hydro-superhighway of phenomenal, quiet strength and power. Over centuries, even millennia, the river is unchanged, and yet it exists in its present form only in this instant, every bit of it somewhere else an instant later.

IMG_7101There’ something else we’ve looked at that’s like this, and interestingly, it’s also made of water: a rainbow. The refractive flash of the sun off the backside of each droplet is fleeting and transitory, but together they make a true, consistent and (momentarily) enduring arch of beauty. And I wonder if the beauty of rivers and rainbows is in some way the same beauty of foliage and children, the beauty of things that are only like the way they are right now.

Awesome Wife in Prague Yesterday 3 things happened- 2 good, 1 bad. The conference wrapped up, Awesome Wife arrived in town, and, running before dawn, I rolled my ankle on a wet curb, and it’s now swollen up like a grapefruit. Guess I won’t be “river-running” for a bit. We’ll spend the next few days hobbling around Prague.

Housekeeping Note: I changed my font the last couple posts, due in part to whining from Matt, who said the old Arial font I was using was too much of an eye-chart. If you have an opinion on old font vs. new, comment.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Angles Part 2: Moon-Noon, The Fifth Noble Truth, and Seeing Old Friends

IMG_7053The second angle is 45 degrees. And the reason I’ve been thinking about this angle is that we’ve now passed the point in the year where the noon-time sun is lower than 45 degrees in the sky. Pretty much everybody knows the Sun is lower in the sky in Winter and higher in Summer, but we don’t often pay attention to how high or low it is. How high it is on any particular day depends on where on the Earth you are, or more specifically, what Latitude you’re at, as well as what day of the year it is. The day of the year matters of course because the Earth is tilted at 23 degrees relative to the orbital plan of the Earth around the Sun, and the Latitude matters because in most of the world- anywhere North of the Tropic of Cancer or South of the Tropic of Capricorn- the further away you are from the equator the lower the Sun will appear in the sky.

The Fifth Noble Truth

Tangent: I’m typing this post on a flight to Atlanta- my first leg of a 20 hour trip to Prague. And I can’t let this moment pass without noting that I have suddenly realized a Great Truth. This is way up there, like the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. And so I will call it the Fifth Noble Truth. Here we go:

For millennia, wise men, priests, kings, philosophers and writers have debated good and evil. And they have debated what is Good Action and what acts or thoughts are Evil. They’ve started religions, movements, revolutions and wars over this question. What makes a man Good? What makes a man Evil? Is it kindness? Altruism? Charity? Baptism?

Right here, right now, I have come up with a complete, final and true answer to this question, the fundamental question of the ages, the question of Good vs. Evil. Here it is:

If you recline your seat on an airplane, you are an asshole. It doesn’t matter if you’re “Christian” or give to charity, or help out with the Boy Scouts/PTA, or win the Nobel F***ing Peace Prize. If you recline your seat on an airplane, you’re Evil. If you don’t recline, if you say, “Hey I’m a grown-up. I can sit still for a few hours and not act like I’m at the dentist’s office getting my teeth cleaned. I can show some basic human consideration for the 6’2” guy sitting behind me…” then you are Good.

Fifth Truth You know, we all love to go on about how Bad other people are and how Good we are, but generally in our day-to-day lives, we don’t really have to do anything special to choose Good over Bad. On a plane, we’re all given a wonderful opportunity: to choose Good at a minimal cost to ourselves. Choose Good. Don’t recline your seat.

Corollary for Readers Want To Be Good But Are A Bit Lame: If you feel you absolutely must recline your seat, turn around and look at the guy behind you. Don’t do it unless his/her seat is reclined.

Anywho…at the Spring and Fall Equinox, the aspect of the Earth to the Sun is such that the effect of the Earth’s axial tilt on the relative position of the Sun in the sky is neutralized, and on those days, if you’re standing at the Equator the noon-time sun appears directly overhead.

Side Note: A lot of people don’t know what the Tropic of Cancer means, other than the Henry Miller novel. The Tropic of Cancer is the latitude at which of the noon-time sun appears directly overhead on the Summer solstice. It lies at 23 degrees North- which makes total sense, since that’s how much the Earth is tilted- and it provides the maximally “tilted aspect” to the Sun on the solstice. The opposite latitude- where the noon-time sun appears directly overhead on the (Northern hemisphere’s) Winter solstice- is the Tropic of Capricorn.

On the Equinox, the Sun’s maximum height in the sky is equal to 90 degrees minus your latitude. Salt Lake is a bit above latitude 40 degrees North. So on September 22, the noon-time sun reached just a bit under 50 degrees in the sky.

Every day it gets a bit lower; eventually, on December 21, it’ll “bottom out” at just 27 degrees. (Here’s the math: we’re at 40 degrees North. Add 23 degrees for maximal tilt away from the orbital plane. Subtract 63 from 90.) Each day until then the Sun peaks just a bit lower in the sky.

Winter Sun Using some rough kiddie-math, on about Wednesday last week, the Sun peaked in the sky at just under 45 degrees. It won’t peak in the sky above 45 degrees again until around February 28.

IMG_7048 This angle is significant because it means that along the Wasatch there are now a number of places that are in permanent shade, particularly in North-facing nooks and crannies in the canyons (pic right = sample “cranny” in Mill Creek Canyon.) Already on otherwise clear trails there are frequent “mini-winter” spots of packed snow/ice and frozen mud, largely immune to the Sun’s warming effects over the past week.

Mini Winter Spot Tangent: This low sun-angle will be greatly appreciated over the next couple month by backcountry skiers. In December and January the low sun means that snow surfaces will remain fresh and powdery for several days following a storm. But by March or April the snow following a storm will typically be good for the day or two following at best.

The reason I think so much about the Sun’s angle and light and dark is mountain biking. Over the last month I passed the point where now a majority of my riding time involves some portion of riding in the dark, either at the beginning (before work) or end (after work) of the ride. I’ll keep mountain-biking till the snow shuts me down; already my brown fat has tuned to the chilly temps and my vision and balance have tuned to the conically-illuminated world of my bar and headlamps- a distinctly different perspective than the same trail illuminated by an overhead sun.


But this past week was also a full moon, and the first full moon of the season in which the moon peaked in the night sky at higher than 45 degrees at “Moon-Noon”.

IMG_7074 “Moon-Noon” is what I call the point in the night when the Moon is at its highest point in the sky. And because the Moon’s position changes every night as it orbits the Earth, Moon-Noon is only at the same time once a month. On the night of the full moon it’s roughly around midnight, but each day following the full moon it’s a little bit later. (The Moon orbits counter-clockwise around the Earth, and so appears to transit the sky from West to East over the course of a month.) The morning I left for the airport (Saturday 10/18) Moon-Noon was right around dawn.

People often notice that a full moon seems brighter in Winter, and often attribute the effect to the moonlight on the snow. That’s often true, but the more important reason the Winter full moon is brighter is because it’s higher in the sky. On December 12, it’ll top out at around 70 degrees in the night-sky in Salt Lake.

Our Moon Is Different

The reason the Moon is higher in the sky in Winter is because our Moon is not like other moons. Actually it’s unlike other moons in a number of ways, and the most significant difference is size. Our moon is HUGE compared to the Earth- a full 1/6 the diameter of the planet which it orbits. For comparison, the only moons larger than ours in the solar system are Ganymede and Callisto (the 2 largest of Jupiter’s 60+ moons) and Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, and both Jupiter and Saturn have masses hundreds of times that of Earth’s.

Tangent: The only planet in the solar system with a moon that is proportionally larger than ours is (the recently-demoted-to-dwarf-planet) Pluto. Pluto’s moon Charon is large enough that the 2 bodies actually orbit point in between the 2 bodies (though much closer to Pluto) which technically makes them “twin” planets. (Or I guess “twin dwarf planets” now.)

Earth Luna But another way in which it is unusual is that the plane about which it orbits the Earth- the Lunar Orbital Plane- is pretty close to parallel with the plane about which the Earth orbits the Sun- the Solar Orbital Plane. A “Normal” moon orbits a “Normal” planet on a plane that’s pretty much parallel to that planet’s equator. So if our Moon orbited us like a “normal” moon, the full moon would always appear at the same height in the sky at Moon-Noon, unless you changed latitude.

Normal Planet Moon If you can make it work logistically, mtn biking, hiking or skiing at Moon-Noon is fantastic. While not quite bright enough (usually) to enable color vision in a human eye, the moonlight provides distance, depth and perspective normally lacking at night, and even enough light to stop and read a map. And the high angle of the Winter moon minimizes the occurrence of “dark spots” on the trail, which are so frequent in the Summer Moon-Noons.

The angle also makes me realize that all those North-facing nooks and crannies which are sun-less all Winter long; all Summer-long they are moon-less.

I Run Into Some Old Friends

A couple of these perma-shade crannies are already appearing in Dry Creek. Tuesday morning I pedaled up in the early pre-dawn light. About a third of the way up the canyon I heard a familiar squawk, stopped and looked around. Steller Jay CaptionIn a stand of scrub oak to my left were a couple of Stellers Jays, and I realized that this was the same stand of Oak where I saw them way back on March 29, went the world was just waking up. Now that it’s going back to sleep, the Jays- probably the same ones- have returned to the same stand. Stellers Jays, like all Pine Birds, have excellent memories, a valuable trait in recovering cached seeds. Experiments done on other corvids (Crows, Ravens) have indicated an ability to distinguish between different humans. I have a hunch these guys recognized me too.

When I walked out in the driveway to get the paper Saturday AM I made a mental note of the moon’s phase and position. When I travel to other continents I always gain a strange comfort from seeing the same moon in the same phase when I arrive.

I’ll post this when I get online at the hotel. I doubt I’ll be posting much if at all over the next 2 weeks (barring perhaps the occasional Euro-travel-rant.) When I come home in 2 weeks, the Oaks will be pretty much bare and the foothills solidly brown or white (snow.)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Angles Part 1: Freezing, Melting, Plants and Kristin’s Question

Over the last several days, I’ve been thinking about angles, specifically 2 angles. The first angle is 109.5 degrees, and the second is somewhere around 45 degrees. I want to explain both, but suspect it may take 2 posts to do so. And here’s the deal: Saturday morning I fly to Europe for almost 2 weeks, for work and then a few days vacation with Awesome Wife. So I’ll post about the 109.5 degrees today, and may end up blogging about 45 degrees on the plane.

A Bit About Comments

But first, a comment on a comment. I rarely get comments on this blog, and I suspect that’s for 1 of 3 reasons.

1) People are shy. They don’t see a lot of other comments, and also maybe are afraid of not looking smart and of me coming back all kind of snotty and science know-it-all. (kind of like I was when I did that post about rainbows for Matt.)

2) People just aren’t very interested in the stuff I blog about.

3) Pretty much no one reads my blog. (Oh, maybe that’s it!)

IMG_7037 So when I get a comment, I notice it. A couple days ago my coworker Kristin posted a comment asking about why the recent snowfall was lingering longer on the recently-burnt lower slopes of Lone Peak. My first reaction was, “Hey, this isn’t like a call-in radio show, where I just take random questions…” But then I thought: I go to all this effort and research to do this blog, and pretty much no one ever reads it, so if I actually have a reader who’s engaged and interested and constructively comments, maybe I should get off my high horse and try and answer her question.

So Kristin, I’m going to answer your question, but I’m going to get there by talking about 109.5 degrees.

All About Ice

ice digram1 Everybody knows that every molecule of water has 2 Hydrogen and 1 Oxygen atoms. And everybody knows that when it gets cold, water freezes. (Of course, I thought everybody knew how a rainbow works, so what do I know? There I go again, getting all kind of snotty…) But what not everybody knows is that when water molecules freeze, they get locked into a 3-dimensional hexagonal lattice. They freeze up this way because of the angles between the atoms in crystalline form. (Explaining exactly how this works at a molecular level is a little complicated- see here for details and graphics.) In the lattice, the corner positions of every individual hexagon are occupied by Oxygen atoms, and the Hydrogen atoms comprise the sides. And the effective angle between every Oxygen atom and the next-closest Oxygen atom is…. you got it- 109.5 degrees.

Why does this matter? Because this really wide angle creates a lattice with a ton of empty space in the middle of the hexagons. And that means that water in a frozen state takes up more space than water in a liquid state. Water’s pretty much the only thing you’ll ever come across that’s more voluminous in a frozen than liquid state. This characteristic of water is the thing that makes ice cubes float in your cocktail, snow deep and fluffy, and freezing deadly to living things.

A Bit About Snow

IMG_7031 Saturday night it snowed about 3” at my house (pic of back yard, left). Snowflakes consist of layer upon layer of hexagonal lattice-work, which is why they generally display a hexagonal symmetry. Snowflakes form in cold clouds, and grow in size as additional water droplets freeze onto the growing flake. But for the flake to form, a minimum of 6 water molecules need to get into just the right configuration and hold it for a bit, and for that to happen in the middle of a cloud, it needs to be a lot colder than just freezing; it needs to be more like -30F. Nucleating Particle But snowflakes routinely form in clouds much warmer than 30 below, and the reason is that snowflakes typically start developing around some particle of nucleating material, typically (but not always) dust. Below 32F, water molecules freeze onto the dust particle, and additional water molecules freeze onto the developing lattice. So at the heart of every clean, white snowflake is a teensy little bit of air pollution.

IMG_7056 Down on the ground, ice forms the same way. In puddles, ponds and ice cube trays, water molecules first get locked into the lattice at the edges, and on top- the coldest places (cold air, ground or plastic) and the ice grows from there, which causes the hollow-water-filled cubes you get in ice cube trays if you don’t leave them in the freezer long enough.

Ice and Plants

Early season snowstorms are especially damaging because plants aren’t ready for them. In the Fall plants prepare for winter so that the heavy snows and low temps don’t kill them. Some of the preparations – like dropping leaves- are pretty obvious. But inside a tree, at the cellular level, all kinds of changes are going on to prepare it for freezing temperatures, in a process that is wonderfully analogous to the preparation of brown fat in mammals we looked at last month.

The reason freezing destroys living tissue is the expansion of water inside the cell. Frozen water expands 9% in volume, and this expansion injures cells in 2 ways: first, by rupturing the cell membranes, and second, but messing up the permeability of those membranes. With the membranes screwed up, the cells die, which is why frostbite in humans so often leads to the permanent loss of fingers and toes.

Plant cells are just as vulnerable to this type of freezing damage as we are, but unlike us, they can’t start a fire or put on a coat or go to the mall. So cold-tolerant plants have evolved 2 tricks, which work in tandem with one another. First, they produce sap and compounds within the cell that act as a partial antifreeze analogous to glycerol in snowflies, which we saw back in the Spring. And second, they concentrate those compounds inside the cell walls, so that when ice crystals do form, the form in between the cells, in what are called the intercellular spaces.

Freezing Plant Tissue Just as an ice cube grows in a tray, water molecules freeze onto already-frozen molecules, and if water in between the cells can be persuaded to freeze first, then that’s where the ice will grow. As ice grows in the intercellular spaces, additional water molecules cross the cell membrane to join then, which in turn increases the concentration of other compounds- and the antifreeze effects- within the cell.

This process protects plants down to about -40F. Below that temp, super cold-tolerant plants undergo a supercooling formation of non-crystalline ice inside the cell membrane, but we don’t get temps that low much here in the Wasatch.

And FINALLY I Get To Kristin’s Question And Make Up A Reasonable-Sounding Answer (Complete With Graphics)

The opposite of freezing is of course melting, and that leads us to Kristin’s question, which was:

As I was running errands yesterday I noticed that the snow seemed to cling to the burned area more than where there were live trees. It seems that today the snow has stayed in that burned area but it's melted in the other areas. Is this all in my head? or is there something scientific going on?

Tangent: The only “errands” I can think of worth doing down in Draper would be looking for hybrid oaks or shopping for a monster trophy-home, but I guess that’s NOMB.

So first of all, there’s always something scientific going on! But I have to admit that this one bothered me a bit. There’s no easy answer on the web, and usually snow this time of year- when the ground is still relatively warm- sticks to vegetation before it sticks to the ground, because the leaves of the grass, sagebrush and oak would cool down faster than the ground itself.

But after noodling on it, I’ve decided that it’s probably because of the depth of the snow- more than an inch or 2, but no more than say 6 or 8 inches- and the fact that ice and snow always melt from the edges.

IMG_7060 If you take an ice cube out if the freezer and put it on the counter, it obviously melts from the edges. (Yes, I actually took a photo of an ice cube melting for this post. Like just in case a reader had never seen that before…) The ice that’s say 5 mm inside the cube doesn’t start to melt until the cube has melted down/in 5mm. And snow banks melt the same way; a big snow bank doesn’t start melting from the inside and collapse- it starts melting from the edges, where it’s exposed to the temperature differential caused by the sun and warmer air.

When the snow fell on the lower slopes of Lone Peak Saturday night, it was heavy enough that it just didn’t melt off immediately on contact with the ground. And once an initial covering was in place, additional snow accumulated consistently, with no “edges” except for the top of the snow.

Snow on Bare Ground But on the vegetated portion of the slope it accumulated a bit on the ground, a bit on blades of grass and sagebrush and rabbitbrush twigs, and a bit on oak leaves. The snowfall wasn’t enough to create a solid blanket overlaying all/most of this vegetation, and so the “blanket” as it were was porous, with gazillions of little edges- the sides of blades of grass, leaves, twigs, branches, etc.

Snow on Vegetated Ground And in the days since, these edges have created countless penetration and melting points for the warmer air and sunlight to do its thing. On the burned slope by contrast, the largely “edge-less”, consistent blanket of snow has held up better, conserving its colder temperature, and being more slowly melted away, both from the top of the snow and now from the edges of the receding snowline.

If the snow had been a bit lighter, it wouldn’t have stuck to the open ground; somewhat heavier, and it would’ve created a less-porous blanket on the vegetated slopes, lessening the difference in melting rates.

Anyway, that’s my best guess. If you have a better one, COMMENT.

Monday, October 13, 2008

I Meet My Hero

*Before You Read This Post*

To get the whole point of this post, you have to have read this post and this post, or somehow know who Rudy Drobnick is. (And it’s better if you’ve also read this post and this post.)

The Post

Imagine you were really, really into American history. Later in life you became particularly interested in the origins of the Constitution and in… WAIT. STOP. Really, you need to go read those other posts first, and THEN come back and read this post. Because then this is a really great story. Otherwise it’s just kind of rambly and confusing (like most of my other posts…) OK, so anyway, yeah, like if you were way into American history and the Constitution and in doing so learned a lot about how the country was started, and some of the motivations and insights of the founding fathers. thomas_jefferson_bigThen imagine that one day, after you’d been way into this whole early-America-history-origins-of-the-Constitution thing for over a year, a friend called you up and said, “Hey, let’s get together Saturday and go see Thomas Jefferson.” And that somehow, Thomas Jefferson was still alive and, and you went over and saw him and got to spend the day talking about American history with him and getting to know him. You’d be thrilled, right? Now you know how I felt Saturday when I met Rudy Drobnick.

Drobnick of course is the guy who found the very first Northern Utah Gambel-turbinella Oak hybrid, Quercus gambelii x turbinella, 54 years ago on a hike in the Oquirrhs. And over the 4 years following, he scoured the foothills from Ogden to New Harmony, eventually locating 40 some-odd more such hybrids, a number of which I relocated last fall, armed with a xeroxed copy of his 50 year-old master’s thesis.

IMG_7027 Professor Chuck called me earlier in the week and told me 2 things. First, that he’d heard from Drobnick, who’d shared with him that he’d found an additional hybrid many years ago up in St. Mary’s, near where I live. At the time it was on a lot that was being developed, and he’d told the builder about it and asked him not to take it out. Following Drobnick’s 40+ year-old directions, Chuck relocated the hybrid last week (and took me up there this weekend. Leaves pictured above, right) I won’t share the exact location (I only do that with the ones I find) but it’s in a front yard on St. Mary’s Circle.

Second, Drobnick had shared beta about another hybrid he’d found decades ago down in Dimple Dell. Chuck told Drobnick about my new hybrids up in Jeremy/Pinebrook, and they arranged to get together Saturday to show each other their hybrids. Chuck invited me along, and I jumped at the chance.

We met Drobnick at the Division of Natural Resources building in West Salt Lake. (Drobnick spent his career working for DNR, and still volunteers for them several days/month.) When we pulled up, Drobnick stepped out of his truck- a tall, thin septuagenarian with long white hair and a long Santa Claus beard.

Wasatch Hybrid Map I didn’t realize till that moment what I’d expected- perhaps a somewhat misanthropic, slightly cranky old fellow, who shunned the company of others for long rambles in the foothills. But Drobnick (pictured below, left, along with Professor Chuck at the Pinebrook hybrid. Drobnick is the one on the right.) is nothing of the sort; he’s friendly, cheerful, enthusiastic and instantly likeable. His bright blue eyes somehow convey a boyishness and youthful energy that cut through his old-man beard and quaky voice.

IMG_7029 We drove up first to the Pinebrook Hybrid. As we drove up Parley’s Canyon in the light snow, Drobnick marveled delightedly- almost giddily- at how wonderful, incredible and unexpected it was that I’d found a hybrid at that altitude and location (East slope.) And as he did so, I’ll admit that my head swelled with just a little pride and a sense of completion and having come full circle over the last year. From stopping to pee at dawn and noticing a few funny leaves to meeting Professor Chuck to tracking down Drobnick’s 50 year-old thesis and chasing down his old hybrids, to reading and wondering of his searches, his adventures, his hundreds of solitary hikes in the Wasatch and Oquirrhs and Sheeprocks, to finally meeting him in the living flesh half a century later. This has been an amazing year.

After the Pinebrook hybrid we returned to the valley to search for the Dimple Dell hybrid. As we drove I chatted with Drobnick about his life and his work. He still volunteers for DNR, currently working on a series of underpasses to enable deer, moose and elk to safely cross Highway 6 between Spanish Fork and Price.

elk Tangent: Drobnick carries a lifetime’s worth of trivia about wildlife as well as flora, which he’s happy to share. Here’s a quick example: the kinds of underpasses for wildlife that DNR is working on up on Highway 6 are a piece of cake to set up for deer, but highly problematic for elk. Deer will apparently check out most any open path with little prompting. But elk are highly reticent to use any manmade path, bridge, tunnel or other piece of infrastructure. Elk most often travel through new territory in single file, following the lead cow. That’s right- they follow the lead cow, not the lead bull. Who knew? (OK well, Drobnick, obviously, but like who else?)

The Dimple Dell hybrid eluded us; we’ll need to return in a couple of weeks when the surround pure Gambel stands are bare to seek it out. But the best part of all this is that Chuck’s discovery of the hybrid a few years ago at This Is The Place seems to have reawakened Drobnick’s interest in hybrid Oaks after half a century, and over the last year or so he’s located several new hybrids on the West slope of the Oquirhhs. The 3 of us plan to head on over in early November to map and check them out. Looks like my hybrid Oak adventures are just beginning. How cool is that?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Stuff On The Trail, and All About Red Squirrels

I find it’s easy sometimes to get caught up in the big, spectacular changes of Fall- changing leaves, colder temps, shorter days, and miss some of the more mundane changes. But some of those mundane changes are equally interesting in their own way. One example is the changing chirp patterns of field crickets, which we talked about last month. (Side note: in the last week, the crickets at our house have gone entirely silent. The nights are now dark , long and almost eerily quiet…) Another is stuff on the trail.

Foot Maple Leaves in Trail You don’t think about it much, but when you’re mtn biking or hiking during the summer, the trails generally stay pretty clean. There may be an occasional branch or twig that falls on the trail, but most of the time there’s just the same dirt and rock that was there when you rode it last week. In the Fall, all of that changes. Every time you go out on the trail, there’s some new stuff lying on the ground. In many places, especially the lower reaches of Pinebrook, it’s Maple Leaves. The Maples are about 90% bare now, with leaves forming a thick carpet in many places. (The lobes are sized just right to lodge in between a mtn bike tire and a V-brake, creating an annoying card-in-the-spokes noise.) In other areas the leaves are absent, but fallen, wind-blown samaras are present, having had the lousy luck to land in a spot they can never hop to thrive in. In a few places, underneath stands of Mountain Mahogany, you’ll find a furry carpet of feathery plumes- the tails of the fallen, wind-blown achenes.

Twin A Floor Tangent: There’s a great analogy here with the seasons of my life. In the Pre-Kids Season, 10+ years ago, the floor of our house was largely uncluttered; when I came home from work, the same stuff was or wasn’t on the floor that had or hadn’t been in the morning. But today, in the Kids Season, there’s no telling what I’ll find on the floor, most notably on the floor of Twin A’s bedroom, whose carpet is usually covered with various pile of Yugi-Oh! and Pok√©mon cards… 15 or so years from now, in the Post-Kids Season, I assume the floor will again be largely clutter-free, analogous to the late-Fall, post-foliage forest floor immediately before the first snow.

Gold Coin Higher up the trails are flecked with the pretty “gold coins” of Aspen leaves. But some of the most interesting things on the trails right now are pine cones, or more correctly, PLT cones. Old Douglas Fir and Engelman Spruce cones lie on or by the trails all summer long, but there are 2 obvious new things visible along trails in the fall. DFir cones caption The first is dozens and dozens of fresh, new Douglas Fir and Engelman Spruce cones- lighter-colored and fresh-looking beside the older cones of previous seasons. And second is Fir cones, both White and Subalpine.

We talked about Fir cones back in July when we looked at White Fir. (Which I want to point out contained what was probably my Best Tangent Ever, the one where I was married to Selma Hayek and talked like Ricardo Montalban…) And I mentioned how rare it was to ever find a Fir cone on the ground because, unlike Spruce, Douglas Fir or Pine Cones, they disintegrate on the tree. But over the last few weeks I’ve found plenty on the trails. What’s going on?

IMG_6805 Tangent: Before we get to the cause, this is the first year I collected cones. When I found my first few up in Wyoming last month, I thought, “Great, I’ll add these to my collection.” (Yes, I have a pine cone collection, and it is impressive.) I brought it home and left it on a table. But within days it dried out and disintegrated into hundreds of flaky scales, leaving behind only a slender, woody “central axis.” Here’s a video of Awesome Wife shaking apart a dried-out Subalpine Fir cone.

What’s going on is squirrels, specifically the North American Red Squirrel, Tamiasciurus husdonicus.

Red Squirrel1 Squirrels are true North American originals. Though they’re found today on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, the first squirrels appeared around 36 million years ago in North America. Since that time they’ve spread around the world as the continents bumped into each other, reaching Europe 30 million years ago, Africa 18 million years ago, and South America a mere 3 million years ago, as a result of the Great American Interchange (which we talked about back in August when we looked at the cool history of Cougars in North America.) In every new place they’ve reached, they’ve branched into dozens of new species, and today the Squirrel family, Sciurdae, includes around 280 species across 51 genera. Sciurdae is broken into 5 subfamilies, which I won’t detail, but the relationships between squirrels are interesting. Tree squirrels, or squirrels of the tribe Sciurini, which includes the Red Squirrel as well as the Gray Squirrels you see in parks, have been separate from Chipmunks and Ground Squirrels for at least 6 million years (around the same time we’ve been separate from Chimpanzees.) Chipmunks and Ground Squirrels (the most common examples here in Utah being the Uinta Chipmunk, Tamias umbrinus, and the Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel, Spermophilus lateralis) are in turn much more closely-related to Marmots than they are to tree squirrels.

Red-Squirrel2 Unlike Gray Squirrels, Red Squirrels, which are also sometimes known as Pine Squirrels, don’t hang out in parks. The non-avian, agitated chattering or “chirping” you hear up in the trees of a Wasatch PLT forest is the Red Squirrel. Their 2 most common calls are a warning call and a mating call, which are supposedly very similar (and which I can’t tell apart. I assume the calls I hear are overwhelmingly warning calls.)

Red Squirrels usually breed once a year, in the late Spring/early Summer, giving birth to 3-5 pups. (Kits? Babies? Squittens? Don’t know what a baby squirrel is called…)

The favorite foods of Red Squirrels are nuts- especially PLT nuts. Extracting the nuts from the scales requires some jaw-work and firm footing, and is difficult to do in a tree. So the squirrels cut down the cones with their teeth, and then descend to the ground to collect or dismember the cones. If you find a Fir cone lying on the ground in the Wasatch, it’s almost always the recent work of a Red Squirrel who just cut it down, but has yet to “work” it.

White Fir Cones Sometimes you’ll find extensive piles of cones scales, like this pic (left) at the base of an old White Fir, where the squirrels have disassembled large numbers of Fir cones. The green-needled twigs are another giveaway; squirrels will often cut the upright cones from an inch or two below the base, sending a piece of attached twig to the ground as well. The “fresh” – looking Douglas Fir and Spruce cones are also squirrel-cut.

Squirrels don’t hibernate; a Red Squirrel burns over 12,000,000 calories staying alive through the winter. That equates to about 5,000 Douglas Fir or Engelman Spruce Cones it needs to stash each Fall.

Tangent: Interestingly, both cones- Douglas Fir and Engelman Spruce- pack about 2,500 total calories a piece, even though the Spruce cone packs an average of 180 seeds/cone vs. 45 for Douglas Fir. D Fir Seed Caption But each Douglas Fir seed carries 57 calories, as opposed to only 15 for the tiny Engelman Spruce seeds.

E Spruce Seed Caption There are 2 really interesting things about Red Squirrels. First is their phylogeny (fancy science word for “Family Tree”), and second is the evolutionary “arms races” they’re engaged in with cone-bearing trees.

Tdouglasii1 For over a century there have been 3 recognized Red Squirrel species in North America. The Red Squirrel here in Utah, T. hudsonicus, ranges clear from Labrador to Tennessee to Arizona to Alaska. The Douglas Squirrel (pic left), T. douglasii, lives in the Sierra Nevada, Pacific Northwest and Northern California. And the third North American Red Squirrel, T. mearnsi, is limited solely to the high, forested mountains of Northern Baja California.

Red Squirrel Species Map Old Model But genetic research over the last decade indicates that this traditional, long-accepted taxonomy is wrong. It now appears that the Red Squirrels in the highlands of Arizona and New Mexico are are the most genetically distinct of all, having long since been separated by dry, hot interglacial periods over the last couple hundred millennia. Red Squirrels throughout the rest of the continent appear more closely-related, with a clear- but more recent- separation between the Sierra Nevada/Northwest Red Squirrels, and those ranging from Utah to Quebec. As a result, modern researchers recommend the replacement of the 3 species taxonomy with just 1 species including 3 subspecies: a T. hudsonicus hudsonicus here in Utah and up to Alaska and over to the Atantic, a T. hudsonicus mogollonensis down in Arizona and New Mexico, and a T. hudsonicus douglasii from Vancouver down to Baja. Red Squirrel Species Map New Model The former T. mearnsi appears to be a group of of T.h. douglasii that became “stranded” but desert within the last 11,000 years. The other, earlier subspecies divisions appear to have happened sometime between 80,000 and 240,000 years ago, roughly the same time when “native” Dandelions made it across Beringia.

IMG_6136 For years botanists have noticed that Spruce of many species (including P. engelmanii) have occasional “mast” years, in which they produces far more cones (and seeds) than usual. It’s thought that Spruce evolved the habit of mast years to produce far more seeds than a population of squirrels or other seed-predators could possibly consume/cache in a single year, ensuring that a large number of seeds would survive. By “masting” only occasionally, the Spruce forest ensures that the squirrel population remains low enough to be unable to eat/cache off the cones/seeds in a mast year. But Red Squirrels have come up with an evolutionary countermeasure; in mast years they give birth to not 1 but 2 litters of pups/Squittens(?), taking advantage of the surplus of food.

p. contorta cone closed The second arms race isn’t evident here in the Wasatch, but is just 50 miles East in the Uintas, where Lodgepole Pine grows, and there Red Squirrels prey upon Lodgepole seed cones as well. One of the big differences between T.h. hudsonicus here in Utah and T.h. douglasii over in California is that our Red Squirrels here have much stronger jaw muscles, which come in handy for tearing apart a pine cones with one’s teeth.

p. contorta cone copen There’s also a difference between our Lodgepoles and those over in the Sierras. Rocky Mountain Lodgepole Pine grows closed “serotinous” cones (pic above right), whose scales only open under great heat, such as in a forest fire. But Sierra Lodgepoles bear cones with open scales (pic left), and it appears that the close Rocky Mountain Lodgepole cones have evolved through selection pressure from strong-jawed Red Squirrels, who in turn have evolved their stronger jaws through selection pressure from closed-cone Lodgepoles, who in turn… and so on.

AbertsSquirrel Side Note: PLT cones- Spruce, Fir and Douglas Fir are always somewhat flimsy and papery compared to true pine cones, and Red Squirrels generally favor PLT seeds over Pine seeds as a result. The only other squirrel we’ve looked at, the Aberts Squirrel, Sciurus aberti, from when I lived back in Colorado, takes the opposite approach; its larger size and bigger, more muscular jaw enables it to focus its diet almost exclusively on the seeds and a few other parts of Ponderosa Pine. Hence its absence from the near pine-less Wasatch.

When I’m out and about in the Wasatch it’s always interesting for me to listen to the squirrels chattering above me and think about the selection pressures and positive feedback loops that make them what they are. When I come home afterwards, it makes me think about what selection pressures and feedback loops made the big-brained hairless primates that live in my house.

Side Note: Many thanks to Brian Arbogast, Robert Browne and Peter Weigel, whose 2001 paper Evolutionary Genetics and Pleistocene Biogeography of North American Tree Squirrels provided the phylogenetic data used in this post. As always I am exceedingly grateful to researchers who are kind enough to make their research available on the web for “motivated laypeople” such as myself.