Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Salute to Cassini-Huygens and the Team Who Successfully Explored Saturn for More Than a Decade

Amid the stupidity emanating from Washington D.C. these days, depression can be a real impediment to a happy life. Other events unrelated to politics give me some sense of hope about the future of humanity, and one of those things is drawing to a close this week: the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn. It is one of humanity's greatest accomplishments, the extended exploration of another planet in our Solar System. I want to offer my congratulations and appreciation to the team that made this mission possible.
Source: https://nasa.tumblr.com/post/165331742919/cassini-spacecraft-top-discoveries
Have a look at this summary of discoveries from NASA; it has some astounding images.
This incredible mission resonates with me in a special way. I was a child of the 1950s, and the world and the Universe were different places in so many ways for a kid who was fascinated by astronomy. In particular, we barely knew more about our own Solar System than we did a hundred years earlier. We had made larger telescopes, but their effectiveness was limited by the disturbances in the upper atmosphere that distorted high magnification images. In those primitive years before the Hubble Space Telescope and the Voyager satellites, the science of astronomy was an exercise in frustration. I would head to the library week after week, checking out every astronomy book in the stacks, hungering to understand our own Solar System. 

Source: Unknown

How little we knew! Venus was shrouded in clouds. Mars had visible features, but they were unidentifiable from earthbound telescopes. Jupiter and Saturn had some visible cloud bands, but their moons were simple points of light. Only Saturn had rings, and maybe three divisions were visible. Neptune and Uranus were small disks, and diminutive Pluto was a dot of light. I wanted to know more!
The advances came so slowly (at least to this young growing child). The first satellite missions to Mars in the 1960s revealed surface features (and a lack of alien civilizations). Pioneer swept past Jupiter, but the camera on board was relatively primitive by modern standards. In the late 1970s, the two Voyagers began the grand tour of the outer gaseous planets. It was an excruciating wait as the small satellites passed first Jupiter, then Saturn, followed by Uranus and Neptune (years passed between each visit). Then, knowing the satellites had arrived, there was the excruciating wait for the pictures to be downloaded and processed. It was worth the wait. The pictures and data were astounding, revealing worlds never imagined by humans. The child in me was absolutely enchanted. But something still seemed to be missing.

The missions were all fly-bys. The trajectory was carefully planned to glean as much information as possible, but the satellites flew past their targets fast, and the numbers of pictures were limited by both time and technology. What was really needed was to insert a satellite in orbit, and that is a daunting challenge. The Cassini-Huygens mission accomplished that task in a spectacular manner. Check out the "ball of yarn" below...satellites can only maneuver to a very limited degree because of fuel requirements, so the crew had to aim the craft with an extreme degree of accuracy.
A computer-generated representation of all Cassini’s Saturn orbits -affectionately called the “ball of yarn” by mission planners. The time frame spans Saturn Orbit Insertion on July 1, 2004 to the end of mission on Sept. 15, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The pictures of the clouds and bands of Saturn are spectacular enough, but the real adventure of the Cassini-Huygens mission has been the exploration of the rings and moons of Saturn. Six new moons were discovered and named, bringing the total of known moons to 62, second only to Jupiter's 69. In essence, Saturn is a planetary system with one "planet" that is larger than Mercury.
This picture is not showing Mars, Venus and Earth orbiting Saturn. It's actually a view towards the inner Solar System from behind Saturn (which is hiding the Sun)
 George Lucas could barely come up with stranger moons for his Star Wars movies than the very real moons we have in our Solar System. More than enough of them are somewhat like our own Moon, cratered and "dead" (i.e. geologically inactive). But some are...very different. It turns out that Titan, the largest, has a thick atmosphere complete with rivers and streams, lakes and even a few seas. It rains and snows. That might seem a bit odd, since the surface temperature is hundreds of degrees below zero, but the liquid isn't water. It is made of hydrocarbons that on Earth would exist as gases like methane.
Saturn's moon Titan, complete with atmosphere, and shallow seas reflecting the sun.
Another major moon of Saturn, Enceladus, is even stranger, if that is possible. It's the brightest object in the Solar System aside from the Sun itself. The reason is ice. The entire crust of the "planet" is made of water ice, and it covers a "molten" layer below of salty water that may be four or five times deeper than Earth's oceans (Enceladus is much smaller than Earth, only about 310 miles in diameter).
Enceladus, the ice moon of Saturn. An incredibly deep ocean lies hidden beneath the icy crust.
The fractures and cracks in the surface, along with a relative lack of craters suggests the surface of Enceladus is tectonically active. It is simply one of the most fascinating "worlds" in our Solar System. And when I was growing up, all it was to us on Earth was a barely visible dot of light in our most powerful telescopes.
Enceladus and Saturn. Enceladus is the brightest object in the Solar System besides the Sun itself.
 Saturn is full of wonders and mysteries that are now becoming apparent to human beings for the first time in all our existence as a species. What a privilege to be living in a time when things like this can happen! And what a privilege and honor it must be to be part of the team that made the entire mission possible. And what competence! The Cassini-Huygens satellite left Earth nearly twenty years ago, and the moment it left, no repairs would ever be possible. When I consider how often my laptops and smartphones have to be replaced or repaired, just think what it means to be the inventor and maker of a complex piece of technology that has operated for twenty years with barely a glitch in performance.
Mima and Saturn
So what now? It's going to take years to interpret and present the scientific discoveries concerning Saturn, and the data will inform the objectives of future missions to the planet. But what to do in the meantime? Well, there's another really big planet out there, and a new satellite just arrived and started its explorations. It's called Juno, and the planet it is exploring is Jupiter. Jupiter has now had a number of fly-bys (Pioneer 10 and 11, and Voyager 1 and 2), and it also had an orbiter mission (Galileo). Galileo provided a treasure trove of information, and the Juno will be able to build on that (it also has a more polar orbit, providing views that the other missions could not). In other words, this very wonderful human adventure continues.
Titan and Dione with Saturn as a backdrop.
So thank you, and congratulations to the team that gifted us with the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn. Tomorrow, the Cassini satellite will plunge into atmosphere of Saturn at a ludicrous speed (echoes of "Spaceballs") of about 75,000 miles per hour and go out in a literal blaze of glory after 13 years of collecting data. It will be transmitting information right up to the final seconds of its existence. It was a job well done.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Worst Natural Disaster in U.S. History: It wasn't last week, and it won't be this week either

Source: National Weather Service

I was doing a quick search for information on the United State's worst ever natural disaster, and found almost immediately that today is the anniversary of that event. That might sound a bit strange, since the media is describing the devastation of Hurricane Harvey as the worst U.S. disaster ever, and the possibility that Hurricane Irma could surpass it in a few days. And to be sure, these are horrible events, and before I started writing this post I made a number of donations to relief organizations in the south Texas region (I recommend charitynavigator.org to guide your choices). But we can have a strange measure of "worst": we tend to think of monetary damages. And by that measure, the 2017 hurricane season is practically apocalyptic, and one of the hurricanes hasn't even hit U.S. soil yet (islands in the Caribbean have been devastated). But there is of course the other measure of disaster: lives lost. Lives have been lost, and every life lost is a tragedy, but these hurricanes are far from the worst in American history.
Galveston, 1900. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1900_Galveston_hurricane
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is high on the list, despite having taken place in the modern era with a population given advance warning (botched evacuation efforts and the unexpected failure of poorly reinforced levees led to the increased flooding that killed 1,836 people). But wasn't the worst. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 is an obvious candidate, and indeed more than 3,000 people were killed in that tragedy. But was number two. What event was the worst?

You know, the year of 1900, children,
Many years ago
Death came howling on the ocean
Death calls, you got to go
Now Galveston had a seawall
To keep the water down,
And a high tide from the ocean
Spread the water all over the town.

In 1900, weather forecasting was a science hampered by a lack of data. Entire hurricanes could remain undetected in the Atlantic, and limited telegraph networks meant that storms that made landfall might still not be publicized. That was the situation in the days leading up to Sept. 8 of that year. The storm had been reported by weather watchers in Cuba, and the Weather Bureau office in Washington sent storm warnings to coastal areas in Louisiana and Texas. Few heeded the warnings. Storms had come and gone in Galveston over the years without serious damage, so why would this one be any different?
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1900_Galveston_hurricane
Galveston was a town of 36,000 people. It was an economic powerhouse, situated on an excellent natural harbor. But geologically, it was a disaster waiting to happen. The town was built on a barrier island, a long sand island that paralleled the Texas coastline. Such islands are unstable locations for human development due to the lack of solid foundations for buildings, and the low elevation. The island sat no more than 8 feet above sea level, and despite the song lyrics above, there was no seawall.

You know the trumpets give them warning
You'd better leave this place
Now, no one thought of leaving
'til death stared them in the face
And the trains they all were loaded
The people were all leaving town
The trestle gave way to the water
And the trains they went on down.

Winds, as we have been learning these last few weeks, are not the worst aspect of hurricanes. The winds can certainly produce extensive damage, but nothing quite compares to the storm surge of a major hurricane. The extreme low pressure at the eye of the hurricane acts to raise sea level, and as the storm makes landfall, the seawater surges inland. The storm surge of the Galveston hurricane was 15 feet, more than enough to sweep over the entire island, and too deep to stand in. Many people trying to swim were crushed by debris from the 3,600 buildings that had been demolished. Bridges and trestles that would have allowed people to escape the island were washed away. They were trapped.
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1900_Galveston_hurricane

Rain it was a-falling
thunder began to roll
Lightning flashed like hellfire
The wind began to blow
Death, the cruel master
When the wind began to blow
Rode in on a team of horses
I cried, "Death, won't you let me go"

We can never know just how many people died that night. 6,000 is the low estimate. 12,000 is the high-end guess. There were too many corpses for burial, so an attempt was made to dispose of them at sea. Many floated back and accumulated on the beaches. Eventually funeral pyres were constructed, and the bodies were burned. I can hardly comprehend the horror, although ghastly pictures from the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia provided a stark example. And as we all know, pictures cannot convey the sound and odor of death.

Hey, now trees fell on the island
And the houses give away
Some they strained and drowned
Some died in most every way
And the sea began to rolling
And the ships they could not stand
And I heard a captain crying
"God save a drowning man."
This photo was labeled "Seeking valuables in the wreckage". What would they call it in the present day? Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1900_Galveston_hurricane
This weekend our country faces what might be the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. Many people will die (indeed several dozen already have in the Caribbean), and the property damage will be devastating. It will be a tragedy for all in the path. But imagine how different it would be were it not for the climate scientists who labor to understand the formation and pathways of hurricanes and other violent storms. Imagine not knowing the end of your world is just over the horizon, only hours away, coming with no warning. Tens of thousands of people will owe their lives to the work done by these scientists.

Politicians and pundits on one side of the aisle in Washington have a shocking lack of respect for climate scientists, and have denigrated their efforts to understand and analyze the changes taking place in our atmosphere due to warming caused by greenhouse gases. With their college degrees in political science or business administration, or in the case of some media personalities, their high school diplomas, a number of people have declared themselves to be experts in climate science, and deny the effects of climate change that are happening around them. Some accuse scientists of being hoaxers. It's ironic that they evacuate when the scientists give a warning about an imminent threat, but ignore the mountain of evidence for long-term changes in the environment that sustains us.

Climate scientists are heroes and they deserve both respect and support. This is not the time that our government should be cutting funding for climate research, but that is what is happening. This must be stopped. Our very lives, and the lives of our children and grandchildren depend on it.

The ghosts of Galveston are watching...

Death, your hands are clammy
You got them on my knee
You come and took my mother
Won't you come back after me
And the flood it took my neighbor
Took my brother, too
I thought I heard my father calling
And I watched my mother go.

You know, the year of 1900, children,
Many years ago
Death came howling on the ocean
Death calls, you got to go

The song is a folk anthem called Wasn't That a Mighty Storm. Learn more about it here.





Sunday, September 3, 2017

Time Heals All Wounds. Or Does it Just Hide Them? The Ghosts of Nelder Grove (Reposted)

According to news reports, the Railroad Fire in the Sierra Nevada has reached the Nelder Grove of Sequoia Trees. It's uncertain what the outcome will be, as the trees are adapted to wildfires, but less so when the forest surrounding the trees is overgrown and stressed by five years of drought. Nelder is kind of a special grove, having been logged a century ago, and left out of the boundaries of Yosemite National Park. Abused, but precious. I wrote about Nelder when I visited for the first time a couple of years ago. Since it has been in the news, I thought you would like to learn of its threatened beauty. The original post follows...
It's a beautiful place, really. It was one of the most serene places I've been in my travels, away from busy roads, cities, tourist traps, and most of all, crowds. We were only 10 miles from Yosemite National Park on a Sunday afternoon, yet we shared the place today with just six other people, all of whom were quietly looking up as if in a a medieval cathedral.
Sequoia groves are like that. The ancient trees are so big and so tall, so grand, that they seem to inhabit a different universe than "normal" trees. They tower above, like placid gods looking down on their earthly domain. They are the only species in their genus,  Sequoiadendron giganteum. The species, or species very much like it, once grew across the northern hemisphere. Through habitat loss, perhaps related to the ice ages, they disappeared from most of their range. Only on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada have they survived, living in 68 isolated groves, and numbering only in the few tens of thousands (the more widespread Coast Redwoods of northwest California are related, but are classed in a different genus).
We were walking through a mountain cathedral, marveling at the beauty and size of the incredible trees, but I realized there were ghosts all around us. There were only 16 mature Sequoia trees along the trail we were following, but there were dozens of gigantic stumps. This serene forest was a shadow of its former glory. Someone had cut down these forest giants. According to the Friends of Nelder Grove, the entire grove includes just over 100 mature trees spread over 1,540 acres (2.4 square miles). There are 277 stumps hidden in the shadows. Three quarters of the trees that had survived for 2,000 years or more were cut down in a few decades, between the 1890s and 1920s.
The sad part is that the wood, though resistant to rot, is brittle and was rarely used for anything more substantial than grape stakes and shakes, even toothpicks. As much as 75% of the wood went to waste, as most of the trees shattered when they hit the ground. Loggers would build trenches filled with tree branches for the trees to have a soft landing, but to no avail.
The remaining trees have been protected since the 1920s, but they still face some serious threats. The trees are adapted to fire. Their trunks are very thick and do not readily burn, so the wildfires that would burn through the grove every decade or so would kill off saplings of other trees and clear the forest duff, but would rarely kill the Sequoia trees. The nature of the fires has been changing. The policy of the Forest Service for decades was to suppress fires at all cost, allowing the other conifers like White Fir and Sugar Pine to grow very tall, reaching the lowest branches of the giant Sequoia trees.
Sugar Pines are especially susceptible to catching fire, and the fire rises up the trunk into the crown. Crown fires can kill the Sequoia trees by destroying their foliage. So by protecting the trees from fire, we've made it easier for fire to destroy them. The situation has not been helped by the growing effects of global warming. Ongoing drought has led to super wildfires on a scale never before seen in the Sierra Nevada. Several recent fires burned through 200,000 acres or more.
The deep conifer forests threaten the Sequoia trees in a different way. The seedlings need bare soil and sunny conditions to germinate, but the thick forest instead provides shade and thick forest duff. The remaining ancient giants are not being replaced by young trees, not at a rate fast enough to guarantee the future of the grove.
At least we've reached a point where we know what many of the problems are, and steps (sometimes baby steps) are being made to preserve the future of these incredible trees. In the meantime, the Nelder Grove is a quiet treasure, a beautiful place for meditation.
The Nelder Grove is off of Sky Ranch Road, about 8 miles off of Highway 140 north of Oakhurst, just a few miles from the south entrance of Yosemite National Park. The last two miles of road are unpaved, but the gravel is well-graded. Our walk was along the Shadows of the Giants trail, but there is a network of trails throughout the grove. The Mariposa Grove in Yosemite is presently closed to visitation as the site is being renovated to improve the visitation experience and protect the trees. Of course when it is finished, the grove will still be visited by hundreds of thousands of people yearly. If you want to see a Sequoia grove the way it should be, quiet and uncrowded, check out Nelder. For more information, check out the web pages of the Friends of Nelder Grove, or this Sierra Nevada Geotourism site.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Houston's Horrific Flooding: Thank Goodness It Can't Happen Here...Eh...Right? Think Again...

What's happening in Houston is beyond belief. And tragically, horrible flooding is happening now in southeast Asia as well, with at least 1,200 people dead. Although the extent of the damage in Houston is not yet known, meteorologists are already calling it unprecedented in American history. I can't begin to imagine experiencing feet of rain in the space of days, and it isn't over yet. My heart goes out to those in the midst of the disaster. It may take weeks for the waters to subside, and years for the region to fully recover.
This isn't Houston. It is our own much more modest flood a few months ago.

(I've abridged and adapted the following from a post in 2011)

Seeing events like this unfold on television or on the computer screen can provide a certain emotional distance from the full magnitude of what has happened. Thoughts develop along the lines of "Could it happen here?" and as we realize it might, we think "Are we prepared for an event like that?" Floods occur essentially everywhere, but the Central Valley (the GREAT Valley) is notable in the magnitude and frequency of its flooding. We had a experienced a few terrifying days in the early part of the year when it seemed that one of our largest dams, Oroville, was in danger of failing, and we have become aware that almost all our dams are aging, and need maintenance or replacement.  It makes one wonder how bad it could possibly get. Pretty bad, as it turns out.

Climate experts have been analyzing the possibilities that California could be hit by a devastating storm sequence that could leave much of the Central Valley as an inland lake. It sounds unlikely, at best a hypothetical model, but it has actually already happened. In 1861-62, a storm series dropped so much precipitation that a 300 mile long lake covered the valley, and forced the state capital to move operations from Sacramento to San Francisco for a time.
I mentioned Yellowstone in a while back, and it got me thinking once again about those things that are worth worrying about, those that are not, and those that are worth preparing for. Yellowstone last had an eruption 70,000 years ago, and the last major "supervolcano" (i.e. rhyolite caldera event) was more than 600,000 years ago. So how much should we worry about Yellowstone? It could happen, but not likely any time soon. But people are freaked out about the possibility if a quick internet search is any measure. They obsess about it, and even see strange conspiracies.

But what about a "superstorm"? People don't seem to worry about flooding so much, yet huge floods are a disturbingly common occurrence. Besides 1862, evidence has been uncovered of similar intense events in 212, 440, 603, 1029, 1418, and 1605 (sediments from storm runoff are preserved in ocean basins offshore of the state). That adds up to around a 0.3% possibility in a given year; not common, but enough that emergency providers are beginning to seriously consider the possible effects. A report from the US Geological Survey talks about the potential for an atmospheric river storm they have termed an ARkStorm (Atmospheric River Storm). The possible effects make California's expected "Big One" earthquake look, well, medium in comparison. From the USGS ARkStorm Report (PDF download here - 46 mb):
The storm is estimated to produce precipitation that in many places exceeds levels only experienced on average once every 500 to 1,000 years. Extensive flooding results. In many cases flooding overwhelms the state’s flood-protection system, which is typically designed to resist 100- to 200-year runoffs. The Central Valley experiences hypothetical flooding 300 miles long and 20 or more miles wide. Serious flooding also occurs in Orange County, Los Angeles County, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay area, and other coastal communities. Windspeeds in some places reach 125 miles per hour, hurricane-force winds. Across wider areas of the state, winds reach 60 miles per hour. Hundreds of landslides damage roads, highways, and homes. Property damage exceeds $300 billion, most from flooding. Demand surge (an increase in labor rates and other repair costs after major natural disasters) could increase property losses by 20 percent. Agricultural losses and other costs to repair lifelines, dewater (drain) flooded islands, and repair damage from landslides, brings the total direct property loss to nearly $400 billion, of which $20 to $30 billion would be recoverable through public and commercial insurance. Power, water, sewer, and other lifelines experience damage that takes weeks or months to restore. Flooding evacuation could involve 1.5 million residents in the inland region and delta counties. Business interruption costs reach $325 billion in addition to the $400 billion property repair costs, meaning that an ARkStorm could cost on the order of $725 billion, which is nearly 3 times the loss deemed to be realistic by the ShakeOut authors for a severe southern California earthquake, an event with roughly the same annual occurrence probability.
If that doesn't sound like events in Houston, you haven't been paying attention. This is serious stuff.
Flooding rarely gets the epic movie treatment. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are so sudden and devastating; rising water just doesn't cut it as a drama setting. I haven't seen a lot of Katrina movies yet. But life isn't a movie. If you live in California, think for a moment about getting hit with a superstorm, and the delta and Central Valley ending up like this:It is a real possibility and a sobering thought....

By the way, not wanting to stir the pot (or maybe I do), if you are worried about Yellowstone erupting and you live in California, why aren't you giving more thought to our very own active rhyolite caldera, our "supervolcano"?

Maps and second photo from the USGS ARkStorm Report (PDF - 46 mb)

Monday, August 28, 2017

Hope and Willful Ignorance: Why I'm Going to Work This Week

There's road rage. There's rage tweeting. And I guess there is rage blogging. I know this because I'm doing it tonight. I'm filled with rage, and feeling somewhat helpless to do anything about it. And yet there is always something that can be done.

I'm watching the horrible events unfolding right now in the coastal region around Texas and Louisiana, where Hurricane Harvey is dropping rain at a rate that defies any kind of normal comprehension. Word is beginning to emerge that 100,000 homes, maybe more, have been destroyed. Even though we don't have a clear picture yet of the full extent of the damage, it's already clear that years will be needed before the region can return to some semblance of normal. It's a tragedy and the effects will extend far beyond the edge of the storm. Many of the nation's oil refineries are in the region, as well as important port facilities. My heart aches for those who have been injured or have died, and those who have lost their homes and businesses.

So why am I feeling so sick inside right now? It's tricky to explain...this was a so-called "act of God" event, one that might be expected to occur once every 500 or 1,000 years. They happen, and as occupants of this planet, we've had to deal events like this throughout our existence as a species. The problem is that these events are happening more often, driven in part by the warming of our planet. And willful ignorance is now killing people needlessly.

As has already been pointed out by many, no single event can be blamed on global warming, but warming is reinforcing the intensity of each event. A common analogy is that no home run in baseball can be pinpointed as the result of taking steroids, but an increase in the frequency and distance of home runs over time can be. Hurricane Harvey may very well have happened if global warming were not an issue, but the Gulf of Mexico was unusually warm. This caused additional evaporation, and helped to increase the intensity of the winds. Sea level is a few inches higher due to warming over the last century, and this intensified the effects along the coast. There are other factors, of course, including increased population and urban development, which destroyed wetlands that could have absorbed some of the storm waters.
Lives were saved this week because of science. Meteorologists and climatologists were able to use incredible technology to predict the trajectory and intensity of the storm days in advance, allowing people to prepare, and to evacuate if they could. Government agencies and emergency services were able to mobilize resources in advance of the disaster. We knew what was going to happen. Science told us.

But we now have people in charge of our government who are willfully ignorant of the extent and even the existence of global climate change. They are using their power to dismantle the very agencies that allowed us to predict the nature of Hurricane Harvey, and this leaves us vulnerable to hurricanes and tornadoes in the future. And it isn't just the climate agencies. Budgets are being cut at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior (except, of course, for oil and gas exploration), the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Science Foundation. Science is under attack on many fronts. The reasons are many, involving politics, tax cuts, and outright fraud and lies. I read headlines every day, and sometimes I feel a deep sense of hopelessness.

Each of the pictures I've posted today is a place I've visited that is threatened by global warming. The first is Glacier National Park in Montana, where the glaciers are disappearing at an accelerated rate. When they are gone, the ecosystem of the park will be radically changed. The second is of Sequoia National Park, where an intense five-year drought, in all probability intensified by warming, has killed many millions of trees. The third photo is the Great Barrier Reef, which has been decimated by coral bleaching related to the warming of the oceans. And finally below, is Venice, a city threatened like almost no other by sea level rise. We are losing all of these precious places, and there are many more. Where is the hope?

There is hope, and that's what this week is about.  I have a classroom, and this week I get to start the adventure of my 33rd year of teaching science in the community college system. In my own small way, I am privileged to light a candle to help fight the darkness that threatens our future. I am always encouraged at this time of year that logic and science can win out over ignorance and rancid politics. I may be naïve in that thought, but I'll take it. I am proud beyond all words of my former students who are themselves now teachers and researchers. I am proud of my former students who went on in other fields, but who have continued to do their part as knowledgeable members of society to seek the best science-based solutions to the problems that bedevil us.

I know that ignorance can in fact be overcome. We managed as a society to pass the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, formed the Environmental Protection Agency, and expanded our protected areas as parks, monuments, and wilderness areas. We dealt as a world community with ozone depletion. And nearly all the world's nations agreed to the Paris Climate Accords. I am confident that saner minds will ultimately prevail in Washington so that the United States will also participate. The ignorance cannot stand in the light of knowledge and evidence. Our world is worth fighting for.
Am I being too naïve and idealistic? Maybe. Time will be the judge, I suppose. But I find it interesting that I still go into the classroom each new semester with a sense of hope and renewal. It's been that way when times were good, and it seemed like we as a society were on the right track, and it's been that way in the darkest of times, when fools and criminals have held the reins of power. The hope for a better future hasn't been beaten out of me. Not yet. And if it ever is, I will fight on anyway.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Amazing Disappearing (and Very Dangerous) Mountain: Mt. Rainier

Yes, disappearing. In two senses, one rather personal. Mt. Rainier is actually one of the most obvious, most visible mountains on planet Earth. At 14,411 feet (4,392 meters), it towers over western Washington, and in clear weather can be seen from more than a hundred miles away in some directions. In clear weather, that is...

I was in Washington just a week ago, part of my eclipse-related journey, but in four days, I saw not one little bit of the mountain. It was mostly overcast, or I was in one of those spots where the peak simply wasn't visible. The peak had disappeared and it was kind of frustrating!
And then there was our summer field studies trip back in June. We had plans for exploring the Mt. Rainier area then as well, but the heavy snows of last winter had not yet melted much, so we only managed a single stop within Mt. Rainier National Park (near Chinook Pass), with only a single view, and no trails that we could explore (although there was an epic snowball fight). That stop makes up the first two pictures of this post. I had to dig into the photo archives to find some other views of the mountain. The one below is from our 2014 exploration of Canada that included a short stop at Rainier along Sunrise Ridge (below).
Mt. Rainier is the tallest volcano in Cascades Range, and is exceeded in volume only by Mt. Shasta. Because it is by far the tallest mountain in the Pacific Northwest, it is completely covered by the largest mass of glacial ice in the lower 48 states, about a cubic mile (I read somewhere that it contains half of the all the glacial ice in the lower 48, but I can't find the source and would welcome any corrections from those who know such things). Aside from the "normal" threats that volcanoes might present to a given region (lava flows, ash flows, and that sort of thing), the snow makes the mountain far more dangerous. It's not hard to imagine why: any small eruption would melt a vast amount of ice, forming volcanic mudflows called lahars that are capable of flowing for many tens of miles, and threatening many of the cities along the southern part of the Puget Sound. The entire city of Tacoma is built on a mudflow that thundered down the mountain 5,000 years ago. The last major eruption occurred around a thousand years ago, although minor activity was noted several times in the 1800s.

The reason I mentioned "disappearing" in two senses has to do with the effect of the ice on the mountain. The volcano is being dismantled. Glaciers are a major force of erosion, especially when the underlying rock has been weakened by chemical weathering related to the hot acidic fluids that circulate and attack the mountain from below (hot springs exist around the summit where the steam has excavated miles of ice caves). The glaciers have scraped away the rock around the original summit, which has also collapsed in several large debris avalanches. In other words, the mountain once stood as high as 16,000 feet, which would have made it the highest mountain in the lower 48 states by far.

My favorite pictures of Mt. Rainier both involved flights. I was returning from a geology trip in Italy a number of years ago, and our flight path took us right over Rainier, giving me the awesome perspective seen in the picture above.

On a different flight from Seattle, we took off just after sunset and I didn't expect to see anything, but the faint twilight allowed the mountain to glow blue, and I got the rather ethereal other-worldly view seen below. The color is the way the camera recorded it (I didn't play with the contrast or color).
Mt. Rainier is a place I would very much like to get to know better.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Just Barely Through the Fog Banks: The Eclipse from Ground Zero, the Oregon Coast

Yeah, I was really taking a chance, choosing to stay on the Oregon Coast for the 2017 eclipse. The reason? The fog. And there was a lot of it. To make the long story short, it never really lifted, but we could still see most of the sights through the clouds. I didn't get to see much of the corona, but there were lots of Solar prominences to compensate. It was an awesome experience in the end, but my nails are bitten down to the nubs!
We started out from Florence at 4:40 AM, not wanting to miss a parking spot. There was not a lot of traffic, and we were absolutely thrilled to see parking spaces at Seal Rock State Park. The fog was a concern, though, and the sun was still not at all visible at 8:30.
The crew at Seal Rock was stubborn though. There was some discussion of trying a different spot, but most everyone stayed, hoping for a break in the clouds. It never happened, but the clouds thinned enough that the Sun shown through. I suspect that made things a bit more dangerous, because the clouds made the eclipse glasses almost useless, and UV light could still damage people's eyes. I trusted my cameras to filter things for me (I was shooting with two Panasonic Lumix DMZ FZ70 with a 60x zoom; one on a tripod, the other handheld). I started snapping photos.
At the beginning, the Sun was the show with a couple of sunspots visible, one almost dead-center, and the other near the lower left quadrant.

More of the Sun's surface was covered, and it was becoming difficult to focus on the crescent sun in the rapidly dimming light.
Despite the warnings, I realized I could get pictures at this point without the filter, so the next couple of pictures are the true color of the Sun: white.
The discontinuities on the right edge of the crescent below are mountains on the Moon splitting up the sunlight.
The crowd at Seal Rock had been chattering away throughout most of the buildup to totality, but there was a sudden hush of shock and awe as the Sun suddenly disappeared, and it was as dark as night.
The Solar prominences glowed pink around the margins of the disk. As noted before, the corona was not visible through the fog.
There was an audible gasp in the crowd as the first streaks of light appeared on the other side of the Moon. The prominences quickly disappeared in the bright shinning light.
And then totality was over as the sky began to lighten up after 1 minute and 25 seconds of darkness. We didn't get to see the stars and planets, but I was not going to complain. What we saw was simply awe-inspiring. I understand that not everybody can drop everything and go across an entire country to see a shadow for less than two minutes, but if you ever have an opportunity, don't pass it up! It's a common experience of humanity to see the Sun blotted out by the Moon, and witnessing one in person can help one understand the myths and legends that grew around eclipses. I literally felt like shouting for the dragon to let the Sun back out of its mouth.

Update: Very pleased that EarthSky posted one of my pictures! http://earthsky.org/todays-image/photos-aug-21-2017-total-solar-eclipse