Saturday, December 29, 2012

Cycle of Change

Wind-sculpted sandstone.
Wind Canyon, August 2012.
Many 19th century thinkers were attuned to earth's continuous cycle of change.

The recognition of geology as a field of study, and the growing acceptance of scientific inquiry as a foundation of critical thinking, emboldened poet laureate Alfred Tennyson to write of the solid earth:
"The hills are shadows and they flow
From form to form and nothing stands,
They melt like mists, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go."
In Memoriam A.H.H, 1849.
"Like clouds they shape themselves and go" was a radical metaphor for the solid earth, previously believed to embody the static properties of terra firma. Ten years before the publication of Tennyson's poem, Charles Darwin wrote:
"Where on the face of the earth can we find a spot on which close investigation will not discover signs of that endless cycle of change, to which this earth has been, is, and will be subjected?"
— Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, circa 1836.
Darwin recognized the transient nature of the very bedrock we stand on:
"Daily it is forced home on the mind of the geologist that nothing, not even the wind that blows, is so unstable as the level of the crust of this earth."
— Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, circa 1836.
By 1869, John Muir had used the metaphor of ancient religious texts when describing the manuscripts of evidence revealed by the solid earth processes of glaciation, erosion, deposition and transport (see My First Summer in the Sierra). By contemplating clues left behind over geologic time, we recognize how scale shapes the change we notice and acknowledge.

In surprising ways, the cycle of change is etched in stone. On a geologic time-scale, etchings in stone, like the horizontal striations etched by a receding glacier, are as ephemeral as shoreline footprints in the sand.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Solar Trails

Yesterday was our December solstice - the shortest day of the year, winter solstice, in the northern hemisphere and the longest day of the year, summer solstice, in the southern hemisphere.

From a warm shelter on the 45th parallel in the northern hemisphere, I observed an orange sunrise above a snow-covered wetland. Later the sun rose to its lowest position in the sky for the year.
"I don't have to have faith, I have experience."
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
The solar trails of the sun are beautifully realized using solargraphy.

A solargraph is made from a pinhole camera that records the movement of the sun over many months. Over the course of the exposure, the sun leaves a trail every day.

Solar trails over half a year at a location in the Andes Mountains.
Each day the sun's path progressively increases above the horizon from a low on winter solstice day, (December in the northern hemisphere), to a peak on summer solstice day (June in the northern hemisphere). Breaks in the solar trails occur when the sun is obscured by cloud cover.
"The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light."
Joseph Campbell
Cerro Paranal in northern Chile


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Everything is Flowing

Blue Marble
It is poetically fitting that the earth rotates and circumnavigates because our habitation of the Blue Marble is a continuous loop of natural and spontaneous change.

Anything that appears static, stationary, or unchanging is not observed over a time-scale that revels its metamorphic journey.

John Muir wrote that everything, animal or rock, is going somewhere.
"Everything is flowing -- going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks...While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood in Nature's warm heart."
Observation confirms Muir's belief -- everything is going somewhere. If the act of going occurs in an infinite loop of cause and effect, perhaps the where in somewhere is immaterial

With a grasp of mortality, Muir compared our existential plight to that of trees and stars.
"Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars."
Muir recognized the apparent false contradiction of the creative and destructive forces in nature.
"By forces seemingly antagonistic and destructive Nature accomplishes her beneficent designs - now a flood of fire, now a flood of ice, now a flood of water; and again in the fullness of time an outburst of organic life."
Muir saw the inherent beauty of constant change. He recognized creation and destruction is ongoing and unrelenting.
"Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another."
How do we reconcile our place amid constant change, creative destruction, and the ongoing, unrelenting flow of nature? It seems creation and destruction are the same dog chasing the same tail. Paul Coelho wrote,
"We are travelers on a cosmic journey, stardust, swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity."
- from The Alchemist
I suppose we are travelers, or accidental tourists, like rocks and birds or clouds and stars.

While we experience the journey of our lives, we are co-travelers on what Buckminster Fuller referred to as Spaceship Earth. We experience this journey as a glimpse of a grand and eternal show.
"This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls."
- John Muir, John of the Mountains (1938)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Snowflake's Journey

Snowflakes by Wilson Bentley
photographed in 1902.
If patterns in clouds are the sky's narrative documentary, then snowflakes are the sky's mystery because of the infinite patterns they assume.

Clouds and snowflakes are manifestations of the different phases of water. Snowflakes begin as water vapor in clouds, but they are not frozen raindrops. They are, in their simplest form, hexagonal prisms that can branch and sprout into intricate patterns.

Snowflakes come about when the water vapor in clouds condenses directly into ice.
How full of the creative genius is the air in which these are generated! I should hardly admire more if real stars fell and lodged on my coat.
Henry David Thoreau

The pattern a snowflake assumes varies under different conditions. Libbrecht's Snowflake Morphology diagram illustrates how a snowflake's general shape and size is a function of temperature and humidity (supersaturation).

Snowflake Morphology by Kenneth G. Libbrecht
"Why snow crystal shapes change so much with temperature remains something of a scientific mystery. The growth depends on exactly how water vapor molecules are incorporated into the growing ice crystal, and the physics behind this is complex and not well understood."
Kenneth G. Libbrecht

Snowflakes participate in a cyclical journey. From water vapor in clouds, snowflakes assume shapes made possible by a vast combinatorial spectrum of conditions. Despite apparent uniqueness, each snowflake follows the same gravity-driven journey to the earth.

Snowflakes come to temporary rest on the earth's surface. Eventually a snowflake becomes melt water that joins a river that wends its way to the ocean which, in turn, ascends back to the clouds.

One might parallel a snowflake's journey with that of a person's, although perhaps a person's destination is less clear. I wonder if like the snowflake, the human journey has no destination. Perhaps it too is cyclical.
I will lose the habit of stars in the heavens, as frozen water loses the habit of snowflakes. I will take my frozen body, and give it to the young goats that they might graze it.
Nichita Stănescu (1933-1983), Romanian poet and essayist


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Patterns in Clouds

Cloud Installation, Berndnaut Smilde
Clouds seem like the sky's narrative documentary.

And like the media that is always streaming in the other room, clouds are occasionally observed or mostly ignored.

Cloud formations drift across our frame of reference to portend the future, and to color our range of disposition from the melancholic, to the ominous, to the glorious.
We think that they are Nature’s poetry,
and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

— from The Cloud Appreciation Society manifesto
Clouds pass over us mostly unnoticed. Often they appear as random masses of water vapor, but are sometimes well-ordered.

Sometimes we perceive them as recognizable shapes and identifiable objects. It's human nature to look for the recognizable in randomness.
Aren't the clouds beautiful? They look like big balls of cotton. I could just lie here all day and watch them drift by. If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud's formations.
— the character Lucy Van Pelt, from A Boy Named Charlie Brown

A Morning Glory cloud is a well-ordered, horizontal cloud formation known as a roll cloud.

 Morning Glory cloud formation near Burketown, Australia
Morning Glories have been observed around the world, but patient observers might see a few, particularly from the air, in the geographic region near Burketown, Australia from late September to early November.
The Morning Glory is often accompanied by sudden wind squalls, intense low-level wind shear, a rapid increase in the vertical displacement of air parcels, and a sharp pressure jump at the surface. In the front of the cloud, there is strong vertical motion that transports air up through the cloud and creates the rolling appearance, while the air in the middle and rear of the cloud becomes turbulent and sinks.

Shelf clouds are also well-ordered, horizontal cloud formations known as arcus clouds. Shelf clouds are associated with the leading edge of thunderstorm outflow.

Shelf cloud over Wagga Wagga, Australia.

The well-ordered in nature delights us. Humans seem predisposed to find comfort in well-ordered, recognizable, and predicable phenomena. We are accustomed to Nature's apparent randomness. Seeking and discovering patterns in Nature is an unbounded curiosity offering solace to the curious.
Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.
Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds


Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Door to Hell

Drilling in what was thought to be a substantial oil field in the early seventies, Soviet geologists struck a methane gas-filled subterranean cavern in the Karakum Desert. The ground beneath their drilling rig collapsed into the subsurface cavern, leaving a hole of about 70 meters in diameter.

The gas could not be safely extracted for use. To avert the hazards of the poisonous gas, the geologists decided to burn off the gas.

It was hoped the fire would consume the gas discharge in a matter of days. Incredibly it is still burning today.

Locals refer to the gaping hole in the desert as "The Door to Hell".

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble!

William Shakespeare
(From the incantation of the three witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth)


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Sea Foam

Sea foam, Asbury Park, NJ
Sea foam occurs when seawater containing high concentrations of dissolved organic matter is agitated by wind and wave action.

Offshore decomposition of phytoplankton blooms dissolves large amounts of organic matter in seawater. Dissolved organic matter acts as a foaming agent or surfactant.

Breaking waves in the near-shore surf zone trap air. The presence of foaming agents generates persistent bubbles that stick to each other by surface tension.

Sea foam can be blown inland by strong on-shore winds.
I am forever walking upon these shores,
Betwixt the sand and the foam,
The high tide will erase my foot prints,
And the wind will blow away the foam,
But the sea and the shore will remain forever.

Kahlil Gibran (Sand and Foam)

Saturday, November 10, 2012

From Dust and Rocks to Earth

What is a beginning? Organisms, at least in a superficial sense, seem to have a distinguishable beginning and a distinguishable end. We call this phenomenon life, or a lifetime.

Does Earth have a life?

Believing it possible to distinguish a beginning or an end to anything is reminiscent of Alice following the March Hare down the rabbit hole. Alice goes without looking or thinking.

It is reasonable to wonder if life has a beginning and an end. Things - living or inert - do not seem to have a beginning or an end as much as humans seem comforted by recognizing them in that way. This comports with our sense of mortality. An expansive view might be to consider life a momentary transition of billion year-old carbon.

Is is reasonable to consider the beginning of Earth as we know it. The clause "as we know it" is important because nothing is static.

We know Earth as a spinning planet. We observe that Earth orbits the Sun. We describe our global position as the outer rim of the Milky Way.
"There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is due to the poverty of our imagination."
Bertrand Russell (1872 -1970)
Perhaps a broader concept of Earth is that of continual metamorphosing of aggregated materials. Even in transitional objects we recognize a momentary signature - a recognizable pattern that transmits familiar characteristics to our mind. Transmission of familiar patterns leads, or deceives us to believe we know a thing.

We objectify by naming and classifying. Objectifying is one of our primative tools for understanding. We conjure terms like stellar dust and rocks. We invent names like Earth, Sun, and The Milky Way. We conceive systemic notions like the Solar System.

What is a meaningful concept of Earth?

Imagine when Earth had not yet formed into the familiar orbiting planet we recognize today:
"Long, long ago (some 5 billion years ago) in a perfectly ordinary place in the galaxy, a supernova exploded, pushing a lot of its heavy-element wreckage into a nearby cloud of hydrogen gas and interstellar dust. The mixture grew hot and compressed under its own gravity, and at its center a new star began to form. Around it swirled a disk of the same material, which grew white-hot from the great compressive forces. That new star became our Sun, and the glowing disk gave rise to Earth and its sister planets."
— Andrew Alden
Imagine that over millions of years gravity pulls stellar dust into tiny rocks. Then over millions of years gravity causes those materials to coalesce into a molten Earth. Earth becomes one of many planets orbiting the sun.
We have the satisfaction to find, that in nature there is wisdom, system and consistency. For having, in the natural history of this earth, seen a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that, there is a system in nature; in like manner as, from seeing revolutions of the planets, it is concluded, that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. But if the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is vain to look for anything higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present inquiry is that we find no vestige of a beginning,-no prospect of an end.
James Hutton (1726-1797)
If Earth formed from coalescing dust, where did the dust come from? One notion is that the universe exhibits conservation of mass.

Conservation of mass begets the notion of the Earth engaged in a circle game where the dust that forms planets originates from the dust made by stellar collisions and disintegrated planets.

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

— excerpt from The Circle Game by Joni Mitchell

Earth doesn't seem to have a life as much as it has a narrative - an ongoing story of dust and rocks to Earth and a perpetual story of coalescence and disintegration.


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Nature's Forces and Tools

How a granite boulder, many times larger than man, finds it restful place amid a grove of lodgepole pines is a curiosity. The density of granite is about 2 tons per cubic yard.

What are the forces and what were the tools?

Granite boulder near Yellowstone Canyon.
Photograph by William Henry Jackson (1843–1942)
John Muir considered those questions in the summer of 1869 when he observed huge boulders in the high, cool pastures of the Sierra Nevada:
They look lonely here, strangers in a strange land, - huge blocks, angular mountain chips, the largest twenty or thirty feet in diameter, the chips that Nature has made in modeling her landscapes, fashioning the forms of her mountains and valleys. And with what tool were they quarried and carried?
― John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
Although controversial at the time, Muir believed receding glaciers, aided by water (solid and liquid) and by gravity, shaped the Sierra Nevada landscape by carving, fracturing, transporting, and depositing rock.

The Sierra Nevada was cold enough 2-3 million years ago to support ice fields and glaciers along the its crest. Ice fields sent out and sustained glaciers in many of the valleys. Muir recognized that:
Glacial ice quarried and transported huge volumes of rock debris.
Evidence suggests glacial ice scoured and modified the landscape. As the glaciers began melting away, much of the rock debris was deposited in situ, or flushed into valleys by swollen streams of melt-water.

Angular boulders on the summit of Mt. Whitney.
John Muir's observations and writings became a personal guide into nature for generations of people. American environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote:
"Muir invented a new grammar, a contagious vocabulary for communicating the splendor of the natural world."
Through rich prose, and via clear-thinking and insightful observation, Muir inspired and urged us into the modern paradigm of environmental consciousness -- the recognition that man is one of many creatures blessed by the vast wealth of nature and its phenomena.
"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn."
― John Muir
Muir's writing is both analytic and poetic.

To contemplate and consider the events and phenomena that surround us, these questions remain indispensable:
What are the forces and what were the tools?


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Tropical Cyclones

Hurricane Isabel (2003)
A tropical cyclone is a storm system centered about an area of low atmospheric pressure.

Low pressure sets an air mass into motion. This motion would be experience by as wind - wind with measurable intensity and direction.
The term cyclone refers to cyclical wind flow. The direction of wind flow in cyclonic systems is:
  • Counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, and
  • Clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere,
due to a rotational deflection known as the Coriolis force.

The Coriolis force deflects moving objects when they are viewed in a rotating reference frame such as the earth's rotation. Wind undergoes an apparent deflection from its path because of the rotation of the earth.
Hurricane Sandy 10/26/2012
“There is no way that we can predict the weather six months ahead beyond giving the seasonal average”
Stephen Hawking, from Black Holes and Baby Universes
Tropical cyclones originate over tropical oceans in the equatorial regions of the earth. A cyclone derives its energy from condensed water vapor. Condensation occurs as warm, saturated air rises from the ocean surface (evaporation) and cools.
“One of the fellows called me 'Cyclone' but finally shortened it to 'Cy' and its been that ever since.”
"Cy" Young, Major League Baseball pitcher (1867 – 1955).
A tropical cyclone is also referred to as a hurricane, a typhoon, a tropical storm, a cyclonic storm, a tropical depression, or simply a cyclone, depending on the global region and wind-speed intensity.

Name Wind Speed Global Region
Tropical Depression 38 mph or less
Tropical Storm 40 to 72 mph
Hurricane 74 mph or greater Western North Atlantic and Eastern North Pacific
Typhoon 74 mph or greater Western North Pacific


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Golden Ratio in Nature

In words, the golden ratio is:
The ratio of the sum of two quantities over the larger quantity is equal to the ratio of the larger quantity over the smaller one.
The golden ratio expressed as an equation is:

(a + b) / a = 1.618 = a / b

From the golden ratio, we get a mathematical constant - a number. It is the number 1.6 which, by convention, is represented by the Greek letter φ (pronounced "fee").

The number φ is a mathematical curiosity. Like the mathematical constant π, φ appears everywhere.
Ginkgo Leaf
The good, of course, is always beautiful, and the beautiful never lacks proportion.
The golden ratio is found in the proportions of leaves. I measured the golden ratio in the leaf of a ginkgo tree.

Using the typographical units of pica, I measured 28 pica from the notch to the base of the stem of a ginkgo leaf. I then measured 17 pica from the top of the stem to the base of the stem (length a).

The quotient of 28 pica over 17 pica yields the golden ratio 1.6.

Scientists have recently observed nanoscopic symmetry. The symmetry they observed had the attributes of the golden ratio, demonstrating this curious proportion at the quantum level.
The universe cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word.
Galileo Galilei

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Earth Rhythms

Autumn is a time for noticing changes and for witnessing life-cycles. It is also a time that lends itself to introspection. For many, Fall is the season when:
we look, rather than overlook.
Horse Chestnut leaves on
the banks of the River Wye.
We are melancholic, but pleasantly befuddled by the essence of our mortality.

Autumn Leaves is a wistful tune sung by Nat King Cole and many talented singers.
Autumn Leaves
Johnny Mercer

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sun-burned hands I used to hold

Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I'll hear old winter's song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall

Translated to English from the 1945 French song Les Feuilles Mortes, i.e., "The Dead Leaves", the lyrics of Autumn Leaves expresses the longing we have for what we might have lost and for what we are about to lose.

Autumn is a rhythm of life. The earth's rhythms are plentiful and rewarding to those who observe them.

Earth's Rhythms

The word rhythm derives from the Greek ῥυθμός—rhythmos, meaning "any regular recurring motion, symmetry".

Rhythm describes a regular recurrence or pattern in time. Earth's rhythms appear in cyclical phenomena from microseconds to millions of years.

Time Scales

The rhythm of night and day is a Circadian Rhythm. The word circadian was coined by scientist Franz Halberg in 1959. It comes from the Latin words circa (i.e., around) and diem (singular of dies).

Halberg was a pioneer in Chronobiology (the study of biological rhythms, such as daily, tidal, weekly, seasonal, and annual rhythms). In the context of living organisms, circadian rhythms are both built-in and adjusted to environmental cues. Environment cues are called zeitgebers (i.e., a German word meaning synchronizers). One zeitgeber is daylight.

Relationship between ethological terms and parts of the day.
Circadian rhythms for living organisms are further described by the period within the cycle where they are most active, that is:
  • Diurnal (daytime);
  • Nocturnal (night time); and
  • Crepuscular (dawn and dusk hours).
The term Matutinal describes the pre-dawn or early morning hours. The morning glory is a matutinal flower that unravels into full bloom in the early morning. The flowers begin to fade a few hours before it closes its blooms later in the day. Vespertine describes dusk and evening hours where animals like deer are most active.

Other Rhythms

Echelon flock formation
of migratory birds
There are many temporal patterns other than circadian rhythm including the non-24-hour Infradian and Ultradian rhythms:

Infradian rhythms are cycles longer than a 24-hour day. For example,
  • the annual migration of birds;
  • the varied reproductive cycles of animals; and
  • the human menstrual cycle.
Ultradian rhythms are shorter than 24 hours. For example,
  • the 90-minute REM cycle;
  • the 4-hour nasal cycle of congestion/decongestion, and
  • the 3-hour cycle of growth hormone production.
Other notable rhythms include the cycle of ocean tides and gene oscillations in living organisms.
Tide pool in Portugal

Tidal rhythms are cycles that emerge from the roughly 12-hour transition from high to low tide and back.

Gene oscillations describe a phenomena where genes are more active during certain hours of the day (acrophase) and less active in the time (bathyphase).
I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.
L.M. Montgomery, from Anne of Green Gables

There is a measure of serenity in earth rhythms, the seemingly friction-less spin of the earth, and the earth's reliable orbit around the sun.
Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.
John Muir
All existence seems a pulsating rhythm. I wonder if my heart pulsates in harmony the changing color of leaves. At some level, I think it does.
...if you become aware of the fact that you are all of your own body, and that the beating of your heart is not just something that happens to you, but something you're doing, then you become aware also in the same moment and at the same time that you're not only beating your heart, but that you are shining the sun. Why? Because the process of your bodily existence and its rhythms is a process, an energy system which is continuous with the shining of the sun, just like the East River, here, is a continuous energy system, and all the waves in it are activities of the whole East River, and that's continuous with the Atlantic Ocean, and that's all one energy system and finally the Atlantic ocean gets around to being the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, etc., and so all the waters of the Earth are a continuous energy system. It isn't just that the East River is part of it. You can't draw any line and say 'Look, this is where the East River ends and the rest of it begins.'
Alan Watts

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Polar Ice

Polar ice forms because as high latitude regions the poles receive less solar radiation than equatorial regions, resulting in lower temperatures.

Sea ice is frozen ocean water. Icebergs, glaciers, and ice shelves float in the ocean but originate on land. Sea ice cools the poles, but also moderates global climate.

Polar bears 280 miles from the North Pole
Polar bears 280 miles from the North Pole.
I seemed to vow to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on and on till I came to one of the poles of the earth, the end of the axis upon which this great round ball turns.
Ernest Shackleton (1874 – 1922), Polar Explorer


Recently the Arctic has warmed twice as quickly as the rest of the northern hemisphere. Some aspects of changing climate is self-perpetuating.

Reflection / Absorption of Sea Ice
Sea Ice Reflection/Absorption in
Admiralty Bay, King George Island
Most sea ice is blanketed by reflective snow cover. About 80% of the sunlight striking snow-covered ice is reflected back into space.

Further, when soot from smokestacks in Europe and Asia migrate to the Arctic then settle onto the snow and ice, the darker particles absorb rather than reflect solar energy.

When sea ice melts, it exposes the darker, non-reflective ocean surface. Instead of reflecting solar energy, ocean water absorbs 90% of the incident solar radiation.

As ocean water warms, arctic temperatures rise.


Sea ice data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Figure 1, indicate the mean monthly sea ice coverage has decreased between the years 1979 and 2012.

Figure 1.
A plan view representation of sea ice extent is shown in Figure 2. The white region, representing the footprint of sea ice on October 2, 2012, is shown in comparison to the median footprint of sea ice during the period of 1979-2000 (orange outline).

Figure 2.

Earth Scientists know from the geologic record that polar ice has changed over the last 12,000 years. Changes have occurred because of varied solar radiation and absorption. Further, on a geologic time scale, ice cover has grown or shrunk because of climate variation.

Sea ice is melting more dramatically each year. Scientists concur the melt is driven by climate change correlating to pollutants humans release into the atmosphere. A 2012 study of multi-decade sea ice variability concludes that 70 - 95% of the disappearance of Arctic ice since 1979 is due to human activity.

Within 10 years it will be impossible to travel to the North Pole by dog team. There will be too much open water.
Will Steger


Saturday, September 29, 2012

Estuary Meditation

Estuaries are places where rivers meet the ocean ― bays, harbors, lagoons, salt marshes, tidal inlets, barrier islands, and sounds.

The estuary is a transition ecosystem between rivers and ocean ― a zone influenced by marine phenomena like tides, waves, and the influx of salt water and riverine phenomena like fresh water flows and sediment transport.

Conceptual Diagram of an Estuary.
Source: Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON)

Blue Crab
Estuaries are among the most productive micro-environments on earth with more organic matter created annually than comparably-sized forests, grasslands, or cultivated land.

Sheltered estuarine waters support thriving communities of plants and animals especially adapted for this ecosystem.

To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of year, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.
Rachel Carson

Estuary of Klamath River in Redwood National Park.

The nutrient cycle, the water cycle, and the cycle of life are the primary physical and biological phenomena found in estuaries:
  • Nutrient Cycle - Many elements are recycled in estuaries providing sustenance to living organisms. The health of an estuary depends on a balance of these elements.
  • Water Cycle - Evaporation occurs in estuaries and fresh water recharges ground water reserves.
  • Cycle of Life - Estuaries provide food, shelter, and nurseries for animals. Decomposing animals provide nutrients for other organisms.

We need the tonic of wildness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground.
Henry David Thoreau

National Estuaries Day is an annual observation in the US held on the last Saturday of September.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Ode to Dew

Drops of water formed by the condensation of moisture in the air is dew. Dew occurs when the moisture in the air is cooled to its dew point.


Dew drops assumes the shape that minimizes the sum of its gravitational energy and its surface tension. Surface tension is expressed as force per unit length. Water has a surface tension of 0.072 N/m.
Man's life is like a drop of dew on a leaf.
The shape of a dew drop cannot be described by a closed form mathematical function. The governing differential equations do not have a closed form solution, so must be integrated numerically to trace the profile of a drop (cf. The profile of a dew drop).

A drop of dew cupped in the leaf of the common garden nasturtium.
The person who doesn't scatter the morning dew will not comb gray hairs.
- Hunter S. Thompson

The term refraction describes the deflection of light that occurs when light waves travel through a change in medium (e.g., from air to water). Water droplets refract light like a lens.
When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.
- Travels in Alaska by John Muir, 1915, chapter 1, page 5.
Refraction Photograph by Markus Reugels
Photographer Markus Reugels uses the refraction of light in water to create still life images in a drop of water.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

September Equinox

The earth has two equinoxes – one in September and one in March. The September Equinox will occur next Saturday September 22 at 14:49 (or 2:49pm) Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).

What is the equinox?

September Equinox
The equinox occurs when the sun shines directly on the equator and the length of day and night is nearly equal. The twilight zone is a moving line that separates the illuminated day side and the dark night side of the earth. The equinoxes are the only times when the twilight zone is inclined 90° to the Earth's Equator.

Equinox is a Latin word meaning equal night. At the cusp of the equinox, night and day are 12 hours. The equilux is a word that describes that time when sunset and sunrise are exactly 12 hours apart.

A Reflection on Seasons

Seasons are opposite on either side of the equator. In the northern hemisphere the September equinox is known as the autumnal equinox. In the southern hemisphere it is known as the vernal or spring equinox.

Here in the North American continent, we are experiencing the approach of the autumnal equinox. It is a time of the year where we appreciate the remaining plant life, particularly delighting in autumn flowers.
Earth laughs in flowers.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Flowers in autumn seem to grow more vibrant in color as the days and nights grow cooler - as if to defy their impending death.

At the autumnal equinox, many of us notice the waning plant life knowing their time remaining will be short. Philosopher Albert Camus noted:
Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower. 
Morning Glory

Some sowers of flower seeds bury pre-soaked and razor-scored Morning Glory seeds each Spring in a sort of long-view anticipation of the short window of their bluish-purple bloom in late summer and early autumn.

The Morning Glory is one of the sublimest of flowers, perhaps because of its sudden vibrancy and fleeting display of color. Poet Walt Whitman noted:
A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.
Poet Matsuo Bashô (松尾芭蕉) wrote:

asagao ni
ware wa meshi kû
otoko kana
I am one
Who eats his breakfast,
Gazing at morning glories.

A Morning Glory
Many of the uncertainties we fret about have no permanence; like autumn flora they gradually pass away.

In the natural world, the autumnal equinox is a time for scattering and sowing seeds.

For humans, the autumnal equinox is a time for reflection, for renewing attentiveness, and for appreciating all that's fleeting.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Mountain River Sūtra

The earth presents its inhabitants with seemingly endless enrichment and, when we are most lucky, fleeting opportunity for enlightenment. In River Run Dance, I wondered about the metaphysics of water molecules flowing in a river.
Would we need to trace a water molecule to know that water flowing through a river is never the same water?
I have the same wonder about mountains. What is the beginning of a mountain? Do mountains have a beginning and an end? Yes and no.

Orogeny and Erosion

Orogeny and erosion are a mountain's yin and yang. Orogeny encompasses the events leading to the deformation of the Earth's crust because of the engagement of tectonic plates.

From plate collision, a mountain begins.

Erosion refers to soil and rock that is transported by wind or water flow to other locations.

From transporting winds and water flow, a mountain ends.

Does it matter if a mountain has a beginning and an end?

Perhaps we only need revel in the endlessness and the continuity we experience.
Revel in the endlessness, the endless repetition - the mountains forming, the rivers flowing, and the planet rotating and orbiting to change our light and to change our seasons.
An Earth Verse by poet Gary Snyder:
Earth Verse

Wide enough to keep you looking
Open enough to keep you moving
Dry enough to keep you honest
Prickly enough to make you tough
Green enough to go on living
Old enough to give you dreams

from Mountains and Rivers Without End

A Sūtra

Gary Snyder refers to his the poems in Mountains and Rivers Without End as a sūtra - a collection of words woven to embody a general truth. The literal meaning of the sūtra is a thread or a line that holds things together. The word sūtra is similar in derivation to the medical term suture.

Mr. Snyder's Mountains and Rivers Without End was inspired by a 17th century ink on paper handscroll of the same name.

Mountains and Rivers Without End
Handscroll; ink on paper
Lu Yuan, mid- to late 17th century, China

Saturday, September 1, 2012

River Run Dance

Gallatin River
If a river is the dancer, then gravity must be the choreographer.

A river's source is a lake, a spring, or a series of small streams or headwaters. All rivers flow downhill from their source. Rivers typically terminate in the ocean.
Would we need to trace a water molecule to know that water flowing through a river is never the same water?
A river's life is significantly longer than a human generation. Seen over the course of a human lifetime, a river swells or shrinks seasonally and temporally, but in the aggregate, seems steady in course and flow.

"I thought how lovely and how strange a river is. A river is a river, always there, and yet the water flowing through it is never the same water and is never still. It’s always changing and is always on the move. And over time the river itself changes too. It widens and deepens as it rubs and scours, gnaws and kneads, eats and bores its way through the land."
― Aidan Chambers, This is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn

On a geologic time scale, a river has a dramatic life-cycle.


A youthful river has a steep gradient. It has rapid flow and has few tributaries. The steep gradient causes erosion that is deeper rather than wider.


Mature rivers have a milder gradient and slower flow. It is fed by many tributaries and has a greater volumetric flow rate. The milder gradient causes erosion that is wider rather than deeper.


An old river has a low gradient and low erosive energy. Old rivers are characterized by flood plains.

Mississippi River
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. 
― Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Discovery and Natural Wonder

Wind Canyon  10 Aug 2012
Coming upon a natural wonder, it's human nature to consider the notion of discovery.
Who was the first to witness this?
We romanticize discovery. But what is the nature of true discovery?

We imagine ourselves the fortuitous first-discoverer, but perhaps we overlook an important aspect of discovery.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. ― Marcel Proust
We sow the seeds of discovery by adopting Beginner's Mind. Discovery begins when we see the world through fresh eyes.
It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.
Rachel Carson, excerpt from The Sense of Wonder
We cultivate the probability of discovery when we shed the baggage of expectations to meet the world with openness.
When I am a beginner, everything is discovery.

Tower Fall

Year after year, I discover and re-discover natural wonders. I fancy myself an explorer seeing things for the first time. I wonder about these natural wonders. I romanticize the history of these sacred places.
Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children's children.Theodore Roosevelt
Tower Fall is one such natural wonder I have romanticized.

Six days into the Yellowstone Expedition of 1870, Lieutenant Gustavus Doane describes Tower Fall in his journal:
The great curiosity of the locality, however, is the Tower Fall of Hot Spring Creek, where that stream is precipitated, in one unbroken body, from an amygdaloid ledge, a sheer descent of 115 feet, into a deep gorge, joining the Yellowstone a few hundred yards below. ― Lt. Doane
Tower Fall. Sketched by Private Moore. The Yellowstone Expedition of 1870.
Lt. Doane's excellent journal writing often tempers his delight and exhilaration with the analytic detachment expected of his station, but of Tower Fall he waxes poetic:
Nothing can be more chastely beautiful than this lovely cascade, hidden away in the dim light of overshadowing rocks and woods, its very voice hushed to a low murmur, unheard at the distance of a few hundred yards. Thousands might pass by within a half mile and not dream of its existence; but once seen, it passes to the list of most pleasant memories. ― Lt. Doane

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Temperature Anomalies

The sweltering July heat was reminiscent of a line from the Lovin' Spoonful tune Summer In The City:
All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head
High temperatures fueled wildfires, warmed and dried up surface water, exacerbated drought conditions, and wilted crops around the globe.

July 2012 was the hottest month on record in the United States.
It ain't the heat; it's the humility.
~ Yogi Berra

July 2012 - Difference from mean historical temperature for July 1895-2012
NOAA National Climatic Data Center

The Antarctic Peninsula, much of eastern Europe, and North Africa also recorded unusually warm temperatures in July. To the contrary, Australia, Northern and Western Europe, Eastern Russia, Alaska, and Southern South America were cooler than normal.

A statistical trend towards climate extremes concerns climatologists.
The distribution of seasonal mean temperature anomalies has shifted toward higher temperatures and the range of anomalies has increased.
~ James Hansen, NASA GISS director
July 2012 Data (Source National Climatic Data Center)
  • The average combined global land and ocean surface temperature was 1.12°F above the 20th century average (60.4°F) for July.
  • The Northern Hemisphere land surface temperature was the all-time warmest July on record since 1895, at 2.14°F above the average.
  • Over 2 million acres burned in the United States due to wildfires (the fourth most since 2000).
  • Moderate to exceptional drought conditions were recorded in 62.9 percent of the contiguous United States.
  • It was the fourth consecutive month the Northern Hemisphere set a new monthly land temperature record.
  • Sea ice in the Arctic averaged only 3.1 million square miles (the second lowest July sea ice extent on record).
Selected significant climate anomalies that occurred in July 2012 are depicted below in a worldwide map prepared by the National Climatic Data Center:

Selected Significant Climate Anomalies & Events July 2012
NOAA National Climatic Data Center

Your descendants shall gather your fruits.
~ Virgil