Saturday, January 26, 2013

Essential Grandeur

Einstein agreed to have his oft-quoted phrase "God is subtle, but he is not malicious" inscribed and hung in the Princeton mathematics building, but wrote to mathematician Oswald Veblen that he really meant to say,
"Nature conceals her mystery by means of her essential grandeur, not by her cunning."
If I was sitting with Einstein on his porch facing Mercer Street, I like to think I would have asked him,
Isn't nature's cunning the allure of her grandeur?
Nature appears to unfold with a certain randomness because we frequently fail to recognize or appreciate the profound beauty of its overarching patterns.

Ice break-up, Yellowstone Lake, May 2012.

Indeed we often ignore, or are ignorant of, the framework ― the physical and biological patterns ― in which these events occur.

I observe scant if any naivete in nature. The physical and biological patterns I observe then ruminate about suggest that
Nature appears feckless, but has a reliable record of intelligence.
What are examples of the physical and biological patterns that make up the framework?

The most dominant biological pattern is self-correcting survival. Species are programmed to proliferate with a simple rule:
Self-correct the template by mating with survivors.
Then there are the physical laws of the earth and of the universe. There are the sublimely evident and irrefutable earth-bound truths like
There are also the apparent laws of the universe like conservation of energy.
"Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf minors on the face of a leaf."
― Annie Dillard
Within this framework nature abounds and proliferates. It is up to us to find the passion and self-discipline to observe, to understand, and to appreciate its grandeur.

The old philosophical saw "if a tree falls in the forest" strikes me as naively human-centric. As Annie Dillard writes in the opening chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,
"The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there."


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Humans & Preservation

Human births have been exceeding deaths for over 50 years. Earth is sustaining unprecedented human population growth.

Human Population Growth
"A friend of mine once sent me a post card with a picture of the entire planet Earth taken from space. On the back it said, 'Wish you were here."
Steven Wright
During the same half century, there has been a corresponding growth in nationally protected areas around the earth. There are more than 120,000 protected areas. The protected areas cover about 5,187,000,000 acres of land and sea (as of 2008).

Globally Protected Land & Sea5,187,000,000
Area of Canada2,467,265,689
Area of United States2,379,964,800
Area of Australia1,882,431,500

Over the past half-century the cumulative total terrestrial area protected has steadily increased (yellow line below). In the past several decades, the cumulative total marine area protected has begun to increase (red line below).
"Since 1872 we've take a once radical idea—preserving nature—and scaled it up globally with amazing speed."
Julia Whitty, Mother Jones Environmental Correspondent
Growth in Protected Areas (1872-2008)

"Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first."

Mark Twain


Saturday, January 12, 2013

Water Revolutions

Temperature starts revolutions.

Probe any natural phenomena with the 5 Whys. Prepare yourself to leap from the concrete and observable to the speculative and spiritual by the third why.
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

— Rudyard Kipling, excerpt from the tale of The Elephant's Child
If you examine any natural phenomena with the 5 Whys, one why is usually down to temperature. Temperature seems to be the engine of flow in much of nature.

Temperature drives change. It starts revolutions.

Fresh Water Lakes
"Who comes to a lake for water and sees the reflection of moon?"
Lake water undergoes a temperature-driven revolution during each seasonal cycle.

During the hottest and the coldest time of the year, lake water temperatures are sharply stratified from top to bottom. On the contrary, during the transitional periods from cold to warm, or from warm to cold, the water temperature in lakes overturns to become well-mixed (i.e., nearly homogeneous from top to bottom).

Seasonal Temperature Profile of a Lake in the Northern Hemisphere

Great Northern Loon
Temperature stratification is experienced by swimmers. During warm months, swimming near the surface, the water is pleasantly warm. Diving down to swim at depth, the water is refreshingly cool.
"When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float."
Alan Watts
The depth where the water temperature changes most rapidly, is the thermocline depth, or metalimnion.

During the coldest months, lakes might ice over. Ice and snow cover reflect incident solar radiation. A cold strata of denser water will overlie the less dense, warmer water below. Stratification foments ripeness for change.

Sunset over the ice of Lake Superior
Cause and effect of the seasonal overturn of lake water is orchestrated by the inter-related properties of water:
  1. Temperature changes density; and
  2. Density changes buoyancy.
The stratification that occurs during temperature extremes is inherently unstable, just as the well-mixed water of the transitional seasons is ripe for stratification.

The revolution is ongoing, repetitious, and sublimely beautiful in its simplicity.


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Caldera Lakes

A volcanic crater lake forms in a cauldron-like volcanic feature called a caldera. Caldera is a Spanish word from the latin caldaria meaning cooking pot.

A caldera lake is formed in several stages following a cataclysmic volcanic eruption.

Crater Lake is a lake that was formed in a caldera from precipitation and snow melt.

Cataclysmic Eruption

During a cataclysmic eruption (below), a fast-moving column of ash, hot gas, and rock escapes from a subsurface magma chamber blasting up through the ground surface and spewing into the atmosphere. As subsurface materials are transported and displaced to the surface, the volume of the magma chamber decreases.

Cataclysmic Eruption

Caldera Collapse

The volcano and land mass above a magma chamber is supported, in part, by the magma itself. As a significant volume of magmatic material is displaced by the eruption, a volcanic summit forms. Vertical fissures formed beneath the summit (below) advance the collapse and subsidence of the displaced volume of erupted material. A conical ring of pumice and ash surround the collapsed summit.

Caldera Collapse

New Caldera

After the ash settles, and the magmatic system finds a new isostatic equilibrium, the remaining surface depression is the newly formed caldera. In the depiction below, ground water interacts with hot deposits causing eruptions of steam.

New Caldera

Caldera Lake

The depression fills with precipitation to become a lake (below). Over time, renewed eruptions from vents in the caldera might form an island in the lake. Wizard Island is a cinder cone that formed an island in Crater Lake.

Caldera Lake