Category Archives: Science

Solar Eclipse Countdown: Out There in Flyover Country

2017 EclipseLike many another skywatcher who has never seen a total solar eclipse, I’m scouting places to see the big event that will, failing a world-ending electoral event in the interim, occur a year from now.

For Californians, Oregon is the natural eclipse-watching destination. The path of totality will cross the Beaver State just north of Bend, east of the Cascades and an area that’s reliably sunny.

Lots of people have figured out that this part of Oregon is strategically located. The owner of a 72-room motel in Madras, along the line where totality will be longest in the area — 2 minutes and 3 seconds — says his place has been booked for more than three years.

I admit I can imagine a crowd descending on the area and the roads resembling something like rush hour here in the Bay Area. It’s not an inspiring thought. Still, we’re checking to see what lodging alternatives there might be up there.

My thoughts also tend further east. Maybe to the High Plains. It’s a different world out there. In noodling around looking for places one might stay out in flyover country, I happened across the following description of a tiny hostelry in a very small town. It’s one of the best things I’ve read today. Here it is:

There is a very slim chance that you are going to visit the Longhorn Motel in Tryon Nebraska. There are several reasons for this, chief among them that almost no one lives in Tryon, and it is not on the road to anywhere. The Longhorn’s primary mission in life is to serve as an overflow bedroom when more than one relative comes to visit a resident of Tryon at the same time.

You will not break down in or near Tryon because, as noted above, it is not on the road to anywhere.

Should you need to visit in Tryon, the Longhorn is the ONLY place to stay. That is literally the truth. The rooms are quite small but very clean. Your hosts, Mr. and Mrs Pyzer, are without a doubt the friendliest motel hosts in the business, There is a small TV in each room connected to the satellite system, so there is a wide range of programing available. If you want coffee in the morning the Pyzers will give you the fixins before you turn in. Even though they have a bona fide monopoly on rooms to rent, $40 will get you the finest room in the place.

Sadly there is not WIFI hook up, but all is not lost. One block west on the other side of highway 92/97 sits the McPherson County public school. The school has a nice strong signal to which you can connect if you park near the handicapped parking spots along the highway in front of the school.

The Longhorn does not provide breakfast but just a block and a half west you will find Aunt Bea’s Restaurant. Aunt Bea is a middle aged gentleman who fires up the grill about 9 each morning and can whip you up a sausage breakfast that should make Ronald MacDonald hide his head in shame.

As I said before, you are probably not going to be in or near Tryon, but if you are, you will experience first hand the friendly nature of the folks who live in Nebraska’s fabulous Sandhills. If you do not know what the Sandhills are – you do need to get out more.

Room Tip: All the rooms are good but #3 is the best among equals!

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Mapping a Mosquito

Recently, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC, for short) publicized statistics and maps on where the Aedes aegypti mosquito is found across the United States; or rather, where the species has been found in monitoring going back to the mid-1990s.

Aedes aegypti is in the news because it’s been identified as the primary vector of the Zika virus. (Among things I didn’t know until I sat down to write this just now: The virus was first detected in a rhesus monkey in Uganda in 1947; the first human case was reported, again in Uganda, in 1952, and the first major outbreak was recorded in 2007 on the Pacific island of Yap, about 1,200 miles east-southeast of Manila (or 4,300 miles west-southwest of Honolulu, if you want to get all America-centric; it is a very big ocean out there).

But back to the Zika and the data the CDC put out. The statistics, compiled by a team of researchers from the CDC and Colorado State University, showed that Aedes aegypti had been found in 13 of California’s 58 counties since 1996 (in fact, all the reports appear to be from 2001 or later). In most cases, the mosquito has been found in just one or two or three years. In one case — Los Angeles County — Aedes aegypti has turned up in nine years since 2001, including every year from 2011 through 2015.

Anyway. Why was I paying attention to this? A colleague at work wanted to make a more informative map than those published along with the Oxford Journal of Medical Entomology article that carried the CDC data. I sort of pointed her to what she’d need to do, and another staffer helped her make a finished version.

Me? I started noodling around and came up with the very slightly refined map above.

Of course, looking more closely at what the CDC scientists had to say, I see there’s another mosquito I should be mapping, too: Aedes albopictus. As The Atlantic reported in May, scientists in Mexico recently detected the Zika virus in this second species.

Has it been found in California? Yes. According to the CDC researchers’ data, Aedes albopictus has been found in eight counties since 2001. In rough south to north order, they’re San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Kern, Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Joaquin. Notable: This mosquito was found in Kern, L.A., Orange, San Diego and San Bernardino counties last year; it hasn’t been detected in the more northerly counties since 2003. (The California Department of Public Health has published a map, which is says is updated weekly, of Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus detection sites from 2011 through this year.)

Maybe I’ll do a map with layers so we can see both species. That’s a project for another day, though.

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An Eye on the Eye of the Storm

Himawari satellite image of an intense storm in the northern Pacific, March 26, 2016.

Himawari satellite image of an intense storm in the northern Pacific, March 26, 2016.

A few weeks ago, I downloaded a Chrome browser extension that, when you open a new tab, shows a current (or at least very recent) view of the full disk of the Earth as captured by Japan’s geostationary Himawari 8 weather satellite. Himawari produces high-resolution images of the Earth — the kind you can lose yourself in for hours if that’s the kind of thing you like.

Anyway, I noticed last Friday and Saturday that the full-disk image was showing a huge storm someplace in the northeastern Pacific. I wondered whether I could find a better view of the images online, and sure enough, NOAA’s Regional and Mesoscale Meteorology Branch (RAMMB to its friends), which inventories a lot of satellite images, features a Himawari Loop of the Day.

The loop for Saturday, March 26, was titled “Intense Low in the North Pacific.” Hit that link and it takes you to a movie — you need to have a little patience for the download — of the storm I was seeing in the full-disk picture. The image above is a frame from the movie.

It’s extraordinary. Or maybe everything on Earth is extraordinary if you have a chance to sit back and watch it for a while.(One note on the movie: A shadow crosses toward the end: that’s night falling as the Earth rotates. But the surface details are still visible because of GeoColor, a system that blends visible (daytime) and infrared (nighttime) imagery. GeoColor is also responsible for the reddish appearance of cloud tops in the nighttime images.)

Below is what the storm looked like on a conventional surface weather map: a sprawling, intense system with sustained winds over 60 mph forecast to occur 500 miles and more to the south and southwest of its center. The storm was producing monstrous waves, too, with seas as high 34 feet.

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The Control of Nature: Primitive Hydraulics

Sunday morning: Still raining.

We’ve had .42 of an inch so far today (it’s 1:30 p.m. daylight-saving style) to go with the 6.48 over the past nine days.
The rain has prompted me to return to an old wet-weather routine that Kate and I have called, in a nod to a favorite writer and a favorite series of articles in The New Yorker, “the control of nature.”

When we moved into our house in April 1988, it was noted in some document somewhere that there was a sump pump on the premises. I found out where the pump was and why it was there the following winter.

Our house has a crawl space. Our lot is on a slope paralleling the course of Schoolhouse Creek. The stream itself has been moved underground, but as we found out one very wet December day a little more than 10 years ago, too much water arriving all at once can, along with a clogged storm drain upstream, bring the creek back above ground.

Water appears less dramatically in our crawl space, and that’s why there’s a sump pump down there.

Usually, a murky pool will gather in a spot that’s been excavated to allow access to the crawl space. Sometimes, as in deluge that arrived early the morning of New Year’s Day 1997, the space will start to fill. That was the one and only occasional the pump, installed in a little concrete well built around our floor furnace to keep the heater from getting flooded, turned on.

Perhaps one reason the pump hasn’t been more active is because I try to keep the crawl space drained when I see water gathering there.

Control of nature requires gravity and a garden hose. I take the full hose, stick one end of it into the watery crawl space. Then I run the hose down the driveway — 30 to 40 linear feet and 3 to 4 vertical feet — to the street.

I set the hose running last night about 9 o’clock. It’s still running. How much water has come out of there in that time?

I tried to calculate the rate by measuring the flow into a 1-cup measure (yes — this has the possibility of introducing a large error; but let’s just agree I’m not being perfectly scientific). In four trials, the cup filled up in about 6 to 7 seconds. Based on that, I figure somewhere between 32 and 38 gallons are draining out every hour. And that would put the total for the 15 hours or so the thing has been running at 480 to 570 gallons. Which is more than I would have guessed.

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Talking About the Weather

“When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what they must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.”

–Samuel Johnson, quoted in “The Invention of Clouds,” by Richard Hamblyn

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2016, and I’m Thrilled to Be Here …

Science Friday filled its New Year’s Day show with some greatest hits segments, including an excerpt of an interview that Ira Flatow did with filmmaker Werner Herzog, novelist Cormac McCarthy and physicist Lawrence Krauss in 2011. It’s an absorbing 21 minutes, and I’ll have to go back now and listen to the longer version.

At one point, Herzog made an observation about the transience of human life on Earth: “It’s quite evident that human beings, as a species, will vanish and fairly quickly. When I say quickly, maybe in two or three thousand years, maybe 30,000 years, maybe 300,000, but not much more, because we are much more vulnerable than other species, despite a certain amount of intelligence. It doesn’t make me nervous that fairly soon we’ll have a planet which doesn’t contain human beings.”

Herzog explains that while it’s a possibility humanity could self-destruct, he’s really thinking more about “events … which would instantly wipe us out.”

You know — events like the Dinopocalypse.

Krauss readily agrees that a catastrophe is “likely to happen. That will inevitably happen anyway.” He adds that one of the rosier scenarios he sees for our kind is that we’ll eventually be superseded by our own creations — the computers.

Then he offers this takeaway:

“So I think, you know, we may disappear as a species just because we become irrelevant, as well as being destroyed. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. That’s just – that may be the future. . . . We shouldn’t be depressed if we disappear. We should be thrilled that we’re here right now. . . . That just means we should make the most of our brief moment in the sun.”

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Ice, or The Grip of Berkeley’s Frigid Winter Revealed

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Dramatic evidence of the frigid depths of Berkeley’s brutal winter: ice in the improvised backyard watering dish for the chickens. This has happened twice even though the recorded air temperature from a sensor about 6 feet off the ground in back of the house hasn’t been lower than 36 degrees this week and I don’t see reports from any of the many Wunderground and other stations in the area of readings of 32 or lower. Berkeley’s record low for Dec. 29, for what it’s worth, is 30, set in 1905, and the average low for December, going back to 1893, is 43.7. (The town’s all-time low was set Dec. 22, 1990, and coincided with a Christmas visit by family members who thought they were visiting someplace warmer than Chicago.)

Yes, there are some physical explanations for how water can freeze even if the ambient air temperature isn’t yet freezing — evaporative cooling, for one, and the fact the ambient temperature can be colder at ground level then it is a few feet above.

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Marmalade + Winter = Ants

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It’s been a little colder than normal here in Berkeley — and as wet as the weather annals say we have a right to expect — so ants are looking for warmer, dryer digs. They like it when you give them a little extra encouragement. An open sugar jar or compost container might attract an overnight bug invasion. And so might a smidgen of orange marmalade left over from breakfast.

It took a few hours, but the ants found that little bit of sugar, which had spread out into a nice globule on the stainless steel at the edge of our range top. They gathered around the marmalade like they were at a trough. There weren’t a lot of them coming and going; mostly, this group found the good stuff and I think they were forgetting to run back and tell their pals about it.

Unfortunately, I have to acknowledge wildlife was harmed after I made this picture. I got a sponge and wiped up the marmalade and the ants with it. Their cousins are still around, though, scouting out the next feed.

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Mystery Clay Blobs in Berkeley Neighborhood

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About a month ago, Piero and Jill, our neighbors across the street, presented us with a mystery: the seemingly ubiquitous appearance of tiny blobs of clay on their cars, their front porch, and on cars up and down our block of Holly Street, a couple blocks from North Berkeley BART.

Where had these blobs, probably in the thousands, come from? The theory I came up with: Maybe the dirt had been precipitated out from dust in the atmosphere. You know, dust that had been picked up in the Gobi Desert, say, and blown in the stratosphere clear to Berkeley, where it rained down on our street.

The idea isn’t entirely loony: Dust from Asia and Africa is known to play a role in precipitation over California’s mountains. But in that case, we’re talking about minuscule particles that serve as nuclei for ice crystals that later fall as snow or rain. (Yes, sometimes there’s so much dust in the air that it will precipitate as a muddy rain — but that’s different from what we were seeing on Holly Street.)

Kate, science teacher and certified California naturalist, appears to have come up with the most probable answer to the blob source: yellowjackets. Here’s what the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management site has to say about the nesting habits of these wasps:

Yellowjackets commonly build nests in rodent burrows, but they sometimes select other protected cavities, such as voids in walls and ceilings of houses, as nesting sites. Colonies, which are begun each spring by a single reproductive female, can reach populations of between 1,500 and 15,000 individuals, depending on the species.

The wasps build a nest of paper made from fibers scraped from wood mixed with saliva. It is built as multiple tiers of vertical cells, similar to nests of paper wasps, but enclosed by a paper envelope around the outside that usually contains a single entrance hole. If the rodent hole isn’t spacious enough, yellowjackets will increase the size by moistening the soil and digging.

The writeup doesn’t say what the yellowjackets do with the material they excavate. But a Georgia gardening website does. In trying to answer readers’ questions about the source of mysterious dirt balls, the site consulted an entomologist a University of Georgia entomologist, who said:

The yellowjacket is almost certainly the culprit here.

First is the time of year. Nests are expanded rapidly and grow almost exponentially during late June through September. To allow for this expansion the original nest hole must be greatly enlarged to accomodate the growing nest that will ultimately be at least soccer ball-sized and often larger.

After a good rain, excavating activity often approaches a frenzy level, and if you watch the traffic at the nest entrance 7 out of every 10 wasps will emerge with a chunk of clay in their jaws. They always airlift it generally out to within a few yards of the nest and drop the pellets like small bombs from several feet high, then immediately return to repeat the process. In this way they make room for their nest to grow, and it takes a lot of mouthfuls of mud to do so!

When Kate found this description, Piero said he’d been seeing a good number of yellowjackets around. Unknown, so far as I’ve heard, is whether the nest this industrious group has been working on has been located.

The photo above: a closeup of one of the clay blobs in question; below, to give an idea of scale, how they looked on the rear window of a Volkswagen Bug. More photos here. (Regarding the picture above: More alarming to me than the mystery blob is all the crud surrounding it; that, no doubt, is simply our normal urban fallout of dust, grit and particulate byproducts of burning hydrocarbons. We’re breathing that stuff.)

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Non-Natives in California: Snails and Other Species

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It’s September, and just about time for the chrysanthemums we’ve been nursing through the summer with buckets of dishwater to enjoy their autumn moment. Looking at the hundreds or thousands of unfolding buds this morning, I noticed a familiar garden visitor: Cornu aspersum, also known as the brown snail, garden snail, brown garden snail, European garden snail, or European brown garden snail (in French, its common name is apparently petit-gris, or little gray). Some of the snails were young, smaller than the just-opening buds they’re presumably feeding on.

The University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources reports there are about 280 species of snails and slugs here in the Golden State, of which 242 are believed to be natives. Cornu aspersum (formerly Helix aspersa) is one of the many non-native species, including eucalyptus, striped bass and Homo sapiens, that make California what it is today.

C. aspersum is native to the western Mediterranean, probably originating in North Africa and migrating millions of years ago into Europe. Thanks to much more recent human genius and/or carelessness, the snail is reportedly now at home on every continent except that very cold one well to the south of us.

How did this land mollusk come to California? I remember hearing when I had newly introduced myself into this bioregion that they were the same species as one served to gastrophiles as escargot. In fact, I was told that Bay Area locals had been known to capture snails, feed them cornmeal to cleanse their digestive systems of whatever vile material they might have been eating, then consume them. I can’t say I’ve ever met someone who claims to have done this themselves.

The April 27, 1900, number of the journal Science includes an article titled “Exotic Mollusca in California,” by Robert Edwards Carter Stearns of Los Angeles. Stearns related a very specific genesis story for the European snails in California:

“This species was intentionally introduced or ‘planted’ in Calfornia over 40 years ago by Mr. A. Delmas, of San José, Santa Clara county, who brought the stock from France and turned it out among the vineyards on the west bank of the Guadalupe, a small river that flows northerly through Santa Clara Valley and empties into the southerly end of San Francisco bay near Alviso. The soil where the snails were placed is a rich sandy loam and the place well shaded. When the summer heats reach the maximum, the Helices descend into the ground several feet, hiding in the cracks that form, as the ground dries, and the gopher-holes also furnish cool retreats and protection. The region above named is one of exceeding fertility. It was settled by a few French families. The introduction of H. asperse by Mr. Delmas was made for edible purposes, or in common parlance ‘with an eye to the pot.’ Mrs. Bush, of the Normal School in San José, informs me that the snails have thriven, and have extended their territory from the starting point on the west bank of the stream to the easterly side, and have multiplied to such an extent, that in some instances they are troublesome in the gardens.”

Stearns also reported Delmas had planted the snails in San Francisco, where they did not do well at first, and Los Angeles, where they apparently thrived. By 1900, it had taken hold in other locations.

“A. Delmas,” it turns out, was Antoine Delmas, a French émigré who had arrived in California in 1849. He established a nursery and vineyards in the Santa Clara Valley and is credited in “A Companion to California Wine” with being the first to import French wine-grape vines, including merlot and cabernet, into the state. Another claim for Delmas: that he brought an obscure varietal to California that became known as zinfandel.

Between the grapes, the wine and the snails, that’s a big mark for one man to have made on this place.

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