Monthly Archives: January 2013

Water as a Rock

As it turns out water is fairly common in the universe, but liquid water is something else entirely. Liquid water is special. In many settings in the solar system (and probably elsewhere in the universe), water acts more like a rock than like the liquid we know and love. The last week or two in Vermont gave us a small taste of what that might be like.

Earlier this month I described a cold snap in Vermont. The cold snap was followed by a thaw, but after the thaw the cold returned. For about a week temperatures varied from 15 above to 19 below zero, and averaged around zero or a bit above. This is nothing particularly unusual for central Vermont, but it has been a while since we’ve seen a week like that.

The coldest morning was beautiful but eerie. As temperatures hovered around -16F, and a solid inversion socked into the valleys, steamy little exclamation points of cloud hung over every warm point, and the open water in fast-moving rivers seemed to boil with steam and ice fog. The sun glinted through the ice crystals in the air, adding a glare to everything but offering no warmth.

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Where the water was moving too fast to freeze rafts of frazil ice formed, that resembled the black rock that can be seen on moving lava flows.

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I wonder if this is similar to what it looks like on Europa when liquid water erupts to the surface (though a google search indicates that these volcanos are actually mostly erupting steam.) Mars might also be a candidate. If briny water does occasionally flow on mars, I wonder if it still forms frazil ice and steams in the sparse atmosphere. Hopefully one day we will witness such an event, at least through the ‘eyes’ of a robot.

Amazingly, there are photos of frost on Mars. Here on Earth an extended period of cold leads to very beautiful frost formations on windows.

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We also found some neat crystalline formations near Poultney, Vermont:

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We also found interesting terrace formations on a heavily frozen brook (whimsically called ‘Endless Brook’). Apparently water had backed up in the creek and flowed on top of the ice, refreezing and making these incredible formations:

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Some of the ice appeared to be at least a foot thick.

Of course, one of the special things on Earth that is not the case on other planets in the Solar System is an atmosphere rich in oxygen (a byproduct of photosynthesis). All this oxygen allows us to make raging bonfires to keep us warm even on subzero nights. It’s quite a sensation to be bombarded with heat on one side of your body while the other side is pelted with frigid cold… but as long as you keep rotating, you can keep warm by a big fire even when temperatures drop below zero.

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Looking forward, Vermont is about to experience very changeable weather. Right now it is around 29 degrees with freezing drizzle. Tomorrow the temperature will shoot up to around 50, bringing heavy rain, maybe even thunderstorms, and then the day after it will drop back below freezing (and probably stay that way for the next week at least). Unfortunately this means a loss of the nice snow we got yesterday, but it may break up the ice in the rivers and lead to some interesting hydrology.

For a description of even more extreme cold, in icy northern Minnesota, see this blog post by fellow Field Naturalist-Ecological Planning graduate Rachel.

The Mighty Mississippi Diminishes Under Drought

About six months ago I was standing on the shore of the Mississippi River, rendered speechless by its power. The river was swollen with water from recent severe thunderstorms, and even though I was in Minneapolis, over a thousand miles from the river’s delta, the power and force of the river was immense. The river roared over the human-created dam without much hesitation – the same river that in some form carried much of a continental ice shield to the sea after the last Ice Age, the same river that carries rock, in little pieces, from the Rocky Mountains to the sea – and quickly calmed downstream, as if to ready itself for the journey ahead of it.

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We all know the Mississippi is no stranger to floods. In fact, less than two years ago it was so swollen with rain and snowmelt that it threatened to shift course and abandon New Orleans completely. The mood of the river has changed much since then. Unfortunately, despite the temperamental nature of this enormous river, the mood swing is not entirely natural. While we humans can’t truly ‘tame’ the Mississippi we do seem to be able to worsen its notorious mood swings.

Instead of raging with floodwaters, the mighty Mississippi has been impacted so heavily by drought that it has receded to record low water levels. The Mississippi River is still a very important shipping corridor, and the water has gotten so low that it may be impossible to continue to run barges down its course. The situation has become so dire that people are literally exploding rock reefs under the river to try to deepen it. Some people are calling for more water to be released from reservoirs on the Missouri River in South Dakota, but there are legal barriers, and those who live in the arid lands near and west of the 100th meridian will not send water downstream without a fight. And, with a deep freeze settling into the northern parts of the vast Mississippi watershed, we won’t be seeing much relief for the river any time soon. Even if heavy storms strike the Northern Plains, we won’t see much snowmelt any time soon, at least not if the current indications are right.

I mentioned earlier that we humans have worsened the mood swings of the Mississippi. One way we have probably done this is through increasing the variability and frequency of extreme weather events by releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This is a global problem that requires a global solution and is a subject of intense political ‘debate’ that I tend to avoid in this blog. However, there is another issue, one not often discussed, that cuts to the heart of the problem. I’m of course talking about the ‘fast water’ engineering that rushes water away instead of letting it infiltrate into groundwater – the main subject of this blog.

Countless acres of wetland once covered the Great Plains and other parts of the Mississippi’s watershed. In drier areas, grasses with deep roots intersected water and channeled it to the thirsty soil. today we instead channel water into the river quickly and ‘efficiently’ using gutters, tile drains, and levee-lined riverbanks. This system undoubtedly worsened the flooding we experienced two springs ago. But that isn’t all it does. All that water that was channeled away would have otherwise soaked into the ground, replenishing aquifers. If we allowed more water to soak into the ground or linger in wetland complexes, the river wouldn’t be running so low that barges are scraping their bottoms on shoals and submerged sand bars. We obviously need the ‘bread basket’ of the Great Plains and Ohio River watershed for food production, but we could be doing more. We could be restoring and constructing wetlands, daylighting urban streams like Four Mile Run in Pittsburgh, and returning the rivers to at least part of their floodplains. Every drop of water that soaks into the ground is a drop that isn’t destroying homes and roads during floods, and every drop of water that soaks into the ground and reemerges in a spring during a drought will be readily welcomed by those who rely on the river for their livelihood. With an uncertain future including the likelihood of even more extreme weather in the future, every little bit makes a difference.

Rise and Fall of a January Thaw

Last weekend the air was filled with the sound of water. Everything was dripping. The roof edges, the branches, cars, hillsides. Occasionally a louder thud resounded through Montpelier as an icicle or huge chunk of ice fell off of the roof. We were in the midst of a January Thaw.

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Remember the ‘snow monster‘? It shrank rapidly in the warm air, especially since water was pouring off of the roof onto its ‘head’. The chunks of ice? Those fell off of the roof, thankfully not on our cars. Each was easily big enough to shatter a car window – or a head.

The cold air struggled to stay in the valleys. Cold air is heavy, and it takes a lot for a thaw to dislodge it from the deeper valleys of central Vermont, like the one Montpelier is in. The same goes for Woodbury – the warm air that did make it to the frozen surface of this pond formed a meandering, steamy fog, that hung over the lake in layers. It reminded me a bit of the tule fog I used to watch form and spiral back in Davis, California, years ago.

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Vermont has a long history of January thaws. They seem to happen every year, even the cold ones. Some arrive with heavy, warm rain, like the thaw of three years ago that removed over a foot of snow from Burlington in a few hours and caused ice jam flooding. Others barely reach the freezing point. During last year’s winter, it was hard to say which thaw was the ‘real’one – we had several. They tend to happen in the second half of the month, but not always. This year’s thaw was a bit earlier than average, lasted a fairly long time, and looks like it will probably be the only one of the month.

The heavy valley inversion protected Montpelier from the warmest of the thaw, but we did briefly hit 50 degrees on Monday morning, right before a cold front came through. The snow in Montpelier only melted in the warmest spots, but others weren’t so lucky (or unlucky, depending on if you like snow or not)
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The snow is not nearly as nice as it was, though.

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In one of the local cemeteries, the headstonesrose from the snow as it melted, and cast these shadows.

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The ice in the rivers shifted and in some cases broke away. The lake ice thinned as well. In Addison County five people almost lost their lives when they fell through very thin ice on Lake Champlain. Please don’t go in ice if you aren’t ABSOLUTELY sure it is safe. Hint: Don’t go on the ice in January Thaw when it is 50 degrees. Don’t go on river ice, it’s not safe anywhere there is current. If you don’t know, just don’t go on the ice.

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Temperatures slowly dropped yesterday afternoon, and by evening they slowly dribbled below freezing. The slow freeze and still air must have been why these dramatic crystals formed in a puddle.

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That puddle wasn’t the only thing that froze up, another froze around a wheel of my girlfriend’s car, making it a bit difficult to get to work this morning.

Here’s a graph of the temperatures at the Montpelier-Berlin Airport during the thaw. In downtown Montpelier, which is tucked in a valley, the temperatures were a bit colder. This isn’t always the case, during many mornings without a strong inversion it is colder at the airport.

I mentioned earlier that there wasn’t likely to be another significant thaw this month. In fact, we might be heading for a very cold period for the second half of January. Looks like the coldest temperatures of the winter are probably still ahead of us.

Atlas of Vermont Life Inaturalist Citizen Science Project

Long-time readers of this blog will be familiar with my enthusiasm (obsession) over iNaturalist – a website and app for documenting, sharing, identifying, and tracking sightings of living things. There are quite a few groups attempting to do this but iNaturalist is truly special. The things I am most excited about include an intuitive, Linnean taxonomy-based database, easy and detailed species-based mapping, automatically generated species lists by observers and place, an incredible community of experts and skilled citizen naturalists excited about the natural world and willing to share knowledge, and friendly and talented site developers who are equally excited about the natural world and are always open to new ideas. The site is continuing to expand and add new features over time.

Above: a photo I recently uploaded to iNaturalist.

So what are the downsides? Aside from a few frustrating bugs that are to be expected with any new piece of technology, there was only one glaring downside. Almost no one in Vermont was using it! I enjoy going to the site and helping people identify plants in California’s chaparral ecosystems, but no one was really around to share Vermont observations and to help me out with my ID questions. I spent lots of time trying to recruit friends, with some success, but the site just wasn’t reaching critical mass in rural Vermont.

That all changed this month. Kent McFarland of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies just announced and rolled out a huge iNaturalist project based here in Vermont! The project has been announced on various social media sites and even on our local NPR network. Suddenly tons of people in Vermont have been using the site including quite a people I know within the biology/ecology community as well as quite a few people I haven’t met yet.

I just hope people stick around until spring. Winter in Vermont is a beautiful and fascinating time, but it isn’t great for documenting and surveying plants, fungi, or insects. The snow tracking is fun, though.

If you are interested and live in or otherwise often visit Vermont, please click the link above to check out the new project. If you are rarely or never in Vermont you can still join iNaturalist – I think the site is a lot of fun and my favorite manifestation of a technology that is both being praised and condemned to a ridiculous extent. I really hope it takes off.

On a somewhat sadder note, as a native Californian I would be remiss if I did not mention the recent passing of Huell Howser. He will be remembered as a person with unlimited excitement and enthusiasm for a place that many even within its bounds don’t fully understand or appreciate. I haven’t seen his show in many years as I neither have a TV nor live in California, but I can still clearly hear him saying ‘well.. would ya lookat that!’ as he crests the top of another grassy hill in the wildflowers…

Nature and a Vermont Cold Snap

The sun glares through a pale blue sky – free of clouds, but not free of an eerie, almost buzzing haze. Everywhere is brightness and intensity – pain for unprotected eyes. Even skin feels burned when exposed. If not protected properly, permanent damage is likely. The wind howls, at a pitch unheard during more serene days. Within each biting gust is a handful of grit – tiny painful rocks.
Most of the animals are in hiding. They know better than to expose themselves to the conditions – eventually it will be safe for them to emerge and go about their routines. Some of the plants even hide – as seeds, or underground. The ones that can not hide stand stiff in the wind, barely moving as the gusts careen between sharp pokey plant appendages.
Drinkable water is very hard to come by. In the deepest gulches, where fast-moving water is forced to the surface, it can sometimes be found. In other cases you can walk atop a riverbed for miles without the merest babble of flowing water. It is below you… beneath the little wind-blown bits of grit… but good luck getting to it. You might have better luck at a spring, where flowing water can still be found, but these are hard to come by as only the fastest flowing still reach the surface. In some places, there are vast expanses of open water sparkling in the sun, but they are filled with salt and undrinkable.
The world is sharp, harsh. Sounds take on a different character. The air burns your nose, and beyond that the smells are sparse, almost unidentifiable. Nature is sharp, immediate, beautiful, but unforgiving. The rules are fair in their inconsistency, but if you make a mistake, or run against bad luck, you will not survive without rapid help.

The words above describe my summer experiences in the Mojave Desert, possibly the hottest place in the world, during a spell of 120 degree weather I experienced a decade and a half ago. They also describe northern New England in the midst of an Arctic blast.

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I’ve seen clouds like the one above in the desert, downwind from mountains. In this case, the cloud was seen near Montpelier, Vermont, with temperatures in the mid teens and gusty winds. A few days later, temperatures plunged further.

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That’s right – the temperature dropped almost to -20F. I’ve been in slightly colder temperatures, two years ago, and old time Vermonters will remember times ten degrees colder still. Nevertheless, this cold spell has been intense, though brief.

It’s very hard for fast-moving water to freeze, so the fast-flowing parts of the rivers still have open water in places. The water stays above 32F (0C) and when the temperature plunges to subzero levels, the water steams as if boiling.

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Ice forms both on the bottom of the river channel and on the surface, but the ice on the surface is washed downstream as it forms. It creates a substance called frazil ice or, to hydroelectric plant operators, ‘the Devil’s Soup’. Frazil ice freezes to anything solid it touches, including bridges, rocks, and logs. Over time this decreases the area of open water. The ice formed this way is porous and very dangerous to try to walk on.

During extreme cold, the fog and ‘steam’ rising from the river takes the form of ice crystals rather than supercooled water. These also freeze on impact with whatever they touch, creating beautiful ice ‘sculptures’.

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Sunlight passing through ice crystal fog can cause very neat phenomena. I caught a glimpse of this rainbow-like feature, though I didn’t get a great picture:

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I think it was a sun dog. Such features usually form in cirrus cloud at very high elevations, but in this case ice crystal fog was present right down to the surface, especially near the river.

It’s another chilly night – near zero right now – but the temperature is expected to moderate over the next week. In fact, in a bit over a week, we may experience a January Thaw. This is a given almost every winter, and usually involves rain falling on and melting or icing over snow. So, if you like winter sports and live in New England, get out and enjoy this weekend, because snow conditions for the next weekend won’t be as good.