Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Sable Oaks Glacier

Above: the mighty Sable Oaks Glacier, the final resting place of most of Portland's plowed snow and all the street grime and garbage that was buried beneath it during the past winter's snow storms.

The Sable Oaks Glacier is the city's main "snow dump," a larger version of the Bayside Glacier that has showed up downtown in the past couple of years. I've written about the city's glaciers previously on this blog (here and here), and in a feature for the Portland Phoenix last spring, but this was my first visit to the big one.

I visited this natural wonder this evening right before sunset. It's a time we scenic nature photographers call "the magic hour," because of the magical way the light dances across the filthy, shit-streaked snow.

The Glacier is out by the airport, past the overflow parking lot, at the city's public works yard. There are nice views and these photos can't convey the scale of this thing. I highly recommend visiting. More photos to come tomorrow.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Silviculture and propaganda

I found these images and places via Strange Harvest, where you'll find a few more satellite-view slogans written with trees. Apparently this was a minor fad in Soviet silviculture during the 1970s.

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Above: "Leninu 100 lyet," or "100 years for Lenin," circa 1970. In the western foothills of the Urals near Ufa.

The slogans honor the past: "USSR 50 years," "USSR 60 years," "100 years for Lenin." Yet, by using trees which would take decades to mature in order to write messages that could only be read from the sky, the foresters who planted these messages were clearly thinking of a glorious jet- and space-age future, when their comrades would read their messages from Intourist space station hotels.

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"60 years USSR," which would date it to 1977, in southern Siberia.

Instead, we read these slogans thanks to a capitalist internet company based in California. The medium has outlived the messages.

It makes me want to buy a few hundred acres of Ohio prairie to plant the words "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" in oak trees.

Friday, March 20, 2009

THIS WEEKEND: Portlandhenge, Chicagohenge, District of Columbiahenge, Houstonhenge...

Winter is nearly over! Today, March 20th, marks the spring equinox: here in the northern hemisphere, the sun will spend more time over the horizon than under it for the next six months.

Among other things, this means that for the next couple of days, the sun will rise almost exactly to the east, and set exactly to the west. Which, if you live in one of the hundreds of American cities whose street grid is oriented to the cardinal directions, your east-west streets will function as an urban Stonehenge this weekend.

I wrote about the Cityhenge phenomenon here back in September during the fall equinox, and in an article for the local alt-weekly, the Portland Phoenix. Quoting from the latter:
"On the National Mall, the Washington Monument casts its first shadow of the day over Lincoln’s statue, and then, 12 hours later, over the peak of the Capitol dome. In Houston, the setting sun is blinding commuters on the Katy Freeway. Throughout most of Chicago, people can watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan and set over the prairie."
If the skies are clear this weekend, head out to the nearest east-west street at sunset, and enjoy the view while celebrating some pagan astrological rituals. Portlanders: you'll find me outside the Soap Bubble (where I snapped the photo above last fall) this evening at sunset. See you there!

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Receding Tide of Winter

Up here in Maine, the days are getting longer and warmer, but the ground is still covered in deep snow. It happens every March: the calendar says it's spring, but the legacy of a four-month winter remains.

This animation from NASA's Earth Observatory shows the extent of snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere every month since February 2000. The gray disk in the center that appears, grows, and shrinks every winter is the extent of the Arctic's 24-hour darkness, which prevents NASA's satellite from collecting snow-cover data.

I love how this animation reveals the mountain ranges of the middle latitudes every winter: first the Rockies and the Alps, then the Caucasus, Appalachians, and Atlas ranges. The Ural Mountains lead the vanguard of winter snow from the Arctic Ocean towards the Caspian Sea. The snow is like an ebbing and flowing tide that hides and reveals islands of cold.

Click here for the original, more detailed animation from NASA.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cooper's Hawk in Cambridge, Massachusetts

In a London Plane tree next to Memorial Drive and the Charles River:

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Clouds scribe global commerce

Tracking the radio pings of ship transponders is one way to watch the intricate dance of global shipping patterns.

Another, less practical, but far prettier way is to look in the clouds:

Ship tracks are clouds that form in calm, humid conditions at sea, when water vapor condenses around the exhaust from ships' smokestacks. The phenomenon was first noted in the 1960s, when the first satellites began photographing Earth's atmosphere from above. Above is the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States, between Chesapeake Bay and Cape Cod. Below is an image of the ocean off the western coasts of France and Spain in 2003:

Image: NASA Earth Observatory

Explaining the second images, NASA writes that:

These images reveal an important difference between clouds formed from natural cloud condensation nuclei (like dust or sea salt) and those formed from particles in ship exhaust. First, the ship track clouds contain greater amounts of smaller liquid water particles (shown in yellow) than surrounding natural clouds (shown in red). The optical thickness of the ship track clouds is different as well, showing up as dark orange streaks.

Why are these characteristics important? A cloud’s optical thickness determines how much sunlight reaches the Earth’s surface and how much is reflected or absorbed by the clouds, factors that influence global temperatures. The size of cloud particles is important, too. In general, smaller particles [like those in ship tracks] produce brighter, more reflective clouds, which bounce light from the sun back into space and cool the planet. If that sounds like a good way to combat global warming, consider this: when particles are small, they are less likely to collide with one another often enough to produce raindrops. Indeed, in some parts of the world, increasing, persistent air pollution appears to be contributing to drought.

Climatologists are keen on ship tracks because it offers a controlled, isolated way of studying how air pollution from an individual source can affect cloud formation and climate - the same way that millions of cars, power plants, homes and businesses do over land.

Cloud tracks came to my attention via Nova's "Dimming the Sun" program, which documents various ways that humans are blotting out the sun with air pollution. Nova offers these satellite images of airline contrails over Georgia, Alabama, and northern Florida:

Airline contrails are harder to study, since there are so many of them crisscrossing each other. But in the days following September 11, 2001, scientists had a rare opportunity to make some broad observations about their effects: "from roughly midday September 11 to midday September 14," according to the Nova website, "the days had become warmer and the nights cooler, with the overall range greater by about two degrees Fahrenheit."

The satellite image below is from September 12th, 2001. A sky normally crowded with contrails only has a few parallel tracks in this photo: they are the tracks of former-President Bush's plane and several escort fighters, returning to Washington from the undisclosed location in Nebraska.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The living landfill

It's our lucky week: the Economist has dedicated its Special Report section to the waste management industry. There's a lot to blog about, but for now, I'll focus on Waste Management's new "bioreactor" landfills.

For years, landfills have been carefully sequestered and sealed from the outside world: if nothing could get in, the thinking went, then none of the waste's toxic chemicals could leak out into surrounding groundwater. This theory has worked so well for modern landfills that the garbage inside has become more or less mummified: archaeologists have unearthed deep layers of late-20th-century dumps and discovered more or less intact scraps of food wrapped in legible, decades-old newspapers.

Of course, it's expensive to mummify garbage. For one thing, many dumps are trying to make a business out of harvesting methane (a.k.a. natural gas), which only gets produced underground if the garbage decomposes. For another, landfill real estate is expensive: landfill owners would appreciate it if produce from the disco era could rot away and make room for iPods and Miley Cyrus merchandise.

So instead of thinking of landfills as inert, unchanging piles, Waste Management, one of the nation's largest garbage collection and disposal corporations, has begun experiments to turn some of their landfills into "bioreactors." From Waste Management's website:
What is a bioreactor landfill? Simply put, it is a waste treatment landfill with technology that accelerates the decomposition of organic wastes in a landfill. This is accomplished by controlling the addition and removal of moisture from the waste mass, the collection and extraction of landfill gas, and in some instances the addition of air.
The landfill's hive of bacteria digests its waste, farts into a power plant, and opens its maw for more. The landfill is alive.

What really tickles me, though, is the fact that the bioreactor has particular tastes. Quoting from the Economist article:
Waste Management has tried pumping different mixtures through landfills to achieve the desired effect, and found that injections of out-of-date beer and soft drinks work better than water.
The results: Waste Management's bioreactors produce natural gas at four times the rate of other landfills and reduce the volume of garbage up to 35%, according to the Economist's report. The concept seems to be catching on: after the success of a pilot bioreactor in Florida, officials are applying the same techniques to four additional landfills.

Here's where you can read more about bioreactors:
US EPA: Bioreactors

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Many are the wonders...

In the past week, two amazing wildlife stories have come to my attention.

First, in Florida's everglades, rangers recently found the carcasses of an alligator inside a burst-open Burmese python. Nobody wins in this fight:

The BBC's pithy caption: "The python tried to swallow the alligator whole and then exploded."

Pythons are not native to the Everglades: they were introduced about 20 years ago when exotic pet owners got tired of taking care of them in terrariums and began dumping them in the swamps instead. Since then, they've thrived in Florida's hot, humid climate. And as the photo above attests, the pythons don't have many predators to worry about.

And by the way: under modest global warming scenarios, Burmese pythons will probably be found throughout the old Confederacy by the year 2100.

Second, I'd like to introduce you to Macropinna microstoma, a deep-sea denizen of California's Monterrey Bay. It has a transparent head through which it peers with barrel-shaped eyeballs:

Video comes courtesy of the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

You can read about the Aquarium's recent discoveries about this fish in this article from the San Francisco Chronicle.