Sunday, October 20, 2019

Seeing The Pacific Garbage Patch

Recently I had a flight between Honolulu and Oakland. On that path, about 45 minutes out of Honolulu, I happened to look out my window because I recalled the Pacific Gyre was roughly in this area. I did not know it would be visible from jetliner altitudes, yet it was. What surprised me further was that it is not a "patch", it is like a skein of yarn pulled this way and that. There are eskers and windrows and fans and tangles of yellow-green lines on the surface of the water. It is awesome, sad, and fascinating. Look to the right of the sun glare in the photo below.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Mountain Shadows being cast into Deep Space

If you find somewhere where the Earth is very smooth, and drop a mountain onto that spot, something amazing happens. At sunrise and sunset, the mountain does something more normally assigned as a task for clouds: casting shadows not just through the air to project onto the ground, rather casting shadows through the air and on out, into deep space.

The giant dark stripes in the sky are the shadows of three mountains, in fact the largest mountain on the Earth is one of them: Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, and Haleakala.

The unusual aspect is that these mountains rise out of a very smooth ocean with often very clear air. These shadows are going *up* and will not be cast on the ground, at least not at the time of this photo. These mountains are east of where I was to take this picture. The sun has not risen where I am. These shadows are diverging and actually rising up away from the dark side of our world. This is because their bases are still in darkness, before sunrise, while their tops nearly three miles above project into air that is illuminated by the sun.

The shadows are not cast onto the Earth. They actually continue all the way through the atmosphere and out, into deep space.

Almost twenty years ago I watched the first dawn of the Third Millenium from atop one of these, watching my shadow join the shadow of the larger mountain and together cast into deep space. That was twenty years ago. My shadow has passed many stars since then.

On January 1st, the sun is in Sagittarius, roughly near the position 18h 44m  -23° 03'. The point opposite that in the sky is where the shadow went: 6h 44m +23 03'. That point lies within the constellation Gemini. The major stars of the constellation range from 33.8 to more than 1763 light-years away. While my shadow has not reached any of the major stars, it has passed the distance of several of the lesser stars. Gliese 251 is about the closest star in the constellation at about 18.22 light-years distance. Some minuscule portion of the light blocked by our world from our star I personally blocked that morning. If there are entities out there looking for transiting exoplanets orbiting stars along the ecliptic, we would be visible as one of their detectable exoplanets. One morning almost 20 years ago, I helped a tiny, tiny bit.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The Fruits of Summer

Picking wild grapes! California has two species of native grapes, including this Vitis girdiana we planted in our yard several years ago. The birds somehow missed these grapes, so we picked many today.

These grapes taste like Concord grapes to me, but better with an edible seed in the center. After carefully picking the bunches, my son had to inspect each bunch and taste test the ripe grapes... more will ripen in a few days....

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Junior Monkeywrench Gang vs. PG&E

PG&E continues to do what I can most generously describe as 'hamfisted' and 'counterproductive' things to create the appearance of improving our safety.

The problem is this: the path to systemic safety comes from a system level approach.

There are many different types of forest in California. Any forest with a closed canopy keeps ground-level growth to a minimum simply by keeping the ground a low light environment. Further, Douglas Fir and Redwood trees are natural precipitrons - they electrostatically collect fog droplets and build droplets large enough to make rain. This keeps the duff moist and much slower to burn. Our biggest fires have been in Chaparral and open Woodlands with significant ground level brush. Comparatively few large fires have been in low-brush closed canopy forest.

PG&E continues to open closed canopy forests, including adjacent to and in our yard. We are opposed to these efforts to actively increase ground-level brush growth.

My son understands some of this. Today I found him trying to remove markings on trees in our yard slated for unwise removal.

At 6 years of age, he couldn't even read The Monkeywrench Gang, nor have I read it to him. Yet I am proud of him getting up and taking action on his own initiative against something he feels is fundamentally wrong.

He now holds vigil eating an apple he grew on our land defending his Fig Tree should the crews happen by this afternoon. He has never even heard of Julia Butterfly Hill, yet I feel they would find common ground.

Lilikoi and Apples!

Today we ate the first of our apples from the 2019 season. Anna is supposed to be even earlier than Gravenstein, though since Gravenstein did not set apples this year and this is the first time in 16 years that Anna has fruited for us, we can neither confirm nor deny the statement.

Anna turns out to be a soft-ish tart apple of good flavor and mild fragrance. Yellow-green and just soft enough to be tender when quartered, the seeds had not fully darkened on these apples when we cut them up and devoured them today.

We also found our Lilikoi vine is climbing into a small redwood in our yard, and set fruit! These will likely ripen between Halloween and Thanksgiving. This may not be remarkable to most folks, we just do not reliably fruit every year this far north.

BD's blog: "Lilikoi are a very beautiful color when ripe. The beautiful color is purple. Our lilikoi vine is grabbing onto and climbing our Redwood tree. I can't wait for our Lilikoi and other Apples to ripen - then we can make a stand.

Anna apples are green when ripe and we want to make juice out of them but we just ate them. Bye!"  "

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Mariposa Lilies of Summer?

California has wild Tulips?! Sort of - the genus Calochortus is actually more closely related to Fritillaria than to the Eurasian genus Tulipa, though they definitely look something alike.

The famed Butterfly Lilies of California and Western North America are generally flowers of Spring, with a few stragglers making it into late June or early July. Even in August, however, a few of the latest blooming species can be found - you just have to like getting to altitude!

Calochortus invenustus, the entirely incorrectly named "not-lovely" Mariposa, is in flower right now at altitudes above 7000' in the Tehachapi, San Gabriel, and other local high mountains. On Sunday while driving to Los Angeles I stopped in some of the high country near the Grapevine and was delighted to find substantial numbers of these pale treasures flowering among the low bushes and rocky areas.

These grow reasonably easily from seed and flower often in their third Spring when planted early in the Fall. They require a well aerated and well drained soil, kept dry (not baked in the sun if in pots!) over the Summer, then watered again starting in early October (or at least that is how I grow them). I'll post something more detailed later, however if you want instructions now, several excellent guides to growing these gems from seed exist: the Pacific Bulb Society has one of the best here.

Monday, August 12, 2019

PG&E Facilitating Spread of Fire-prone Invasive Species by Opening Closed Canopy Forests

Ever try to do the right thing and have it all go horribly wrong?

PG&E is in the midst of some bizarre and ill-advised efforts to make communities safer from "Utility Caused Wildfire". While this is a goal I think virtually everyone can support, it comes down to asking "what are they doing to accomplish this lofty goal?". That is where the trouble starts.

The Paradise fire was caused when "a live wire broke free of a tower that was a quarter-century past what PG&E considers its “useful life.”" (from the New York Times). While PG&E claims to be changing to a stronger safety footing, even California Governor Newsom states "They have simply been caught red-handed over and over again, lying, manipulating or misleading the public,” summing the situation up simply as “They cannot be trusted.” (also from the New York Times).

Now I get to see this behavior up close and personal, as they attempt to mow a corridor through a closed-canopy second growth Redwood and Oak forest bordering my property.

The trick to fire safety in a Redwood Forest is one of ground clearance - keep no limbs for the lower 50' or so of the trunk, and fire simply cannot climb into the canopy. However, those trunks will only stay free of growth if they are in the shade, such as happens once the canopy of the forest closes. Remove the canopy, and those trunks become green with new growth and young branches. This then becomes not just a ladder fire path to the canopy, but a ladder fire path immediately adjacent to the PG&E power lines.

To engineer anything, you need to understand the system as a system. Forest is not a one-size-fits-all sort of affair. Chaparral and Savannah type woodlands are very different from closed canopy forests with little ground-level growth or light. How the forest and other vegetation will respond matters and needs considered in any plan to manage risks.

The forest is more than the trees.

In our case, a flammable and highly invasive grass is moving into the area called Slender False Brome. The local Open Space District is actively trying to limit the spread and in fact eradicate this species as it poses several risks, including fire.

Here is a photo of the species growing along one of our neighborhood roads where a natural tree fall created an opening in the canopy. The grasses with the nodding seed heads are the problem ones.

Standing on the same spot, looking the other direction, the view is completely devoid of this noxious species because the closed canopy prevents sufficient light from reaching the ground to support growth of the grass.

Opening power line corridors to the sky is inconsistent with California Public Utilities Commission guidelines (which recommend a small radial distance be cleared from the lines, not clearing to the sky).

There is an adage about "the road to ... being lined with good intentions". Certainly this approach to closed canopy forests is going to line the area under the powerlines with easily ignited grasses that are tinder dry in late summer and fall, when fire risks are highest. It might even look like the road to ... should a line fall into such perfect kindling.

The kindling aspect aside of Slender False Brome, creating paths for rapid and deep spread in the largest forest lands in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties seems unwise at best, and seriously negligent at least in my eyes.