December 9, 2013
If there’s a front page of the internet, it’s probably Google. They manage to pack quite a lot into a spare layout. Today would have been computer science pioneer Grace Hopper’s 107th birthday, and in addition to a tribute doodle, Google is featuring a ridiculously star-packed video about An Hour of Code.
An Hour of Code is a project of Code.org, a non-profit dedicated to expanding participation in computer science education by making it available in more schools, and increasing participation by women and under-represented students of color. The state of Michigan has 13,484 open computing jobs (growing at 4.1x the state job growth average), 1,930 annual computer science graduates and just 78 schools teach computer science. You can get all the details on how you can help encourage schools to require more computer programming from code.org!
December 7, 2013
Waaaay back when I started out on the capital “I” Internet with an online publication called the Northern Michigan Journal. For over five years I edited NMJ, producing around 4 issues a year that featured some interesting work from a wide range of writers & artists.
Two of these were my friends Jerry Dennis and Glenn Wolff, a writer/artist duo who collaborated on several books. Their first was called It’s Raining Frogs & Fishes: Four Seasons of Natural Phenomena and Oddities of the Sky, a fascinating romp through the oddities and beauties of the natural world through Jerry’s captivating prose and Glenn’s engaging drawings. You can click that link to learn more about the book from Jerry’s website. Trust me, it’s the perfect gift for the nature lover or scientist in your life!
There is more to the birth of a snowflake than Aristotle’s assertion that “when a cloud freezes there is snow.” Snow is not merely frozen rain. Rain occasionally freezes, falling to the ground as sleet or freezing rain, but snow originates independent of atmospheric drops of water. Individual ice crystals for high in the atmosphere when water vapor freezes around dust or other particulates. Without particles to serve as condensation nuclei, water vapor can be cooled to -40 degrees Fahrenheit before freezing occurs. A supercooled cloud of this sort seeded with a few particles often escalates into a snowstorm. The individual crystals collect additional molecules of water vapor one at a time, building on one another symmetrically in a rapidly growing, widening circle. Temperature, wind, humidity, and even barometric pressure will determine the growth and ultimate form of the crystal. Large and elaborate crystals for at higher temperatures and humidity while, while the small, basic crystals such as those common in polar regions form when temperature and humidity are very low. As the crystals fall they bump against each other, breaking off pieces of ice that in turn serve as nuclei for new crystals. As they pass through warmer layers of air they adhere to one another, congregating into snowflakes that may contain a thousand or more crystals.
Snowflakes, then, are aggregates of snow crystals. When the temperature is near or slightly above freezing, snowflakes become wet, adhere to other flakes, and grow to two or three inches in diameter. On very rare occasions, they can grow larger yet. According to a report in a 1915 issue of Monthly Weather Review, a snowfall on January 28, 1887 dropped flakes “larger than milk pans,” measuring fifteen inches in diameter by eight inches thick across several square miles near Fort Keogh, Montana.
Only when the temperature remains consistently below freezing will complete, individual crystals fall to the ground. If the temperature of the cloud they form in and the air they descend through is warmer than 27 degrees Fahrenheit, the crystals tend to be flat and hexagonal. Between 27 and 23 degrees, they tend to be needle-shaped. Between 23 and 18 they are likely to be hollow and columnar, with prismatic sides. At temperatures below 18 they can be columnar, hexagonal, or fernlike. Virtually all have six sides. That hexagonal tendency is something of a mystery, although some scientists suggest it is produced by electrical charges in the crystals, while others say it is basic to the molecular structure of water molecules. The atoms in a molecule of H20 are arranged, in physicist Hans C. von Baeyer’s graphic description, “with two little hydrogens stuck onto a big oxygen like ears on a Mickey Mouse’s head.” Scientists like von Baeyer believe that the angle at which the hydrogen molecules protrude from the oxygen atom–about 120 degrees–causes snow crystals to grow to a six-pointed symmetry that repeats the molecular structure of water.
Read on for much more including whether or not two snow crystals are alike, heavy snowfalls and snow words & myths.
November 19, 2013
Two interesting auto-related tidbits came across my desk in the last couple of days.
The first is from Deadline Detroit, and shows an excerpt from a 1917 newsreel with a Detroit Police Department driver-safety campaign trying to persuade drivers to slow down.
Fast forward to today and beyond with Michigan Senate approval of self-driving vehicle testing on Michigan roads. The Detroit News reports that (pending House approval):
Under the Michigan rules, a driver would be required to be in the driver’s seat at all times during testing to take over in the case of emergency. Manufacturers and suppliers would use an “M” license plate for automated vehicle testing. “Upfitters” of automated vehicles, such as Google, would be permitted to test vehicles along with manufacturers.
The action comes as the U.S. Congress is set to hold a hearing Tuesday on autonomous vehicles amid growing interest among automakers. They will hear from General Motors Co. and Nissan Motor Co. executives along with the Michigan Department of Transportation.
…The University of Michigan says that by 2021, Ann Arbor could become the first U.S. city with a shared fleet of networked, driverless vehicles. That’s the goal of the Mobility Transformation Center, a cross-campus U-M initiative that also involves government and industry representatives. Ann Arbor has been home to a 15-month-long ongoing study of 3,000 vehicles that are linked to one another in a test of technology to see if connected cars can help each other avoid crashes.
More automotive features on Michigan in Pictures.
November 6, 2013
During a hike late this summer I noticed the oddly bent trees shown above in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan. It’s likely that snow loading or extreme icing from big storms during a previous winter caused this bowing. These trees were perhaps big enough to bend but not yet so inelastic as to break beneath heavy the snow/ice load. In subsequent years, with less damaging weather conditions, their crooked trunks may begin to straighten. Photo taken on September 21, 2013.
If you have photos of interesting natural phenomena, consider submitting them to the EPOD!
September 4, 2013
Grand Mere State Park is located on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan near Stevensville. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Sand Mine Restoration Plan explains that Grand Mere:
…contains some of the most unique sand dune features in the world. The park also contains three lakes, called North, Middle, and South Lake, and has over one mile of Lake Michigan frontage. The sand dunes within the park are part of the largest freshwater dune system in the world, lining the shores of the Great Lakes. These dunes historically supported a wide array of natural communities, including dry-mesic southern (oak-hickory) forest, rich conifer (cedar) swamp, southern (mixed hardwood) swamp, wetpanne and interdunal wetland (shrub swamp/emergent marsh), open dunes, and a wooded dune and swale complex.
The dunes at Grand Mere fall within a state-designated “Critical Dune Area.” The area containing the present-day park was also designated a National Natural Landmark in 1968. The park was first created on 393 acres of land in 1973, and more than doubled in size with the acquisition of 490 additional acres in 1986. The master plan for Grand Mere State Park, approved in 1986, cited “sand dune preservation” as the primary management objective for the park. A highly diverse flora exists at Grand Mere, with over 550 species of plants documented within the park. Furthermore, Grand Mere lies in a unique place on the southern shore of Lake Michigan where plants typical of both northern and southern temperate latitudes grow together in the same community. Because of the unique flora, fauna, and geology of the dune and wetland features at Grand Mere, the park has long been used as an “outdoor laboratory” for natural resource teaching and research.
…Within the park, the dominant landforms are the sand dunes along the shore of Lake Michigan. A large bay of the glacial Great Lakes was present where Grand Mere State Park is today. During Algonquin Great Lakes time (roughly 12,000 years ago), a large spit formed from the south along the west side of the bay, nearly cutting it off from the glacial lake (Tague 1947). Most of the dunes at Grand Mere formed on this Algonquin sand spit during the later Nipissing Great Lakes period, approximately 4,500 years ago. During the more recent post-Algoma period (3,000 years ago until present), a smaller spit from the north merged with the larger, dune covered southern spit, closing off the bay. As water levels fell, five lakes formed in this bay. The two southern lakes have subsequently filled in and have become the present-day tamarack swamp south of South Lake. While the lakes were forming in the bay as water levels fell, some smaller foredunes were formed along the shoreline of Lake Michigan. The topography and sandy soils of the park can be attributed to this glacial history.
Read on for more about the history & geology of this unique park, and check out Grand Mere State Park on the Absolute Michigan Map.
More dunes on Michigan in Pictures.
August 15, 2013
I was surprised to learn that I haven’t posted anything about Sugar Loaf on Mackinac Island. Here’s a summary with help from Wikipedia’s entry for Sugar Loaf Rock, the Mackinac State Historic Parks geology page and some other sources I’ve linked to.
Located not far from the shoreline on the east side of Mackinac Island, Sugar Loaf is a 75′ breccia limestone stack. Thousands of years ago Lake Algonquin covered all but the center of Mackinac Island. When it receded, this tower of rock remained. The people of the region packed maple sugar into cone-shaped baskets of birchbark, and Sugar Loaf Rock was named for its resemblance to one of these cones.
Sugar Loaf was said by some to be the home of Gitchi Manitou, while another tale explains that the rock was the final form taken by a man who asked for immortality and received it, albiet not as he expected. A distinct profile remains in the limestone face of Sugar Loaf Rock. The rock was also used as a site of ritual burials. In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and his friend Gustave de Beaumont visited Mackinac Island. De Beaumont reported that the rock was filled with “crevices and faults where the Indians sometimes deposed the bones of the dead.” A natural cave passes through Sugar Loaf from side to side, but it’s too small for any but children.
More from Mackinac on Michigan in Pictures!
July 29, 2013
“To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”
On July 29, 1958, President Dwight D Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act that established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration aka NASA. While I don’t think that we’ve seen quite the advances we expected after making it to the moon in just over a decade, NASA has evolved into a science agency that is engaged in an incredible range of operations from theoretical research (warp drive is my current favorite) to monitoring our planet, solar system and the visible universe (measuring Northern Lights and roving Mars) to a permanent presence in space (I watched NASA TV live from the International Space Station this morning) and plans for a manned Mars mission.
More space on Michigan in Pictures!
April 17, 2013
April is the time when we start to hear some of Michigan’s 13 species of frogs and toads making noise. While the green frogs pictured above were confusing their Frogbook friends in July, most of the distinctive spring frog calls are males advertising that they’re looking for love. The Michigan frog & toad page from the DNR explains:
As temperatures rise in early spring, frogs begin to move to their breeding sites. The actual timing depends on the warmth of the air and water, and the humidity, but there is noticeable order in which the various Michigan species become active and begin voicing their breeding calls. For example, in southern Michigan the raspy voice of the Western Chorus Frog is usually heard first, often in late March, followed quickly by the highpitched peeps of the Spring Peeper. In a few days the woodland swamps are filled with the quack like calls of the male Wood Frogs, while in another week in open marshes the low snores of the Leopard Frog are barely heard over the squeaky songs of newly arrived Red Winged Blackbirds.
The first warm rains of April bring American Toads out of the woods to the breeding ponds, where the air is soon filled with their melodious trills. Several of our frogs postpone their breeding activities until later in spring, when air and water temperatures are higher. Included in this late group are the Gray Tree Frog, Blanchard’s Cricket Frog, and Green and Bull Frogs.
Frogs are far more often heard than seen. Most frog sounds are the advertisement calls of the males, intended to attract the females for breeding. Frog voices may carry for long distances, especially the higher pitched calls of the smaller species. The males increase the loudness of their calls by ballooning out their throats or special sacs at the sides of their throats, creating a kind of resonating chamber. Only males produce advertisement calls, but both sexes may give shorter warning calls or screams when danger threatens. Males can also produce distinct calls that warn away rival males that approach their calling or breeding sites.
Female frogs and toads may lay hundreds or even thousands of eggs. These are usually attached to underwater vegetation or left floating in large masses at the surface. During egg laying, the male clings to the female’s back and fertilizes the eggs. The small, dark eggs are protected by layers of a jelly like substance. They may be in rounded masses (as in Wood and Leopard Frogs), loose clusters (Gray Tree Frogs), long necklace like strings (Toads), thin surface films (Bull and Green Frogs), or deposited singly or in small clusters (Spring Peeper). Many frog eggs are eaten by predators such as fish, turtles, and aquatic insects, or are lost to drying or destruction by micro organisms.
April 3, 2013
Yesterday Michigan in Pictures regular Mark O’Brien shared Nature’s Drone, Pretty and Deadly. The article says that although lions (25% hunting success rate) and great white sharks (50% success) look deadly, the dainty dragonfly may be the most effective hunter in the animal kingdom:
When setting off to feed on other flying insects, dragonflies manage to snatch their targets in midair more than 95 percent of the time, often wolfishly consuming the fresh meat on the spur without bothering to alight. “They’ll tear up the prey and mash it into a glob, munch, munch, munch,” said Michael L. May, an emeritus professor of entomology at Rutgers. “It almost looks like a wad of snuff in the mouth before they swallow it.”
Next step: grab more food. Dragonflies may be bantam, but their appetite is bottomless. Stacey Combes, who studies the biomechanics of dragonfly flight at Harvard, once watched a laboratory dragonfly eat 30 flies in a row. “It would have happily kept eating,” she said, “if there had been more food available.”
In a string of recent papers, scientists have pinpointed key features of the dragonfly’s brain, eyes and wings that allow it to hunt so unerringly. One research team has determined that the nervous system of a dragonfly displays an almost human capacity for selective attention, able to focus on a single prey as it flies amid a cloud of similarly fluttering insects, just as a guest at a party can attend to a friend’s words while ignoring the background chatter.
Read on for more including some very cool videos of dragonflies in action.
More science on Michigan in Pictures!
March 26, 2013
I’d like to offer an apology of sorts for this photo. It goes like this: “I’m really, really sorry that I sometimes have to blog photos of the ugly things that threaten what’s beautiful in Michigan. I wish I didn’t have such a good reason to!”
Michigan has only the tiniest sliver of Lake Erie shoreline, so little that we sometimes forget that it is one of the lakes that define our Great Lakes State. Lake Erie served once at the canary in the coal mine for pollution of the Great Lakes, and it may once again be sounding a warning call. A recent front page of the New York Times featured scary news about algae blooms on Lake Erie:
For those who live and play on the shores of Lake Erie, the spring rains that will begin falling here soon are less a blessing than a portent. They could threaten the very future of the lake itself.
Lake Erie is sick. A thick and growing coat of toxic algae appears each summer, so vast that in 2011 it covered a sixth of its waters, contributing to an expanding dead zone on its bottom, reducing fish populations, fouling beaches and crippling a tourism industry that generates more than $10 billion in revenue annually.
…Dead algae sink to the lake bed, where bacteria that decompose the algae consume most of the oxygen. In central Lake Erie, a dead zone now covers up to a third of the entire lake bottom in bad years.
“The fact that it’s bigger and longer in duration is a bad thing,” said Peter Richards, a senior research scientist at the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University in Ohio. “Fish that like to live in cold bottom waters have to move up in the thermocline, where it’s too warm for them. They get eaten, and that tends to decrease the growth rates of a lot of the fish.”
Read on for a whole lot more including how farming practices are intersecting with invasive zebra mussels and climate change to magnify the dangers.
More Lake Erie on Michigan in Pictures.