Tag Archive: Geography


Year 4, Day 330

The tideless sea does connect with the tidal sea to the west, though the connection is much farther west than I expected.

I’ve not been getting as far on my mapping as I was; there are too many thunderstorms. In general it’s not too bad in the morning, but as soon as I approach a storm, I head home. As a result, I don’t get very far on any given day.

Strait of Gibralter

Strait of Gibralter, NASA image. Spain to left.

Yesterday, however, I began seeing another landmass, very faint, to the north. The coast I was following bent north to meet it, and I feared I had come to the end of what might be only a colossal salt lake. But today I continued and found a relatively narrow strait between the coast I have been following and the one approaching from the north that leads to a slightly fresher sea with a much higher and longer swell. I cannot be absolutely sure this is the global ocean, but I went far enough to be sure it is quite large, somewhat less salty than the tideless sea, and that the current through the strait is primarily the pouring of the slightly fresher water into the sea I have been following. The climate along the shore has been suggesting for some time that more water is evaporating than is falling on the sea or running into it, so it makes sense that the water must be replenished somehow.

Little WildDog is two moons old. He seems to be developing physically at about the same rate as the computer says is normal for an infant R’il’nian, and now drags himself around the floor. He does not seem to understand speech as a R’il’nian infant would, but he does seem to recognize that it means something, and listens quite intensely when his mother is speaking. I suspect he will understand language before he is able to produce it. Certainly he babbles enough!

Songbird is asking me repeatedly when the People will return. I estimate about a moon cycle and a half, and I hope to at least have a good start on mapping the west coast of this continent by then. The weather should be drier once I turn south.

Jarn’s Journal gives some of the early history of the science fictional universe in which Homecoming and Tourist Trap are set. It is the fictional journal of a human-like alien stranded in Africa some 125,000 years ago. The journal to date is on my author site.

Year 4 Day 225

Globe showing NE corner of Africa. P.S. Schubert, MorgefileI wish I could remember Kana’s pregnancy better. She was a colleague years ago, and the only R’il’nian woman I ever saw pregnant. It seems to me she changed a lot more than Songbird, while staying much better balanced, which goes along with what little information I can find on the computer. With Songbird, I am forced to rely on Meerkat, who still insists the pregnancy is going well.

Mapping the coastline has hit a couple of snags. The northeastward trend changed abruptly when the coastline turned due west, to my relief. I know there is salt water far north of where I first crash-landed the emergency craft, and the turn to the west seemed to indicate that I was finally moving toward it. But yesterday I suddenly realized that another coastline was approaching the one I followed, from farther north. Today I found that while they approach each other so closely that I hardly have to levitate to see the northern landmass, they do not actually meet. Rather, the approach forms a gateway to a wider sea leading north-northeast.

Do I follow the coastline to the north-northeast? If only the computer had been recording images from space, but it was totally focused on finding a safe landing spot. All I have is my own memory of a wide east-west trending continental mass with a southward extension at its trailing edge. I know I am on the southward extension, but how is it cut off from the main mass? By water?

The water north of the gateway is saltier than the ocean, so it is not a river estuary, but does it lead to the northern sea? Why did the northern sea not show tides? Is it an inland sea, salty because there is no outflow?

Jarn’s Journal is the fictional journal of a human-like alien,  Jarn, who was stranded in Africa some 125,000 years go. This was the height of an interglacial, so sea level and climates were about like today’s. Jarn’s story is behind the founding f the Jarnian Confederation, the universe in which all my science fiction novels are set. The Journal (as it exists to date) can be read in its entirety at my author site.

This an excerpt from the (fictional) journal of an alien, Jarn, stranded in Africa roughly 125,000 years ago. Jarn’s story is part of the remote background of the science fiction world of my novels Homecoming and Tourist Trap, as well as an upcoming trilogy. For his Journal to date, see my Author Site.

Year 2, day 140

The headaches have almost disappeared. Score another round to my esper instructors.

They kept telling me that my headaches were analogous to sore muscles when I tried something new physically. Well, they were right. Over the last few fivedays I have seen more parts of this continent than I have over the past two years, and while my head felt as if it was going to explode the first few days, I can now go almost anywhere I have seen and levitate to a height which is uncomfortably cold with no headache at all. And once I am high enough, I can pick out landmarks and teleport to them with little effort.

It is a large continent that I have landed on. To the north, trees and watercourses become steadily more frequent until finally I find myself in jungle. By the sun, this jungle continues past the equator, bordered to the north by more savannah and eventually by true desert, drier than anything near my shelter. Farther yet, I came to a great salt sea. It may be partially enclosed, as there seem to be few tides in spite of the large moon.

South, the land again is washed by salty water, but stormier and with definite tides.

There are mountain ranges, valleys, even volcanic areas, and a great valley which makes me suspect this continent may be rifting apart. I have yet to find snow or ice, though I think I glimpsed some coming in. Still, by the height of the sun this continent is centered on the equator and even its most northerly and southerly limits are far from the poles.

I am mapping at after a fashion – it gives me something to do while I am alone. I can get both latitude and longitude from the position of the sun, though absolute distances have to be expressed in terms of the unknown radius of this planet. I keep hoping I will find the gather, but even the area green from the rains is far too large for anything but blind luck to lead me to them. I wish I knew where they were.

Oceanography: Exploring Earth’s Final Wilderness

It’s been almost 50 years since I took an oceanography course, so I ordered this course as a refresher. It was a refresher all right, and not just of what I remembered of oceanography — this course covers everything from the history of the Earth to modern-day pollution. As one of my old colleagues at the Geophysical Institute says, “It’s not Planet Earth, it’s planet Cloud-Ocean.”  And this course was a marvelous refresher of the whole of geophysics, core to tropopause, and some biology with the whole thing straightforward enough to be understandable to almost anyone.

It started out conventionally enough, with an overview of the history of oceanic exploration. But many of the observations of the ocean basins demanded explanation. Why did the mid-Atlantic ridge exist, for instance? The Challenger Deep? For that matter, why were island arcs so often paralleled by trenches and home to volcanoes and earthquakes? What were the magnetic stripes discovered during World War II? How was it that the sea floor, which should have been receiving sediments from the continents throughout geologic history, had astonishingly young bedrock when drills began to penetrate those sediments? Some of these questions were touched on 50 years ago, some were hastily swept under the rug, and some (such as the puzzlingly young age of the seafloor bedrock) had not even been discovered yet.

These questions eventually led to the theory of plate tectonics, and several lectures on these DVDs are devoted to explaining this theory and how it came about. But that’s a small part of the first two discs in this set of six.

The physics and chemistry of water take up several lectures. Waves, rogue waves, tsunamis, and tides are covered, along with some of the physics of water. For something so familiar (oxygen and hydrogen are two of the most common reactive elements in the universe) water has some astonishing properties. Not only does it have an extraordinarily high heat capacity and is it very nearly the universal solvent, it is one of the few compounds in which the solid phase is less dense than the liquid. In other words, ice floats! We’re so used to this we don’t even think about it, but the world would be very different if ice sank, as most solids do in their own melts.

Life in the seas is interesting in itself and also critical to feeding our global population. Food webs, plankton, jellyfish, fish, marine mammals and birds and whales all get their moments of exposure, along with fish farming.

Then the course moves on to coasts: estuaries, deltas, beaches and sea cliffs. Life is here, too, from sea grasses and mangroves to coral reefs.

The lectures then cover storms, the deep ocean circulation, and the effects of climate change and pollution.

As a meteorologist I would of course like to have seen more on the role of the oceans in influencing weather. Not only are the oceans the great flywheel of climate, and their slow response one of the problems in climate modeling, they provide much of the water vapor that transports energy around the globe. Still, 36 half hour lectures can’t cover everything. Professor Tobin certainly tried, though, and for a single course succeeded brilliantly.

All dinosaurs are bizarre, by mammalian standards. Some, however, are bizarre even to paleontologists, and the title program of this DVD is devoted to them. There is, however, a secondary program, not even mentioned on the cover, which to me was of considerably more interest.

Most of these animals are considered bizarre because they have appendages, preserved in the fossil record, that leave paleontologists wondering just why these animals have that appendage. Take the 33 foot-long Anargasaurus, for instance. Why on earth did this plant-eater have a double row of bony spines down its back? Reconstructions tend to show it with skin forming a double crest supported by those spines, but why? The only answer anyone had come up with is some kind of display crest, like the peacock’s tail.

Display organs are common, especially in today’s birds (which after all are modern dinosaurs) so I suppose it’s as good an explanation as any for such things as the plates of a Stegosaurus (which would have been potato chips to a large carnivore) or for the fanciful neck frills, often richly supplied with blood, of the Ceratopsids. Were horns used to fend off predators, of for fighting off rivals within the species? Or just for display?

In some cases the peculiarities might be associated with feeding. Take the Epidendrosaurus, for instance, a sparrow-sized dinosaur with an incredibly long third finger. Did it use its long finger as the aye-aye in Madagascar today does, to find insects in the bark of trees? Then there’s Nigersaurus, with a broad, flat head with a very wide muzzle resembling a vacuum-cleaner nozzle. Did it stand in one place and hoover up the vegetation?

This DVD is less interesting than most of the National Geographic programs scientifically, but it does show some interesting dinosaurs. If you want information on some of the animals shown, National Geographic has both an interactive site and a magazine article by John Updike.

The secondary program, which was a total surprise, should have been part of the Prehistoric Predators DVD I reviewed earlier. It was concerned with a much more recent animal, one I’d met before in Prehistoric Park—a predatory, flightless bird that could almost hold its own with sabertoothed cats and dire wolves. Certainly it seems to have taken down the same kind of prey.

These terror birds were not what you want to attract to your backyard bird feeder! Imagine an oversized ostrich with the hooked beak of a raptor, that beak (and head) enlarged to the size of a rather large war axe. With ostrich speed and taller than a man, they evolved to be the top predators on the South American continent, for many millions of years an island continent. Then a few million years ago, the isthmus of Panama joined it to North America, ending the isolation in which the terror birds had evolved. Animals crossed the new isthmus both ways. Opossums, armadillos, and porcupines moved north, but a far greater number of placental mammals moved south.

Surprisingly, a few terror birds did move north, as their fossils have been found in Florida. Did they meet with the earliest humans to colonize North America? Or were they simply unable to compete with the mega-predators already here? They did seem to survive for a long time in North America, but the jury is still out on just how long they lasted.

Tomorrow’s the day to look at quotes from Lewis Carroll, but I’ll also have a guest appearance on another blog, Christine’s Words. Stop by!

The shaman is not at all what I expected. In fact, I am starting to wonder if “shaman” is even the right translation of the word Songbird used.

It occurred to me after Songbird had left on her errand that she’d told me her people were in the habit of giving gifts of food to visitors. One thing I was sure they would treasure was salt – easy enough for me to get, simply by teleporting seawater to my shelter and boiling it down. I’d replenished my stock a fiveday ago, so it was simple to fill one of my smaller gourds with the precious substance.

What else? A sweet, sticky fruit from the jungle to the north, as far away as I have memorized teleport coordinates, was at first as strange to Songbird as it was to me, but after one cautious trial it became a favorite for both of us. It was easy enough to teleport to a memorized part of the jungle, and probe mentally for the right kind of tree with a feel of ripeness. I plucked a huge leaf, teleported the fruit onto it from one of the branches too slender for the small primates gorging on the tree’s bounty, and then teleported it and myself back to the shelter. Wild melons were ripening, too, and I plucked one to temper the sweetness of the jungle fruit.

Salt as a gift, fruit for refreshment. I placed both the salt and the leaf holding the fruit on a shelf out of Patches’ reach and looked downstream.

Four tiny figures were just visible. I thought the smallest was Songbird from the way she was dancing around the others. Two taller figures appeared to be assisting a third over the boulders lining the stream at that point. The shaman? It had never occurred to me that the shaman might have difficulty covering what Songbird had said was an hour’s walk.

As they came closer I recognized Songbird, and I thought the two taller figures must be her parents. Both wore tunics that appeared more decoration – or perhaps a way of carrying things while leaving their hands free — than clothing. The third figure was bent and smaller, and as they made their final approach I saw that the face was wrinkled and the mouth drawn in.

My people shed and grow teeth as they age, as often as needed. I lost one tooth when I first arrived, but by the time I found Songbird it was growing back. Do these people age, like animals? Is their life span so limited that they quit growing new teeth when they themselves quit growing? Did I misinterpret the awe and respect that colored Songbird’s emotions when she spoke the word I have been translating as “shaman?”

Jarn’s Journal is the fictitious journal of an alien stranded on Earth, in Africa, 125,000 years ago. His story is the remote backstory of the Confederation in which my published novels, Homecoming and Tourist Trap, are set. Jarn’s Journal from the time he crashed on Earth is being put on my author website as I write it.

(“Blue Babe” is a steppe bison that was killed by a lion, frozen and buried by silt some 36,000 years ago. He was found by a placer miner near Fairbanks, and rests today in the museum at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.)

The bison sniffed the frosty air, his head swinging back and forth as he scanned the snow-covered steppe. Vigilance was part of life, but within the herd it was a shared duty. Here, alone, he felt exposed and vulnerable. He lowered his head and pawed at the wind-crusted snow, uncovering a batch of browned grass, but he took only one bite before jerking his head up to look around.

The dead grass was harsh on his tongue, but it would be the only food available for months. And how could he feed, without others to keep watch? In the herd, at least one or two individuals at a time were always looking around, ready to sound a warning if danger approached. He swallowed the first bite, and lowered his head briefly to snatch more of the poor feed.

The wind tugged at his thick coat, but could not penetrate to his skin. He spread his nostrils and swiveled his ears, seeking warning of any predator, but the hiss of the blowing snow covered other sounds. Again he turned. Where was the rest of the herd? Sheltering from the wind? Perhaps in the valley to his left?

The narrow stream valley provided little shelter from the biting wind, and no other bison. Instinctively he knew the danger of being alone, but until he found the rest of the herd, he had little choice. Again he paced in a tight circle, seeking the source of every imagined sound.

What was that? One eye caught a blur of motion, and he bolted farther into the little valley. But the snow had drifted deeper here, and as he started to turn back, a sudden weight almost collapsed his hindquarters. Bellowing wildly he bucked and spun, the musk of lion rank in his nostrils. For an instant he was free, plunging though the snow for the mouth of the valley, but out of the thickening storm came another lion, leaping for his head.

His nose was pulled down, and again weight came on his hindquarters. He hardly felt the pain of claws and teeth. All his attention focused on the demands of his lungs for air. He tried to shake his head, to throw off the weight clamped to his muzzle, but his legs would no longer support even his own weight, and buckled under him. Redness fading to black washed across his world. He never knew when the lions began to feed.

Jarn is a human-like alien, stranded in Africa some 125,000 years ago during the next to last interglacial. He has adopted a wild dog, Patches, and rescued an early human child, Songbird. This is the distant back story for my science fiction novels, Homecoming and Tourist Trap. The entire Journal to date is on my author website.

Day 555

She’s not having nightmares, at least not yet.

I know I swore never again to try teleporting another sentient, least of all Songbird, after that first time. I didn’t intend to. But I had no choice!

Clouds have been clustering along the northern horizon for several days, and I thought I heard faint echoes of thunder. I’d walk north, I thought, and check if there was any sign of the approaching rains, and Songbird insisted on going with me and Patches. By noon we were in waist-high grass, far taller than the burned stuff near the shelter, and the clouds were beginning to show above the horizon.

Thunder growled, and I thought I saw flashes of light against the darkness near the horizon. Not long until the rains, I thought, and then I saw that some of the near towers were black on top, not white, and the light on the horizon was red. Dry storms, and the lightning had ignited the grass.

Songbird saw it before I did, grabbed my hand, and turned to run back toward our shelter.

We’d never make it.

I thought of how the shaman had made those caught in a similar fire lie down in a stream, but there were no streams between where we were and the shelter. Only the firebreak, and there was no hope of reaching that before the fire caught us. I could teleport to safety, of course, but what of Songbird?

I stopped, and spun her to face me. “Songbird, listen. You know how I appear and disappear?” I try not to teleport in front of her, but I know she has seen me.

“Yes, I have seen.”

“I am going to try to take us back to the shelter – vanishing here and reappearing there. You must close your eyes and imagine you are at the shelter door.” I had no idea whether that would make it easier, but it was all I could think of. And I could not leave her to be burned alive!

She looked toward the fire, which was now racing toward us and so near we could feel its heat and smell the scorched grass, and then turned her face toward me and closed her eyes.

I touched her mind – very lightly, as I did when she was teaching me her language. Her image of the shelter entrance was clear and precise, and I caught her mind and that of Patches with mine and moved all three of us. The heat on our skin was suddenly gone, and her eyes snapped open as she turned back to the north. The smoke was only a faint smudge from here, but it was present.

“I think we should make the burned area wet if we can,” she said.

We made sure there was nothing to burn near the shelter, and later watched as the fire swept around us. The shelter, being built mostly from the escape capsule, is fireproof, but our little island of safety was shared by a good many more animals than I really felt comfortable with. Still, we were able to close the door and sleep without further difficulty. And no nightmares, except mine.

Did knowing what I intended to do make the difference?

Post 385. Comment for the giveaway.

Leaves in Ithaca. Back in Fairbanks, they're all brown and on the ground.

In Fairbanks, the sun rose this morning at 8:49 and it will set this afternoon at 6:22, for 9 hours 32 min of daylight—6 min 42 seconds more than yesterday. The sun at its highest is less than 16 degrees above the horizon, so we’re not getting much solar heating.  I’m not in Fairbanks right now, but according to the weather service, there probably won’t be snow on the ground this week. They are calling for rain and snow showers at night, though.

Here in Ithaca, New York, the trees are turning color (including red) and the view is brilliant when it isn’t raining. This morning the sun is even shining, Back home in North Pole, it’s 32 degrees F and snowing, according to my iPhone. The lawn here and many of the leaves are still green. It’s going to be a bit of a shock getting back home, where the leaves are on the ground but will probably be under the snow by the time I get back. There was enough to whiten the ground in the shade when I left, last Wednesday. Here, though, the sun is up 11 hours a day. It’ll be up even longer for me next week, in Sierra Vista, Arizona.

Plate Tectonics: Part II

My next step in understanding geophysics came when my father took me along to a lecture. At that point I was somewhat immunized against continental drift by the professor at Harvard, in spite of my unanswered questions. Since the topic of the talk was something to do with continental drift, I was prepared to be quite critical. Remember this was in the early ‘60’s, before the idea of plate tectonics. The notion that sea floor was the youngest, not the oldest, crust on Earth had not even entered anyone’s mind, and the lack of traces of the continents plowing through the sea floor seemed definitive.

That lecture totally changed my attitude.

The lecture was about paleomagnetism, the fact that when lava cools, it retains the signature of the terrestrial magnetic field present at the time. The horizontal part of the field gives the direction to the north pole; the vertical part gives how far the pole is from the site — the latitude. There were complications – sometimes two lava flows close enough in time and space that they should have pointed to the same pole had exactly opposite directions. But if the north and south poles were considered interchangeable it was found that rocks of the same age on the same continent pointed to a consistent pole location at any given time in the past.

(Why the magnetic signature seemed to reverse at times was a mystery at the time and is still not totally understood, though it now known to be a reversal of the magnetic field rather than a reversal of the magnetism of the rocks.)

The next step was to produce what are called apparent polar wander curves: plots of how the pole moved through time as seen from the site of the lava flow. Again, it was found that these curves were quite consistent for a given continent. (There are exceptions, but I’ll get to them in a later post.)

But the curves for different continents were quite different.

In particular, if the curves for north America, Africa and Europe were compared, and the continents were assumed to move in such a way that they “saw” the same pole, those continents must have been snuggled together back in the late Triassic.

I walked into that lecture convinced that the apparent fit of the continents (and the geology) of the continents across the Atlantic was a coincidence, and that Wegener’s continental drift hypothesis was wrong. Certainly his mechanisms were; there was no evidence that continents had ever plowed through seafloor. But I walked out convinced that while Wegener’s hypothesis was wrong in detail, the continents had indeed moved.

But how?

Formally, I shifted my studies for the next few years to ice fog. Informally, I kept trying to make sense of  solid-earth geophysics. Could there be some sort of underground erosion going on? What about those faults with hundreds of miles of displacement that disappeared when they reached continents?

Luckily, the major journal of my field was the Journal of Geophysical Research, so I was able to follow the steps people were making in the gradual emergence of plate tectonics. More of that later – but in the order I remember finding out, rather than in the order the discoveries were made.

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