Tag Archive: Transportation


 Year 2 Day 337

I couldn’t find Storm Cloud’s group yesterday evening, or the evening before! I wasn’t  too worried about them; they were getting into an area where they could find ground melons, if not surface water. But I wanted to talk with Storm Cloud about the other groups I’ve seen, especially about the one with only a single survivor.

Luckily I remembered how easily Patches backtracked the hyena, and this morning I teleported her to the last place I’m sure was on the group’s trail, and asked her to find Songbird. She set off at once, though somewhat puzzled by my wanting her to follow such an old trail. I flew above her, coming back to earth often to rest my mind, and by late in the afternoon we had caught up with the group. Obviously they did not need water; they were camped not far from a lake.

“Storm Cloud,” I said, “I need your advice,” and I poured out my problems: Lion’s group, the lone woman who was regaining her strength but was a magnet for predators, and the three other groups I’d seen. (I’d spotted another while searching for Storm Cloud’s group.)

She was a little shocked at my asking her for advice – she is still more than half convinced I am a god. But she was able to identify all of the other groups I had seen when I described their clothing, and confirm that they should also be heading for the Gather. In fact, it seems the woman who barely survived was her mother’s mate’s cousin’s niece, and Lion was some kind of a relative, too.

Songbird had been listening, and she was wiggling in a way that suggested she had something to say. “Speak, child,” Storm Cloud said.

“You could take me to see Uncle Lion,” she said. “I could tell him how you helped us.”

My doubt must have shown on my face, but Storm Cloud nodded. “I will give you a token.” She took off a shell necklace and handed it to Songbird. “Take great care of this, and bring it back to me safely, but this will tell Lion that you speak for me. When you return, we will speak of the woman.”

Did I have a choice? Songbird was the one person I was sure I could teleport safely, little though I liked reinforcing her love for being moved in this way.

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.

Winter may not be here for another month by the calendar, but it certainly feels like it’s present. Fairbanks has already had an official temperature below 40 below, and I’m sure it’s been much colder where I live. Remember that new indoor-outdoor thermometer? It starts reading LL at temperatures below 40 below, and except for a few hours around noon that’s all it’s read lately. Last night at bedtime it had already switched from forty below to LL, and this morning’s news said we’d set new low temperature records for six days straight. That’s in Fairbanks; North Pole is generally colder.

View from a south window. Note that the time is very close to solar noon.

We’re still losing around 6 minutes a day of daylight but the loss has started to slow down, with the loss each day decreasing by 4 seconds. Today the sun rose at 9:46 in the morning, and it will set at 3:26 this afternoon for 5 hours and 39 minutes of daylight. At its highest the sun is only a little more than ten times its diameter above the horizon, and it’s barely visible through the trees south of my house. Driving is only possible for me around noon, and driving toward the sun makes it very difficult to see where I’m going. Especially since the condensed water in the auto exhaust makes dense contrails behind each vehicle.

It’s supposed to be wonderful weather for stargazing and aurora watching, but I have to confess I haven’t had the nerve to brave the cold. I did manage to get to our writing group’s reading at Barnes and Noble Saturday night, thanks to a fellow author. I’m afraid most of the listeners were part of the group.

It is, however, forecast to begin clouding over a bit, which will warm things up. Clouds here act as a blanket in the winter. Maybe we’ll even get some more snow. Nothing has melted, but the snowpack has settled to around 8”, which is not enough to insulate the ground and keep buried pipes from freezing..

Did you remember to change your clock yesterday? I spent close to an hour yesterday morning trying to remember where all the clocks were. The computer is automatic, but that leaves two indoor-outdoor thermometers, my wrist watch, my insulin pump and my glucose monitor in the computer room alone. In the kitchen I have the microwave, the stove clock, a travel alarm visible from the stationary bicycle, another thermometer, and the timer on the plant light. Then the bedroom: a radio alarm and a light-and birdsong-and alarm gadget, plus another thermometer. Finally the plant room, with two more timers. Most have to be set 23 hours forward, as it is impossible to reset them backward. I even found the reference on how to change the time on my GPS, in the process discovering a warning against using it while driving.

On Alaska Standard Time, the sun rose at 8:59 am — an hour earlier than ADT — but it will set at 4:09 pm, far too early. Our day length now is only 7 hours and 17 minutes, and the sun at its highest is less than 9° above the horizon. From my south windows, it barely skims the trees, and driving it seems it is always in my eyes.

The birches and aspens have completed their color changes: green, yellow-green, yellow, gold, brown, bare black branches,  white as the branches were covered with a layer of frost, and black-brown again as the wind rose and blew the frost off. That last will alternate through the winter, with periods when branches are white on top and black on the bottom due to fresh snow in windless conditions. There is snow on the ground, but it is deepening slowly here in the Interior. It was 5″ deep yesterday, but it was still too dark to see when this post went live. There is enough packed snow on the roads to make intersections slippery. This time of year I worry about drivers new to the state and those who have forgotten their ice driving skills, or who do not have winter tires.

It isn’t light enough to see the depth of snow yet, but when it became too dark to see last night we had about 5″ on the ground, with more expected overnight.

P.S. As of 8:30 this morning it looks like close to 8″ of snow on the ground. And I’m not looking forward to driving home from my afternoon OLLI class, which lets out just minutes before sunset.

This is post number 488. Remember to comment to take part in the drawing.

Happy Halloween! Any outdoor real pumpkins here will freeze, though.

Sunrise this morning was at 9:35 am – well after my alarm went off – and the sun will set tonight at 5:33. The day length has already dropped below 8 hours, and the sun at its highest is 11° above the horizon – barely above the treetops. October may be fall in most of the country, and a week ago in Arizona I was sweltering in 80 degree temperatures, but here in Fairbanks winter has started.

I returned to snow, as I predicted. Already it’s over 4” deep, and it will probably remain, as the base of this year’s snowpack, until April. Driving south requires not only sunglasses, but lowered sun visors, and there is enough ice on the roads to produce a noticeable glare. My inability to drive in the dark means that once again I am housebound, except around noon, until next spring.

On the plus side, that means I’ll have more time to write. Maybe I’ll get that trilogy polished up! And my 500th post should be coming up this month. Any suggestions for how to celebrate?

I need to replace the bulbs in my outdoor lights—the porch light, the old dog run light, the lights over the garage door, and the light on the Arctic entry off the bedroom. And I find myself in a quandary.

Ordinary incandescent bulbs work at the outdoor temperatures we have up here in Alaska — below -40°F most winters, and not uncommonly below -50 or even -60°F. Their lives are probably shortened when they’re turned on at these temperatures, but they do turn on.

Incandescent bulbs, however, are being phased out. The idea is to replace them with fluorescents, and I’ve done that wherever possible indoors. I even replaced the hanging fixture over the kitchen table with a ceiling-mounted fluorescent.

Outdoors, however, is another story. Fluorescents (or rather their ballasts) simply will not work at the winter temperatures found in interior Alaska – or the northern tier of states, for that matter. Even low temperature ballasts only start working when it warms up to -20°F – and warms up is the way we think of it up here.

LED’s do work, and I’ve had outdoor LED Christmas lights for several years now. Over the last year, I’ve begun to see a few screw-in LED bulbs. But they are either very low light output (useful for replacing the bulbs in night lights) or highly directional – useful in some, but not all, of my outdoor fixtures. Yes, there are self-contained outdoor LED lights. They use batteries. See my earlier post on indoor-outdoor thermometers, and the problem with the outdoor sensor being battery-powered – even lithium batteries are questionable at temperatures below -40°F. And a size “C” lithium battery? Just try to find one! They’re available on line, but they are obviously a very expensive specialty item, and I’m not at all sure they’ll work at temperatures colder than -40°F.

It’s not the first time national policy has failed to take Alaskan temperatures into account.

I am reminded of my first new car – bought the year Congress mandated seat belt interlocks, which required that you have the seat belt buckled before the car would start, and which activated a blaring alarm if the seat belt was not buckled. 1973, I think. Fine, I thought. I put on my seat belt as a reflex. My father drilled holes in the frame of our old Woody so he could install seat belts. I’d never be bothered by failure to do something as automatic as that.

Turned out the car I got had two switches to implement the Federal requirement. One was in the seat, and turned on the seat belt safety mechanism if there was weight in the seat. The other was in the buckle, and told the car whether the seat belt was buckled.

The switch in the buckle did not work if the temperature of the buckle was below about 0°F.

I did not have a heated garage then.

I finally figured out that I could start the car at low temperatures by bracing myself between the back of the seat and the floor, so no weight was on the seat. Once the interior warmed up, the alarm would quit.

That worked until the temperatures got below -40°F, and the rather poor heater was unable to bring the interior temperature of the car above 0°F. At those temperatures, the alarm screamed constantly – a serious distraction while trying to drive in ice fog with frosted windows. I would never have heard a siren, for instance.

The dealer said sorry, federal law prohibited them from touching the interlock system, never mind that it wasn’t working properly and was a safety hazard rather than a safety feature.

Cars are not my thing. I lived with that alarm for the next couple of months, until the ban on interfering with the system was removed January 1.

It got disconnected January 2.

Floods in Interior Alaska occur at two times of year. The first, which is expected by anyone who lives near a river in Alaska, is breakup floods. April is our direst month, but the melting snow is dumping tons of water into the rivers, and ice jams can form temporary dams, never in the same place twice, which lead to major flooding in the villages. A couple of weeks ago a public service announcement included a story of a small boy who was frustrated when the local teacher refused to put things up high during flood season in spite of warnings from his pupils. “You should have listened to us old-timers,” the children told him after he and his family had to be evacuated in a boat.

But one of the greatest floods in Fairbanks history occurred during the second flood season, in late August.

If April is our driest month, August is the wettest. During the summer of 1967, the rains started in earnest in July, and the Tanana river began rising from more than melting glaciers. At that time the only road into Fairbanks was the Richardson Highway, which runs along the north bank of the Tanana. That river is just south of Fairbanks, and the road had already been washed out in places by early August. The nearest upstream bridge was 100 miles east; there was at that time no highway bridge downstream that connected to anything. Fairbanks itself is built where the Chena, a smaller, meandering river, flows into the Tanana.

In mid-august the southwesterly flow from the Bering Sea, augmented by the remains of a typhoon, began dumping unprecedented amounts of rain in the headwaters of the Chena River. By Monday, August 14, it was apparent that flooding would affect Fairbanks, which is on a double flood plain. The university is located on a hill and Al George, the civil defense coordinator, announced that the 300 extra beds in the dorms would be available for refugees.

The next morning the radio sounded totally confused as to what was going on. I looked across the street, saw that water was pouring into an excavation and beginning to flood a trailer park, and stuck the cats, their food and whatever was in the powerless refrigerator in the car when I went to work. Luckily! By that time the 300 beds had been expanded to wherever people could be put, which included everywhere except the power plant—on lower ground and itself in danger of flooding. (The city and Borough power plants had already been flooded out.) For most of the next week, I was the room clerk at the Geophysical Inn or helping distribute supplies for the Salvation Army. The intersection I’d driven through at 10 am was deep enough to float trucks by noon, and it was several days before I could get home. I did have luxury quarters—the floor of the office I normally shared with my Thesis advisor. Other offices often housed several families.

I was also able to reassure my family almost at once. The Geophysical Institute at that time was heavily radio-oriented, and a number of ham radio operators were our main contact with the lower 48 states. By the time the flood was a day or two old, the operators were overwhelmed and the messages were pretty limited. I recall an old, crank-operated phone that was our link with Outside.

One of my jobs was to try to locate and check off Institute employees. Among the missing for the first couple of days was Dan Crevenston, the Assistant Director (I think — need to check.) Not until the army managed to get its high-wheeled vehicles running between the campus and the airport (which stayed inches above the flood water) did we find that Dan was helping run things at the airport – which had become another refugee center.

Looting was official, and wasn’t really looting. As I recall, local grocery stores donated whatever they had above water to the flood relief effort, and the army’s high-wheeled trucks moved it to the campus.

One sidelight if you’ve looked at the University’s official story. There is a photograph of the old Geophysical Institute in Part 3 of that story. The peculiar t-shaped structure at one end? Some of the stacked trailers we had offices in as we outgrew the building, prior to moving into the new building in 1970. (I’m probably somewhere it that picture.)

Know how a contrail forms?

No, it has very little to do with particles produced by a jet engine (or a propeller engine, for that matter.) The culprit is water vapor.

Burning any hydrocarbon fuel, no matter how cleanly, produces two gasses: carbon dioxide and water vapor. If the fuel is dirty or combustion is incomplete or very hot, other things may be produced—sulfur compounds, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, particulates—but the energy we get out of burning hydrocarbons comes from combining oxygen from the air with the hydrogen and carbon that make up the bulk of the fuel.

An oxygen atom plus two hydrogen atoms is a molecule of water. A carbon atom plus two oxygen atoms is a molecule of carbon dioxide. The definition of clean combustion is combustion in which only these two compounds are produced.

Fuels vary in their ratio of carbon to hydrogen. Coal has about equal quantities of each, and when cleanly burned produces more than three times its weight in carbon dioxide and somewhat less than its weight in water. Gasoline has about 2 atoms of hydrogen to one of carbon, and produces a little less carbon dioxide but more than its weight in water. Straight hydrogen does not produce carbon dioxide, but produces a whopping nine times its weight in water.

In most climates, we can ignore the water, at least near the ground. But the air can only hold so much water, and the amount it can hold decreases rapidly with temperature. What’s more, the limit on how much it can hold differs depending on whether ice is present. It is perfectly possible for air to have more moisture than it could hold if ice were present, but not enough that moisture condenses out in cloud droplets. In fact, this is very common at high elevations.

Further, cloud droplets can have a temperature well below freezing, but still be liquid droplets. They can be triggered into freezing by ice nuclei, the most effective nucleus being a sliver of ice. This is how wing icing on airplanes occurs, by flying through what are called supercooled clouds—clouds of liquid water drops at subfreezing temperatures..

At very low temperatures, below about –40, an ice nucleus is not necessary, as a droplet will freeze spontaneously.

Now imagine an airplane flying in air with a temperature below –40 (true of most commercial flights today) with a moisture content not high enough for cloud formation, but high enough that ice crystals can grow. The engine exhaust contains large concentrations of water vapor—enough to cause condensation of droplets just behind the plane. Since the temperature is below –40 these droplets will freeze very rapidly. Once they are frozen they gather in water from the air around them. The result is a contrail that is not only visible, but grows.

Most areas don’t have ground temperatures below –40 very often—but here in Fairbanks, Alaska, we do. Automobiles leave contrails in these conditions. More, many of the pollutant particles we spew into the air act as ice nuclei at temperatures a little warmer than –40, so the combined persistent contrails—ice fog—can occur well above –40. It’s fog made of ice particles, rather than water droplets. It’s densest just behind each vehicle, making it hard to see the tail lights of the car ahead.

Growth from vapor makes well-formed crystals that produce optical effects like sun dogs, halos, and ice pillars. We have those, but not in ice fog. Ice fog particles are basically frozen droplets, and while they are crystalline, they do not generally have the clearly defined facets necessary for them to act as prisms. So ice fog looks just like fog.

Sad to say, my photos of ice fog all seem to be slides that have not been digitized. Does anyone have a good photo of ice fog or contrails I could put on this page?

On the Eighth day of Christmas my true-love gave to me,
Eight cars polluting,
Seven blizzards raging,
Six aurorae swirling,
Five solar flares.
Four chickadees,
Three mammoths
Two ptarmigan
And a spruce hen in a spruce tree.

My street, 12/13/10.

Sunrise 10:49 am. sunset 2:41 pm for a 3 hour, 52 minute day and a maximum solar elevation of 2.3 degrees–a little more than 4 solar diameters. It’s cloudy, so the sun isn’t visible anyway. Theoretically it’s snowing, and there are ice crystals in the air–I saw them on my windshield when I went down to pick up the mail. But the snow stake is stuck on 10″–made up the settling from the ice storm, but not enough snow to push it on up. Temperature -10 degrees F which is quite seasonable this time of year.

Days are still getting shorter, but the loss–now 2 3/4 minutes a day–is rapidly decreasing. A week from now it’ll be half a minute, and two days after that we start gaining! The first day of winter? In theory, but for us it’s the great turnaround of the year. No wonder the solstice or near it is a major holiday for just about everyone.

That’s a color photo, by the way. It’s a very gray day.

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