Archive for May, 2011

This is the third in the Walking With Dinosaurs series in terms of geologic time and the second in terms of release date. Like others in the series it is unclear what is imagination and what is fact, but the rendering of extinct animals is excellent. One comment on all the “Walking With” videos — animals make sounds for a reason. It may be to freeze or to scatter prey, to communicate with others, or to intimidate a rival — but an animal waiting for an opportunity to attack is silent.

The video is ten years old and some of the paleontology is out of date. So are some of the locations – the evidence for land-dwelling forerunners of the whales, for instance, comes mainly from Pakistan and it is somewhat questionable to put an Ambulocetis in Germany.

The first DVD has six episodes. The first “New Dawn,” is set in the early Eocene, when the earth had settled down from the K-T boundary event and the extinction of virtually all large animals. Mammals are still small, and the descendants of dinosaurs — the birds — are the dominant predators.

Later in the Eocene the mammals are beginning to take over, and the second segment, “Whale Killer,” focuses on marine and estuarine life. It also considers the climatic results of changing ocean currents due to plate tectonics.

The third episode, “Land of Giants,” is set in the Oligocene and focuses on a single type of animal, the indricothere, although others are shown as well. Imagine a rhinocerous the size of a giraffe! I’m not sure they gave their indricotheres the right environment, though.

The early evolution of our own species is covered in the fourth episode, “Next of Kin,” which centers on an australopithecine clan. Grass has now evolved, making backgrounds much easier for the filmmakers to find. This episode is relatively recent, only a little more than 3 million years ago.

The fifth episode. “Sabre Tooth,” is set in South America a million years after the Panamanian land bridge has opened, ending 30 million years of isolation. The old top predators were terror birds, much like those of the first episode. This episode focuses on the North American predator that has replaced them, the sabertooth cat.

The sixth episode, “Mammoth Journey,” takes place in Europe at the height of the last ice age, when two sub-species of humans shared the territory with a number of cold-adapted animals. Living in Alaska and knowing that mammoths did quite well here during the ice age, I am not so sure that the cold would have forced them to migrate out of the lush pastures of the North Sea, though.

Don’t forget the second DVD in the set. This has a good deal of information on how the episodes were made, interviews with the producers, model-makers and animators, and some behind the scenes information on the animals themselves and the evidence for their existence.

Sunrise this morning was 3:39 am, and the sun won’t set until a minute after midnight tomorrow. Even at its lowest, at 1:47:25 tomorrow morning, it will be only 3.19° below the northern horizon. For practical purposes, it is now light all night. We’re still gaining about 6 minutes a day with the sun above the horizon.

The chives (l. foreground) and tarragon (r. background) are perennial. The sage and lavendar were planted this morning.Empty holes will get other herbs.

I’ve been lazy on reporting the change in day length, using a website that does all the calculations for me — but it seems unable to calculate the day length when sunset is the following day. NOAA has a site that lets me calculate the solar elevation, and by next week I hope I’ll have an Excel spreadsheet that lets me keep track of day length without hand calculations.

Mints and lantana at the south end of the pea bed. This bed is one block high. Two of the other three are two blocks high, and I'm raising the third this year.

As to weather, we’ve been having a heat wave. Four straight days in the 80’s, with 86° on the 28th. That may not sound all that warm if you live in the southern states, but we’re melting. It’s enough to tempt me into trying to figure out a way of putting air conditioning in the bedroom. (At least, having grown up in Kansas, I know enough to shut the house up in the daytime and open the windows at night.) The hot weather is forecast to remain at least until the middle of the week, with no rain in sight.

The second crop of mosquitoes is out – the little ones that come in swarms. One of the insects (at least) has made it into the house and keeps dive-bombing me at night. The rest pester me while I’m trying to get the garden planted and try to figure out how to get into the house.

Lots of lawn watering, and I’m slowly getting the garden planted. I planted the squash yesterday, and the first columbine flower opened last night. Today I hope to get the rest of the herbs planted in the holes around the raised beds – if the mosquitoes let me.

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.)

A fiveday has passed, and I am still alive. Life here almost certainly uses left-handed proteins, which is good news for me as I have only a few months’ worth of provisions with me. This means I must learn to live off the land.

I have been watching what the local herbivores eat and sampling it, but the leaves and the fibrous ground cover have too much cellulose for me to digest. Fruiting bodies and seeds are much more digestible, and in some cases even palatable, but they have to be sampled with caution – some are toxic. There are a number of local herbivores probably a good deal better to eat than the vegetation they thrive on, but I cannot bring myself to call them to me to kill them. If I see one injured or in pain I would have no such scruples, but the local predators generally kill the weaklings.

Oh yes, the predators. I’ve seen several more. They are all afraid of fire, and I get the distinct impression some have seen it in a context other than wildfires. There are several of the ambush predators: a yellow-coated variety that weighs a good deal more than I do and hunts in groups; the spotted one I mentioned before, and a smaller, incredibly fast spotted one that seems unable to climb trees. There is a group that makes a weird noise and has a rather hunch-backed silhouette. Others resemble the pack hunters but appear solitary. Like most predators, they are perfectly willing to scavenge each others’ kills.

I hope that the modifications I made to the emergency capsule are sufficient to keep them away while I sleep!

The herbivores are even more varied. Many have horns on their heads, ranging from simple knobs to daunting scimitars. These all feed on the fibrous stuff. There are some huge ones that I thought at first sight had tails at both ends. At least two varieties occur in large herds. One is horned and I think migratory. The other is one of the few animals I have seen without horns, but they have a very distinctive coat – black and white striped.

What really has my attention is that almost all of these animals are frightened of my presence. Not that I seem strange to them, but as if I am a known predator. Could there be a species here superficially similar to my own? If so, they are rare in this area.

It’s nice to have at least one side effect of diabetes that isn’t a burden.

I refer to the loss of hair, and hence of the annoyance of shaving, on the legs, arms, hands, feet and underarms.

Not that I bothered to shave most of the time anyway, and it’s only a symptom of a much more serious diabetic problem — lack of blood flow to the extremities. In fact, it is probably related to my diabetic retinopathy and some autonomic neuropathy. Like my heart rate not speeding up when I exercise.

So what are the possible complications?

The American Diabetes Association has a daunting list, but the main ones are:

Eye complications. I’m very aware of those!

Diabetes is considered a risk factor equal to having had a previous heart attack for cardiovascular problems.

Kidney disease.

Stroke – again, I’m personally acquainted with that.

Foot problems – a lot of diabetics wind up with amputations.

Gastroparesis – highly variable delay in stomach emptying, which makes it very hard to treat low blood sugar.

So what can you do about it?

Don’t get diabetes is the obvious answer, but what if it’s too late for that?

Try to keep your blood sugar as close to normal as possible. That means checking your blood sugar frequently – probably a minimum of 4 times a day. I average more like 12 myself, even with a continuous monitor. It also means adjusting your insulin to the amount of food you eat. Carbohydrate counting is most accurate, but even then you have to figure out how much insulin you need to offset a given number of grams of carbohydrate. I went for years with a doctor telling me how much insulin to take and adjusting my food to match. He was prescribing too much insulin, and I gained weight.

Exercise helps, too. I have a stationary bicycle and a rowing machine set up in front of the television, and whenever I’m watching and not actually low, I’m exercising.

At least it’s possible to do something about tracking your blood sugar today. When I was diagnosed, 42 years ago, I got an occasional lab test – like every two or three years. And one shot a day of medium-acting insulin. Today we have not only blood glucose meters – all right, they do involve pricking your finger – but insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors. They’re not perfect by any means, but things have come a long way in 42 years.

Now if the hair loss would just extend to my chin ….

Photo of Bill by Don Gray, 2008

One of the sadder pieces of news I received last week was that Bill Kloefkorn, the Nebraska Poet Laureate, died May 19, 2011. He was one of the instructors at the Creative Writing class at Summer Arts Festival, returning several times. Everyone who attended his classes will miss him.

In his honor, here is a haiku I wrote at Festival the last year he taught.

Light between tree trunks.
Is it water that I see,
Or is it the sky?

“Women drivers make you nervous?” Robert A. Heinlein (early.) Methuselah’s Children. Mary Sperling to Lazarus Long, just after she has flown her supposed car over a barrier fence to escape pursuit. This is one of the earliest appearances of Lazarus Long and the Family; the book was published in 1958 but it is based on a 1941 short story.

“As your life takes its form, so will your music.” R. A. MacAvoy. From Damiano. The seraph Raphael, Damio’s lute instructor, during a lesson.

“Why do you deem that that which is unknown must likewise be ill?” Andre Norton. Year of the Unicorn, the first of the Witch World stories set in Arvon. Gillan is trying to counter the fears of the other brides of the Weres.

“Kellis had never seen a corpse that seemed to care about anything.” Susan Dexter. The Wind-Witch. Kellis and Druyan are both exhausted near the end of the barley harvest, and Kellis is beginning to wonder if they are both dead.

“A tendril of fire snaked over and wrapped around her hands.” Lauri J. Owen. From Fallen Embers. Kiera is a fire mage, but at this point she hardly realizes that and has no control at all.

“They were completely and delightfully weird.” Alan Dean Foster. Context? The Tar-Aiym Krang. A commentator’s description of the Thranx, when humans first met them.

“I thought a vacation was supposed to be a rest.” Sue Ann Bowling. from Homecoming. Roi is on his first school vacation, and been told what he has to learn (a lot!) during that month.

In many ways this is a retrospective. Walking With Dinosaurs came out almost 12 years ago, in 1999. Last century stuff. But it set the stage for all the dino-documentaries that have come out since.

When it came out, realistic computer-generated dinosaurs were certainly a possibility in movies – Jurassic Park preceded and partly inspired Walking With Dinosaurs. But managing this quality of CGI on a television budget, treating the whole thing as a documentary and bringing in paleontologists not only as advisors but at times as collaborators, was new.

I do have some quibbles with the six episodes. First, there are a few places where the narration is just plain wrong. I’m not talking about things that were learned after the film was made or guesses that are presented as fact; I’m talking about things like the statement that carbon monoxide is heavier than air. In fact, it is almost exactly the same density as air. The suffocating, low-lying gas that is produced by volcanic action, and is heavier than air, is carbon dioxide.

Second, there are many things in the DVD that are pure guesswork. Some of these are pretty obvious, like the colors of extinct animals. No real problem there — they had to be some color, after all, and why not pattern them after existing reptiles? In some cases, such as pterosaurs getting around on the ground, even the paleontologists learned something from the animators’ efforts to get the animals to move. But flat statements such as the one that cynodonts paired for life, for instance, seem sheer guesswork.

Finally, this DVD has to be watched with recognition that a great deal has been learned about dinosaurs in the last 12 years. We now know, for instance, that a great many of the predatory dinosaurs had feathers, probably both for insulation and for display. Our ideas about the social life of dinosaurs are also undergoing a transition. The DVD shows Tyrannosaurs as solitary animals, guarding their territories jealously. There is increasing evidence that they may have hunted in packs, with a social life more like wolves.

Do look at the second DVD, the one that has “The making of” sequence. This points out things that are all too often ignored in later dino-documentaries, such as the fact that grass evolved quite recently, and was never present when the non-avian dinosaurs were alive.

This was the first made of the “trilogy of life” series, though it is the middle one in terms of geologic time. This trilogy is still probably the best of the dino-documentaries.

The white violets are blooming, at least next to the house.

It’s really starting to feel like spring here in North Pole, Alaska. Sunrise this morning was at 4:01 am and sunset will be at 11:37 pm this evening for 10 hours 36 minutes of potential sunlight, but civil twilight now lasts all night. Thanks to our screwed-up time zones the sun will set after midnight by the end of the month. Daily gain in day length has slowed down and will continue to slow until the solstice. Not that it makes a lot of difference, since it never gets darker than civil twilight.

Greenup has unquestionably arrived for the native trees.

We could still have frosts or snow, and I’m planting only the really cold-hardy plants like mint. Everything’s out hardening, though, and I’m no longer bringing the hardening plants in at night—at least as long as there is no frost warning in the forecast.

Native plants such as this wild rose have leafed out, though it's still a little early for flower buds.

The photos were all taken this morning, with the sun going in and out (mostly behind thin broken clouds.) It’s t-shirt and shorts weather. It’s been dry—the first local fire is being mopped up and I hope it’s not a warning of a smoke-filled summer to come. Still, this time of year makes Alaska a great place to live.

Imported plants such as this Amur Maple are much slower, and I still can't tell whether some survived.

Those time zones? Alaska standard time is 135° W, an hour west of California. According to my GPS, I am currently at 147° 27’ W. Add in daylight savings, and local time is almost 2 hours ahead of what it should be by the sun. Hence sunset the following day at the height of summer. (Already, in Nome, which is officially on the same time zone as Fairbanks.)

The Geophysical Institute was authorized by Congress in 1946 and funded in 1948. I won’t even try to detail all of the infighting between the Institute and the University here; Neil Davis does a much better job in his book, The College Hill Chronicles. I will just mention a few highlights.

The Chapman building, built to house the Geophysical Institute, as it appears today.

The original focus of the Geophysical Institute was on aurora and radio transmission, specifically on the upper atmosphere. Sydney Chapman became the advisory scientific director on his retirement from Oxford around 1950, and he was still teaching occasional classes when I arrived in 1963. C. T. Elvey became the director shortly after Chapman arrived, but he left in the early ’60’s. The first GI building, now called the Chapman Building, was also built about 1950.

East wing of the Elvey Building as it appears today.

Between Chapman and Elvey, the Geophysical Institute played a large role in the International Geophysical Year, which is largely what got me interested in geophysics back in high school.

One version of the all-sky camera used to study the aurora was developed at the Geophysical Institute, pretty much cobbled together by students.

At one point the Geophysical Institute made the front page of the New York Times by being the first in the US to track Sputnik and calculate its orbit. GI scientists may not have been the first in the United States to see it, though!

The main tower of the Elvey Building. It's 8 stories high and (while you can't see it at this angle) has a huge satellite dish on the roof.

The Institute directors had always emphasized primary research, and by the early ’60’s, when I arrived as a graduate student, they were beginning to move down into glaciology, the atmosphere and seismology, and up towards the sun. Today there are research programs in atmospheric sciences, remote sensing, seismology, snow, ice and permafrost, space physics and aeronomy, tectonics and sedimentation and volcanology. Public outreach includes volcanic activity, earthquake information, aurora forecasts, an online webcam on the roof and the Alaska Science Forum, which I was writing 20-some years ago. Facilities include the Alaska Climate Research Center, the Alaska Earthquake Info Center, The Alaska Satellite Facility, the Alaska Volcano Observatory, Chaparral Physics (Infrasound), the College International Geophysical Observatory, the Mather Library and the Poker Flat Research Range.

The first building was outgrown shortly after I arrived, and while the new building was being planned and completed on West Ridge, the existing building was extended with trailers. The new building (now called the C.T. Elvey building) was completed in 1970. It, too, was outgrown, or rather overgrown. Toward the end of the last century the International Arctic Research Center was built partly as an extension of the Elvey building, with help from Japan. The library (which was especially cramped in the Elvey Building) and the Atmospheric Science program moved into IARC (now officially called the Akasofu Building.)

I’ll be blogging about individual research programs and facilities over the next few weeks. (Or months, most likely.)