birdseye view

Posted by Ellen

An old skyscraper, the Art Deco Suburban Station building from 1930, peeks out at left from behind Philadelphia's newest and tallest skyscraper, the Comcast Center, completed in 2008. Reflected in the angled blue glass of the Concast tower are the upper floors of the Mellon Bank Center across the street.

Behind the 'scrapers is lots and lots of city sprawling into the night across the Delaware Valley.

Comcast is currently building itself a newer and even taller tower, which is rising off to the right of the buildings seen here. The lower floors will be occupied by Comcast and Telemundo, and the upper floors will be rooms with a view in a Four Seasons Hotel.

Posted by Ellen

The bronze Ben Franklin standing atop City Hall's dome is said to be the tallest statue anywhere that's on top of a building. He's 37 feet tall and weighs 27 tons.

This picture of Ben from behind was taken from the new observation deck on the 57th floor of One Liberty Place a couple of blocks away.

Posted by Ellen

A birdseye view of farmland on the volcanic slopes of the Canary Islands.

Posted by Ellen

Downtown Seattle in the wintertime, as seen from the ferris wheel on the waterfront.

Posted by Ellen

The inner surface of the dome of the U.S. Capitol building is a fresco titled The Apotheosis of Washington, which depicts George Washington in his army uniform, seated amongst the gods of the Roman heavens, surrounded by the entire military-industrial complex.

We'll leave the details of this cartoon to another morning. Today, we want to look just beyond the outer circle of the fresco, where it is barely possible to make out the railing of a narrow balcony running all the way around the dome. If you could get up to this balcony, you could look down 180 feet to the floor of the rotunda, or you could turn around to face the outside of the dome and look out across the city.

Here's the inside view, looking down:

And here's the outside view, looking west along the mall to the Washington Monument:

To get up to this balcony, you first have to become an important person, or at least a congressional page. Then you have to navigate steep, winding metal stairs amid the ironwork that supports the dome:

The whole dome is made of iron–8.9 million pounds of iron–painted to look like the sandstone in the rest of the building. It replaced an earlier, much smaller dome made of wood sheathed in copper. When Congress approved funding for the new dome in 1854 ($100,000), construction began by setting up a crane in the middle of the rotunda, with a steam-powered engine that was fueled by burning the wood from the old dome.

The new dome took nine years to build, and then two more years to paint. Work was finished in 1865. During the project's last few years, of course, we were seriously at war with ourselves, but for whatever reason, the dome kept on rising without interruption.

In recent years, it's gotten leaky, and in 2014 the exterior of the whole dome was covered with scaffolding for a two-year roof-patching job.

Posted by Ellen

In 2009, when Hank was a U.S. Senate page, he got up on top of the Capitol dome one day and snapped this picture, looking down across the roof of the Senate wing of the Capitol building.

It was all clear up there by 2009, but for several years after 9/11, snipers had been posted on that roof and on many other government roofs in Washington.

Posted by Ellen

Our last look at Iceland's ongoing volcanism touched on matters of earthquakes, a collapsing caldera, magma, lava, and tectonic rifting. But we failed to discuss the issue that has come to preoccupy Icelanders in recent months: poison gas, which spreads across the island as a blue haze, threatening the health of people, livestock, crops, and vegetation.

The gas belches out of the lava as sulfur dioxide, SO2, which is the odor we sniff in minute amounts when we strike a match. Around the site of the eruption, in barren terrain near central Iceland's Bardarbunga volcanic complex, the sulfur dioxide is so intensely concentrated that a single breath could be fatal. Fortunately, no one lives nearby; researchers approaching the volcanic vent wear elaborate gas masks and stay in the vicinity for only a few minutes at a time.

In addition to being dangerously sulfurous, the air near the eruption is also extremely turbulent. Steam from the vent and heat gusts from the surface of the lava lift and disperse the SO2 quite quickly. Early in the eruption, huge pulses of steam pushed the gas so high into the atmosphere that it was entrained in the jet stream and carried in low but measureable concentrations across the sea to northern and western Europe.

Within a few days, however, as the volcanic vent opened fully, the lava spilled out less forcefully. Sulfur dioxide was no longer blasted into the upper atmosphere; instead, it has settled as a smoggy blue haze, rolling along the surface of Iceland. The haze is steered by winds; an east wind blows it into Reykjavik, as seen above, while winds from other points of the compass blow it to every nook and cranny of the island.

When the haze is bad, Icelanders are told to stay indoors, close their windows, and run their heat full blast. Measured concentrations are well above known hazard levels, and people with weak lungs or compromised immune systems face serious health risks. Even healthy people experience burning eyes and throats, headaches, fatigue, and various degrees of breathing difficulties. Those who have to stay outdoors try to keep nose and mouth covered and are warned to avoid heavy exertion.

But the symptoms are temporary; the wind changes, the blue haze disappears, and everybody feels better. Children are allowed back outside to play.

The haze is not pure sulfur dioxide. It's more insidious than that. The SO2 combines with water vapor in the volcanic steam and the general atmosphere to produce aerosols of sulfurous acid, H2SO3, one of the principal components of acid rain. 

And that's not the worst of it. The H2SO3 reacts with oxygen in the air to create a much more corrosive, extremely dangerous compound: sulfuric acid, H2SO4.

People can protect themselves from the worst of all this, but animals and plants, of course, are entirely exposed. They will suffer long-term effects. Iceland's last high-sulfur volcanic eruption, known as Laki, killed three-quarters of the country's livestock in 1783 and led to massive crop failures. Thousands of people died of starvation.

The volume of lava and sulfur spewed forth by Laki, however, is believed to be about fifteen times the amount currently erupting from Bardarbunga–500,000 metric tons daily from Laki, as opposed to 35,000 tons daily from Bardarbunga.

The current sulfur emissions are roughly comparable to the amount already entering the air every day from all the smokestacks in Europe. Iceland is a tiny place to be dealing with as much poison in the air as the entire continent of Europe.

The eruption is now two and a half months old. There are no signs that it is winding down just yet; it could continue for many more months, or years. 

For what it's worth, sulfur dioxide is not a greenhouse gas; in fact, it blocks sunlight and has an overall cooling effect. As winter darkness envelops Iceland now, there's less and less sunlight to be blocked; if the sulfur is still hanging around next spring, the chill of an Icelandic winter may persist even longer than usual.

Posted by Ellen

All the cool kidz nowadays–all the cool kidz who have a little too much money–or is too much money one of the requirements for cool kidz status?–anyways, what they're playing with these days is the latest and greatest in technology for drone photography.

Little plastic remote-controlled flying saucers carry cameras aloft and point the lenses back down at us. Sometimes the things crash–for example, onto the balcony of an apartment on a high floor of a New York skyscraper–but sometimes they capture astonishing views of life here on the surface of earth.

To get the shot above, Greg McCary flew a drone up over the hills and rivers of Bartow County, Georgia, northwest of Atlanta. Below, Mauricio Lima's venture into drone photography attracted the attention of a wary neighbor.