landscape

Posted by Ellen

Open pit mining in Germany.

Posted by Ellen

The Cornish daffodil fields produce 90 percent of England's commercial daffodil crop. In my neck of the woods, almost 5,000 miles from Cornwall, daffodils are blooming noncommercially even as we speak.

Perhaps in your neighborhood they're already fading, or maybe the new tips of their leaves are still hidden in the snow–no matter; spring is trundling on in these days, and if it's early spring, There Will Be Daffodils.

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The night owls who officially discovered–and named–Steve are the members of a Facebook group called Alberta Aurora Chasers. They are folks who like to stay up late and drive out to remote pastures and mountain valleys, even when the winter nights are insanely cold, which they often are in the prairies and Rockies of western Canada–all in hopes of a chance to enjoy big, unpolluted views of shimmery aurora borealis lights in the northern sky.

Steve is the name the aurora chasers borrowed from the children's movie Over the Hedge and applied to a particular, somewhat unusual aurora-like phenomenon, streaks of purple light that ripple vertically from the horizon instead of dancing horizontally along it like a normal, well-behaved, aurora. Normal auroras are produced when electrons thrown off by the sun approach earth, where they are pulled by our magnetic field toward the north and south poles. As they collide with gas molecules in the upper atmosphere, they can put on a bright light show.

Steve, scientists thought at first, could be generated by protons instead of electrons crashing into our atmosphere. But a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary, Eric Donovan, suspected otherwise; proton collisions, he thought, wouldn't give off much visible light for aurora chasers to photograph and enjoy.

In 2016, Donovan was able to track down something he thought might be an instance of Steve that was picked up by a satellite flying right overhead in Alberta. So he went on Facebook and asked the Alberta Aurora Chasers if they'd seen anything that night, at that location.

They had noticed it and photographed it. Donovan correlated their photos with the satellite data and concluded that Steve wasn't technically an aurora at all; it was a ribbon of extremely hot gas flying through space, more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than its surroundings.

Donovan believes the Steve discovery demonstrates the potential of "citizen scientists" to leverage data from satellites and other instruments in our brave new world. Of course, it also demonstrates what happens, à la Boaty McBoatface, when digital anybodies are charged with coming up with names for stuff.

Posted by Ellen

The Bainbridge Island ferry and the Olympic Mountains at sunset, as seen across Elliott Bay from the bar at Pier 67 near downtown Seattle.

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Near the southern extreme of Puget Sound, around Olympia, Washington, are hundreds of acres of bumpy grassland, the Mima Mounds. The picture above–aerial imagery produced by a radar-sensitive LIDAR camera–shows what the Mima landscape looks like without all the grass and shrubs that soften the lumpy appearance. the picture below shows what it looks like to the human eye.

LIDAR is a radar technology used to determine elevation, and it works even when the actual ground level is hidden underneath vegetation or buildings; when a plane flies over an area of interest and sends radar signals straight down to earth, the signals will bounce back differently depending on what they hit. Of course you need a computer to sort it all out, but they've got computers.

What the computers haven't been able to figure out is what caused these mounds, which are pretty much all very round and low and flat; in the Mima prairie, most of the mounds are about 3 feet high and 30 feet across. They are gravelly dirt, just like the spaces between them.

Similar-looking mounds are found in dozens of other places, and no single mechanism has been identified that might account for them everywhere. Among the possible processes that have been researched in the Mina region: earthquakes shaking the soil, clay minerals shrinking and swelling in the soil, windblown dunes forming around vegetation, and–our favorite–burrowing by pocket grophers, perhaps with help from termites and ants.

Scientific consensus on this matter has yet to emerge.

Posted by Ellen

In the wintry weather currently gripping eastern North America, icy mounds of frozen spray, known as sugarloaves, are growing huge atop frozen rivers below not-quite-fully-frozen waterfalls. There's a sugarloaf at the base of Niagara Falls this year, and also one at Montmorency Falls near Québec City; the falls at Montmorency are some 98 feet higher than Niagara and are located almost a thousand kilometers to the northeast, in a climate zone where every winter is plenty cold enough to make a sugarloaf.

The painting shown above, The Ice Cone, by Robert Clow Todd, shows Montmorency Falls and its sugarloaf in the winter of 1845. The place looked pretty much the same when we visited, in the winter of 2004, minus the horses, of course.

Tall, cone-shaped things with slightly blunted tips are often called sugarloaves, especially if they are ski resorts or a mountain in Rio de Janeiro with a statue on top. That's because real, old-school sugarloaves–actual hard, solid loaves of refined sugar–were produced in molds shaped like that. Up until the end of the nineteenth century, when manufacturing processes emerged to refine sugar into a granulated product, people who could afford to buy white sugar–meaning rich people–bought it by the loaf, which might weigh as much as 30 or 35 pounds. They chipped off pieces as needed, using heavy, sharp-edged pliers known as sugar nips.

The sugarloaves pictured below are on display in the Sugar Museum in Berlin.

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Mabel sits and yawns on a sunny ridge near Mount Rainier last week, showing off her Happy New Year hat.

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Kevin Horan, the goat portraitist featured in this space yesterday, lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, where he's developed this thing about ferry boats.

"Every islander knows the mind space within a ferry," he writes. "In transit, you are in neither one world nor the other." He shot a series of long-exposure ferry scenes to emphasize how the vessels "track across the water like UFOs across the sky." Ferries are "magical mystery transport pods."

This is the view from Fisherman's Bay on Lopez Island of the Friday Harbor ferry at dusk.  In the distance are the city lights of Vancouver, British Columbia, reflected in the clouds behind Mount Constitution on Orcas Island.

Posted by Ellen

An uncropped version of this photo took first place in a contest defined as "Big rivers and the life along them." It was shot with an Android cellphone.

The river is the Li, in south China, and the lively village is Fenghuang.

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Below the clouds below these peaks, as seen from Bear Mountain, it was pouring down rain in Sitka, Alaska.