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Showing posts from February, 2011

Chicken or Egg

The query of which came first, the chicken or the egg, is a popular riddle, used to illustrate our inability to understand the relationship between two associated events. However, from a scientific point of view, the answer is clear: the egg came first.

In nature, unique species arise when mistakes in the genetic code of an individual lead to traits that offer a competitive advantage; the process of natural selection then assures that these errors are retained in future generations and, over time, a new species, possessing these traits, will emerge. The mistakes may occur due to gene mutations, the insertion of foreign genetic material (e.g. from a virus) or duplication errors during cell division; natural cross-breeding of similar species may also lead to a new species (assuming that the offspring are viable and able to reproduce). Of course, any changes that are detrimental to the survival of an organism are soon removed from the gene pool. This basic process, recurring over bil…

The Nature of Oppression

Human societies have been ruled by warlords, kings, queens, emperors, pharohs, chiefs, generals and other self-appointed dictators throughout the course of history. Surrounded by militias and tied to the power brokers of society, these human gods impose their will on the lower classes by restricting basic rights, especially when it comes to the freedom of expression. Eventually, of course, revolutions occur and the ruthless leader is dethroned.

The recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, sure to spread throughout the region, are the latest and some of the most significant responses to oppression in human history. Capable of imagination, responsive to motivation and committed to individual freedom, humans are prone to revolution when subjected to the persistent injustices of a dictatorship. Once the grip of the ruler is loosened, a wave of freedom is unleashed and his or her reign is doomed. Whether this freedom is temporary, to be stifled by the rise of another dictator, or…

March Preview

An early taste of March has descended on central Missouri today. Caught between two lows along an undulating jet stream, we are enjoying a stiff, northeast breeze with a mix of cold rain and wet snow; the temperature has settled in the mid thirties (F).

Such chilly, gray, damp weather is typical of late winter and early spring as an unsettled jet stream directs Pacific storms across the Heartland. This afternoon, a storm centered over Ohio is sweeping cold air down from the Great Lakes while a more potent system, centered over Oklahoma, is drawing copious Gulf moisture up from the south. Just north of the collision zone, we won't get as much precipitation as areas to our south and east, where up to five inches of rain is expected.

All of this precipitation will, of course, exacerbate flooding from recent heavy snows and leave a sloppy landscape, coated with mud and slush. At our latitude, the sun angle is still too low to ignite heavy thunderstorms; rather, we will be treated …

A Message from Christchurch

Today's tragic earthquake, in Christchurch, New Zealand, is just the latest reminder that the surface of the Earth continues to evolve and that we who live upon its moving plates are potential victims of the tectonic forces that mold our planet. Those of us who reside along the active margins of these plates, where collision or subduction are occuring, are at the greatest risk of earthquakes but the presence of old suture lines, aborted rifts and buried faults within the interior of continental plates make us all susceptible to some degree.

Active zones of volcanism and earthquakes are spaced along the Pacific Rim, popularly known as the Ring of Fire. In most of these areas, the Pacific Plate and its smaller associated plates are subducting beneath the South American, North American, Eurasian and Australian Plates, producing volcanic mountain ranges and triggering earthquakes that eminate from both the oceanic trenches and the rising peaks; the Andes, the Mexican Volcanic Belt, …

Colorado's State Bird

Since the State is famous for its scenic mountains and canyons, one would think that Colorado's State Bird is a resident of these landscapes; potential candidates might include the white-tailed ptarmigan, Clark's nutcracker, the blue grouse, the mountain bluebird, the canyon wren or the pygmy nuthatch. Perhaps this bird is a permanent resident throughout Colorado, such as the golden eagle or the prairie falcon. One would certainly not choose a small, grassland bird that is only a seasonal resident of the High Plains, which cover just 1/3 of the State's varied terrain.

Nevertheless, for whatever reason (surely political), the lark bunting was named the State Bird of Colorado. This gregarious, sparrow-sized bird nests on the short-grass prairie of the western High Plains, from southern Canada to Texas and New Mexico. While the breeding male sports a handsome plumage of black and white, the females, juveniles and wintering males resemble other grassland species, with whic…

Waiting for Snows

After spotting a flock of snow geese over central Kansas yesterday, I was eager to visit Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this morning. That fabulous wetland preserve, stretching along the Missouri River, southwest of Columbia, is a staging area for migrant waterfowl and generally hosts huge flocks of snow geese from late February into March.

On arrival, conditions appeared to be ideal. The flooded landscape offered plenty of feeding areas for waterfowl and migrant ducks were plentiful, including mallards, gadwall, shovelors and squadrons of teal. A strong south wind, offering a distinct advantage to migrant geese, was also promising, and thousands of ring billed gulls swirled about the refuge, indicating that migration season was indeed underway. As bald eagles flapped and soared above the wetlands, scattering the ducks and gulls, a chorus of familiar sounds echoed across the floodplain; the latter included the distinctive call of red-winged blackbirds, the distant clamour of Canad…

The Nature of Wind

Wind is the movement of air from atmospheric domes of high pressure, beneath which air is sinking, to zones of low pressure, where air is rising. The temperature of the air, relative to our location, depends upon two factors: the site of the high pressure and the presence or absence of intervening topography. In the U.S., high pressure to our south and low pressure to our north (the current scenario) generally produces a warm, southerly wind; however, should this wind cross a mountain range, it will cool as it rises and warm as it descends. The wind speed is also affected by two factors: the magnitude of the pressure difference between the high and the low and any funneling effects that the regional topography might produce (e.g. canyons, passes, downtown streets). In the case of hurricanes, the pressure within the storm is very low and the winds, which swirl counterclockwise around zones of low pressure in the Northern Hemisphere, are very intense.

Seasonal monsoons, generally tho…

The Big Melt

After more than a month of extreme cold and heavy snow, the Heartland will enjoy a warming trend over the coming week. Our change in fortune is due to a rebound in the jet stream, which will keep the frigid air in Canada and guide Pacific storms across the northern tier of States. In Missouri, we expect highs in the mid 40s to lower sixties (F) through the end of the week and our deep snow pack should all but disappear under a strengthening mid-February sun.

Unfortunately, the frozen ground and dormant vegetation will not absorb this copious moisture and flooding is sure to result. This, of course, is the typical pattern in late winter and early spring, as swollen rivers and streams spill across their floodplains, setting the stage for human misery.

But the flooded landscape is a welcome sight to migrant waterfowl. Led by snow geese, pintails and wintering ducks in late February, this parade of migrants will extend through March, April and early May as Canada geese, resident ducks…

The Evolution of Bare Skin

Walking to work on frigid winter mornings, I often ponder the loss of body hair that occurred as humans evolved from apes. Like every other feature of every organism, this change must have offered an evolutionary advantage. While many theories have emerged, I am inclined to believe that natural selection favored the capacity to disipate heat, leading to regression of dense hair from most of our body.

Moving from the shaded jungles to the open grasslands, early humans had to adapt to the intense sunshine while also becoming more active in their pursuit of game. A coat of dense hair would have complicated both of these lifestyle changes, increasing the risk of heat-related deaths and diminishing our ability to move swiftly over long distances. Some argue that loss of hair would increase solar-induced skin injury but early humans were dark-skinned, protected by high concentrations of melanin; on the other hand, the retention of scalp, facial and pubic hair may have served to protect …

The Nature of Leadership

Despite the growing industry of leadership camps and a huge variety of books on the subject, I have come to believe that the traits of a leader are inborn. While influenced by mentors along the way, natural leaders have an easy rapport with others and possess a deep understanding of human nature.

Not inclined to sit in an office and bark orders at subordinates, true leaders have both the willingness to involve themselves in all areas of their field and the understanding that such involvement is appreciated by those whom they lead. Admiration and respect come with the decision to be part of the solution rather than one whose self importance keeps them above the fray. While a willingness to designate authority is essential and reflects the key element of trust, good leaders must demonstrate that, through direct experience, they truly understand the problems that their colleagues face.

Leaders appreciate the importance of empathy and positive feedback but are also comfortable with pro…

A Musical Interlude

Yesterday morning, the overnight low was 34 degrees F, the warmest in more than a month. On my way to work, in the predawn twilight, I was serenaded by a spring-like chorus, dominated by robins. Northern cardinals, chickadees and Carolina wrens also chimed in and the mellow tune of a mourning dove, the earliest I have ever heard in this region, was an especially welcome sound.

Though more than a foot of snow still covers the landscape, these birds were responding to the lengthening daylight and to the sudden warm interlude. Unlike humans, who consult their calendars and count the days to spring, wild creatures take their cues from nature. They won't nest or migrate until the days are longer but yesterday's tune-up was a sure sign that, despite our winter woes, spring is on the way.

Unfortunately, another blast of Arctic air will hush the singers for the next few days but, in another week or so, the annual tide of birdsong will begin to build. We may worry that this cold, …

The Ritual of Sports

Humans are social creatures and have long been enamored with ritual. Most of these ceremonial activities have centered around religion and political events but sports have always included a certain amount of pageantry. Fans gather to cheer on the contestants, dressed in team colors and raising their combined voice in synchronized chants and fight songs. This behavior gives them a sense of participation in the contest and many wear the number of their favorite athlete to even more closely identify with his or her talents and achievements.

While much of this ritualism is both enjoyable and socially positive, there are some negative consequences. First and foremost, the athletes themselves are often caught up in the celebrity worship of our sports-crazed society and, like many of their entertainment counterparts, sense immunity from behavior that, in some cases, destroys their career or their life. On the other side of the fence, college students, immersed in the social networking o…

Mind & Soul

It is our brain power that sets humans apart from other animals. Nevertheless, we are members of the animal kingdom and share most of the anatomic and physiologic features that are present in all mammals. Religious persons, whether they accept evolution or not, believe that man is a unique form of life, made in God's image, and that it is our soul that separates us from animals.

Raised in the Catholic Church, I was taught that the soul is some sort of glowing organ, which brightens or darkens in response to our behaviour, and that our primary goal in life is to save that soul by keeping it pure. Indeed, in the view of devout Catholics, the soul is a celestial score card that will determine one's eternal fate upon their earthly demise.

While not religious, I do respect the concept of a soul; however, in my view, it is the reflection of man's instinctual will to live. In this respect, we are no different than other life forms, fueled by our genes and guided by our experi…

From Blizzard to Deep Freeze

Now that the powerful winter storm has moved on to the Canadian Maritimes, the dome of Arctic air that fueled its wrath has dropped into the Heartland. Centered over eastern Kansas this morning, it has brought sub-zero temperatures to the Midwest and a freeze that extends to South Texas.
Beneath this high pressure dome, cold air is sinking, clouds cannot form and heat radiates into the upper atmosphere; in addition, the recent heavy snowfall refrigerates the surface air, counteracting the weak effects of a low February sun.

This sequence is common with winter storm systems. Precipitation, in the form of snow, sleet or freezing rain, occurs along the outer edge of the dome, where an atmospheric low is sweeping warm, humid air above the invading cold front. As the dome drops southward and eastward, the front pushes to the east and the storm spins its way along the front toward the northeast. The air along the edge of the dome is cold enough to produce snow and ice but generally muc…

Deep Snow

The twenty inches of snow that fell across mid Missouri yesterday poses a significant hardship for human residents but may prove to be deadly for many of our wild neighbors. Some mammals, such as squirrels, cottontails, raccoons and opossums den up until conditions improve but, faced with persisent cold, will be forced to venture out within a few days; it is then that they risk detection by hungry coyotes, fox, owls and hawks. Small mammals, such as field mice and voles, are able to forage beneath the snow but they, too, are threatened by the highly developed senses of these predators.

Many flocking birds, such as geese, doves and longspurs, migrate south of the snow line while adaptable insectivores, such as chickadees, titmice and nuthatches, find sufficient nourishment from insect eggs and pupae in the the trees and shrubs. Ground feeding sparrows, towhees and juncos are especially vulnerable to heavy snow cover; some switch to a diet of berries while others scour dried grasses …

Blizzard Warnings

The warnings began a few days ago. What appeared to be a minor disturbance along the West Coast would become the Storm of the Century, a Winter Monster, One for the Record Books. By yesterday afternoon, the first signs of the storm were moving through Missouri, coating the region with a thin film of ice. Shifting into survival mode, employees departed early, schools were closed and food centers were swamped with desperate customers. After all, the Weather Channel was predicting some kind of Armageddon; we might never leave our homes again.

The snow began to fall at six this morning as the storm's central low gathered strength over the Oklahoma-Arkansas line, pumping Gulf moisture over the frigid air that gripped Missouri. Building through the morning, tiny flakes now fill the sky and visibility is down to a few hundred yards. As the storm drifts to the northeast, winds are expected to intensify and blizzard conditions are forecast for this afternoon and evening; when it'…