Tag Archives: #winter

Frost Love Note

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View across the fields. Photo: PKR

View across the fields. Photo: PKR

The past few weeks have been a feast of fog and frost. Thick fog lingers, the moisture freezes to every surface outside, the world is held in suspension…and then a couple of rays of sunshine break through and within minutes, the hard days of frost quite literally evaporate.

I’ve a fondness for this season, a time in our area that finds many of our neighbors in a grey funk due to the lack of sunshine. Lucky me, I like the comforting uniformness of fog. The white ice sculptures that are still trees, blades of grass, fallen leaves make for excellent viewing, appearing as they do like still actors revealed by a slow-moving curtain.

Hoarfrost covers a plant as the sun comes out. Photo: PKR

Hoarfrost covers a plant as the sun comes out. Photo: PKR

But what I really like is how transient it is. Back and forth, we drift in and out of cracking white-in-grey days to brilliant sunshine without the deep commitment to winter that will come with the first deep snowfall. There’s nothing transient about two feet of snow, especially once it’s been shoveled from the paths and driveways into large piles. That frozen stuff will stay put for weeks, if not months.

Not this frost, though. It’s quick as a hot breath on a cold window. There just long enough write a quick love note…and gone.

A few minutes pass, and the plant is frost-free. Photo: PKR

A few minutes pass, and the plant is frost-free. Photo: PKR

Sly Fog And Moon

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The Lake Geneva basin is known for its foggy autumns, when weeks can pass beneath a layer of thick brume with little sunshine. And when it breaks, it does so with suddenness. It simply parts like a fragile veil and you realize the sun has been blazing away up there all along.

Our little corner of the region, though, has countless hollows and dips and the fog wanders around as if seeking a new foothold. Even as it retreats, there are unexpected pockets of mist. The first meadow on my running loop is one of fog’s favorite places to play hide-and-seek.

All photos: PKR

Photo: PKR

I know a lot of people here who dread the weeks of gloom. It can be like being lost in an endless down blanket. Sure, you can always drive up a mountain, and literally get your head out of the fog. But who has the time on a daily basis to make the hour long round-trip? Luckily for me, fog is an old friend. Growing up in a foggy region of the California coast, the days and weeks of fog here just make for pleasant nostalgia.

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Moonrise. Photo: PKR

And then there are moments like this one, when the moon rises between cleft in the fog that is still covering Lake Geneva, which lays a bit lower in altitude than our place. It was just a minute or two, a keyhole between sunset and nightfall, but the moon shown brighter than the sun had for many days. It rose into obscurity, but stayed with me for the duration of the run.

Hoarfrost Quietude

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Throughout winter, our little village can often be found directly on the fog line of the milky blanket that covers the Geneva basin for weeks at a time. We are just high enough in altitude (490 m/1600 ft) to catch a glimpse of blue above, not quiet high enough to see out over the fog itself.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

The freezing temperatures and lack of sunlight coat most surfaces with an ever-thickening layer of ice – hoarfrost – as the fog lingers and becomes solid. The garden, the roads, are obscured by a moving veil, with visibility down to a dozen yards or so, and then suddenly, like the revelation of a hidden truth, the fields and mountains and tree-tops reappear.

When the sun bursts through, there’s a brief, wonderful space of time when the hoarfrost falls from the trees and bushes in chiming shards. And the birds, mostly silent in the fog as it’s an eternal evening, suddenly begin to sing again.

I went for a run today at just the right moment. The fog broke, and though I could see the borders of the fog bank just below our own property, above was all soft light. I could hear raucous birdsong, and the gentle tinkling of frost rain.

Rare Snow, Rare Rant

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It’s one of those days that confirm the thinking of both climate change deniers and the other 98% of us.

I wanted to go out for a run, and ended up wearing my spring running tights, a winter running jacket, and gloves. A fierce wind has been blowing from the north-east. The sky looks like late April but it feels like January.

Out on my run in the bright spring sunshine, a white mote floated down before me. A bit of cherry blossom? Underfeather fluff from an amorous songbird above? Maybe a glint of wing from the first small dragonflies in my path? After all, it’s almost May and spring has sprung.

The sparkling bit of something that floated down in front of me, and the many others that followed, were none of those things.

It was snow. Not much, just a light flurry, but most decidedly snow. Pretty, the way it caught the sunlight. The mountain range beyond lies under a late spring blanket, just after the end of the ski season here.

Spring blossoms against new snow. Photo: PKR

Spring blossoms against new snow.
Photo: PKR

Fodder for those who choose to deny what they still call ‘global warming.’ After all, how can snow in late spring be a sign of a warming climate?

Proof for everyone else, the rest of us who call this process what it is: human-induced climate change.

Sure, we’ve had late snows before, just not quite this late, and not after weeks of warm vernal weather.

And so we begin to speculate on what it all means.

I recently read a couple of articles in the Washington Post, the oldest newspaper in the Washington D.C. area, winner of dozens of Pulitzer Prizes.

One article, by Chris Mooney, was in the Energy and Environment section. It outlined some of the climate change expectations versus what is being observed on the ground right now, which could be summarized by saying that the climate is changing even more quickly than expected. It ends with a strong argument for putting a sharp end to deforestation, and for taking responsibility and quick action to stop further changes.

Several other articles and opinion pieces echoed this sentiment.

Winter skies move across an April landscape. Photo: PKR

Winter skies move across an April landscape.
Photo: PKR

The other, on the same day, was an Opinion piece by well-known and highly acclaimed conservative writer George F. Will. In it, he says that those who agree that the current era of climate change is caused by humans (i.e. pretty much everyone in the world except a tiny economically driven minority in a small handful of countries) are carrying out a “campaign to criminalize debate about science” by trying to reduce the noise made by deniers who call themselves skeptics. Mr. Will considers any refutation of this supposed climate ‘debate’ to be suppression of free speech and a move towards authoritarianism.

He frames the entire discussion as a government grab of individual and economic liberties, reminding me a bit of the fringe-thinkers who think the United Nations is actually a New World Order organization with a goal of world domination.

I’m not sure why the Washington Post, with its long and respected history, would choose to publish such a contrast on Earth Day. It’s hard to grasp why a tenacious group of people, some of them very smart, would choose to ignore such widespread agreement across the globe in favor of short-term politics – and for such a grimly nihilistic worldview, at that.

A recent study found that in 14 industrialized countries, the largest proportion of deniers (17%) was in Australia. The U.S. came in at 12%, far fewer than the number of Americans who think that the sun revolves around the Earth, or who haven’t really been convinced by the whole evolution thing.

A piece like Mr. Will’s in a newspaper like the Washington post is exactly the kind of thing that makes the head-in-the-sand stance look like there’s actually any kind of debate going on at all, and that in itself could be seen as an irresponsible environmental act.

Meanwhile, I’m watching pretty snowflakes settle on the spread of petite white daisies across my lushly green garden lawn.

Soft Palette Distraction

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I was hustling to get a run in before nightfall – my usual loop has a couple of kilometers that are uneven farm track, stony and rutted, perfect for the occasional sprained ankle due to inattentiveness.

So I run, eyes on the rutted road just a few strides ahead, avoiding the rocks and grooves misplaced by tractors, rain and horses.

Why pick this loop? Because when I lift my eyes, I get these views.

Mont Blanc and Lake Geneva. Photo: PKR

Mont Blanc
Photo: PKR

And if I run just a little later than is safe for my ankles, I’m rewarded every so often with splendid sunsets.

And then my ankles aren’t in danger. Because I stop, pause my stopwatch, and take pictures.

Not great for my running time, but there are other benefits to running besides the physical.

Mont Blanc, second time around the loop, fifteen minutes later and from a different angle. Photo: PKR

Mont Blanc, second time around the loop, fifteen minutes later and from a different angle.
Photo: PKR

For a growing collection of skies, mine and others, I invite you to visit my new collaborative blog – FavoriteSkies.com, and to share your own favorite skies.

New Arrivals

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The first snow of winter, marching towards us across the Jura.

Different perspectives on the approaching snowstorm on the French Jura. All photos: PKR

Different perspectives on the approaching snowstorm on the French Jura.
All mountain photos: PKR

The sun was shining in a final burst before a major storm that was due to hit overnight, and I had to go for a final autumn run in the last bits of warmth, even as I could see winter’s approach.photo 1-6

No images here of the white carpet that greeted us the following morning, it all started melting soon after sun-up.

But in celebration of winter’s greeting card, we tried the Suntory produced Hibiki Japanese Harmony Master’s Select blended whisky I mentioned in a recent post, a foray into mostly unexplored territory for single malt fans such as ourselves.

According to Master of Malt, “Hibiki Japanese Harmony is made with malt whiskies from the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries, as well as grain whisky from the Chita distillery. The whiskies are drawn from 5 different types of cask, including American white oak casks, Sherry casks and Mizunara oak casks.” The blend includes ten different malt and grain whiskies.

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For me, this is limited edition blend is a curious mixture of tart, oaky acidity with round apple sweetness and not much in between, a double-edged sword that I’m not sure I love, but which I definitely enjoy. It’s like one of those candies which you might not like at first taste, but which you can’t seem to stop yourself from eating.

The Hibiki bottle and stopper.

The Hibiki bottle and stopper.

I do, however, think the bottle, with its 24 facets and matching stopper, is very lovely. The 24 facets are meant to represent the two dozen Japanese seasons, and I’ll be the first to admit that although I lived in Japan, I didn’t realize just how many seasons I was experiencing over the course of a year.

Alps across Lake Geneva, before their winter coat.

Alps across Lake Geneva, before their winter coat.

What I do know is that a new season is upon us. It’s cold outside.

Yes, winter is not only coming – it is already here.

That doesn’t have to be all bad.

Just Passing Through

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A flock of homing pigeons has taken up residence on our roof. How do we know they’re homing pigeons? They’re all banded, they’re very sleek and well-fed, and they seem a bit lost.

They stand on our skylights and look down at us with beaky expectation, as if we know what to do better than they. I think what they’d like to do is move on, but they’re not quite sure to where.

It’s migration season all over the world, creatures on the move. And whether out of habit, necessity or instinct, migration is always a dicey venture.

Billions of birds migrate every year, and every year it gets a little harder for them. Ornithologists at the Max-Planck Institute estimate that up to 10 billion migratory song birds don’t make it from their point of departure to their destination, and statistics are pointing to a 50 percent overall loss of the world’s songbird population in just the past 40 years.

Five of a flock of seven homing pigeons trying to figure out their next steps. Photos: PK Read

Four of a flock of seven homing pigeons trying to figure out their next steps.
Photos: PK Read

What’s happening?

There are the old culprits of hunting, with some cultures clinging to archaic trapping methods of capturing tiny birds that make barely a mouthful.
I think of these habits, which are worldwide and involve different birds in each region, and when they must have begun.
Was it out of a sense of longing, that the eating something so delicate and that sang so sweetly would somehow impart some of that fleeting beauty to clumsy, earthbound humans? Was it out of basic hunger and the seasonal availability? Was it out of a sense of plenty, just so many of damn things that putting a few dozen in a pie would make no difference?
These days, it seems like people do it just because they can. And old habits die hard.

Migratory bird routes mapped and animated by Movebank, a project of Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, which collects and communicates migration research for a wide variety of migratory animals. Source: Movebank

Migratory bird routes mapped and animated by Movebank, a project of Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, which collects and communicates migration research for a wide variety of migratory animals. Click here for a beautiful film of routes across Eurasia.
Source: Movebank

But beyond hunting, there are the bugaboos of climate change and, probably most relevant, habitat loss. Not just the habitats where the birds overwinter or breed, but the flyover areas. The navigational abilities of the migrating flocks are considerable, but can’t necessarily account for all the new human settlements in areas that used to be resting zones, or dark areas now illuminated by city lights, or absent wetlands, or all those windows that look like sky.

The good news is that there are a number of technological innovations and legislative solutions underway to try and stop some of the songbirds from ending up against a window instead of their summer home, or being confused by light smog.

What will our visiting pigeons do to find their way home? I wish I knew where they needed to go – they certainly keep looking in at me as if I do.

Hopefully, they’ll just be circling, as they do right now, and the right flight path will suddenly occur to them.IMG_1857

 

Speaking the Language

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I went to bed late last night, it was easily midnight or beyond, and as I lay there on the edge of sleep, I heard an unaccustomed sound. It sounded like…birdsong. I listened closely. It was, indeed, birdsong. And not just little chirps or the otherworldly radar sounds of an owl.

There were two birds, calling to one another, long, complicated tunes that sounded like they were being played on a glass harmonica.

My first thought was: Nightingale.

The Kitchenmaid Listens to the Nightingale. From: Henry Justice Ford in Lang, Andrew, Ed. The Yellow Fairy Book.

The Kitchenmaid Listens to the Nightingale.
From: Henry Justice Ford in Lang, Andrew, Ed. The Yellow Fairy Book

I thought of those lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

JULIET
Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree:
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

ROMEO
It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale: look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east…

Imagine knowing, eyes closed and in a darkened room, what time of day it is just by the type of birdsong on the air.

I thought to myself that I had no real idea what a lark sounded like, nor for that matter, a nightingale.

Rather, it was night time, the birdsong didn’t sound owl-like. It wasn’t the sharp chirps of the ever-present flock of sparrows that live in the vines on our house, and I know nightingales sing at night. Deductive reasoning, not actual familiarity.

The above video shows 3-D digital sound sculptures of nightingale and canary song, created by Australian artist Andy Thomas, who begins his work “by listening to the sound carefully, going for a walk, and concentrating on the sound.”

But do they sing in autumn?

Yes, apparently, because they are on a migratory route to the south for the winter.

Research has shown that songbirds share similar ‘gene products’ for vocalizations that humans use for speech. So what we hear as song might be, for the birds, a rich conversation, good as a book, engaging as a movie. Better, probably, because it’s theirs.

Early sketches of nightingale song for animation. Artist: Andy Thomas

Early sketches of nightingale song for animation.
Artist: Andy Thomas

After all, other research has shown that dolphins call each other by name, using a ‘signature whistle’ to identify themselves, and using others’ signatures to call individuals. And let’s not forget the mice who ‘sing’ to each other in ultrasonic melodies, and have vocalization brain patterns that resemble humans – and songbirds.

Think of all the conversations we are missing because we either can’t hear them, or don’t speak the language, or have forgotten how to listen.

Cold Case

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Melting ice cores. Source: Jacquelyn Hams/PolarTrec

Melting ice cores.
Source: Jacquelyn Hams/PolarTrec

It might seem like the project to take ice to Antarctica is the very definition of redundancy. Like taking coal to Newcastle or turning on the lawn sprinkler while it’s raining.

But this ice endeavor is more like trying to archive some of the world’s most ancient books even as the ink rapidly vanishes from all the pages.

Ice from the world’s glaciers contains a wealth of information about the planet’s history.

Samples taken from glaciers around the world can be used to create computer models of past climates and how the climate has changed over time. Many samples have been taken at sites in Antarctica and Greenland – but far fewer have been analyzed at the various glaciers around the world.

A picture of a thin section of glacier ice placed between two crossed polarizers. The different orientation of the individual crystals shows up as colour differences. The ice itself is clear. Caption/Image: Centre of Ice & Climate, Univ. of Copenhagen

A picture of a thin section of glacier ice placed between two crossed polarizers. The different orientation of the individual crystals shows up as colour differences. The ice itself is clear.
Caption/Image: Centre of Ice & Climate, Univ. of Copenhagen

Comparing polar ice, which can be hundreds of the thousands of years old, to glacial ice from mountains can reveal the impact of human activity.

CO2, human-generated pollutants, pollen: Whether it’s on the Andes, the Alps, the Rocky Mountains, or the Himalayas, whatever was in the air and water when a glacial layer formed is trapped and frozen in place – at least, until the ice melts.

And as everyone knows by now, the ice is melting.

“In some of the warmer areas of the world the surface water is starting to melt. It then trickles all the way through the ice, taking with it the information from the surface so it’s smearing out any record that we might be able to take from the past,” Robert Mulvaney, a glaciologist with the British Antarctic Survey, explained to the BBC.

A drilling tent set-up at the Dôme mountain pass, at an altitude of 4,250m, on the summit of Mont Blanc. In 2016, ice cores will be collected from there and transported to Antarctica for storage.  Photo: Bruno Jourdain, LGGE/OSUG/UJF

A drilling tent set-up at the Dôme mountain pass, at an altitude of 4,250m, on the summit of Mont Blanc. In 2016, ice cores will be collected from there and transported to Antarctica for storage.
Photo: Bruno Jourdain, LGGE/OSUG/UJF

The first ice cores will come from the Col du Dome, a glacier research site that sits at 4350 m (14,200 ft), just below the summit of Mont Blanc in France. The French National Centre for Scientific Research, part of the new ice storage project, measured temperatures inside the Col du Dome glacier in 1994 and again in 2005, and found a rise of 1.5°C.

Commercial freezer storage would be an interim option, but in the long-term, could be prohibitive in terms of cost as well as the potential for disastrous power failures.

The new Antarctic archive for glacial cores is set to be established at the Concordia Research Station, a French-Italian base that is manned year-round.

The archive itself will consist of ice cores sealed in bags, and stored in a giant frozen trench 10 m below the surface at a steady temperature of -50°C.

The hope is that this will keep the archive safe for future research over the course of the next decades and perhaps even centuries.

Air bubbles (left) and ice crystals (right) in an ice core sample. Source: USGS

Air bubbles (left) and ice crystals (right) in an ice core sample.
Source: USGS

Of course, the main challenge to the project – besides warming glaciers – is funding. The glacier archiving project, by definition, will not be yielding the kind of short-term results so popular among funding agencies and governments.

In a way, it’s fitting that the focus on short-term results and benefits is the main hurdle to keeping the glacier ice cores cold – after all, a focus on short-term benefits and profits is part of why the glaciers are rapidly melting in the first place.

 

 

Leafing Out

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There are few places in the world, if any, that aren’t touched by human activity, including places with no humans. And one of our chief human activities over the past couple of centuries has been the transfer of carbon from reservoirs deep within the planet out into the atmosphere.

We’ve been re-creating the environment during this industrial dream. Like a dream, we aren’t always conscious of our decisions and the impact they will have as we weave the story forward.

Several recent studies show that the phenology of leaves around the world, i.e. the annual cycle of vegetation changes, has dramatically altered since the mid-20th century.

Smoke & Mirrors (2010) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors (2010)
Photo: Ellie Davies

 

It might not seem particularly important if the first vegetation leafs out a week earlier every year, or drops a week later in autumn.

But a study published in Nature Climate Change measured severe phenological changes on 54% of the planet’s land surface between 1981 and 2012, with resulting shifts for entire ecosystems.

Warmer temperatures, new rainfall patterns and increased atmospheric carbon are altering the rate of energy exchange between land and atmosphere in complex ways that we don’t yet entirely understand.

Increased carbon uptake due to earlier springs and later autumns mitigate climate change, at least in theory (and leaving out the issue of deforestation, of course).

But as it turns out, phenological change alters different forests in different ways. Temperate forests react differently from boreal forests, and the overall impact on a global level is as yet unclear.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 1 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 1 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies

 

Truly long-term studies of leaf-out times aren’t widely available, but the Marsham family of Norfolk, England, kept records of leafing and flowering times of estate woodland plants from 1736 to 1947.

By matching historical temperature records (back to 1772) to the family log, researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland found that while a warmer autumn causes early leafing species such as birch to take longer to come into leaf the following spring, while late-leafing species, such as oak trees, seem unaffected by autumnal temperatures.

These citizen scientist observations allow researchers to test predictions regarding the effects of temperature on leaf cycles and woodland environments.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 2 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 2 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies

What is clear on a global scale is that the countless organisms with life cycles synchronized to vegetation cycles are being dramatically affected.

Meanwhile, we continue to emit carbon sighs during our long industrial dream of plenty, not yet knowing where it will lead, or how the earth will look we will wake up.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 3 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 3 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies