Native Plants, Habitat Restoration, and Other Science Snippets from Athens, Georgia

Thursday: 29 January 2009

Kill Tree  -  @ 07:05:48
A couple of years ago I noted a mystery plant growing out of the rootball of the fallen red oak. It turned out to be a Princess Tree (aka Empress Tree, Royal Paulownia), Paulownia tomentosa.

This is one of those nonnative ornamentals that is planted because it grows fast, has lots of purty flowers, and as a result of its aggressive growth and fertility becomes invasive. (Connecticut has the species banned.)

At the time I wondered where the seed that germinated into this plant had come from. Glenn's knowledge of its presence placed the nearest known one about a mile away.

Yesterday's walk took me for the first time since early last autumn to the deck, the top of an access road into the consortium property to our west. And that's where I found this 40-foot princess tree.

It's a pretty ugly tree, with unattractive bark and awkward branching but I suspected it immediately because of the shape of the persistent fruits:

That photo, by the way, was taken of some fruits from 20 feet up against the harsh white backdrop of an overcast sky. I continue to experiment with overexposures to capture subjects that would under automatic conditions appear only as silhouettes. This photo was taken at 1/100 second (to reduce camera jitter), and the widest aperture, to maximize lighting of the subject even though it way overexposes the background. This produces a curious impression that reminds me of the results of putting a plant on the scanner and scanning it for an image.

There were two kinds of fruits on this tree - the normal ones above, and the much smaller ones below:

For the most part the small fruits were clustered together, apart from the larger ones. I've come up with two possible explanations (and have not been able to confirm the second one). First, the small fruits may be aborts. They were poorly fertilized and every smart plant knows how to conserve its energy by refusing to nourish a poorly fertilized fruit. But why would the two forms tend to cluster away from each other?

The second possibility is that the fruits take a full year to mature, and so what we see in the larger fully opened ones are the final product of flowers that appeared in summer 2007. The smaller ones are overwintering, immature fruits of 2008 flowers that will not become large and open until late season 2009.

There is, however, this (and btw, that photo was taken under automatic camera setting, so you can see how the above photos would look if I weren't deliberately overexposing them):

This is a clear indication that at least in some cases both small and large fruits appear on the same reproductive branch. It's an infrequent occurrence so it may actually be for the first reason without invalidating the second explanation. Or maybe not. The fruits are way up so I'm not able to harvest any to see what those small ones look like up and personal. I may have to take the extendable pruner to try and crop some.

So perhaps this tree, located 1000 feet away from the site of the mystery plant on the rootball, is the source of the seed that grew into that young tree on the rootball. One last note on that mystery plant:

When the very large northern red oak fell, it took down quite a lot of other smaller trees too and opened up a bright sunny space. I wondered at the time how this might affect plant diversity. It turns out that Paulownia seedlings are intolerant of shade - the tree itself is found as an escape in mostly disturbed, open spaces. Somehow there was a seed there that took advantage of the situation.

Monday: 26 January 2009

The Joy of White Blobs  -  @ 13:24:29
I ran across several painted buckeyes, Aesculus sylvatica, that were covered with several each of these white blobs.

White blobs - oh no, not again. Since they're blobs there's not much to distinguish them, except they do seem to have a fairly regular form. They were about half a centimeter in size, and they pulled off easily.

A reddish underside, with those four nice striations. The litany of possibilities ran through my head: fungus? Party delicacy? Slime mold? Some slime molds exude a colored liquid when broken, let's try it. The white stuff peeled off like paste. It didn't take much to break open the reddish membrane of the ovoid inside, and ookie thick orange fluid burst out.

No slime molds that resemble this, and I don't know what made me think of scale insects, but that's what it is. Thanks to Bugguide, and in fact thanks to Carmen who occasionally supplies an ID here, these seem to be Wax Scales, Ceroplastes spp. In fact her photograph was taken last October just 20 miles or so from here, and it looks far more like mine than most of the others I've seen on websites. Probably not Barnacle Scale, which seems to have better defined shapes.

I wasn't thinking insects, of course, because it's winter, but apparently the insects overwinter as females (whatever that means!) and the orange ookie fluid were hundreds of undeveloped eggs. Which will develop and emerge as nymphs in April or so.

And yes, they are plant parasites. Sounds like the nymphs will do the bulk of the damage. So add painted buckeye to the list, whoever's keeping it.

Sunday: 25 January 2009

Wild Garlic  -  @ 08:56:21
Not much greenery right now but there are some cold-tolerant plants out. The floodplain has numerous green patches consisting of this grasslike monocot:

I pulled up some specimens and gave them to Glenn, who quickly identified it as Allium veneale, variously called "wild garlic," "field garlic," "crow garlic," or "Eurasia onion grass." Apparently the giveaway is the hollow round leaves - wild onion (Allium canadense) has flatter solid leaves. For those who can smell, the garlic odor will help too.

It's a nonnative, and it's pretty common. I'd bet it's found in more states than depicted by the USDA Plants Database map. N here means "noxious weed," but other references suggest that it's at least unofficially considered to be noxious elsewhere too. The main things held against it seem to be cluttering lawns and imparting a garlic flavor to milk from cows that occasionally graze on infestations. I don't imagine garlic milk is something people care for.

Missouri Plants has more photos of the reproductive parts, but here's one strategy. The little bulbs provide an asexual route to reproduction. Apparently some individuals can produce flowers and seeds, but more likely will produce aerial bulblets instead.

Saturday: 24 January 2009

Back Again  -  @ 09:44:23
The conditions are awful for photographing birds - anyone who does bird photography will know what I mean. The sky is overcast with blinding white clouds and the birds sit in the trees laughing at attempts to document them.

So no photographs here.

But yesterday I counted a half-dozen at one point and this morning at least a full dozen bluebirds, flitting about the trees around the house. This isn't all that unusual at this time of year, and I'm glad to see that it is still on schedule. As we've just heard from findings from the northwest US and the doubling of forest death, we can't take this for granted.

Occasionally I imagine a palace revolt of monumental proportions. Hundreds of thousands of our cousin species simply giving up, the equivalent of the statement: we don't want to be with you anymore. Your brutality and negligence have at last overwhelmed us. We'd rather just die. Good luck and goodbye.

That's not how it works, of course, in the strictest non-sentimentalist sense, but that's how it ends up appearing to me, in my darker moments. At least the bluebirds, this year, are ok with us.

Friday: 23 January 2009

Winter Walk  -  @ 08:25:20
Gene really doesn't care very much about Obama or the economy - maybe it's because he's still a kitten at three and a half years old, a trait that drives the other cats nuts. I don't have to pry his blackberry out of his paws, and he's not addicted to the internets like the others.

What he does like to do is take a walk with me, and most of the time if I am seriously walking and stalking, I have to lock him up in the house. Or sneak off from a location where he's not. Even that doesn't work, on occasion, and he's a very good tracker.

But yesterday's walk was going to be relatively short and the destination not so far away, so it was a pleasure to let him accompany me.

If cats can find a way to do it, they'll always walk on elevated surfaces in preference to touching the ground. Here he discovered a route that I've never taken: cross the creek over a big fallen oak, hop up to the rootball, and then proceed along last year's pine fall.

No way around this one - up the steep hill, grounded.

It's not all roses all the time. We do have our little arguments. He's an under-the-covers cat, and occasionally takes sharp exception to movement. Sometimes he also gets thrown out of bed.

Added: I'd intended to mention this but forgot. Note the tail. With cats, the tail is the single most important indicator of mood. Gene's is not completely in the air but it's close. If I were to have said something to him at that moment it would have stuck straight up. A cat with a tail in the air is a very happy cat. I mention this because we at least have the vestige (if not more, for the occasional human) of a tail. Does what's left of your tailbone do anything when you're happy?

Thursday: 22 January 2009

Fraud Again!  -  @ 07:57:00
I suppose this is in the way of a public service post, but it's also a little (a very little) bit amusing. I'm also curious as to whether anyone else's experience leads to insights on the specifics here.

I reported Nov 2007 on our experience with credit card fraud, and a couple of days ago it happened again. Now, Glenn and I have exactly two credit cards, one we use pretty much exclusively, and one for emergencies such as when the first one is put on hold or cancelled because of, well, credit card fraud. We pay off the charges completely on a monthly basis, and never accrue charges. We're what I'm told are deadbeats, in the jargon of credit card companies.

I'm guessing that this is the beginning of something that's going to become much more common now, given the economy, and I wonder how people with dozens of credit cards are going to deal with it.

So Glenn got a message on Tuesday morning to check with the credit company in the matter of some purchases (somewhere around 15 30 of them) that didn't fit our pattern recognizable by their software. The purchases amounted to about $1000 $1500 and I was able to confirm that no, I had not made those purchases. Honest.

As you can see from the above screenshot, most (26) of those purchases were made through Vodafone, which I know nothing about but apparently is happy to facilitate purchases made by cell phone. There is one legitimate purchase in this list, for Peking Restaurant, very close to the beginning of the series of purchases, but not at the very beginning, which I suppose must let them off the hook as a possible source for the origin of the fraud. (Nonetheless, we'll only purchase from Peking with cash from now on.)

I really wonder what the multiple (26) purchases for $52.37 were. Were they for cell phones? I wonder what the odd purchase for lipozene was all about. We have an email out to the first purchase, down at the bottom,, to see what that's all about. You'll notice the "adjustment" type entries - that's where Vodafone has cancelled the sales upon notification by the credit card company, I guess. Some have been cancelled, some have not.

And then yesterday we got the York Photo purchase in the mail. We can't figure out how the purchase was sent to our address. The photo shows a very nice family on the beach with a dog. Glenn thinks it's a promo photo - I say the composition isn't professional and most likely targets the defrauders in some way.

Anyway, Glenn called the credit card company to inform them of the photos. They were surprised that he was pursuing this, but told him to call the rep back in three days to see how to further pursue it.

More than likely this is a tempest in a teapot from the point of view of the credit card company. We're not going to have to pay the costs, presumably, not directly at least. It is an annoyance and it always surprises me that it continues to be a problem.

At least there wasn't a purchase from London for a one-way airplane ticket from the Middle East. Without getting into the reliable source for that defrauding story, I can say that that will earn you an interview with Homeland Security.

ADDED: I'd better not speak so quickly, this may be a bigger annoyance than I thought. I ran across a website that declares that because of credit card fraud, vodafone will only send purchases to the credit card holder's address. Given the 26 purchases at $52.37, and the possibility that they are cell phones, will we receive 26 deliveries of cell phones, plus a visit from Homeland Security? Stay tuned.

Wednesday: 21 January 2009

Here is Why  -  @ 07:14:18
Our Feb 2 issue of The Nation has not arrived yet, but I ran across the notice that dkos contributer Jon Mavroudis has designed the cover art for that issue. The theme is "An Inauguration for the Ages."

I'm sorry to say I wasn't able to identify many of the figures at the fantasy inauguration. It is long past time for me to fill in the holes in my education, and I will do so. But the concept is very touching to me. I suppose it won't impact those who don't understand why Obama is so compelling to so many of us, and this is only one of many reasons, but it isn't for lack of trying to make the point. Take special notice of the four children in the front, and the Chief Justice. The new President has very large shoes to fill.

Here is the key, for 66 of the attendees, and it's a fascinating walkthrough. Who do you see, who strikes you? Is anyone missing? (Perhaps they're among the throngs watching from the mall.) If you were doing an analogous depiction of the 2000 or 2004 inaugural, who would be in attendance?

The Day After  -  @ 06:11:57
Good morning!

Today at 4:30am Glenn was making coffee and I went outside for a bit. The temperature was 18 degF. I came back in and said, "now go outside and stand for eight hours."

That's what two million people did yesterday, determined to participate and witness the inauguration of a potentially extraordinary new president. For many of them it was the result of years of hard work, and they represented the rest of us who couldn't be there. Many of them made a pilgrimage of hundreds or thousands of miles to be there.

Yes, Obama will disappoint us, I'm sure, from time to time. He's already disappointed me in a couple of matters of personal self interest, but I do begin to understand some of his unusual intent, which goes beyond my immediate selfish needs.

For the skeptical, the small glitch in administering the oath of office, botched by Chief Justice John Roberts, gives us an unexpected and revealing glimpse into Obama's automatic inclination to grace and patience. Our new president didn't falter, nor did he react peevishly. He helped the unfortunately unprepared Chief Justice through the process, he did it literally on the spot, and everything was ok.

Barack Obama just does not have the simple personality and contentious manner of thinking that we've been used to over the last eight years. We're going to have to grow accustomed to that. The alarming economy and other very frightening problems nothwithstanding, this is going to be fun, for Obama is a very interestingly complex fellow human being who is going to elude simplistic interpretations.

As Jed Lewison remarked, and others have also noted:
Somebody’s probably already said this, but when Roberts botched the oath [...] it was obvious that both he and President Obama quickly realized his screw-up.

What really struck me about the moment is that Obama’s first impulse wasn’t to correct Roberts on this relatively trivial error, but rather it was to continue along with the oath, helping Roberts save face.

Now personally I don’t think John Roberts needs any face-saving, but I’m glad that we have a President whose first reaction was driven by a combination of empathy and a desire to salvage the best out of an imperfect situation.

Those are two qualities we’re going to need a lot of in the next few years, and we’re fortunate to have them in our President.

In much more local news, it's kind of nice when you answer a knock at the door, it's the mail carrier who drove down the tenth of a mile driveway to deliver an oversized package, and you can say, "Thanks, Peggy!" On another day it might have been Ed, who is also our WVFD fire chief. Now how many of you know the names of your mail carriers?

Tuesday: 20 January 2009

Exciting Day  -  @ 06:22:45
I went to bed and woke up in the Bush Administration, for the last time. Maybe this time, it's truly morning in America.

Monday: 19 January 2009

How Plants Get Their Holes  -  @ 06:09:34
I was flipping through a November issue of Science the other day and came across a neat report on the regulation of stomatal development in plants. That led to this, that, and the other things, but mutants are fun to talk about, so let's do.

Plants, like animals, have body plans, and also like animals all the cells in a mature plant derive from a single zygote. One of the challenges in biology has long been to explain how those body plans come about, and a vast array of tools has been developed in the last few decades to accomplish this.

On the other hand, plants grow differently from animals - there is constant development of structures at the tips of the plant as new leaves are formed, vegetative branches become reproductive branches, flowers form, and roots grow. A good deal more is known about the genes that are involved in cell differentiation and pattern formation than I was aware, and how stomata develop is at least as good as anything else to explore.

All the mutants I've described below have been isolated from Arabidopsis thaliana, the first plant genome to be sequenced. Arabidopsis is a tiny plant with a lot of characteristics that make it a wonderful plant model to work with. You can grow thousands of them in a small space. The techniques for manipulating Arabidopsis are very well defined. And as far as mutants go, a tablespoonful of seeds are more than enough to produce mutants that have a good chance of covering the genome. (The techniques used in producing mutants and isolating them is another long story.)

Stomata, as you may know, are those little holes in the bottom of the leaves (and other organs) of plants that allow them to breathe. They also allow and prevent, under different circumstances, the escape of water vapor. If you ever placed a leaf under a high power dissecting scope and took a look, you might have seen these things that look like little mouths, and they might have even been gaping open and shut. They look like little lips:

Those little lips are guard cells, and they define the hole, the stoma. Surrounding the guard cells are stomatal lineage cells (SLC) that aid in the guard cell function, and paving the rest of the epidermis are jigsaw puzzle-like cells, the pavement cells.

Guard cells are different from other cells in the epidermal layer of the leaf. When guard cells receive a signal that water levels are too low, they dump a load of potassium ion into the surrounding SLCs, and water follows by osmosis. The guard cells become flaccid - they collapse, and when they do, the stoma closes. In times of plentiful water, the reverse process occurs: the guard cells take up potassium ion from the surrounding cells, water flows into the guard cells by osmosis, the cells get pumped up, turgid, and the hole appears again.

There we might end the story, except that it's important to recognize that these cellular arrangments that allow this come about through an intricate dance of cell divisions and changes in the new cells that lead to the position and patterning of the guard cells that define the stomata. Those guard cells didn't arise from nothing - they differentiate from protodermal cells in the early stages as the apical meristem is spinning off new leaves.

Without getting too much into it at the moment, here's a simple depiction of the how precursor cells become guard cells. Protodermal cells divide unequally, and differentiate to become triangular meristemoid cells (shaded). The meristemoid cell further divides one or three times to become a guard cell mother cell (GMC, dark shading), plus a few other cells, the stomatal lineage cells (SLC) that support the guard cells. Finally the GMC divides to form the two sausage-like mature guard cells. Each arrow represents a clearly defined event:

Naturally biologists want to discover what the genes are that act as choreographers. There are a number of strategies that developmental biologists can take to tease out the activities of genes that control things like this, but one of the favorites is to find and examine mutants that don't do the dance right.

That's certainly true here, and keep in mind that these things look like mouths and lips. And so we have mutants that are called speechless, and mute, and scream, and too many mouths, and fama, Why fama? That's the Goddess of Rumor, i.e., "fake mouths."

Here are images of the surface of leaves for the three mutants that have proved to be key to understanding the process above1:

B is wildtype - wt - the normal appearance of a leaf. I've circled the stomata in red.

C is the mutant speechless (spch). There are no guard cells. All you see are the jigsaw puzzle-like pavement cells. The gene product of SPEECHLESS turns out to control the first event in the pathway - the assymetric division that leads to a meristemoid.

D is the mutant mute. Again there are no guard cells defining the stomata but there are meristemoids that have made it farther than speechless, but not so far as producing functional guard cells. The gene product of MUTE is necessary for the second event to occur properly: the differentiation of the meristemoid into a guard mother cell. If MUTE doesn't work, all you get are meristemoids.

And finally there's E, fama, the Goddess of Rumor. The guard cells have been produced but they're very abnormal - they have not matured properly. They are described as caterpillar-like rows of cells. The gene product of FAMA controls the final division and maturation of the GMC into guard cells.

These three genes are "positive regulators," and are the master switches. They turn out to be transcription factors, proteins that directly bind to the DNA of certain other genes and turn them on at the proper time and place.

We might redraw the previous figure now to show where these three master switches operate:

Again, without getting too much into it in this post, many of those other genes that are targeted turn out to be "patterning" genes of stomatal formation, and there are quite a few mutants there too. Here are a couple of them:2:

Again, A is wildtype. I've circled the normal stomata. You'll notice how the stomata are separated from each other by at least one pavement cell. This is because the cells in the process of forming guard cells presumably produce inhibitors that prevent the process from occurring in adjacent cells. The result is that the stomata are nicely spaced apart.

The mutants here interrupt that spacing in certain ways.

B is tmm, i.e., too many mouths. Here we get clusters of stomata right next to each other. That's not normal.

C is flp, four lips. Here we get two stomata forming right next to each other.

D is a double mutant between tmm and flp - don't worry about it, except that it shows that the two genes are different from each other and that TMM operates upstream from FLP.

Finally, here's a recent mutant, Scream, that is worth mentioning because it further extends an amusing pantheon of names3:

On the left we have wildtype again, and I've circled the normal stomata in red.

On the right we have the mutant Scream. It looks a lot like tmm, but genetic crosses between the two would show that they are different genes. As it turns out, SCREAM is the same gene as a previously described mutant called ice1 and so sometimes this gene is referred to as ICE/SCREAM.

There are a few other mutants that have been shown to be involved in stomatal development. There's hic, high carbon dioxide, where more stomata are formed under conditions of high carbon dioxide levels. There's werewolf, where too many root hairs are formed on the root tips, and which also affects stomatal patterning. And there's mustaches, where plants make abnormally shaped guard cells.

Finally, a word or two about mutant names and conventions. The mutant name, such as too many mouths or tmm is written lower case, in italics. The gene that is affected is also in italics, but all uppercase: TMM. The protein that the gene codes for is uppercase, but not italicized: TMM.

In many cases, like these, the gene has been identified on the basis of the mutation, and so the gene receives a name like TOO MANY MOUTHS. But the properly working gene would *not* show too many mouths - it's the mutant gene that does. Nonetheless the normal gene is still called TOO MANY MOUTHS, the name of the mutant. It's a little hard to get used to, because it's slightly counterintuitive, but that's the way it seems to work. Later on we may find it's a leucine rich repeat protein, or a protein kinase, or a MAPK receptor, as many of these second targets turn out to be.

References for figures and thoughts:

1 Pillitteri and Torii (2007) BioEssays 29:861–870.

2 Yang and Sack (1995) The Plant Cell 7, 2227-2239.

3 Kanaoka, et al. (2008 ) Plant Cell 20, 1775-1785.

Saturday: 17 January 2009

End of Week Stuff  -  @ 08:59:54
Seventy five hours and six seconds to go. But with the weekend and Monday holiday, the Bush Administration effectively ended at 5pm on Friday. I lifted a glass in toast to its departure. Heck, I'll do so again right now.

It was 14 degF at its lowest yesterday, rose to just slightly above freezing in the afternoon, and then fell again to 14F again, early this morning. There's a teensy weensy prediction for some snow and sleet tonight.

This is the best I can do, and during the last ten years or more this is the most ice we've had form on the ponds. In the early half of the 1990s we had ice form a couple of inches thick for several days at a time, several times during each winter. The cats went skating.

If you get an email inviting you to go to any number of obamasites such as superobamadirect dot com, don't go there. The email may take this form:
Subject: I'm shocked!
From: Luke Couch

Barack Obama doesn't justify our hopes
[website redacted]

Faithfully yours,
Luke Couch

Maybe what's a bit unusual and worthy of note is that at least my email this morning didn't carry the link to the executable file that is the malware itself. Hence it avoids filtering because of containing an exe file directly. Instead it invites you to go to a site.

Since I have excellent antivirus software, I went there for you so you don't have to. The site is not obviously unsafe but the crude bloglike presentation has a tease that Obama has declined to be inaugurated, with a "read more" enticement. Mouseover (don't click) that "read more" and you'll see it's an exe file, and you know what that means. Malware 4 U. This has more about the proliferation of fake Obama sites.

Let's end this post happily, with an example that cannot be described with adequate praise, and that runs so starkly counter to that of today's opening paragraph that it's almost scary:

What do Chesley Sullenberger, Jeff Skiles, Donna Dent, Doreen Welsh, and Sheila Dail have in common with ferry and tugboat operators, and rescue workers on the Hudson River? They'll all tell you they were just doing their jobs. That, of course, is why they're heroes.

Friday: 16 January 2009

Scienticity  -  @ 09:06:27
Thanks to my old friend Jeff Shaumeyer for that word - everyone gets a reprieve for at least a day because of it. If I had it to do over again, Niches would be Scienticity.

And in conjunction, get you to his Bearcastle blog for a creepy video of what starlings are muttering under their breath. I'm sure we're both interested in what you hear, so don't check the comments before you listen. Get out a little piece of paper, close your eyes, and start autowriting.

Four days, two hours, 53 minutes, 33 seconds, and judging from last night and the last eight years, none too soon.

Thursday: 15 January 2009

Predicting the Weather  -  @ 06:58:22
It's probably no news to anyone from the Rockies east that we're in for a few days of intense cold. The low temperatures are expected to go below 10 degF Friday night, and it's not likely to climb above freezing from tonight until Saturday afternoon. (I know, that's not very severe for most, but you will be amused to hear that I overheard a couple of students last night asking if the university would shut down. Ummm, no.)

I've been having fun for the last month reading the maps produced by various prediction models, and hoping for snow, of course. It's not going to happen for us here in Athens, I'm afraid. We'll get the cold but we won't get the moisture.

Figures like the ones below are generated by current conditions inputs into prediction models which go by names like NAM, and Eta, and GFS.

Unisys Weather has a great collection of prediction model presentations. On the front page you'll get a current surface map of conditions, but the real treat is on the left sidebar where you can choose a prediction model. Clicking on any of these present you with a page and a header like this:

The "model" line shows the prediction models available. In this case I used GFSx, the long-range prediction model. It shows maps that display predictions up to ten days in advance, in 12 hour incremements (the "time" line above). The "plot" line shows you the predictions at various air pressures, or heights above sea level.

Learning to read these is something of an art, and it helps if you combine the pretty pictures while reading the "scientific weather discussion" issued by the National Weather Service. You can find these on weather sites such as Weather Underground. All they're doing there is interpreting the same prediction plots you see below, with a lot of jargon that sometimes doesn't make sense until you look at the pictures at the same time.

Here's a very relevant series of screen shots for 12Z Friday, which is 7AM Friday, EST. The first one is surface air pressure and precipitation predictions. I've placed a red circle over north Georgia, and it shows no hint of precipitation in the colored blobs. This isn't too surprising since we just about under a high pressure dome, and that usually tells us there isn't going to be any precipitation. However there is at least a small purple cloud of precipitation expected over the Great Lakes area, about 0.1 inches expected over 12 hours, which amounts to an inch of snow given the upper atmosphere conditions in the next few figures.

The second plot shows the "1000 mb temperatures". 1000 mb is approximately surface pressure, so these are the temperatures at the surface. The enormous tongue of deep blue to violet tells much of the story of extreme cold over the next few days. It extends to the Gulf Coast where the light blue suggests surface temperatures right around freezing. For us, a deeper blue suggests -8 degC. And for the Great Lakes region looks like -16C to -28C.

The next plot is of wind speed and temperatures for 850 mb air pressures, corresponding to about a mile up, more or less. This is good to know since when temperatures are below freezing in combination with precipitation, there's likely to be snow or ice. Our temperatures are likely to be in the -12C to -16C range but with no precipitation, no snow : - (  . Great Lakes area is deep red, which suggests -26C to -28C a mile up.

The last figure here is at 300 mb, and that's 5 or 6 miles up - the level of the jet stream. The jet stream is responsible for moving all that cold air southward, and places under it often experience stormy weather as well. Normally it stays well north of us, but occasionally it dips down and when it does we get the cold air and turbulence that means wind and sometimes storm. The colors here depict wind speed, and the nice yellows and oranges show a strong jet stream over us and to our north. We're expecting strong winds today and tonight as the jet stream moves over us and the cold air begins to arrive.

Glancing through some of the later predictions, the 7.5 day prediction shows warm wet weather for Arizona a week from today, and cold wet weather, maybe even snow, for northern California. A day later, Friday Jan 23, much of that precipitation ends up in the central plains states, along with cold temperatures. By a week from Saturday, that wet weather arrives here, along with temperatures that may be sufficient to produce snow!

Of course, as I discovered a couple of weeks ago, looking ahead that far carries a penalty, since the extended models can change quite a bit over a few days. The GFSx model around Jan 1 showed deep cold weather combined with precipitation, predicted for the weekend of Jan 10. But as the days went by, the model showed less and less cold penetration from the north. We got the precipitation, but it stayed warm. No snow.

Wednesday: 14 January 2009

First Flowers  -  @ 08:14:38
A couple of days ago I noticed that our Red Maples, Acer rubrum, are now in flower. This will last for some time, so I can't say for sure whether they're early or not. But I noticed them last year on February 8, and have a photo of ice-encased flowers on January 30 2005.

Since they're a wide-ranging plant over much of the eastern North American continent, Red Maple strikes me as quite a good indicator of the emergence from winter for our half of the continent. From USDA Plants:

If you look at the google you'll find that pollinators for red maples run the gamut from wind to honeybees. Well, the latter insects are fair weather friends. Esconced as they are in a sophistocated hive situation they're really active one way or another all year around, and will emerge on any warm day in the winter, if only for their "cleansing flights," a polite way of saying something else.

But last year's link above includes a photo of a syrphid fly that is ecstatic to find a food source on a warm early February day, despite the lack of the google indicating that flies are pollinators. This season I've kept special track of the flies I've seen and the brilliant yellowjacket-like syrphids are certainly the most obvious that we'll see all year around. They don't have hives to warm themselves - how robust they must be!

The daffodils and Carolina jessamine notwithstanding, I think I'll declare the Red Maples the first flowering plants of the year here. Daffodils are just emerging as shoots right now, still a little ways from flowering, and jessamine can be all over the map.

So, for those of you who actually have seasons (and I don't mean the really weird state of Florida below us, or the like elsewhere where anything can happen with all manner of plants that shouldn't be there), what is the first flowering plant you see after January 1? If you have Red Maples, when do you first see them flowering?

Sunday: 11 January 2009

Structure Fire Control Class in Washington  -  @ 15:11:27

Saturday was Structure Fire Control class at the Training Facility in Washington. Ed Frey, Brian Mixon, Andy Rusk and Glenn Galau from the Wolfskin Volunteer Fire Department drove over and arrived on the dot at 8:00 am for a full day of work. Scott Snyder and Wayne Hughes had also planned on the event but were unable to go.

The Structure Fire Control Training Facility in Washington GA

Several of us had been there before. The metal building simulates a two story house with propane fires in several rooms on each floor. Students are divided up into crews of four, assigned an instructor, and during several cycles, called evolutions, attack the fires starting from different floors. A lot of up and down stairs dragging a charged hose and in the dark and wet attacking fires in simulated beds, sofas, stoves and other props. The students rotate their positions on the hose with each evolution. The focus is on technique, teamwork and physical fitness, rather than to give the students a real-life fire to control. So a lot of instruction by the crew instructors is an essential part of the training.

It started with checks of blood pressure and if equipment met standards, and then dealing with PPE and BAs that just didn't cooperate today

Our crew before the evolutions began: Ed, Jim, Brian, Nick and Andy

Jim Parish is from McDuffie County Fire and Rescue and the crew instructor was Nick Nesbitt from Martinez Columbia Fire and Rescue. Nick was with the crew through all of the exercises. Several other instructors were on safety station inside and outside of the structure. Somehow they were fairly easy to pick out of the crowd even in full PPE.

Safety Instructors

It is just not the four fire fighters on their own. Backup crews have to help feed or take up hose. Charged safety lines are manned if anything goes wrong. Nothing happens until everything is confirmed to be in place and everyone knows what their job is. In the photo below, the open door on the right on top and the one in the middle on the bottom floor lead to the rooms where the fires are controlled.

No fires now; both control room doors are open

Discussion before the first evolution

Up the outside stairs for an interior, down-the-stairs attack

The crew ahead gets directions and our crew feeds hose


And this is what they confronted about five times during their descent, taken from inside the first-floor control room. In the bottom photo my reflection is on the left and reflection of the control room and the director is the right. A safety instructor is in the center and the crew on the left is suppressing a fire in the simulated kitchen

In the left photo, the nearest fire fighter is a safety instructor. In the right photo, he was against the window with the next crew

At the end of the day after finishing all the evolutions

Friday: 9 January 2009

The Deed is Done  -  @ 07:46:47
You might have thought (though I know everyone here generally understood the Constitutional reality) that We the People elected a president and vice president on Nov 4.


Yesterday the mid-December votes by the Electoral College, which is actually what We the People elected on Nov 4, were counted by a joint session of the new 111th Congress. Until then anything could have hypothetically happened, and only now is the process formalized, with the Democratic candidates receiving 365 votes (uproarious applause), and the Republican candidates 173 (tiny crickets).

Though the terms have been used loosely since Nov 4, Barack Obama and Joe Biden only now actually become President-Elect and Vice President-Elect of the United States, as pronounced by Darth Cheney, President of the Senate.


The youtube of the process is 28 minutes long, but kind of interesting to watch. Or you can fast forward through to about 23 minutes in, after it loads.

I'll link to a post last September of What If?, which refers to some of the implications of this arcane drama.

Thursday: 8 January 2009

An Insect!  -  @ 06:17:38
In all this time I don't think I've ever posted a photo of a local grasshopper. It's the iconic insect that you see pictured with all its labelled parts when you open up any biology textbook or field guide on insects. For some reason they've been kept off my radar screen, but here in the depths of winter on a warm day, this species is one of the most likely insects you're going to scare up, since the adults overwinter.

Actually I probably would have been more inclined, but they're typically so fast, especially these ones that like to fly more than the others. Here's what I think is the American Bird Grasshopper, Schistocerca americana. It's a southeastern species.

The photo enlarges upon clicking (nice eyes!).

The white dorsal stipe is characteristic of this species, as is its habit of flying. This is probably the most common grasshopper I'd see around here, since we have a minimum of sunny grassy areas and a maximum of shaded old and new woods. Those provide the preferred food sources for this fellow.

Bugguide says they will get sociable and swarm under some conditions, indirectly overcrowding. Apparently it is the grasshoppers of this genus, at least in North America, that are commonly called swarming locusts when they enter this density dependent phase. This isn't a simple thing - the behaviors and appearances of gregarious grasshoppers are very different from those of the solitary phase.

Swarming grasshoppers can be destructive, so considerable effort is expended to control them. Around here I guess the birds and little things do that. Little things like the larvae of parasitic tachinid and flesh flies, and a couple of species of fungi used as biological control.

Beauveria bassiana is an entomophagous soil fungus and so would attack the eggs and larvae of insects whose kids like to play in the dirt. It's the asexually reproducing phase of the fungus so it tends to grow and reproduce quickly. It causes "white muscaridine disease," which will produce a white cottony growth within the body and emerging through the cuticle. It has a broad host range. It's aggressive but some insects have a tolerance to it.

One of the uses for it may be for biological control of the emerald ash borer, the beetle that has killed tens of millions of ash trees in the midwest US and Canada.

Wednesday: 7 January 2009

Loose Ends  -  @ 04:04:11
The very slow-moving front that Mark mentioned over Rome on Monday night *finally* reached us here, about 3AM. Lots of rain but not nearly as much as in northwest Georgia. I wouldn't be surprised to see totals of 7 inches or more there, in the previous 72 hours, by the end of today.

Since the weather has been so warm for, oh, the last four weeks, I've been taking my hour walk through the woods in the early morning lately (deer hunting season is now over!). This has its advantages:

(It also has its downside - the lighting was very dim, especially under yesterday's heavy cloud cover at that time. The barred owl gave me only a few seconds under very poor conditions. So that's what you get - this bigfoot photo of a big fluffy dinosaur giving me the once-over.)

And that's something interesting about owls. I don't think I've ever just run into one, although on one very surreal morning I did succeed in calling several. My encounters have always been at the owl's pleasure, as was this one. Something made it curious, it swooped in, checked me out intently for a few seconds, and then took off on other business. I just happened to see it fly in. Owls don't betray themselves by sound, and I wonder how many times this has happened without my noticing.

You'll recall the hot pink fungus of Monday, creeping out from underneath a piece of bark. Well, it hadn't changed on Tuesday, so it wasn't actually creeping. I did gently pull off the bark and turn it over to see what it looked like.

And it looks like Phlebia incarnata, Coral-pink Merulius (synonym Merulius incarnatus).

It is a polypore, but an unusual one, as you can tell by the "pores" that are the fertile surfaces. In most polypores the fertile surfaces consist of tubes, a taxonomic feature, but in this case the surface is a network of ridged convolutions. You can see other impressions of this here.

Monday: 5 January 2009

More Fungi in the Wet New Year  -  @ 05:46:43
Although a little cooler, the last week has brought little wave after wave of rainfall amounting to about a half-inch total. Today and tomorrow will continue to deliver occasional moisture, and might even get a little rambunctious. The fungi continue to pop out, so here's what we have today.

These are common polypores, or shelf mushrooms, I've just never taken the time to identify them. They do emerge in large clusters like these on a dead northern red oak, fallen around 4 years ago. Above and below the fresh brightly colored ones are some older faded clusters. My guess is that they are Turkeytails, aka Many-zoned Polypore.

The multiple zones of different colors arranged in arcs explain both common names. The scientific name most encountered now is Trametes versicolor, but the less frequently used Coriolis versicolor is more descriptive. There's quite a bit of variation in the group and these might still be another species in the genus, as the link above explains.

Here's another group that emerged earlier in the year. They're green because of algae or cyanobacteria colonizing the surface. The fruiting bodies may or may not still be functional. I think I'd be a bit nervous if I were an algal or cyanobacterial cell near a fungus spore - it's a good way to end up as part of a lichen.

This one is going to bear some watching. It just happened to be close by the aged turkeytails above. A very nice pink color, it appears to be emerging from underneath the loose bark.

It could be one of the toothed fungi, judging from the appearance of the underside. I don't immediately see anything like this in books or google.

Friday: 2 January 2009

Winter Life  -  @ 06:51:56
With the warm temperatures in the latter half of December, accompanied by periodic wetness, some of the more opportunistic fungi have been making an appearance. Unfortunately most of this post is in the manner of questions rather than answers, but this is part of what we're seeing.

Quite a few little clumps of these tiny (1 cm) growths pepper the fallen ash that the resurrection ferns of a few days were also growing on. I have them labelled as Xylaria, of which Dead Man's Fingers is the more commonly seen species, but that's not what this is. None of the Xylaria look quite right though, and they may be one of the Coral fungi instead. A few have the anterlike-appearance at the tips, and the filigree patterns of white on brown are distinctive.

One of the problems (besides not knowing my fungi all that well) is that I'm not sure of the age of these growths. That's especially true of these large, leathery outgrowths, which may or not be one of the polypores. The odd thing about them are the long threads hanging from the business side of the shelf mushroom. (Larger image linked to below.)

The shelf mushroom above, and the one below are all on a fallen northern red oak at the south end of the hollow. We've seen this pretty one before, but in August two years ago. It looks like Tree-ear, an Auricularia species.

The fallen northern red oak has a nice platform for sitting, about four feet off the ground, and at least two different animals were sitting and pooping here. A popular place for reflection, apparently.

These are the pellets you might expect from a deer or a rabbit, but neither animal seems likely to me to be perching on a tree branch. Raccoon is a possibility.

A few inches away is this well-formed cylindrical turd containing fairly large seeds. They look like persimmon seeds to me. I've seen raccoons climbing persimmon trees to get to the ripe fruits, and we know possums will eat them too. But Glenn noted that possums are very adept at avoiding the seeds. A couple of years ago a collection of persimmon fruits left outside were devoured by a possum, and it left behind a pile of seeds (no, they had not passed through the animal).

So more questions than answers this time around!

Thursday: 1 January 2009

The Month of December  -  @ 08:36:12
The Month of December, Number 35 in a series. How was your weather the past month? Do you think it's been unusually cold, warm, or so neutral you've hardly been prompted to notice? Let's find out how observant you've been.

From the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, this is a plot of high and low temperature anomalies for the US. That's the difference in the average temperature for this December above or below the average for December over many years, plotted in colors. The anomalies are in Fahrenheit.

If you listened to traditional media you'd have thought the entire world was in some kind of deep freeze, an impending ice age. Well, the important parts were - the northern midwest - but much of the east and southwest had average temperatures 2-6 degF higher than normal.

As for precipitation, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center is hiding these plots here, this time. So here is the plot of mean precipitation anomalies for the US over the month of December:

Dry conditions continue from November through Mexico north into west Texas and even throughout much of the eastern US. The Florida peninsula continued dry in December. It's still been unusually wet in the southwest. And we do have a trail of green through Georgia, SC, and eastern NC.

For Athens:

Here is my plot of low temperatures for the month of December in Athens. (It seemed appropriate to present low temperatures this time.) As usual, the black dots are for the 17 years 1990-2006 (black dots), 2008 (green line), and 2007 (red line).

The cooler weather in the latter half of October and November continued into the first few days of December. We didn't break any records, but came real close once. And then things got warm, except for a few nights and days, for the rest of the month.

We were more than one standard deviation above the mean high daily temperatures on 10 days in December, compared to an average 5.3 days per December, and that's fairly significant. But we also had 7 nights with lows more than one standard deviation below the average, a real mixed bag that balanced out with average highs 3.8 degF above normal.

Precipitation came periodically in December, and we actually had a blue surplus for a few days in the first half of the month.

The figure below shows the Athens data, which are official for our area. As usual the green line shows our actual rainfall, the red shows the average accumulation expected. The black dots are rainfall over the last 19 years, the vast river of peach shows the standard deviation. It's unusually broad because in this month we either do or do not get rain from tropical storms (and this December we did not).

Athens, at least, ended up just about average (3.71 inches) with 3.58 inches.

Here's an end of year bonus:

Taken by year, since 2005, the accumulation of rain during each year. The green is 2008, and we fit pretty much in the middle of three years of way-below-normal (red) annual rainfall.

Viewed another way, the blue line, while it recovered very slightly in October, continued the decline in subsequent months and we're still at a 25-inch deficit since Jan 2007.

I'll continue to link to this neat prognosticator in which you can get variously timed precipitation and temperature outlooks. For the next two weeks much of the southeast should expect colder than normal and wetter than normal. It's entirely possible that we may get snow during this period (say, next week, Wednesday through Sunday).

NOAA's weekly ENSO update tells us that sea surface temperatures in the central and east equatorial Pacific have decreased, after a short period of neutral ENSO conditions. This is sufficient to place us back in a La Niña, which is expected to continue through Spring 2009. And it's for that reason that the prognosticator above show that the rest of our southeast winter after mid to late January will probably be warmer and drier than normal for the next three months. Enjoy winter while we can!

Relive your favorite weather events of the year, courtesy of NOAA. NOAA has a neat State of the Climate product. By clicking on the year, such as 2008, you can get to monthly and even weekly reports and zero in on regional descriptions that are much nicer than my own.

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