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So, a Shark…Nado?… and Other Strange Phenomena

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

By now, anyone who has strayed into the modern miasma of pop culture is familiar with the concept of giant sharks dropped in L.A. by water spouts while has-been and never-will-be actors line up to kill or be killed. It’s ridiculous. It’s impossible. It’s ludicrous. It’s not as weird as some things found in nature.

One of the most common types of odd phenomenon is the optical illusion. Our atmosphere likes to play with light a great deal more than you might expect. Take for instance the green flash. This odd blink of green light just as the top ridge of the sun hits the horizon is rumored to bring good luck in love. In actuality it is the light of the sun’s journey through more atmosphere than any other time that absorbs the lower wavelengths of light, leaving green. It’s also visible right as the sun hits the horizon at dawn, but being diurnal creatures, most of us aren’t watching for it then. Other optical phenomenon, when light and water, ice or dust interact includes sun dogs (small sun like balls on either side of the sun), light pillars (a ray of light going straight up from the sun when it is near the horizon) and arcs or rings around the sun. The most impressive are, or can be, the fata morgana. The fata morgana is a mirage caused by the drastic temperature differences in the atmosphere causing something to appear to be floating in the sky. They can be as basic as a boat appearing to be above the surface of the water to as complex as the city in the clouds seen over Foshan China in October of 2015.

Frost Flowers, photographed by Mark Adams

The atmosphere can produce other bizarre things as well, in the form of weather phenomena. Frost flowers form on plants and frozen surfaces. They’re actually two separate phenomena. The ones that form in meadows are windblown frost crystals that accumulate into curling petal-like structures. The crystal structures at sea are formed from ice crystals freezing from the atmosphere creating long chains the stretch out similar to ferns or cacti.

Another amazing weather phenomenon is the Catatumbo Lightning. This is a raging lightning storm in Venezuela with an average of 280 strikes per hour, ten hours per day up to 260 days out of the year. The air and water currents make for a spectacular light show that has been going on for years. Although it pales in comparison with the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, a cyclonic storm that has been continually observed for over 300 years, and was probably seen earlier than that.

Tales of fish or frogs falling from the sky date back to Pliny the Elder in the first century. The predominant theory involves tornados or waterspouts picking up the animals and depositing them outside their natural habitat. There have been documented occurrences of everything from fish to frogs, to even jellyfish in England in 1864 and spiders in Australia in 2015 (no sharks though).

Natural climate activity does not have a monopoly on the unusual event front.  Animals have a few crazy occurrences of their own. Crop circles have been seen all over, but under the water? Seven foot diameter patterned circles popped up off the coast of Japan. The cause is a mating display by one species of puffer fish.

Pyrosoma

Also underwater are great tube-like things called pyrosomes. The structures look like jelly fish and can stretch up to 60 feet in length, but they are not actually a single organism. Each tube is composed of hundreds or thousands of individual organisms that are actually clones of one another. These zooids such water in through mouths on the outside of the tube and all expel the water thrught the center, creating a jet like propulsion.

The red crabs of Christmas Island also observe an insane mating display. Every year in late October or early November millions of crabs make a journey from the mountains to the sea shores to mate and release their eggs on the tide.  They cover the ground and cause roads to be closed. A month later a seething carpet of ant sized baby crabs return from the water and make their way back into the mountainous forests to mature.

When we think of something that is as plain as plain can be we often go to water as an example. However, water can elicit some strange effects while doing nothing out of the ordinary. At the confluence of the rivers Negro and Amazon you can see two separate rivers flow within the same banks, one brown and one black, for miles until they truly merge. In Alaska a similar situation occurs when glacial melt water encounters the sea. Both of these situations result from different particulates in the suspension of the particular body of water in question.  The Negro is a slow moving river with a lot of vegetation that steeps in the river like tea, while the faster Amazon carries a lot of sediment. The Glacial melt also meets the differently dense ocean carrying particulates the leave a clear line where one starts and the other stops. The most extreme examples of this are the underwater pools. Yes, SpongeBob was right, there are pools of water under the water but I don’t think anyone wants to take a dip here. High salinity and dissolved methane mean that almost anything that goes in this pool is not leaving.

In some cases, Mother Nature is trying to add insult to injury. Imagine frozen wastelands with explosive bubbles and volcanic lightning. Methane comes back here as bubbles are forming in arctic lakes. These dangerous little spheres are close to the surface too. All it takes is an ice axe, a lighter and an extreme lack of sense to create a fountain of fire for anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. The methane rises from the ground beneath the lakes and usually passes through into the atmosphere, but during the winter the bubbles can be trapped, waiting for a thaw or adventurous ice fisherman. If flaming ice wasn’t bad enough try volcanic lightning. Dirty thunderstorms, as they are called, occur when the particles in a volcanic eruption build up static electricity the discharge occurs with a bolt of lightning.  So you may be able to be struck by lightning while running away from lava and pyroclastic flow.

While not reaching the level of sharks dropping from the sky in danger, the natural world sure does have its share of weird and amazing phenomena.

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Pixels AND Pigments are for Kids

Benefitting from Wildlife Books with Drawings and not Simply Photos  

By Lance Hickerson, Reference Assistant

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A few months ago in the children’s library I stopped abruptly upon glimpsing a book on the shelf that I had not seen since childhood. It was my very first bird book, the Golden Press Guide, Birds. Certainly it had an updated cover, but inside were many of the same drawings that started my birding in the fourth grade. Alongside the classic book were other bird guides for children. Some of them, like Birds A to Z by Chris Earley, contain clear and close up photos of the same birds covered by drawings in the Golden Guide. It was then that a question arose: Why have a bird book with drawings when you can have one with well-done photos? Aren’t we in the digital age? Why had Golden Press continued to use drawings when so many good photos were now available?

At first I thought the answer might be that the latest version of the Golden Guide continued to use drawings for cost-saving reasons. But near the Golden Guide were newer books like the World Book Science and Nature Guide to Birds, and the Usborne Spotter’s Guide to Birds, both full of detailed drawings and no photos. Is there something about drawings that photos cannot do?

I asked a similar question some years back to a talented painter who trained at Parsons and traveled to Nice, France each year creating Matisse-like water colors that hang on walls the world over. My question to her was this: “Why would anyone want a painted portrait, when they could hire a good photographer to do the same?” Her answer was instructive. She explained that a painting is able to express things a photograph might only accidentally show. A painting can reveal marks of character that endure over time, those aspects of heart that a single photographic instance will often miss. And that is why good portrait artists continue to get commissions, like Paul Emsley who recently completed a painting of Kate Middleton entitled, Portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.
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Is there a sense in which the principles of portraiture apply to pictures of animals in general and birds in particular? Do we see good “portrait artists” of birds receiving commissions? The answer surprised me at first. A survey of some of the best bird identification field guides presently available shows that, while some have outstanding photos, others continue to offer painted bird drawings. Among these are The Sibley Guide to Birds, the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, and the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America.

The lead artist for the National Geographic book, Jonathan Alderfer, comments on using illustrations versus photography. “Even though a series of photographs can reveal minute details, most birders eventually come to realize that illustrations are more helpful than photographs in a field guide. Art distills the image of a bird into what our brains experience rather than what a camera sees in a single instant, and illustrations are much easier to compare … “

David Allen Sibley recently released an update to his 2000 best seller, The Sibley Guide to Birds. He was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal (Ellen Gamerman, “Bird-World Star David Allen Sibley Releases New Guide,” March 12, 2014) which reveals the following:

A perpetual researcher, Mr. Sibley brings his binoculars everywhere, even to the gas station. He is always sketching in the field, a process he calls “interviewing the bird,” which he said allows him to internalize each bird’s gestures and shapes.

The Sibley guide has one main purpose: to help identify and differentiate more than 900 species. Mr. Sibley’s birds aren’t the most lifelike . . . but instead demonstrate the most essential traits of a species.

“Sibley’s achievement has been to draw birds not as they are but as they appear to the birder trying to identify them,” novelist Jonathan Franzen, an avid birder, wrote in an email. “They’re brilliant drawings of ideas, of what the birder needs to be seeing.”

In all this there is a strong irony. One of the greatest bird artists of all time has a wonderful society by his name (Audubon) that publishes an indispensable bird guide full of photographs. But as we have seen, others continue the drawing tradition that even today plays a significant role in acquainting us with nature. Bird watching is an increasingly popular hobby with presently around 47 million Americans participating. If the latest Golden Guide to birds (Birds of North America, Golden Field Guide from St. Martin’s Press) becomes our childrens’ first bird book among so many available, we have done well. There will always be good photos, but drawings can express things photos cannot. It is good that we, and our children, benefit from both.

 

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