Geology

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 Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 19-28)

Back in ’99, I went to a mini-retreat with a small group of people in Santa Cruz. Y2K possibilities were much feared then, and over lunch outdoors at a Moroccan restaurant one of us laid out levels of concern along two axes: social disruption on one and technical disruption on the other — low and high in both directions. We were asked to place our bets in four quadrants. As I recall, I was the only one who expected close to zero, both ways. (Mostly I thought Y2K would poop the biggest New Years party in a thousand years. And, to the absent degree it mattered, I was right.)

Now I have been asked, on one of the lists I inhabit, to contemplate similar scenarios for the fate of humankind in a time of global warming. This time I’m going the other way and betting on a high degrees of badness. But my angle on the future is not one biased toward preservation of our species — or even a high degree of concern for it.

Species tend to last a couple million years, give or take. (Horseshoe crabs and other relics from the Paleozoic are rare exceptions.) On the geological scale of the Earth’s own maturation, two million years isn’t much. The genus homo has been around longer, but our current human model has only been around for a couple hundred thousand years, give or take. So who knows.

Still, humans have long been a threat many life forms, including their own, plus a number of elements in the periodic table. (Helium, for example.)  It’s not for nothing that geologists are seriously considering renaming the Holocene epoch (the latest slice of the Quarternary period) the Antropocene — for the simple reason that human agency is all over it.

Any species risks ruining its ecosystem without other forces to keep it in check. Our species, however, has mostly eliminated those forces, especially disease. Thus our natural rapacity toward other species, and toward the Earth and all its exhaustible resources, goes unchecked, while our numbers steadily increase. Our only natural enemy, it seems, is ourselves, and not just because we grow in number toward a statistical cliff. We also have a boundless capacity to rationalize killing countless numbers of our own. Our intelligence and ingenuity, in service to our own needs, in oblivity to negative outcomes, have made us the ecological equivalent of Agent Smith: a rogue program proliferating itself on the Earth’s operating system like a self-replicating virus.

The more I study geology, especially from altitude, the more I see the history of the Earth in four dimensions, and the evanescence of our present geologic time.

  • Here’s Kettle Point in Ontario, on the south shore of Lake Huron. From above you can see old shorelines written in rows of trees in forests that first grew beside retreating beaches. These rows march away from the shoreline as the land below rebounds from the relieved weight of a glacier that melted, leaving Huron as a puddle, not long before humans began building pyramids. You see the same rebound along the shores of Hudson Bay.
  • Here are the San Gabriel Mountains, Los Angeles’ own alps, raised in the last few million years by the crumpling of the Pacific Plate against the North American one along the San Andreas Fault. Note the empty reservoirs at the bases of ravines in the mountain front. The reservoirs are are there to catch “debris flows” and boulders that frequently break loose, like ice calving off a glacier, and roll toward the suburbs below. Few geologies short of volcanoes are more active than these mountains, which are wasting down almost as fast as they are rising up, one catastrophic lurch after another.
  • Here is the Long Valley Caldera, which I shot while skiing on Mammoth Mountain (an active lava dome with hot and toxic vents that occasionally claim a wayward snowboarder). The Caldera was produced by a “super-volcanic” eruption many times the size of Krakatoa, in the late Pleistocene. It is still active, and stars as one of the US Geological Survey’s roster of volcanic hazards.
  • Here is the seaside community of La Conchita, between Santa Barbara and Ventura, on the South Coast of California, a few days after a mudslide killed ten people there. (You can see the slide clearly in the photo.) The whole town sits on a beach below an unstable mass of land that has clearly slid before and will surely slide again — soon.

While human agency contributes to global warming in the Anthropocene, what makes the Quarternary special is its rhythmic series of glaciations. Our current warm period is an interglacial one. Ice caps will likely grow again, whether we’re here or not. The Quarternary ice age (which we are still in) is the fifth known one, and likely the last, because the Sun is heating up. A billion years from now, the Sun will have boiled off Earth’s water. But the planet will already be too hot for life in less than half that time. A half-billion years is about age of the Manhattan schist I see out my window here in New York.

At 4.568 billion years old, our solar system is about a third the age of the Universe, which has been producing and reproducing galaxies and stars at a rapid rate and with unimaginable degrees of violence. That we’re in such a relatively quiet corner of the cosmos owes to the Sun’s rank as an ordinary star. All the named stars in the night sky are bigger than the Sun, and most are much younger as well.

We should consider ourselves fortunate to enjoy a few moments late in the life of a remarkably durable set of little spheres out in a rural arm of the Milky Way. Just being here, now, is an amazing grace. But it’s going to get harder, whether we fight the inevitable or not.

My main hope toward humanity waking up and doing what it can to stop shitting up the planet is the Internet: a grace designed (at the protocol level where its means are organized) to put each of us at zero functional distance from everybody and everything else, and at zero cost. The Net is a new platform for living, thinking, talking and inventing — without having to raid the world of irreplaceable goods in the process. And I hope we make the most of it.

“In the long run we are all dead,” Keynes said. And, if “we” includes every living thing that ever walked, swam or oozed around on Earth, death has already proven to be hugely productive, as well as abundant.

It is the job of the living, in their brief hours upon the stage, to do more than strut, fret, and be heard from no more. In the long run every thing will be nothing. But we don’t need to signify that in the meantime.

Bonus linkage on Mother’s Day: Jean Russell‘s Thrivable (@Thrivable). Here’s the philosophy, the book, the blog, and herself aka @NurtureGirl. She and her colleagues are doing the Leading Work here.

This post is a hat tip toward Rusty Foster’s Today In Tabs, which I learned about from Clay Shirky during a digressive conversation about the subscription economy (the paid one, not the one Rusty and other free spirits operate in), and how lately I’m tending not to renew mine after they run out, thanks to my wife’s rational approach to subscriptions:

  1. Don’t obey the first dozen or so renewal notices because the offers will get better if you neglect them.
  2. See if you miss them.
  3. If you don’t miss them, don’t renew.

While thinking about a headline for this post, I found that searches for theater and theatre are both going down, but the former seems to be holding a slight lead.

While at Google Trends, I also did a humbling vanity search. Trust me: it helps not to give a shit.

Other results::: tired is up… stupid still leads dumb, but dumb is catching up… Papua New Guinea leads in porn. And Sri Lanka takes the gold in searches for sex. They scored 100. India gets the silver with 88, and Ethiopia settles for the bronze with 87. Out of the running are Bangladesh (85), Pakistan (78), Nepal (74), Vietnam (72), Cambodia (69), Timor-Leste (67) and Papua New Guinea (66) — perhaps because porn is doing the job for them.

Michael Robertson continues to invent stuff. His latest is Clock Radio, a Chrome browser extension that lets you tune in, by genre or search, to what’s playing now on the world’s Internet radio stations. Links: bit.ly/ClockRadio & bit.ly/ClockRadioVideo. Here’s what mine looks like right now:

I’m not surprised (and I don’t know why) that most of the stations playing music I like are French.

David Drummond, SVP, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer at Google, will talk about The Fight for Internet Freedom tomorrow at Stanford. Register by 5:30pm Pacific, today. @Liberationtech is hosting. Oh, and Google Fiber may be coming to your city.

George Packer says Amazon may be good for customers but bad for books, because Amazon is a monopoly in that category. Paul Krugman meanwhile says the same kinda thing about Comcast, and the whole cablecom biz. He’s not alone. Nobody likes the proposed Comcast acquisition of Time Warner Cable, other than Comcast, their captive regulators and their big-biz amen corner in what’s left of the press. (Watch: it’ll pass.) FWIW, Quartz has some nice charts explaining what’s going on.

What’s the word for a business nobody dominates because basically the whole thing, as we knew it, looks like Florida a week after Chicxulub? That’s what we have with journalism. The big reptiles are gone or terminal. The flying ones are gonna be birds one of these eras, but for now they’re just flying low and working on survival. For a good picture of what that looks like, re-dig A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor, 2013, which Alexis Madrigal posted in The Atlantic on March 13 of last year. In it he said,

…your total budget for the year is $12,000, a thousand bucks a month. (We could play this same game with $36,000, too. The lessons will remain the same.) What do you do?

Here are some options:

1. Write a lot of original pieces yourself. (Pro: Awesome. Con: Hard, slow.)
2. Take partner content. (Pro: Content! Con: It’s someone else’s content.)
3. Find people who are willing to write for a small amount of money. (Pro: Maybe good. Con: Often bad.)
4. Find people who are willing to write for no money. (Pro: Free. Con: Crapshoot.)
5. Aggregate like a mug. (Pro: Can put smartest stuff on blog. Con: No one will link to it.)
6. Rewrite press releases so they look like original content. (Pro: Content. Con: You suck.)

Don’t laugh. These are actual content strategies out there in the wilds of the Internet. I am sure you have encountered them.

Myself, I’m very partial to one and five. I hate two and six. For my own purposes here, let’s say you do, too, and throw them out.

That leaves three and four…

You’re reading #4. Flap flap flap…

Speaking of trash talk, Polygon says NBA 2K14 gives you a technical foul for swearing at the game.

I like the Fargo2 model:

Want to know where your Internet comes from? Look here. While it lasts. Because what that describes is infrastructure for the free and open world wide Internet we’ve known since the beginning. Thanks to the NSA spying, national leaders are now floating the idea of breaking the Internet into pieces, with national and regional borders. That seems to be where Angela Merkel is headed by suggesting a Europe-only network.

Progress: there’s an insurance business in protecting companies from data breaches. No, they’re not selling it to you, because you don’t matter. This is for big companies only.

Finally, because you’re not here — or you wisely don’t want to be here — dig what parking in New York looks like right now, after two weeks of snow, rain, freezing, melting and re-freezing:

parking in NYC

Let’s hope it thaws before alternate side parking goes back into effect.

To an window-sitter accustomed to flying over the American West, Catalonia from altitude looks like Utah. On the northern horizon the Pyrenees, like the Uintahs, run east-west above a dry landscape of settled alluvium, much of it reddish as the San Rafael desert. While the shapes of the ancient towns below are clearly old world in shape and style (for example, red tile roofed), and no doubt receives a greater dousing of rain, the resemblance is still striking.

As always when flying over new places, i found myself wondering about geological provenance. And that was the reverie blown straight out of my mind when a singular landform slid into view. Shaped like the upper half of an elongated football, a half-buried zeppelin, the spine of a humpback, it was deeply eroded into bulbous hoodoo shapes, like those of Utah’s arches and goblins. Yet in a more significant way it also reminded me instantly of the equally anomalous church we were sure to visit in Barcelona, to which we were on approach: Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, which I last visited twenty years ago, and would visit again two days hence, on New Years Day, 2014. (Here are some interior shots I took there.)

Was the landform an inspiration for the church? Digging around later, I found the answer was yes. Same goes for the cuevas of Majorca, which I gathered the instant I saw those as well, when I visited the island in 1998.

The landform is the Holy Mountain of Montserrat, which means “serrated mountain” in Catalan.

I’d say more, but Net connection at our Barcelona B&B is iffy at best. Evidence: I wrote this several days ago and am only getting it up today, 2 January. So the rest will just have to wait, probably until I’m back in the States next week.

In Google sets out future for Maps — Lays down gauntlet to Nokia with plans for personalized, context-aware and ‘emotional’ maps in future, in Rethink Wireless, Caroline Gabriel begins this way:

Google may be feeling the heat from an unlikely source, Nokia, at least in its critical Maps business. The search giant has put location awareness at the heart of its business model, but Nokia has overtaken it in several respects with its cloud-based Here offering – based on the acquisition of Navteq in 2007 – and has also licensed its mapping platform to some powerful partners such as Microsoft, Amazon and a range of car makers.

Google is promising dramatic changes to its own maps to help fend off the Nokia/Microsoft alliance and also, in the Android segment at least, the challenge from Amazon to a Google-centric experience.

As usual with stories like this, the issue is framed in terms of vendor sports: big companies doing battle over some market category. Lost, also as usual, is what the individual user, or customer, might actually want.

That’s what I’m here for.

So let me start by saying I don’t want a “Google-centric experience,” whatever that is. Nor do I want Google’s (or anybody’s) Matrix-like approach to satisfying what its robotic systems think I might need. Here’s how Caroline explains that ambition:

Bernhard Seefeld, product management director for Google Maps, told the GigaOM Roadmap conference this week that future software will “build a whole new map for every context and every person”, incorporating all kinds of information about the individual and updating this constantly. He added: “It’s a specific map nobody has seen before, and it’s just there for that moment to visualize the data.”

Pushing a major theme at Google this year, Seefeld talks about applications creating emotional connections for users – “emotional maps that reflect our real life connections and peek into the future and possibly travel there”. This will involve context-aware maps that combine location and personal data, some of that taken from other Google apps, particularly its Google Now personal digital assistant – mainly seen as a response to Apple Siri, but in fact far broader in scope, and with a powerful artificial intelligence engine.

Context-aware is fine, provided I provide the context, and the context is as simple as, for example, “I am here” and “I want to go to this other place.” I don’t want guesswork about my emotions, or anything else that isn’t on the vector of what I alone know and want. Paper maps didn’t do that, and the best electronic ones shouldn’t either — not beyond what still feels as hard and useful as paper maps always did.

See, maps are fact-based descriptions of the world. Their first and most essential context is that world, and not the person seeking facts about that world. Yes, map makers have always made speculative assumptions about what a map reader might like to know. But those assumptions have always been about populations of readers: drivers, aviators, hikers, bike riders, sailors, geologists, etc. That they don’t get personal is a feature, not a bug.

A brief story that should tell you a bit about me and maps.

In October 1987, on the way back to Palo Alto after visiting my daughter at UC-Irvine, my son and I noticed it was an unusually clear day. So we decided to drive to the top of Mt. Wilson, overlooking Los Angeles. On the way we stopped at a fast food place and ate our burgers while I studied various AAA maps of Southern California and its cities. When we arrived at the top, and stood there overlooking a vista that stretched from the San Bernardino mountains to the Channel Islands, four guys from New Jersey in plaid pants, fresh from golfing somewhere, asked me to point out landmarks below, since I already was doing that for my son. The dialog went something like this:

“Where’s the Rose Bowl?”

“Over there on the right is Verdugo Mountain. See that green stretch below? In there is the Rose Bowl.”

“Oh yeah.”

“On the other side of Verdogo is the San Fernando Valley. South of that are the Hollywood Hills.”

“Is that where the Hollywood sign is?”

“Yes, on the south side, facing Hollywood. Mulholland Drive runs down the spine of the hills on the far side of the Sepulveda Pass, where the 405 passes through. The Malibu Hills are beyond that. You can see the buildings downtown to the left of that. Long Beach and San Pedro, Los Angeles’ port cities, are to the left of the Palos Verdes peninsula, which are the hills over there. You can see Santa Catalina Island off beyond that.”

“Where was the Whittier Earthquake?”

“Over there in the Puente Hills. See that low ridge?”

“Yeah. Wow. How long have you lived here?”

“I don’t. This is only my second trip through. I live up north.”

“Where are you from?”

“New Jersey, like you.”

“How do you know so much about all this around here?”

“I study maps.”

Of which I have many, now mostly mothballed in drawers. Maps collection on my iphoneI have topo maps from the U.S. Geological Survey, sectional charts from the FAA, maps atlases from the Ordnance Survey in the U.K., and many more. When I fly in planes, I follow the scene below on my laptop using Garmin Road Trip (an app that is sorely in need of an update, btw.) That’s how I can identify, literally on the fly, what I see out the window and later detail in my aerial photo collections on Flickr.

So, having presented those credentials, I rate Google’s Maps mobile app at the top of the current list. Google’s search is great, but substitutable. So are many other fine Google services. But I have become highly dependent on Google’s Maps app because nothing else comes close for providing fully useful facts-on-the-ground. Here are a few:

  • Transit options, and arrival times. Here in New York one quickly becomes dependent on them, and they are right a remarkable percentage of the time, given how uneven subway service tends to be. Hell, even in Santa Barbara, which is far from the center of the public transportation world, Google’s Maps app is able to tell me, to the minute, when the busses will arrive at a given stop. It’s freaking amazing at it.
  • Route options. Even while I’m on one route, two others are still available.
  • Re-routing around traffic. It doesn’t always work right, but when it does, it can be a huge time/hassle saver.
  • Timeliness. It couldn’t be more now, and a living embodiment of the Live Web at work.

I also like Here, from Nokia. (As you can see from my collection of maps apps, above. Note the second dot at the bottom, indicating that there’s a second page of them.) I also have enormous respect NAVTEQ, which Nokia bought a few years back. NAVTEQ has been at the map game a lot longer than Google, and is at the heart of Here. But so far Here hasn’t been as useful to me as Google Maps. For example, if I want to get from where I am now to the meeting at NYU I’ll be going to shortly, Google Maps gives me three options with clear walking and riding directions. Here gives me one route, and I can’t figure how to get the directions for taking it. (Both are on my iPhone, btw.)

So here is a message for both of them, and for everybody else in the mapping game: Don’t subordinate pure mapping functions to a lot of “emotional” and other guesswork-based variables that advertisers want more than map readers do.

This might also help: I’m willing to pay for the maps, and services around them. Not just to avoid advertising, but to make those services accountable to me, as a customer, and not as a mere “user.”

As advertising gets more and more personal, and more creepy in the process — without any direct accountability to the persons being “delivered” a “personalized experience” — a market for paid services is bound to emerge. I’ll enjoy being in the front of it.

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I orient by landmarks. When I was growing up in New Jersey, the skyline of New York raked the eastern sky. To the west were the Watchung “Mountains“: hills roughly half the height of Manhattan’s ranking skyscrapers. But they gave me practice for my favorite indulgence here in Los Angeles: multi-angulating my ass in respect to seriously huge mountains.

What stands out about these things aren’t just their elevations…

  1. San Gorgonio, 11,503′*
  2. San Jacinto, 10,834
  3. San Antonio (Old Baldy), 10,068*

It’s their relief. These mothers are almost two miles high: alps above low plains and hills that slope under city and suburbs to the sea. One day when I went skiing at Mt. Baldy (same mountain as I shot above, on approach to LAX), I met guys who had gone surfing that very morning, not far away.

That’s right: skiing. In Los Angeles County.

All these mountains are crumples along a seam in the earth called the San Andreas Fault. The 40-quadrillion-ton Pacific Plate is crunching up against the also-huge North American plate at a high rate of geologic speed and force. The core rock inside these mountains is about 1.7 billion years of age, but the mountains themselves are, geologically speaking, as new and temporary as waves of surf. Note the catch basins at the base of San Antonio Canyon in the shot above. Their purpose is to catch rocks rolling off the slopes, as well as rain-saturated “debris flows”: Southern California’s version  of lava.

Speaking of which, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of John McPhee’s The Control of Nature (here’s an LA Times review), which features a long chapter titled “Los Angeles versus the San Gabriel Mountains.” That anybody would build a damn thing on or below the slopes of these virtual volcanoes speaks volumes about humanity’s capacity for denial.

Well, I was gonna drive up to the top of Mt. Wilson this morning to catch the sunrise over the layer of marine fog just over my head here in Pasadena, but I’ve got too much work to do. So I’ll just enjoy orienting toward it as I drive to Peet’s for coffee, and let ya’ll derive whatever vicarious pleasures might follow along. Cheers.

[Later...] Beautiful clouds atop the mountains all day today, with showers scattered here and there, and even a bit of snow. Tonight the snow level will be about 5000 feet, I heard. Should be pretty in the morning. Alas, I’ll be arriving at Newark then.


* The photos in Wikipedia for both are ones I shot from airplanes. They are among more than 400 now in Wikimedia Commons. I love feeding shots into the public domain, to find helpful uses such as these.

It’s interesting to see where photos end up (or start out, or re-start out) when one puts them in position to be used and re-used with minimized friction. The one above, of a coal-fired power plant in Utah that supplies electricity to Los Angeles, and which I shot from a flight overhead in January 2009, appears in at least these three places, so far:

At this point 391 photos of mine have found their way into Wikimedia Commons. I put none of them there. I just post them in Flickr and license them permissively.

I just noticed that mining and power generation figure prominently in that collection. Maybe that’s because I like to shoot pictures of infrastructure, geology and both at once. Or maybe it’s because the subject is interesting enough for Wikimedians to put the shots in there. Dunno.

Oddly, I don’t see the Utah power plant shot in the midst, but maybe I missed it. More likely people using the shots have done a search-by-license on Flickr, such as this one for coal.

Los Angeles at nightFirst, time.

Earth became habitable for primitive life forms some 3.X billion years ago. It will cease to be habitable in another 1 billion years or less, given the rate at which the Sun continues to get hotter, which it has been doing for the duration.

Species last, on average, a couple million years. Depending on where you mark our own species start, we are either early or late in that time span.

If you mark our start from the dawn of the Anthropocene — now being vetted as a name for the geological epoch in which human agency is as obvious as that of other natural agents in Earth’s story, such as asteroid collisions, volcanic outpourings and radical weather changes — we’re about ten thousand years into this thing. We’ve done a lot in not very long.

From a pained perspective, the Anthropocene is a time of pestilence by a single species — one with an insatiable hunger for what that species calls “natural resources.” To test that pain, give a listen to “When the music’s over,” on the Strange Days album by The Doors. In it Jim Morrison sings,

What have they done to the Earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and
Ripped her and bit her.
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn and
Tied her with fences and
Dragged
Her
Down.

From a disinterested perspective, dig Robinson JeffersThe Eye, written during World War II from Tor House, his home in Carmel overlooking the Pacific:

The Atlantic is a stormy moat; and the Mediterranean,
The blue pool in the old garden,
More than five thousand years has drunk sacrifice
Of ships and blood, and shines in the sun; but here the Pacific–
Our ships, planes, wars are perfectly irrelevant.
Neither our present blood-feud with the brave dwarfs
Nor any future world-quarrel of westering
And eastering man, the bloody migrations, greed of power, clash of
faiths–
Is a speck of dust on the great scale-pan.
Here from this mountain shore, headland beyond stormy headland
plunging like dolphins through the blue sea-smoke
Into pale sea–look west at the hill of water: it is half the
planet:
this dome, this half-globe, this bulging
Eyeball of water, arched over to Asia,
Australia and white Antartica: those are the eyelids that never
close;
this is the staring unsleeping
Eye of the earth; and what it watches is not our wars.

There is also this, from Jeffers’ “The Bloody Sire” :

Stark violence is still the sire of all the world’s values.

What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine
The fleet limbs of the antelope?
What but fear winged the birds, and hunger
Jewelled with such eyes the great goshawk’s head?

Our teeth, right now, wing limbs and jewell eyes we will never see.

And the life here will end, perhaps in less time than has passed since the planet made half the rocks in the Grand Canyon‘s layer cake.

Now, space.

Astronauts speak of the “Overview_effect” that leaves them changed by seeing Earth from space.

I’ve made do with what I can see from the stratosphere while flying in commercial aircraft. It was from that perspective, for example, that I’ve documented effects of strip mining in the Anthropocene.

Ironies abound. My photo series on coal mining in the Powder River basin has been used both for pro-environmental causes and to promote business in Wyoming.

I’ve got more on this, but neither time nor space for it now.

Bonus link.

And more on the Anthropocene:

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A comet is headed for Mars. impactNow approaching at 125,000 miles per hour, it will explode with the force of 35 million megatons of TNT if it hits. That’s a third the size of the collision that caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, which famously erased the dinosaurs and ended the Mesozoic, around 66 Million B.C. It also left a 110-mile wide crater next to what is now Mexico. This Mars impact, should it occur, will also be larger than many other impact events that changed life on Earth utterly, causing mass extinctions countless times in in ages before ours.

The chance that this comet will hit Mars is one in two thousand. The chance that its tail will graze Mars and produce an impressive sky show there are high. Earth-made probes on the surface of Mars will be watching, if they survive. So expect some impressive news, either way.

By the way, my favorite comet of all time was Comet West, which glided slowly through our skies through several weeks in the Winter of 1976. It was beautiful. So was Hale-Bopp, in 1997. Here is an excerpt from what I wrote at the time:

By Doc Searls
March 6, 1997

It’s 5:15AM as I write this. A few minutes ago, after the kid woke us for his breakfast, I walked to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water. When I arrived at the sink, I looked up and saw the most amazing thing: Hale-Bopp, the comet, brighter than any star, hanging from the Northeast sky over San Francisco Bay.

I’ve seen five comets in my life. None have been more spectacular than this one is, right now. It’s astonishing. Trust me: this one is a Star of Bethlehem-grade mother of a comet.

Considering the comet’s quality, publicity has been kind of weak. Which makes sense, since I have noticed an inverse relationship between comet quality and notoriety.

KahoutekThe most promoted comet in recent history was Kahoutek, in 1971. Kahoutek was supposed to be the biggest comet since Halley last appeared in 1910. But after all the hype, Kahoutek was nearly invisible. I can’t even say I saw it. At least I can say I looked and that maybe I sawsomething. (But hey, I lived in Jersey at the time. Whaddaya ‘spect?)

Comet WEstIn fact, Kahoutek was such a big no-show that when Comet West appeared in 1975, it received almost no publicity at all. But it was a wonderful comet. First it appeared as a morning star with a bright little tail about one moon long, above the Eastern horizon. Then, after it whipped around the Sun and flew back out toward its own tail, the comet spread into a wide V that graced the evening sky like God’s own logo. At the time I lived in a rural enclave outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and every night for several weeks a few of us would wander out and marvel at the show.

HalleyThe next comet was Halley, in 1986. Astronomers had rightly mixed feelings about Halley. On the one hand, they knew this would be one of Halley’s least visible visits. On the other hand, they knew it would raise interest in astronomy. Well, Halley was nearly as big a bust as Kahoutek. At best the “Great Comet” was a tiny smudge in the sky. Can you see it in this picture? Right. My friend Jerry Solfvin and I had about the same luck when we joined a 3AM traffic jam of about 10,000 people who went to the far side of Mt. Diablo to look at this. By the way, this picture is from the Hyuktuke Gallery at the NEFAS (Northeast Florida Astronomical Society) site.

Comet Hyuktake showed up about a year ago, and enough time had passed since the Halley disappointment to allow the new comet a fair measure of publicity. And Hyuktake was a beauty. When it skirted the North Star, the comet’s tail stretched across a sixth of the sky. The best image I’ve found is this cool 3-D number by Dave Crum. Click on it to visit a larger version at the NEFAS site.

And now we have Hale-Bopp. Although Hale-Bopp won’t come nearly as close to Earth as Hyuktake did, it’s putting on a bigger show, mostly because it’s a bigger comet. lot bigger. This thing is more than 200 times larger than Halley: about 40km across. You can actually see some shape to it, even with the naked eye. To spot it, look to the Northeast in the early morning, when it’s still dark. You’ll see it below and to the left of Cygnus (the Northern Cross), pointing straignt down toward the horizon. It’ll be brighter than any other star in the sky, and with a tail that stretches across the Milky Way. On the 6th you’ll also see the last sliver of moon down to the East, and on succeeding days the moon will move out of the way long enough for a great view.

Bonus links: Comet Ison, which might become “the comet of the century” later this year. After looping close to the Sun, it may become as bright as the moon, and visible in daylight. And Comet Panstarrs, which is visible now.

Echo Cliffs

I say that because I didn’t find those entries when I went looking for them yesterday, when I was putting up and annotating this photo set here.

If I get a chance later I’ll put some links here.

[Later...] And now there is a Wikipedia entry, thanks to Phllip Stewart, @pmsyyz, who improves Wikipedia as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Pmsyy. I just made a few additional edits myself as well.

6:42am — Flights are starting to land at JFK, I see by Flightaware. Not yet at LGA, EWR or the New England airports. More links:

It’s getting light out, and the snow has stopped.

6:10am — Dig:

5:58am — Fittingly (given the local coverage concentration below), Maine appears to be hardest hit, though farthest from news outside the area. CNN and The Weather Channel are all about Boston, Providence, Hartford and New York.

5:30am — Looking for live local coverage from TV stations. Here’s what I’ve found so far:

That’s it. One in New York, one in Hartford, none in Boston and three in Portland. Maine wins! Corrections, of course, are welcome.

Also: the NYTimes and the Wall Street Journal have both dropped their paywalls for storm coverage. The Boston Globe‘s is still up.

03:30am — This is as quiet as New York gets. No traffic flowing. No horns blowing. No jets on approach to anywhere, or taking off. From our encampment in “upstate” Manhattan, there is just the sound of snowplows scraping Broadway clean.

The Weather Channel (aka Weather.com, aka TWC on my Dish Network channel list, aka @WeatherChannel), calls the storm #Nemo, as they said they would last Fall. The National Weather Service, aka Weather.govisn’t playing along. Neither is AccuWeather.

They should. I’m sure the success of the Nemo nickname has their sphincters in a knot, but they should loosen up. This isn’t just another nor’easter. For parts of Connecticut and Massachusetts, it might be the biggest storm since the last glaciation, named after Wisconsin. (Probably not, but still.) Earthquakes get named after epicenters. And hey, we live in networked times. These days the vernacular wins, fast. Best to get ahead of that curve.

Here’s a view of aviation, as of 3:00am this morning:

Normally thin anyway at this hour, it’s absent in the Northeast entirely. The nearest named flight is a United one inbound to Dulles (UAL981). An un-named plane is passing over Philadelphia, and another over Binghamton. That’s it. (The green color is not for rain, by the way. It’s precipitation density. That’s snow there.)

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