Explore: February 2013

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5 posts from February 2013


Observing Highlights for March: Comet PanSTARRS

March 2013 NGC4565 Chumack

Comet 2011 L4 (PanSTARRS) makes its closest pass by Earth on March 5, but at this point it will still be mostly a southern hemisphere object. PanSTARRS has already been showing itself to southern hemisphere observers (along with another comet, Comet Lemmon, which will enter northern skies in April). Try looking to the southwest right after sunset each evening in March.

After March 5, the odds of spotting the comet become better as Comet PanSTARRS moves higher into the sky and brightens. The current brightness estimated for PanSTARRS is around second or third magnitude, similar to the stars in Cassiopeia, the W-shaped constellation above and to the right of the comet. Once the comet rises 15 to 20 degrees above the horizon, it will move horizontally across the sky, passing from the constellation Cetus into Pisces. It passes closest to the sun on March 9/10. On March 12 the comet will lie to the left of a crescent moon and a more-difficult-to-spy Uranus only half a degree below, and on April 3/4 the comet skims past M31, the Andromeda Galaxy.

Saturn enters the late evening sky in early March with the moon lying beside it on March 1 and the star Spica close by. The moon returns to Saturn by the end of the month, slipping in between Saturn and Spica on March 28 and displaying a fat gibbous phase. The full moon occurs on March 27 at 2:27 a.m. PDT.

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Year in Yosemite: Moving On

FoothillsI was worried about moving from Yosemite National Park to Orange County, California. And rightly so. Two more different places could hardly be found. Although it may not feel like it to those who visit in summer, with its crush of people and its bumper-to-bumper traffic, Yosemite, at its heart, is about the preservation of wilderness.

In the mid-1800s, Frederick Law Olmstead (designer of Central Park) pushed for a Yosemite where roads would funnel people into 5% of its landmass. That left the other 95%, an area the size of Rhode Island, alone.

The same could not be said of Orange County. Size-wise, it’s one of the smallest counties in California. Yet, with just over 3 million people, its population ranks it third in the state, just behind Los Angeles to its north and San Diego to the south. It wasn't always this way. Hills

As its name implies, Orange County once supplied citrus to the world. At the very same time that Olmstead was laying out his vision of Yosemite, farmers were planting Orange County's first Valencia orange trees. By 1948, 5 million trees were under cultivation on 67,000 acres of land. Yet 30 years later, only 4,000 acres remained. By 2005, less than 100 acres of Valencia oranges still existed. What happened? Development. As the aerospace and defense industries of the Cold War years moved to Southern California, the people who owned Orange County’s farms discovered the land had far more value when the only thing cropping up were office buildings and housing tracts.

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Tree and Human Health May Be Linked

Child treeOur deep connection with nature has roots seemingly as old as humanity itself. Ancient Celts viewed trees as sacred symbols of fertility and rebirth. Conservationist John Muir believed that everyone should have a sanctuary where “nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” A recent study from the U.S. Forest Service now suggests that this primordial bond goes beyond metaphor, providing scientific evidence that tree and human health may be intertwined.

“I basically tagged onto one of the oldest ideas in the word,” said lead author Geoffrey Donovan, a researcher at the Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station. But “the quantification is a new thing.”

Donovan and colleagues combed through demographic, human mortality, and forest health data from about 1,300 counties in 15 states from 1990 through 2007. Their findings? In counties where trees were plagued by the invasive emerald ash borer, about 15,000 more deaths from cardiovascular disease and approximately 6,000 from lower respiratory disease were reported compared to uninfested areas. The researchers focused on these ailments in particular since trees can filter particulates and other pollutants, improving air quality. Even after controlling for demographic variables, such as race, income, and education, they observed the same trend.

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Q&A: Vegan Long-Distance Hiker Sam Maron

Sam Maron hiking

Sam Maron met the Appalachian Trail (AT) in eighth grade and fell for it, hard. He was at summer camp, where a four-day backpacking trip through the Maine end of the nearly 2200-mile path settled in his bones. Maron finally trekked the whole thing almost a decade later, hiking 12 to 20 miles per day for six months in 2009. But when Maron finally did it, he wasn't eating meat anymore. Or dairy. Or honey. Maron, now 26, is working toward a masters degree in environmental advocacy and social justice from Antioch University New England. He also runs the blog Backpacking Vegan to show it can be done.

Q. What called you back to the Appalachian Trail? And why vegan?

A. What appealed to me is that it is one interconnected wilderness experience that goes thousands of miles. You’re always in the environment, you’re always in nature. That doesn’t exist many places. I transitioned to being vegan in college. That was 2005. Definitely an interest in activism and wanting to live my life in a way that is less impactful to the Earth is the primary reason. The more I learned about the environmental and social impacts of the meat and dairy industries, the more strongly I felt that I didn’t want to be a part of it.

Q. How did you prepare for the AT?

A. When I was thinking about it in the years leading up to when I actually did it, I started researching [hiking vegan] and I couldn’t find anything about it. When I started hiking, I decided I was going to try as hard as I could. I also decided I was going to start with an open mind. It’s totally doable. It’s also a challenge, but it’s really important to me. Why would I compromise something that’s important to me when I wanted to travel?

Q. Did you do this alone?

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5 Nature-Inspired Innovations

GeckoTokayUAThe shifting hues of squid skin, the stickiness of gecko toes, the self-cleansing of lotus leaves. Understanding these and other natural phenomena can yield not only fascinating biological insights, but also fresh solutions to today’s most pressing environmental challenges. Biomimicry — applying the design of natural systems to human problems — has gained momentum in recent years. Last August, the San Diego Zoo opened its Center for Bioinspiration, which works with companies and research institutions to translate zoo scientists’ findings into practical applications. Taking cues from nature makes sense. Plants and animals have a 3.8 billion year head start on scientists in adapting to natural pressures, whether that involves using sunlight efficiently or keeping cool in hot, arid climates. Here’s a look at five biomimicry advances that emerged within the past year.

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