Full of Sound and Fury… Or Not

Virga and real rain.

Spoiler – the rain stayed north of town, at least until after sundown. The blue-purple that is not reaching the ground is what is called virga, meaning a veil. It appears on radar, it looks dramatic in the sky, but it evaporates before it reaches the ground. It can also be very dangerous, because the cool, descending air can turn into a down-burst, a very strong downdraft that churns up dust and smashes airplanes (or flips them if they are not tied down.)

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Environment or Army Corps of Engineers: The Floods of 2019

As usual, people are not waiting for the disaster to finish happening before blaming someone for it. In this case, it is the h-ll and high water swamping the Missouri River watershed. Some have pointed at anthropogenic climate change and are saying that humanity (OK, the free market system and fossil fuels) are to blame. Others suggest that the Army Corps of Engineers is at fault.

I don’t believe the climate change argument, at least the human-caused aspect, because if you look at the terrible floods of the 1920s on the Mississippi and Missouri River watersheds, we were still in the tail end of the effects of the Little Ice Age in terms of temperatures and precipitation patterns. Continue reading

Flavors of Floods

Since this seems to be a week of heck and high water, I thought I’d return to the topic of floods. We’re right at that time of year when we start to see flooding from two different kinds of events, one more predictable than the other. There are flash-floods caused by too much precipitation, snow-melt floods, and I suspect urban flooding caused by impermeable surfaces. Snow-melt floods used to be called “the spring rise” and are relatively predictable. Continue reading

Animals and Environments 3: Beaver of the Breaks

Apologies for the repeat. Day Job is in a bit of a crunch mode because the End of the Quarter is Nigh. Plus we’re all having to cover for those out ill.

Ah, beaver, the cute rodent property owners love to hate. Beaver are, as one author described them, “nature’s wetland engineers,” re-working the local hydrology to suit their own needs. In the process they can have some very long-term effects on the environment around and down stream of their chosen location. The Canadian River valley, although at the margins of beavers’ usual domain, showed the effects of their activities in several different ways. Continue reading

The Little Problem of Logistics

I suppose by now almost everyone has heard or, or read about, the “Green New Deal” first proposed by Rep. Occasio-Cortez and endorsed by other up-and-coming (or hopeful) members of the Democrat Party in the US. The basic idea is that within ten years, or perhaps twenty but ten is preferable, the US will have completely retooled its economy to use nothing but renewable “green” energy, all buildings will be energy-efficient, and no carbon will be produced. All internal combustion vehicles will be replaced by green, zero-emission ones. And even if people do not care to participate in the labor required, they will still be paid.

That summary alone is enough to make a sci-fi writer weep in her ginger beer. Orson Scott Card proposed that each story is permitted one large piece of handwavium (or balognium as he put it), and then the rest of the technology or magic has to make sense. There’s far too much handwavium in the Green New Deal for my comfort. Continue reading

Animals and Environments 2: The Land and the Bison

Another rerun in the series from 2014. I’m chaperoning again.

Imagine standing on a broad tableland, knee-high grass extending as far as you can see in all directions. The sun has just risen, well on its way north with the shift from spring into summer, and already the southwest wind ruffles the grass and hisses its hot way past. The day will be a warm one. You begin walking north. As you do, you start to see variations in the billiard table surface. Rainwater lakes, the famous playas, form broad, shallow depressions surrounded by taller grasses. Some of the largest playas have sedges, amaranth, arrow leaf, and western wheat grass in their shallows and on the shores. And you discover a faint blue line in the distance, almost like hills, or very, very far away mountains. Continue reading

Animals and Environments Pt. 1: Setting the Scene

February 2, 2019. I’m chaperoning some students today, and had too much to do yesterday to get a post done. This is a rerun from 2014.

[This is the first of a series about how Great Plains and High Plains species affect their physical environment. Sources will be available upon request.]

One of the conceits of popular environmentalism is that only humans cause major alterations to the physical and biological environment. A little research shows that this is far from the case, and while humans have indeed been major shapers of the world, non-human animals played, and still play, important roles in determining the lay of the land and what plants and other animals live on that land.

I’m going to start this series of posts with definitions of certain key terms and landscapes. Then I’ll look at the geology, before narrowing down to certain locations and individual species, notably beaver, bison, prairie dogs, domestic sheep, and domestic cattle on the High Plains. I’ll conclude with an overview of pre-1800 human activity in North America and how it greatly influenced a number of biota, most famously the grasslands of the Great Plains.

One of the terms we need to know is “keystone species.” Think of a Roman arch, how the components are held in place by a key stone. If you remove that stone, the arch loses its integrity and falls apart. A keystone species is one that has a dominant place in determining the composition of an ecosystem during the period of time that you are looking at that ecosystem. Bison and prairie dogs were both keystone species for the High Plains prior to the 1870s, their grazing habits and living conditions determining what other species did better and which fared more poorly. A keystone species is not necessarily the largest or best known animal in an area. Small rodents, if they form the prey base for the next level of animals and if they shape which plants dominate the area, can be a keystone species.

Another term I’ll use is “trophic level.” A trophic level is where on the food chain/ food web an organism lives. Plants are the first trophic level because they don’t eat anything else (pitcher plants and Venus flytraps don’t count). Grazers and other herbivores, of any size, form the second trophic level. That which eats the grazers is the third trophic level. You could argue that bacteria and carrion eaters might form a fourth trophic level, but most textbooks stop at three.

The High Plains refers to the area between the Rocky Mountains in the west and the 20″ isoheyt to the east. That means the 20″ annual average rainfall line, or where short grass steppe shifts to the mixed and tall grass prairies, where pyrophilic grasses become more common. Today, if wheat dominates, you are probably in the High Plains and corn (maize) is the tall grass (irrigation notwithstanding.) The High Plains are a semi-arid belt of short grass ecosystems that extends from the southern end of the Llano Estacado Plateau to the Canadian border. Some books limit the area to eastern Wyoming and Montana, and call the southern stretch the South Plains, but that starts to get very confusing when you look at a smaller scale, so for our purposes, High Plains it is. Why “high?” Because much of the area is over 3000′ in elevation.

Semi-arid refers to the average precipitation and evaporation patterns in the area. Precipitation is strongly seasonal, with most of the rain coming in April, May, and June, with a secondary peak in August-September. The southern part of the High Plains has a very high evaporation rate caused by the dominant southwesterly winds and large amounts of sunshine. The northern areas have less evaporation and more winter precipitation, although it varies from year to year. An average of 20″ of moisture can mean 30″ one year and 10″ the next, as residents of the region know well. Some years are more arid, some lusher. The variation can be striking even over a few miles, depending on where storms form and drop their rain load. I’ve seen pastures on the east side of town withering while two miles west it looks like someone dumped a load of green paint.  Back in the 1800s, the managers of the big ranches had to try and explain to owners “back East” or in Britain how they could get a good rain at the ranch headquarters and still have animals dying of thirst.

Fire plays a role in the Great and High Plains. The Great Plains, while not a truly pyro-dependent landscape, were close. The tall grasses and the associated forbs that grow with them leave a lot of dead material behind over winter, and fires (along with grazing) helped return nutrients to the soil. Fire also keeps the trees and shrubs at bay. Otherwise the eastern woods expand into the prairies. The High Plains are less congenial to trees, in part because the constant wind sucks moisture out of large, fluttering leaves aster than you can say “gush.” However, fires still raced over the land on occasion, set by lightning or by Indians. When rain follows fire, the land turns a rich, lush green that has to be seen to be believed.

Short grasses dominate the High Plains. Knee-high or waist-high at most, buffalo grass, grama grasses such as side-oats, black, and hairy, spartina, and western wheat grass formed clumps and patches. Buffalo grass responds to heavy grazing by sending out side shoots, or tillers, that allow it to grow without attracting attention from hungry bison. It was a rule of thumb that bison and buffalo grass went together, and they did.

To the east, where rain falls more generously, the tall grasses loomed higher than a man’s head. Big and little bluestem, Indian grass, and dozens of other smaller kinds covered the ground. Forbs such as lead plant, compass plant, goosefoot amaranth, and others returned nitrogen to the soil, forming a complete prairie package.

Having laid the cover down over the High Plains, next time we’ll look at the land under the plant roots and animal feet.