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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Partial Ellipsis of the Sun's 100th Post: Lichen it to a Litmus Test

     Today's post is inspired by the discovery that the dyes used in litmus paper are derived from lichen. I'd lichen that to paronomasic perfection (thanks SuperZee) for our 100th week. 

      Gadzooks! That must mean Partial Ellipsis of the Sun's two-year anniversary is just around the corner. 

     "Litmus" is derived from Old Norse lit-mosi, from litr "dye" + mosi "moss." Litmus paper is one of the things I have used but never investigated its origin, via either the word origin or the actual compounds.

       A variety of lichen such as this one, Roccella tinctoria, a relatively bland-looking organism that is a combination of algae or cyanobacteria (or both) living among a fungus in a symbiotic relationship,

and contains the compounds to make the colorful dark-purplish, red, and blue dyes used in litmus powder (the compounds are used also for dyeing rugs and fabrics).

        A brief refresher of high school chemistry: The pH scale ranges from 0 (a strong acid which turns blue litmus paper red) to 7 (neutral) to 14 (a strong base which turns red litmus paper blue).

        pH, which stands for potential Hydrogen, can actually be measured more accurately with a pH meter or pH paper giving more specific numbers all along the logarithmic pH scale from 0 to 14.

        In politics, of course, a litmus test is a question asked of a potential candidate for high office, the answer to which would determine whether the nominating official would proceed with the appointment or nomination.

        Sadly, we cannot dip politicians in lichen to determine their pHenomenal true and honest answers to critical questions.

      At least, not yet.

       I'll stick to chemistry. And geology. And biology. And physics. And astronomy. . .I lichen these topics much more (magnified lichen below):

      Thanks very much for your support these past nearly two years to the pHilosophy and pHun that is "Partial Ellipsis of the Sun."

       I truly appreciate your being my litmus test for interesting, inspiring, controversial, funny, and paronomasic topics.

pHinally and gratefully,

StepH ;-)

     I can only stay focused on the lichen on the rock for so long. . .Here's some sandstone from today's walk. You can almost hear the wind blowing. . .


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

"Nothing to See Here:" From Agates to Ashes >>> All Fall Down: The Fascinating Fossils of Nebraska

       Surely there must be "Something to See Here" in western Nebraska. . .

         And in eastern Nebraska, about 400 miles to the east along John McPhee's famed I-80 (more or less--both parks are actually closer to state route 20):

        The "USA Map According to Geologists" at the tail end of last week's blog is the inspiration for this look at fossils in far western and far eastern Nebraska (part of the area labelled "NOTHING TO SEE HERE.")

     Western Nebraska is home to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, a fossil-rich area of Miocene age (23-5 million years ago).


       Three particular mammals are found in the main bone beds near Harrison, NB:

      (1) Menoceras, a small rhinoceros; (2) the large Moropus, an extinct horse relative ; and the (3) Dinohyus, an extinct giant, pig-like mammal.

        Another quarry site to the east (see map above) of the main bone beds is comprised almost entirely of the small gazelle-camel, the Stenomylus, and the burrowing dry-land beaver, the Palaeocastor. The final, rarer animal is the predator Daphoenodon from the extinct beardog family. The bear dog is neither (shades of honey bear-ness?). 

       In Eastern Nebraska the Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park preserves an in situ fossil site with well preserved mammals, especially horses and rhinoceroses, reptiles, and birds.

     The well-preserved nature of the site is due to an ashfall plume (below) from Yellowstone National Park around 12 million years ago. The animals died more or less simultaneously near a water hole in eastern Nebraska. It is an active dig.

       Having driven both I-80 and State Highway 20, I highly recommend the latter for "SOMETHING TO SEE HERE."

Have you visited either site? I am most curious about those bear dogs. How about you?

Curiouser and curiouser,


This week's post is for my daughter, Zoë, who turns 22 tomorrow (in Ethiopia where she has already reached her Catch-22 birthday).

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Gold King Mine, Colorado: Unplugged

     On August 5, 2015, at 10:30 a.m. the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) breached a plug or dam on toxic mine waters near the Gold King Mine 

sending over 3 million gallons (originally reported by the EPA as 1 million gallons) of arsenic and metal-rich water into Cement Creek which flows into Las Animas River ("River of Souls") in southwest Colorado.

        Stephanie Paige Ogburn's 8/6/15 article (written just a day after the spill) is one of the more balanced compilations available as it pulls together geological background, mining history, and historical background about the relationship between the EPA and the Silverton community.

       "For years, the EPA has wanted to name areas around Silverton as a Superfund site. This brings funding for cleanups. The town, in turn, has resisted fearing the label would be toxic to tourism (pun intended.)"

      The EPA was well aware that high levels of toxic materials were in long-abandoned mine debris ponds. It is most unfortunate that the spill made its way into the Animas River (here near Silverton), has now entered New Mexico and Utah, enroute to Lake Powell: 

       In addition, the naturally-occurring ferricrete ("iron concrete") deposits in the area add to high levels of metals, sulphates and other toxins. The name Cement Creek was given for a reason. There haven't been many fish in this creek for decades, perhaps over a century. The disturbance of the mine's debris waters could have happened without the EPA's heavy machinery accident. This image shows the Red and Bonita Mine south along Cement Creek which also has very high levels of toxic materials:

     The EPA did not report the incident to the community for 25 hours (bad PR and outside EPA's own 24-hour reporting window). In addition, the original 1 million gallon reported EPA number could have easily been more accurately seen at the USGS stream flow and gage height site. I pulled these two graphs yesterday showing the 8/5/15 spike of 3 million gallons (with some multiplication of cubic feet per second (cfs) times the number of seconds in the second graph):

     All of these data are available online to the public.   

    The EPA today reported toxic material including lead levels that are 12,000 times the acceptable EPA levels. Arsenic, mercury and cadmium are also extremely high. Of particular concern is the cadmium level as cadmium is readily absorbed into plant material, posing a fairly distinct short-term risk to both the plants and any animals, including humans, who consume them. (Although, I wonder about these humans below and their decision to stay in their kayaks being directly exposed to the orange sludge): 

          I would enjoy hearing your thoughts about the Gold King spill,surrounding Silverton area mines, and Superfund sites. I am particularly interested in finding out who makes the ultimate Superfund site (National Priorities List or NPL) decision. The Animas River Stakeholders Group, which includes Silverton residents, business representatives, AND the EPA, appears to have the ability to say "yeah" or "nay" to the decision about the Silverton area.

Unplugged here,

      A marvelous part of my mishpokey, Zoë (in the orange shirt [what else this week?]) is headed today to the Amhara region (colored fuchsia on the map below) of Ethiopia for her Peace Corps service. Other groups will go to Tigray, SNNP, and Oromia.

       This "USA map according to Geologists" is both amusing and fairly accurate except for 1) "nothing to see here" (I am considering the Ashfall Fossil Monument in eastern Nebraska for next week's topic) and 2) "Too hot to do field work in summer" in southern AZ as that's where we did summer field work (yes, it was pretty hot!)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

From Prolog(ue)s to Pro-Legs: Mugo Pine and The Redheaded Pine Sawfly

       I am fascinated by these redheaded pine sawflies (Neodiprion lecontei) on my geology professors' Mugo Pine (Pinus Mugo):

     The sawfly was not a major pest problem in Mugo and other pines in the U.S. until the planting of large pine plantations in the 1930's. 

     The sawflies resemble caterpillars but are actually members of the wasp/bee family, not the butterfly/moth family. Caterpillars have up to 5 pairs of abdominal prolegs. Sawfly larvae have six or more pairs of abdominal prolegs:  

       Another notable difference, though it requires a much closer look (oh, yeah!), is that caterpillars have tiny hooks called crochets, on the ends of their prolegs. Sawflies don't. Here are the crochets on caterpillars (C on C as a way to remember the "cats" [entomologists' affectionate pet name for caterpillars] differentiation from sawflies): 

       And the Scanning Electron Microscope version of the crochets:

      The common name of sawfly comes from the saw-like appearance of the ovipositor, or egg depositor, which the females use to cut into the plants where they lay their eggs.

      The insecticides that are used on the caterpillar family do not work on sawflies. [And, of course, many caterpillars transform into much-needed and wanted butterflies.]There are some wasp/sawfly insecticides that are somewhat effective, including organic diatomaceous earth (remember the diatoms from our Scanning Electron Microscope {SEM } discussion earlier?):

      However, one of the best ways to get rid of the sawfly larvae is to simply pull them off the Mugo pine trees. Any volunteers to get in there, count legs, and pull off the large clumps of sawflies? If so, they are in Northampton, Massachusetts, waiting for you. {Eric Carle used to be there, too, for over 30 years, though he recently moved southward to North Carolina and Florida.}

      Wonder if Eric Carle ever counted pro-legs on caterpillars. . .

      Any good caterpillar or sawfly tales? Might we count on you?


    Here is an image from the August 4, 2015, Las Animas River after a 3,000,000+* gallon spill from the Gold King Mine in southwest Colorado (see link to article in 8/7/15 comment):

     Indeed, next week's Partial Ellipsis will look at the Animas River Spill in Colorado. Please look there for a discussion of the Gold King Mine. I am cleaning up some of the graphs, have some new local photos to share, etc.

      *Updated from the original EPA estimate of 1,000,000 gallons.