The saguaro cactus, Carnegiea gigantea, can’t be missed. Not only are they everywhere in western design, symbolic of the desert landscape, but in real life, they are huge. The largest cactus in the United States, they can tower above the surrounding landscape, a bold form in a climate where the residents tend to be smaller, struggling in the blazing sun ... Read More
Posted on February 15 2017
Being reptiles, snakes are cold-blooded. That doesn’t mean they’re out to kill you with nary a pang of guilt (though of course that could happen!), but it does mean that they need a climate that affords at least enough ambient heat to get themselves up and running for a sufficient portion of their day, season, or year. They do best ... Read More
Posted on February 12 2017
If you’re feeling like a major road trip, the longest point-to-point, motorable road you can undertake is the Pan-American Highway, a jaunt between Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and Ushuaia, Argentina. That’s the length of two continents, for a total of close to 30,000 miles. But this long-drive record holder comes with a qualifier. Unfortunately, as you head south, the road sputters ... Read More
Posted on February 01 2017
For stargazers older than first-graders, it’s no news that stars are giant balls of flaming gas, just like our Mr. Sun. That they’re so tiny to our eyes only clarifies how very far away they are. We group them into convenient constellations for easy reference (and to illustrate great stories of the gods or creation myths), but of course, the ... Read More
Posted on January 24 2017
California just named its official state fabric: denim. An official fabric? Really? Having been born in a hospital next to the original Levi Strauss factory in San Francisco, I kinda like the designation. But states have “official” items of many, many kinds. From rocks and mammals to flowers and food dishes, legislatures love to elevate the status of things in ... Read More
Posted on January 18 2017
We mark the passage of time by seconds, minutes, hours, etc., up to centuries and millennia. Of course, there are much longer periods used by geologists and astronomers, but for human purposes the shorter ones are sufficient for common use. While counting time, we all live on a big ball, and to make sense of that home we have made ... Read More
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Posted on December 20 2016
The intrepid canoe sailors who first came to the shores of Hawaii brought all the foodstuffs they had eaten in their native islands: pigs, chickens, taro, sweet potato, and among other plants, sugarcane. Sugarcane was valued for its sweetness and high caloric content, but production was done on a small level, along with other crops. The prominence of sugarcane in ... Read More
Posted on December 14 2016
Crystals must have baffled early humans. They’re some of the few things in nature that look man-made. That is to say that they often come with the kind of flat, smooth surfaces and arrow-straight lines that make them look like they were processed on a machine. Pre-machine Stone Agers would have found them strangely unique and mysterious. Where could they ... Read More
Posted on December 08 2016
Here in the United States of America, we’re all one big happy family, right? We all know the fifty states and just exactly where the borders lie. Nowadays that’s pretty true. But as the country was being assembled, there was plenty of political wrangling over border placement, and sometimes it got pretty heated. Back in the late 1700s, the Northwest ... Read More
Posted on December 06 2016
The serenity of gazing out over calm waters has drawn people to live near oceans, lakes and rivers even long after it was necessary to be there for the proximity of the drinking supply. Of course, to this day, towns and cities are situated by water to take advantage of fishing, transportation possibilities , sports, and recreation. It’s just a ... Read More
Posted on December 01 2016
It’s no news to anyone that California is trudging into its sixth year of drought. Last year’s El Niño brought relief to the northern half of the state, and left some good snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, but down south things are still pretty crispy. Central Valley farmers, who produce the majority of many crops for the whole nation, are ... Read More
Posted on October 25 2016
About a year ago, I was put in charge of five orchid plants, with one sentence of instruction: Don’t overwater them. One was moribund at the point of transfer, and soon perished. The survivors don’t look great, but they’re still alive, and two of them have even flowered. Caring for orchids is new territory to me. Like everything else I ... Read More
Posted on October 19 2016
Though the National Parks Service celebrated its 100th birthday last year, our first national park, Yellowstone, was declared by President Ulysses S. Grant 145 years ago, in 1872. In 1879, only seven years later, some folks on the other side of the world followed suit. In that year, Australia created Royal National Park as the second such example of setting ... Read More
Posted on September 27 2016
There is no end of strange and bizarre terrain on the larger chunks of land surface on our planet. Combinations of geology, weather, and biology can combine to create beautiful and unusual locales, but islands seem to get a special advantage in the production of the offbeat. They’re certainly “offbeat” in the sense of being off the beaten path, stationed ... Read More
Posted on September 21 2016
Along with George Washington fessing up about that cherry tree, one of the chestnuts of American common knowledge was that Columbus discovered America. He surely encountered some islands in the Caribbean and changed the course of history, but between the Vikings and others, his rep as the first to arrive has long been disputed. And, of course, there were lots ... Read More
Posted on September 08 2016
Recently, the southern part of Louisiana experienced flooding of near-biblical proportions with some areas receiving over two feet of rain in three days. Many parts of the East Coast find themselves similarly drenched when hurricanes move up the coast, or simply as a result of slow-moving depressions that are well-fed by tropical moisture. Oregon and Washington are famously green from ... Read More
Posted on August 31 2016
Iowa pops onto the front page every four years as those now-famous presidential caucuses start the mad cycle to become or be re-elected to the most powerful position on the planet. Outside of that spectacle and the state’s fame for corn and pig production, how much do you know about the physical look of Iowa? Today’s subject focuses on western ... Read More
Posted on August 23 2016
If you were lucky, in mid-August you might have had clear skies for viewing the Perseid meteor shower. As Earth passed through a field of comet tail debris, bits of dust, sand, and the occasional pebble sent streaks of light across the sky as they burned up in the atmosphere. Comet fragments and other meteoroids are naturally occurring materials that ... Read More
Posted on August 16 2016
California isn’t the biggest state but it’s one of the longest, and it has the longest continuous stretch of interstate highway in the nation. Interstate 5 runs from the Mexican border to Oregon, almost 1,400 miles end-to-end. It’s a long drive, much of it droning along through the Great Central Valley: flat, farmy and relentlessly golden yellow these drought-plagued years. ... Read More
Posted on August 09 2016
The world has a new longest tunnel. The Swiss have spent the last 17 years planning and grinding out twin tunnels forty meters apart through the Gotthard Mountains in the Alps. The pair of tunnels pass through 35.4 miles (57 km) of rock for not only record length, but record depth as well. With nearly a mile and a half of ... Read More
Posted on August 03 2016
If you’re lucky, you can still go out on an early summer evening and as twilight comes on, watch little figures flit about the air like night birds. They’re bats, of course, and while some folks would dash for the indoors at the sight, they shouldn’t. Bats are a wonder, living in dark recesses all day, emerging at dusk to ... Read More
Posted on July 27 2016
No man is an island, they say, but some islands have more than enough men (and women.) As with our previous hunt for the densest country, there are two ways to maximize density: put a lot of people on a small island, or put a bajillion people on a larger island. We’ll look at a few variations. The places that ... Read More
Posted on July 19 2016
While the world’s supply of wetlands and intertidal zones continues to shrink, there are still some large examples of this vital habitat. If you want a big wetland, it helps to have a big river mouth. And it really helps to have three big river mouths together, so the region where the Ganges (Padma), Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers all converge ... Read More
Posted on July 05 2016
Summer is wildfire season, and has been forever. Residents of the western half of our country are keenly aware of the danger and destruction that the dry hot months bring. Lately though, the season of flames starts earlier and stretches beyond the fall. In many places there is hardly an off-season — fire can strike at almost any time, and ... Read More
Posted on June 28 2016
There’s nothing like obscurity to command attention. If you can’t see it, you’ve just got to see it! That truism of human behavior, along with the desire to solve a mystery, has kept the legend of the Loch Ness monster alive for centuries. Ever since the late 600s, stories have fed the legend of a huge, elongate beast in this ... Read More
Posted on June 07 2016
Conditions for life on our planet are not, in general, improving. At least not for the diversity of life. Kudzu, crows, and cockroaches are doing just fine, but we lose species every day, and these are plants and animals that took hundreds of thousands if not millions of years to develop. Gone. When an animal species is lost, there’s not ... Read More
Posted on May 31 2016
The sky is always out there. We get so used to it, whether it’s endless blueness in Southern California or persistent grey in London. Sometimes it catches our eye because of a dramatic showing, like a fiery sunset or a super-brilliant display of stars in the desert. Other phenomena are more subtle, but it’s worth keeping an eye out in ... Read More
Posted on May 24 2016
A while back we looked into cities where street names were sort of disregarded or never even assigned. Putting a name to a street can give it a useful reference, but names can cause problems of their own. Many towns across the country took the easy way when they named their streets, and given a grid structure, had numbered streets ... Read More
Posted on May 17 2016
Long walks are nothing new. People have been taking them ever since Homo sapiens took a stroll north out of Africa. There’s a fellow tracing such a path and writing articles for National Geographic about it right now. But Earth, of course, is the water planet, so it only stands to reason that there are even more opportunities to travel ... Read More
Posted on April 19 2016
Logging is one of the most dangerous jobs you can do. Knocking over big heavy things using sharp running power tools on slippery slopes and dragging them to somewhere else using heavy equipment – what could go wrong? However, even if done injury-free, unfortunate circumstances can hinder the operation. In logging’s older days, felled logs would be dragged down to ... Read More
Posted on April 12 2016
Water flows downhill, and takes the easiest path that gravity pulls it along. Depending upon the kind of geography and geology in a drainage basin, that stream course will develop its own individual qualities, from sculpted rocks, to unique water chemistries, to particular plant assemblages. The Cristales River, or Caño Cristales, in Colombia is one such “special circumstances” river. Its ... Read More
Posted on April 05 2016
Way back in 1906, a French geologist named Bernard Brunhes made a fascinating discovery. He knew that previous studies had shown that baking pottery or bricks caused iron particles in the clay to align in a north-south orientation. Heat of sufficient intensity causes the electrons in iron to go into a high-energy state and become "looser," facilitating realignment. In studying the clays over which lava had once flowed, he found that iron particles in both the lava and the baked clay underneath it had the same orientation. Then further study in places where there were multiple layers of lava showed that different lava layers had opposite alignments. The only logical explanation was that, amazingly enough, the magnetic poles of the earth must be periodically reversing.
Posted on March 30 2016
Suppose someone offered you a Chinese gooseberry. Or a carambola. How about a slice of durian? Some jackfruit? Care for a rambutan? What? These are all fruits from faraway places, some of which you may have tried, but probably don't consume as much as you do apples, oranges and grapes. It's a good bet you've had Chinese gooseberry, but not by that name. It was a fruit imported from China to New Zealand in 1904. People thought its flavor resembled a gooseberry (and of course we all know what those taste like) so "Chinese gooseberry" was a logical name. The names "mihou tao" or "yang tao," as the Chinese called them, didn't roll off the New Zealander's tongues quite so easily...
Posted on March 23 2016
St. Anthony's Falls raises and lowers the barges five stories by the usual means of flooding locks with river water and it has some uninvited guests. Read more....
Posted on March 02 2016
For the longest time, we were all taught that there were nine planets in the solar system. From closest to, and farthest from the sun, they were: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. Sadly, Pluto fell off the list when astronomers determined that its small size and failure to fulfill all the gravitational functions of a bona fide planet disqualified it. So we were down to being eight fellow spheroids in our neighborhood, commonly known as the Solar System. Recently, however, two astronomers (one of whom made the case for Pluto's ouster) have postulated the existence of a replacement ninth member, one that's in the club but doesn't come by for a meeting very often...
Posted on February 17 2016
The Earth has some huge canyons and they're pretty easy to spot. A couple of years ago, scientists found a great big one that's never been seen before. Where's it been hiding?
Posted on February 09 2016
When was the last time you sat down into a hot bath and the water was up to your chest, but barely covered your anklebones? That just couldn't happen, given what we know about liquids flowing to conform to the shape of their container. But the rules change, or get more complicated, when you get to a container the size of an ocean basin. Because of these changed circumstances, some parts of the world are already suffering from sea level rise, and others are barely aware that it's happening.
Posted on February 03 2016
Fat raindrops can kind of smack you in a tropical downpour, but it's not painful. Snow is downright gentle, although in a blizzard it probably hits with some cold force (I wouldn't know, having lived most of my life in the southern half of coastal California). But hail is another story. Most hail is pebble-sized and just sort of bounces off, but the mechanics of making hail can allow it to grow to truly frightening proportions.
Posted on January 27 2016
Thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio, the story of diamonds funding all sorts of mayhem in Africa went all Hollywood and brought awareness to a lot more people about the ghastly situation of blood diamonds. Unfortunately, diamonds aren't the insurgent's only best friend. Let's back up a bit. The value of diamonds is high because they are hard to come by (for a number of reasons, but that's a story for another day) and the same is true of other products of the Earth, and not necessarily ones you'd care to wear on your finger or around your neck.
Posted on January 06 2016
Ah, Hawaii, that endless font of fascinating geographical oddments. For all the damage that thousands of years of invading species and tourists have done to that paradise, it still manages to be a wonderous locale. The lava that pours up from the depths builds the basis of the islands, but the erosion of rain and waves grinds the lava into ... Read More
Posted on December 30 2015
Geek that I am, this Geo-Joint involves two of my favorite things: words and geography. The etymology of today's word/place name ties together location and a bit of history, and not surprisingly wanders off into rabbit holes of hard-to-verify factoids. What we know for sure is that the name "Guinea" pops up in a trio of West African country names, to wit: Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Equatorial Guinea, the last of which sits on the Gulf of Guinea.
Posted on December 23 2015
I’ve been keen on geology and biology for a long time, but despite what some say, I didn’t actually witness the initial development of single celled life. Nor was anybody there to start a stopwatch when the Earth was formed, but with clever methods, geo-chemists have pegged the age of the Earth at about 4.54 billion years...
Posted on December 16 2015
They're tiny, they're easy to miss, and they have very little physical strength. But they have the power to knock you flat and bring big changes to our way of life. Today, the story of these little invaders.
Posted on December 09 2015
The versatility of palm oil is impressive. It is used in countless foods, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, biofuel, and industrial applications. It has become a mainstay in the economy of many tropical countries. The race to develop this crop is headlong, and the costs of its unchecked growth are sobering. Palm oil production occurs throughout the tropics on huge monoculture farms which are planted on land formerly occupied by rainforest...
Posted on December 02 2015
Early humans (and their predecessors) wandered all over the landscape for thousands of years, noting mountains, and rivers, and big trees, and rock formations to give them an idea of where they were and where they were going.
Posted on November 25 2015
Yellowstone National Park is justly famous for its geysers, steaming pools and mudpots. The hot geologic features of the park are the remnants of three enormous volcanic explosions that left three calderas covering nearly 1,000 square miles.
Posted on November 18 2015
Birds build nests. So do rats. Termite mounds are pretty impressive. But what other animal (nevermind us) builds anything so impressive as does the beaver?
Posted on October 27 2015
Some countries expand their size by taking over neighboring territory. But in the South China Sea, China is simply making new land.
Posted on October 15 2015
Geographic name changes for large expanses of the earth’s surface aren’t all that common. The breakup of the Soviet Union presented such a moment decades ago, and the one we’ll focus on today isn’t breaking news either. It cropped up 15 years ago and isn’t universally accepted yet. But its story is interesting and illustrates the tenacity of established geographic ... Read More