Tag: Colorado

The scars of a Colorado fire

By Phil Plait | July 29, 2012 7:15 am

A few weeks ago, Colorado fires raged. They are still there, but mostly out and contained – the Boulder fire is completely contained, but pockets of fire will probably burn at a low level for weeks and be put out as they’re found.

South of us, in Colorado Springs, the wildfire was apocalyptic. It destroyed over 18,000 acres (72 square kilometers, 28 square miles) and many buildings and houses. The scar it left behind is visible even from space, especially in the infrared, as in this image from the Earth-observing Terra satellite:

[Click to conflagrate.]

The way this image is color-coded, ironically vegetation looks red while fire-ravaged areas are greenish. The scale bar at the lower left should give you a sense of how big this fire was. Most of the houses destroyed were in the Mountain Shadows subdivision, which is labeled. A vast amount of effort by firefighters went in to making sure the fire didn’t progress farther down the slope of the foothills.

Images like this one can help people assess the extent of fire damage. And they serve as a reminder that our environment can be tragically fragile. To some extent it’s a natural process – this fire, along with the one in Boulder and the huge one west of Fort Collins were all started by lightning during thunderstorms. But our presence changes some of these processes, and we make some things better and others worse. The more we understand how fires start, how they spread, and how to stop them, the better. Watching all three fires both from the ground (in the case of the Boulder fire, in person as well) and from space is something I’d prefer not to have to do again.

Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon using data from the NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, Pretty pictures

Pyrocumulus cloud

By Phil Plait | June 24, 2012 7:00 am

As I write this, the High Park fire is the second largest wildfire in Colorado history, currently at 75,000 acres (over 300 square kilometers, or 115 square miles). It’s been burning more than a week, and fighting it has been difficult due to dry conditions, wind, and oppressive heat in the area.

I can see the fire from Boulder, but yesterday I got a really good, if terrifying, view of it driving home from the airport. There was nothing but farmland and one low range of hills between me and it. I stopped and took some pictures with my phone:

I was about 55 km (35 miles) south of the fire when I took this. Note how the plume is whitish and looks like a storm cloud. I discovered there’s a word for this: pyrocumulus; "pyro" means fire, and "cumulus" is Latin for heap or piled up. Cumulus clouds are the ones that are the big puffy cauliflower-shaped ones. The puffiness is from convection, which is when hot air rises and cold air sinks. Usually, warmer moisture-laden air punches upward into the cooler air above it. The water condenses, and all the little convection cells give the cloud that lumpy appearance.

In this case, the fire is hot, and the air is thick with smoke as well as water from the efforts to put it out [UPDATE: As Dan D points out in the comments below, water from the vegetation contributes to this as well]. It rises rapidly, forming the pyrocumulus cloud. They’re usually grey, but I suspect the towering cloud I saw is white due to the water vapor. The smoke plume from the fire is blowing to the east (right), and stretches for a long, long way:

It actually extends well off to the right, outside the frame of this picture. The smoke plume is noticeably reddish to the eye. I was cycling up that way last week, just the day after the fire started, and the smoke plume was reddish-brown with a blue tinge to it around the upper edges. I suspect this is due to scattering. Incoming light of all colors from the Sun hits the cloud. Longer wavelength red light penetrates deeply into the cloud, but blue light only gets a short way in before scattering off the smoke and ash particles. Think of them like blue photon ricochets, hitting the cloud and bouncing off in all directions.

The upshot is that we see blue light coming from the edges of the cloud where it gets scattered, but the lower part of the cloud looks redder because of the intrinsic color of the smoke, and also because only the red light form the Sun gets through it (similar to why sunsets look red). The overall effect is eerie, and unpleasant.

Which fits. This fire is pretty bad, and it’s joined by many other fires in Utah and New Mexico, not to mention in other countries like Russia. I’ll note that it’s difficult to pin this down to global warming, but as the planet does warm, different weather patterns will make some places wetter, others drier. One commonly predicted outcome is more and bigger fires, and it does seem we’re approaching or breaking a lot of records lately.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, Pretty pictures

Science Getaways: Update

By Phil Plait | February 7, 2012 9:36 am

I love science. OK, duh, but I really do. And when I go on vacation, I can’t help but see science everywhere, and in every case it makes the trip more fun for me. Seeing local geology, biology, how the stars might look different at a different latitude… it adds to the vacations, makes it better.

That’s why my wife and I started a company called Science Getaways. We figured there are lots of other folks out there like us who would really enjoy taking a vacation that has bonus science added in. Our first planned trip is to a gorgeous Colorado dude ranch called C Lazy U. Besides the usual amenities of such a place — horseback riding, great food, spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains — we’re adding SCIENCE! And scientists: we have a geologist, a biologist, and an astronomer — hey, me! — who will be on hand to give talks about the local nature scene, and then we’ll take hikes to put that new-found knowledge to practical use. I’ll be running a stargazing session every evening with my new 8" Celestron telescope, and I’m hoping to do some solar observing during the day as well.

IMPORTANT NOTE: We’ve negotiated a special rate — the price we’re offering is actually less than the usual ranch rate. We’re hoping to have the entire ranch for our group, but if we don’t have enough reservations by March 1 we can’t guarantee it. Space is limited, so please book now if you plan to come.

By the way, we’re also on Facebook and Google+ if you’d like to add us.

I hope to see lots of BABloggees there!


Related posts:

Science Getaways

Do we really need a religious bill of rights?

By Phil Plait | February 15, 2010 7:27 am

In the United States, we need a religious bill of rights about as much as we need a white people’s bill of rights, or a men’s bill of rights. That is, not at all: when 90+ percent of the country claims to be religious, you pretty much run the joint anyway. Worse, we hardly need something like this for public schools. There already are pretty clear laws about how religion can and cannot be treated in the schools.

Still, that hasn’t stopped people in Colorado from proposing just such a bill for public schools in the state legislature, a bill which may be presented to the Judiciary Committee as early as Monday, today. Note that this bill represents an act and not a law. Nothing in it is legally enforceable, as far as I can tell. Good thing, too.

The bill is ridiculous in a lot of ways, but two things stand out: one is that it simply isn’t needed — most of the rights it seems so concerned over are already guaranteed and under no threat at all — and the other is that it oversteps the bounds maintained by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Below are some choice bits of the bill, with what I think is my more reality-based opinion on them. The bill itself IS IN ALL CAPS, so you can read it as if the person is shouting at you if you’d like. I won’t bother debunking the basis claimed for the need for such a bill — they claim religion is under attack in this country, which is patently ridiculous. Instead, here is an example of a bit that is unneeded:

THE RELIGIOUS BILL OF RIGHTS FOR PUBLIC SCHOOL STUDENTS AND THEIR PARENTS OR GUARDIANS SHALL INCLUDE, BUT NEED NOT BE LIMITED TO, A DECLARATION THAT A PUBLIC SCHOOL STUDENT HAS AN INALIENABLE RIGHT TO:

(I) EXPRESS HIS OR HER RELIGIOUS BELIEFS ON A PUBLIC SCHOOL CAMPUS OR AT A SCHOOL-SPONSORED EVENT TO THE SAME EXTENT AS HE OR SHE MAY EXPRESS A PERSONAL SECULAR VIEWPOINT;

There are many such statements in the bill, and I’m cool with them, since all of them fall under a student’s Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech. Stating this is like stating they should be allowed to breathe or have their heart beat. By putting that up front and center, the bill crafters make it seem like this freedom is in jeopardy. It isn’t.

However, if a teacher or other school official were to do this, that would be a different matter entirely. As we’ll see below.

[Students also have the inalienable right to] WEAR RELIGIOUS GARB ON A PUBLIC SCHOOL CAMPUS, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO CLOTHING WITH A RELIGIOUS MESSAGE;

Now this one’s interesting! I wonder how the folks sponsoring this bill would feel if a kid wore a "Satan rules my soul!" shirt to class. Or a turban.

Anyway, here’s where it gets sticky:

[A student may] EXPRESS HIS OR HER RELIGIOUS BELIEFS OR SELECT RELIGIOUS MATERIALS WHEN RESPONDING TO A SCHOOL ASSIGNMENT IF HIS OR HER RESPONSE REASONABLY MEETS THE EDUCATIONAL PURPOSE OF THE ASSIGNMENT;

Yeah, that word "reasonably" opens a can of worms. What happens when a creationist kid doesn’t want to say anything about evolution or the Big Bang? If I were a science teacher and a student said the Universe is 6000 years old, I would mark that answer as wrong (why? Because it is). That will lead to some fun with the parents, no doubt. Now again, the student already has the ability to do this. But this somewhat amplifies the situation, and will lead to students thinking they have a right to not be marked down for wrong answers if they are religiously-based. Think I’m overly extrapolating this? Think again.

But the biggest grievance I have with this ridiculous declaration is this one:

[A teacher shall] NOT BE REQUIRED TO TEACH A TOPIC THAT VIOLATES HIS OR HER RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AND NOT BE DISCIPLINED FOR REFUSING TO TEACH THE TOPIC;

To be blunt, this is unacceptable. If you are a biology teacher and refuse to teach evolution, then you should be disciplined at the very least. If you still refuse to teach it, then you can either be given a different class to teach, or face termination. Teachers are obligated by their job duties to teach standards-based curricula, and if they refuse, they are in dereliction of their duty as teachers.

Teachers have certain religious rights, of course, but don’t have the right to not teach a kid something that is true because of their own religion. There are religions that teach that women are inferior, that blacks are inferior. Will a history teacher refuse to teach about the women’s rights movement, or the civil rights movement, because of their own beliefs? Some religions — I won’t name names here — believe that sexual education is eeevil. If you’re a health teacher and refuse to teach about reproductive health, then in my opinion you should face the consequences of your decision.

This is where I think declarations of rights like this are dangerous. It’s a slippery slope, and a steep one. And the most pernicious part of all this is it’s clear that the motivation behind this bill is not in the name of religious freedom and tolerance, it’s in the name of freedom and tolerance for one specific religion. As I point out above, I don’t think a radical Muslim would be treated the same way under this declaration as a Christian would. While that may be outside the scope of the bill, it’s important to keep in mind.

In the end, this bill doesn’t have the weight of law, but by simply proposing it — and enacting it, which will take time and materials — it’s a waste of taxpayer money, especially when the vast majority of what it’s stating is already within the existing legislation. If the religious groups are so worried about this sort of thing, then they should pay for this effort on their own time, and give out flyers in church. Doing this through the legislative branch — and, in fact, the whole bill itself — is a bad idea.

If this bill gets out of the Judiciary Committee it will be presented to the Senate for debate and eventually a vote. I’ve already contacted my local Senator about this. If you live in Colorado, I urge you to do likewise.

Remember:

Tip o’ the wall o’ separation to the Boulder Atheists

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Politics, Religion
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