Saturday, September 19, 2020

Wildfires--A Planetary Feature

Wildfires enable us to gain knowledge of our planet from unique perspectives. Currently one of the largest wildfire episodes in modern history has devastated the US west coast. Upwards of six million acres have burned in California, Oregon, and Washington. Tragically, the current known death toll is 36 with thousands of homes and other structures destroyed. Smoke from this conflagration was detectable across the country, even causing the sun to assume an unnatural appearance. 

The Creator designed our Earth system with divine wisdom. Some may pronounce Planet Earth “a place to thrive.” Others may see our planet as “a place of brokenness and despair.” In describing Planet Earth we have used the phrase “a place to thrive” eleven times in our past blog posts. In contrast we have used the phrase “a place of brokenness and despair” four times to describe what we feel is an errant description of our planetary home. 


Wildfires have been a feature of our planet for millions of years, as evidenced by the presence of fossil charcoal. Earth has been blessed with a just-right amount of CO2 to promote plentiful plant life. Animal life is sustained by plants with the support of a stable atmospheric composition of 21% oxygen. Taken together, we are blessed with plentiful carbon based plant life and plentiful oxygen—also just right amounts for the occasional combustion of plants in wildfires. 


But wait! Would we wish for less CO2 to provide less human food? or less oxygen in order to reduce wildfires? Atmospheric oxygen combines with carbon fuels such as petroleum and natural gas, increasing the atmospheric composition of CO2 ever so slightly. CO2, a so-called greenhouse gas, has contributed moderately to the world temperature rise of about 1ºC in the last century. There are other factors causing rising world temperature. This 1º change does not explain the proliferation of current wildfire events. Blaming west coast wildfires on global warming is an error of unprecedented dimensions.


We return to the fact that wildfires have occurred on Earth ever since land plants appeared eons before the creation of humanity. Evidence exists that thousands of wildfires occurred long before CO2-driven global warming was touted as a ‘scientifically proven’ cause of wildfires. Today’s media catchphrase is “Look at the science.” There is much unsupported propaganda concerning ‘climate change.’ Today’s science does not demonstrate that west coast wildfires are caused by global warming. Science has, however, identified a multitude of weather conditions in the American west. Primarily, wildfires are driven and exacerbated by periodic drought, high temperatures, wind, and low humidity. These conditions are common on the west coast and always have been seasonally present. Wildfires could be up to 85% human-caused—campfires, smoking, equipment malfunction, and arson—depending on site proximity to humans. Natural causes of wildfires commonly include dry lightning and rarely, volcanoes.


A search of the history of western wildfires before 1850 reveals fewer devastating fires equal to current west coast events. California was basically undeveloped in the first half of the 19th century. There were only about 8000 non-native colonists in 1840. If there were wildfires in the forests of California, no one sought to extinguish them. There was minimal loss of life and structures. Today many California residents live in hilly, wooded regions deemed to be beautiful and desirable for home placement, but prone to extreme fire danger. The problems of dense urbanization are exacerbated by deficient community planning and building codes. Annual coastal weather patterns should be carefully studied with an awareness of the existence of long term weather trends.


There are multiple examples of wildfires in our day. Fire plays a vital role in many ecosystems. One outstanding example is the 1988 fire which occurred in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, burning through 36% of its area. Prior to 1988 the spectacularly scenic Yellowstone ecosystem possessed unique charm but forests and diverse plant species quickly re-established themselves after the fires. Resilient wildlife survived better than expected. Our family visited Yellowstone both before and after the fires. We recall observing many areas of lodgepole pine in the process of natural re-establishment as we travelled through formerly burned areas.


Beginning in the mid-20th century, especially since 1972, controlled fires have been encouraged as a beneficial factor in forest management. These actions are opposed by some environmental groups who advocate against (1) harvest of mature trees (2) thinning of excess biomass, and (3) removal of dense underbrush. This results in over-accumulation of biomass and subsequent vulnerability to raging, fast-moving fires. In studying forest management issues we realize the matter is complex and far from simple. Large populations, mountainous topography, and unique weather patterns in California make forest management especially challenging.  


There were many other historic tragic wildfires. In 1910 three million acres burned in Montana, Washington, and Idaho. It was dubbed the “Big Blowup.” Before that, the 1871 Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin and Michigan was the deadliest: 1200+ killed, 3.8 million acres burned. The Great Hinckley Fire in Minnesota (1894) killed 418. In the same state 453 perished and 250,000 acres destroyed in the Cloquet fire of 1918.


Wildfires may be considered either natural or man-caused disasters. We have reported  natural disasters over which humans have no control. Examples are hurricanes, floods, droughts, volcanoes, and similar events. With wildfires, however, we possess a measure of control, either by avoiding careless fires or by wise implementation of controlled burns for reducing the severity of future fires and improving current forest conditions.  According to Marc Abrams, professor of forest ecology in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State University, “Native Americans knew that to regenerate plant species that they wanted for food, and to feed game animals they relied on, they needed to burn the forest understory regularly.”


We have quoted Genesis 1:28 many times in our posts: God instructed humans, “…..Be fruitful and increase in number: fill the earth and subdue it…..” We posit that modern humans must actively study and manage the creation for their own benefit and for the glory of the Creator. This amplifies the meaning of subdue in terms of inspired creation care.       

        


   




      

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Concerns of 2020 in Past History

Our contemporary national immersion in the COVID-19 pandemic and racism protests calls to mind events in U.S. history. The 2020 pandemic has produced dire effects on world economies. Serious as it is, the death toll approaching 200,000 pales with the US and worldwide toll of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Less well-known is the devastating multi-disease pandemic which wiped out a majority of native Americans following Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Up to 90% of native Americans perished from pathogens initially transported to the New World by explorers and settlers—a human tragedy of horrifying dimensions. 

If readers were quizzed on themes dominating the news cycles of 2020, most respondents would place COVID-19 and racism at the top of their lists. Coronaviruses have been known for many years, but other virus types have garnered more attention. The crowned virus has become an icon of today’s coronavirus conversation—a symbol of public focus on the life-changing pandemic dominating our contemporary lives. The relationship of the COVID-19 phenomenon and racism is a difficult topic, but worthy of our attention. Protests against racism and related discrimination have unfortunately morphed into disorder and violence.

When the novel COVID-19 virus originated in China, many people accused analysts who  highlighted its geographic origin as being racist or xenophobic. Accusations of racism are manifest in other spheres. For example, people abhor aggressive, unjust law enforcement questioning, and worse, disproportionate deaths of criminal suspects detained by police officers. We are thankful such incidents are unusual and rare. In our day racism is linked with a wide variety of humanity’s problems. We are thankful national civil rights legislation of the 1960s prohibited forms of legal racism. We pray that inherent racism would also be suppressed. This sort of racism and discrimination does not disappear by legislation—it depends on a divine miracle in the human heart.

                                            *         *         *         *

Old World explorers from Spain, France, England, Portugal, and The Netherlands possessed a variety of motivations when they boarded their vessels for trans-oceanic travel to the west. Historians have narrowed the goals of Old World explorers to the “three Gs”—God, gold, and glory. They desired a quick western route to the Far East but New World continents blocked their way. Exploitation of New World riches compensated for their disappointment at failing to find a better route to eastern Asia. Some European explorer/missionaries were intent on Christianizing the natives they physically contacted. Some missionaries denounced all forms of oppression and enslavement of indigenous peoples. Other explorers promoted national imperialism and their missionary zeal was non-existent. The character of human nature, much of it negative and self-serving, worked in diverse ways to disrupt the quality of life of indigenous populations.

Hundreds of written resources document the abuses indigenous Americans suffered at the hands of post-Columbian explorers and early settlers since 1492. Deliberately or not, the Old World immigrants brought devastating pathogens to indigenous New World populations. While arrivals from the Old World possessed some immunity to smallpox, measles, typhoid, plague, malaria, influenza, and a host of other diseases in their native lands, native populations in the Americas had no immunity because they had never been exposed to these diseases. This phenomenon has been dubbed the “virgin soil epidemic.” Consequently, the population of Mexico, Central America, and South America declined from 50 million (some historians estimate much larger figures) to a mere 1 to 2 million. Diseases also struck less populous Native Americans in the north.

Superimposed upon many explorers’ desires for God, gold, and glory was an inherent desire to exploit, steal from, and displace native populations for their own personal benefit. The horrible trade in human slaves was often perpetuated by unscrupulous, money-loving merchants. The slavery phenomenon was related to acquisition of cheap labor and consequent wealth, not to mention its moral injustice. Such merchants did not care about the justice or appropriateness of how they accumulated their wealth. They cared only that they acquired wealth. The unpleasant history of slavery in the New World is complex and disturbing. The slavery issue was a hemisphere-wide problem. Its link to racism is difficult to deny. 

The modern COVID-19 disease stokes fear of infection in 2020, especially for older residents. We are reminded that past pandemics are named for geographic regions, whether or not their origin is established as true beyond all doubt. In this way we understand that some could assign a racial component to COVID-19. In studying the science of viruses, we understand the topic has many ramifications, especially if the virus is invasive on a worldwide scale. (We recommend readers review our last three posts on invasive species by clicking 3X on the “Older Post” link.)

                                             *         *         *         * 
       
Research on Native Americans and their susceptibility to viruses and racism called our attention to a tidbit of personal family history. Readers of our blog are fascinated with stories of their ancestors. So it is with my paternal ancestors: The Virkler family arrived in Northern New York State in 1834 from Switzerland. The region is now in Lewis County. Rudolph Virkler, his wife, and seven sons arrived after an ocean journey of more than a month. They were devout Christians attempting to escape the abuses of the state church and military conscription.

When they arrived in the New World they traversed many routes to their eventual homes in Northern New York State. In the case of the Virkler family, they settled in the neighborhood of the Oneidas, one of six nations of the Native American Iroquois Confederacy. One particular inspiring family story has been preserved. During the time of this event, Indian tribes were being moved to lands west of the Mississippi River under terms of the “Indian Removal Act” of 1830. The Virkler family made their livelihood from farm land carved from the native forest in the years to follow. Other families who also immigrated to Northern New York State from Europe lived in the same region.     

Not all Oneida Indians were willingly removed to lands farther west. Some of them were subjects of a story told by my paternal great-grandmother (1854-1936). Her mother, my great-great-grandmother (1818-1895), had told her daughter about Oneida Indians who visited their wilderness home “…..and were very friendly. Her mother gave them food to eat. They would lie on the floor, their coats rolled up for a pillow, and stretch their feet toward the fireplace making themselves very much at home.” (Genealogies of Three Large Families of Lewis County, New York, p. 143)

The family story above has its setting within the complex history of our country. Sadly, this history is fraught with stories of struggles against hardship and disease as well as battles with racism and discrimination. God looks down knowingly, mindful that “We are but dust” (Psalm 103:14 ESV). Verse 14 follows in the context of Psalm 103:3: God “forgives all your iniquity” and “heals all your diseases.” The psalmist, referencing “all your iniquities,” may refer to racism. Among “all your diseases,” he may refer to viral diseases like COVID-19, illnesses like smallpox and many others which decimated native populations in the New World.

Ultimately, these conditions will be banished and tears wiped away in the new heaven and new earth described in Revelation 21-22. This is the ultimate deliverance God provides for those redeemed by His Son.          

      

   








                  





          

Friday, August 21, 2020

Non-native Species Invasions

One of the most challenging scenarios of the invasive species phenomenon in the US is the heroic battle officials are waging to deter the entrance of Asian carp into the Great Lakes. These Asian imports, silver, bighead, black and grass carp were deliberately brought to the US by operators of aquaculture ponds and aquatic farms in the southern US in the 1970s. Their purpose was to control algae, weeds, and parasites in the farmed ponds. Tragically, during flooding events the fish accidentally escaped into natural river systems. Over several decades they have established a relentless northward migration within the Mississippi River drainage basin. Their colonization of the Great Lakes would constitute an environmental disaster.      

Many preventive regulations and millions of dollars have been spent on physical, electronic, sonic, and other means within the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal (CSSC) and other access routes to Lake Michigan. So far, experts hope their vigilance may have achieved the desired goals, but the battle is far from won. Invasive carp species in the US do not cope with the sort of predators they encountered in their native land—a fact we could repeat for many other recently arrived invasive species.

As God’s people we must be aware of causes and effects with respect to environmental issues. In the sphere of our physical environment we benefit not only from intended consequences of our actions, but also from unintended consequences. Undesirable unintended consequences result from lack of knowledge. The OT prophet Hosea (Hosea 4:6) was concerned about the lack of knowledge among the chosen people in their relationship to God. “My people shall perish from lack of knowledge,” the prophet exclaimed. More broadly, knowledge is a desirable treasure in every sphere of physical existence. 

Problems with invasive species are often of human creation. An invasive species in America since 1831 is the European, or “common” carp. Late in the 19th century the United States Fish Commission distributed European carp widely across the land as a food source. Culturally, carp are shunned by many US residents as a food product, but in many other countries carp as a food source is accepted. Carp are now ubiquitous across the US, accepted as a fact of life.
  
Many people enamored by the sport of fishing are not concerned about whether their “catch” is native, non-native, or even invasive. To young people, especially, these distinctions mean little. They love to catch fish—especially large fish! We illustrate by both personal and historic accounts.

The Seneca River drains the famous glacial Finger Lakes of Central New York State, eventually flowing into Lake Ontario. The Seneca flows through Baldwinsville, my birthplace, home of the NY State barge canal. Downstream from the canal locks in Baldwinsville, the river is home to a plenteous population of European carp. All European carp in the US are non-native, including all Seneca River specimens. Therefore, the Seneca River did not provide carp fishing before the introduction of non-native “common” or “European” carp to the US in 1831. We muse about a visit to the Seneca River in 1830.

Our story relates to a national event scheduled for 2022—the “world series” of carp fishing in the Seneca River and nearby Onondaga Lake. Since 2007 Baldwinsville has been the home of the Wild Carp Classic, a famous carp fishing tournament held annually. My brother called my attention to the carp tournament held in my former hometown about ten years ago. The Google search engine has dozens of references to the fame of Seneca River carp. My personal recollections of carp fishing are many: fishing for carp with balled-up white bread pieces, snag fishing from the Niagara-Mohawk Power Plant concrete wall with treble hooks in deep water where one carp nearly pulled me into the river, and other experiences too numerous to recount.

Other ecological nightmares have occurred involving bluegills, a staple of pan fishing enthusiasts, and lake trout, a favorite of deep fresh water anglers. Both species are native to North America. A front page article from a local daily newspaper in Dubuque, IA, May 20, 2020 retells a familiar invasive species story. Proof of the fact that invasive species affect other countries beside New World nations, Japan now has invasive bluegills inhabiting their ecosystems. Bluegills also now inhabit Korea.

In 1960 Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago presented a collection of 15 bluegills to Emperor Akihito of Japan on a visit to Chicago. The emperor envisioned bluegills as an important food source. Instead, descendents of these bluegills have wreaked ecological havoc in Japan’s waterways. Genetic tests have established that all Japanese bluegills originated in one location near Guttenberg, IA. Japanese scientists entered the US in 2002 to carry out sophisticated genetic tests on fish from many different waterways in Iowa. As a result of these tests, the origin of millions of Japanese invasive bluegills was traced to just one location in Iowa—only 15 fish!

Many different fish species can be classified as invasive, causing ecological or economic harm in a new environment where they are not native. There is sometimes a delicate ecological balance among different species of trout. Fascinating stories of introductions in a place where specific species are non-native, and the staggering costs of remediating the damage caused, create fascinating tales.         

The lake trout introduced to Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park threatened to displace or reduce a famous trout species prized by anglers and depended upon by grizzly bears and birds of prey. Cutthroat trout are a famous, ecologically important species in Yellowstone Park. Non-native lake trout were deliberately or accidentally introduced displacing or severely reducing the population of cutthroat trout. Many iconic creatures for which Yellowstone is famous were impacted. Since 1994, 3.4 million lake trout were removed from Yellowstone by gill netting, reducing their population by 73% since 2011. The gradual return of cutthroats to Yellowstone Lake and its tributaries continues—an invasive species remediation success story.

Environmental alterations triggered by humanity fall along a spectrum. Some changes are beneficial; some are harmful. Our Creator has bestowed freedom for mankind to manage the environment. God provides wisdom to manage wisely as well as wisdom to avoid and remediate errors. We thank Him for the gift of freedom.  

     




















Thursday, August 13, 2020

Invasives, Non-natives, and Ecosystems

The rapid rise of human population has brought with it an explosion of new concerns for humanity. World population first reached one billion in 1804. On a graphic scale we had a roughly linear population for many thousands of years. Since 1804 the graph of human population has resembled an exponential growth curve. World population since 1950 has more than tripled from 2.5 billion to 7.8 billion. The problems for our environment, especially related to invasive species, have been monumental. 

How are invasive species related to healthy ecosystems? Invasive species are not indigenous and are deliberately or accidentally introduced from a different region, often a different continent. By definition, invasive species cause harm to the environment in various ways. Examples are numerous. Invasive species displace native organisms and reduce healthy biodiversity, often propagating at a rapid rate. Humans have introduced non-native, invasive organisms for a variety of reasons. Many invasive organisms arrived unintentionally. One example: early settlers in the New World longed for plants and wildlife typical of their native homelands. They were not cognizant of ecological impacts and many invasives damaged or disrupted their New World environment. Consider the European starling, the English sparrow, the gypsy moth, kudzu vine, and the ubiquitous garlic mustard and wild (poison) parsnip, to name a few.  

The USGS (United States Geological Survey), a scientific agency of the US government, states, “More than 6,500 non-indiginous species are now established in the United States, posing risks to native plants, animals, microorganisms, valued ecosystems, and human and wildlife health. In fact, the current annual environmental, economic, and health-related costs of invasive species exceed those of all other natural disasters combined.” (emphasis mine) The US Fish and Wildlife Service reports 50,000 non-native species exist in the US. 

We contrast another aspect of invasive vs non-native species. Some non-native species do not necessarily result in environmental harm and are not, therefore, termed invasive even though they may have been deliberately or accidentally introduced in a new geographic region. Such non-native species could be beneficial from an environmental, economic, aesthetic, or resource-providing standpoint. Examples are most cattle and farm animals used for food and other products in North America. Imagine our modern society without the contemporary food benefits of beef cattle or poultry. Many familiar animals trace their origins to the Old World. Likewise, a large fraction of fruits such as apples, peaches, pears, and apricots are not native to the Americas. Moreover, much food consumed by cattle, poultry, and humans in our society comes from soybeans and wheat—non-native imports from the Old World. 

In the world of plants and animals, native signifies the region of their original habitat. Many plants have been introduced from the Old World, or from distant geographical sections of the New World. ‘Native’ has acquired a positive connotation while the term non-native may be regarded with some suspicion. Invasive species are justifiably regarded with the most disapproval.

Our post concludes with mention of ecology, defined as a branch of biology dealing with the relationship of all organisms in an environment with each other and to the environment. In the pristine New World discovered by the Norse explorers and later, Christopher Columbus and other Europeans, continents generally possessed a pleasing “ecological balance.”

A WWF (World Wildlife Fund) article defines ecological balance as “a state of dynamic equilibrium within a community of organisms in which genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity remain relatively stable, subject to gradual changes through natural succession.” Their definition concludes with praise for “a stable balance in the numbers of each species in an ecosystem.”

The physical creation with its array of physical constants was divinely fine-tuned long before life appeared on the planet. When life, especially human life, was created, fine-tuning became even more exquisite. We suggest that ecological balance was in the mind of God as a feature of divine fine-tuning. The divine mandate to humans to manage their environment responsibly involves achieving ecological balance to every degree possible. Human life, the crowning achievement of the Creator, was granted the highest thinking capacity and ability. God has gifted humanity with the ability to manage environmental conditions in satisfying and responsible ways. Humans are able to comprehend environmental issues and benefit from understanding the concepts of ecological balance. 







  

   
  










Saturday, August 1, 2020

Invasive Species Nightmare

While researching the topic of invasive species we may be overcome with the overwhelming complexity of the topic. For the most part ‘invasions’ possess unpleasant overtones. Invasions are usually unwelcome, be they military incursions, or the arrival of objectionable biological entities. Plants or animals not indigenous or native to our area could bring with them unwelcome environmental changes or damage. Included in the latter category are also pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi. Some invasive species apparently do not cause environmental damage. We perceive them, incorrectly, as native species. Such pathogens have arrived from afar, even from a foreign country. These undesirable arrivals may also be termed “exotic.”

Invasive species in the Americas are far more common than we realize. Research into species categorized as invasive reveals hundreds of organisms—plants, animals, and pathogens which were known not to be native to this hemisphere before the arrival of explorers from the old world. The New World, North and South America, would be virtually biologically unrecognizable were we to board a time machine and visit the Americas of Columbus’ time only 500-600 years distant, or Norse settlements about 500 years before that. Native American Indians inhabited a land biologically different in many ways. We recall the Native American experience on our continents hundreds of years ago with great fascination. The fascination is historical, political and biological.

We reference our personal experience in Northern New Jersey after the family moved from Central New York State in 1951. In 1904, the unique eastern American Chestnut forests became infected by a fungal disease which originated in East Africa—the “greatest ecological disaster in our forests.” After a half century the American Chestnut forests which frequently produced gigantic trees over 100 feet tall in Eastern US were nearly gone—three billion trees. Our home in New Jersey, built in 1926, retained much wood in its bookshelves and decorative wooden pillars. They were constructed from wood of the American chestnut.

Our family left behind a heritage of agricultural beauty on its way to Northern New Jersey. A mighty elm had overlooked our farm fields in Onondaga County, NY, where we harvested corn, wheat and oats. The majestic elm has since yielded to an invasive species—the dutch elm disease. In our current home in northwest Illinois, we contracted for removal of over a dozen “expired” elm trees—victims of the same dutch elm disease. As I write, another elm across the street from our home awaits its final demise. Elm bark beetles are the vector for spreading the fungus which kills many majestic elm species. Dutch elm disease appeared in the US in 1928. It was also an exotic ‘wilt’ fungus, an import from the Old World. Forty million elm trees have perished in the US—many more around the world.

Ash borer, an insect native to NE Asia whose larvae feed on the bark of ash trees, currently infests many of our local trees. It entered the ecosystem in 2002 in Detroit, MI, on wooden packing materials from China. The borer damages the tree’s ability to transport water. Dieback and bark splitting results. 

Another personal experience with an invasive plant must be told, this time a harmless plant. In the last decade of my teaching career my students and I discovered a single, unusual woody plant in an unlikely forest location during a school sponsored trail hike. We returned to school with several huge leaves. One YouTube clip claims the leaves of paulownia tomentosa produced by the shoots of a tree cut down to ground level are as big as a car wheel. Pictures show gigantic leaves over two feet in diameter. The plant is known to consume enormous quantities of CO2. It is a prolific exotic from China which first arrived about 1840. Tongue in cheek, our students speculated the plant may have been a rare mutation from another planet.

More often than not, invasive species are deleterious. Most locales in our area are plagued with many invasive weeds and plants. Poison parsnip and garlic mustard are two common examples. There are many other illustrations.

The frequently quoted Genesis 1:28 contains an exhortation to ‘subdue’ the Earth. We  carefully interpret the meaning of ‘subdue’ in the context of responsible environmental practice. Humanity has an obligation to study diverse characteristics of multiple species within their ecological niches. We must carefully avoid importing harmful invasive species, either deliberately or accidentally. Humanity’s record in this area has been deficient.

Our research of this topic from a personal perspective has inspired us to study the invasive species issue from a more global perspective. 

            



   

      





  

  

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Neowise--A Sky Spectacular

Currently we have an unusual visitor from outer space—Comet Neowise—an acronym named after Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer.

Natural sky “spectaculars” infrequently occur, unless we include sunrises, sunsets, motions and phases of the Moon, pinwheeling of the stars around Polaris daily, and weather events connected with a multitude of changing atmospheric conditions. Observers may categorize such daily events as spectacular in their own right. These events provide coherence, beauty, interest, and appeal. Comet appearances, however, provide a superlative ‘spectacular.’ 

In this day of emphasis on the out of the ordinary, visible comets could be considered ultra-spectacular. Solar System comets are unpredictable visitors. Many millions of comets originate in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune. This comet probably orignated beyond the Kuiper Belt where there may be a trillion such objects. These globs of frozen gases and dust orbit the Sun, some rarely falling close to the Sun in their elliptical orbits. When they reach the inner solar system the Sun’s heat vaporizes the frozen gases while the solar wind drives the gases and dust away from the Sun, forming a visible tail. After reaching perihelion, their closest approach to the sun, surviving comets are propelled back out to remote reaches of space from which they originated. Comet Neowise was discovered on March 27, 2020. It is not scheduled to make a return visit to the Sun for 6800 years according to mathematicians.

On July 19 we observed the sky just under the Big Dipper as evening darkness approached. For about 30 minutes, as the Dipper was slowly becoming visible, no trace of the comet appeared. Darkness finally enabled all the Big Dipper stars to come into view. Shortly, we caught a fleeting vision of the comet’s coma and tail. Within several minutes, we were sure we spotted Neowise. Averted vision, looking slightly to the periphery, was necessary rather than direct vision. Peripheral vision is more sensitive to dim objects. After a few minutes, binoculars revealed Neowise in its glory, but It remained an impressive naked eye object.

Comet Neowise is the most impressive naked eye comet visible in the past 23 years. In 1996 Comet Hyakutake was termed the Great Comet of 1996. It was visible for only a brief few days, speeding by Earth quickly because of its close approach. Comet Hale-Bopp, now known as the Great Comet of 1997 was even more impressive. It provided 18 months of visibility. My father, at age 88, was once able to view the comet through an Astroscan telescope with eyes weakened by macular degeneration. I provided an evening discussion and viewing opportunity for my students, aided by my pastor’s tracking telescope. We were able to see jets of gas spiraling away from the coma. The spiral jets were caused by the rotation of the comet body.

Many observers count Neowise, Hale-Bopp, and Hyakutake as the three most spectacular comets to become visible in their lifetime. The current “Neowise—A Sky Spectacular” post should be added to the collection of our former posts from late October to Early November 2019 in which we recounted many personal memories of sky spectaculars. The natural world, including the phenomena of comets, declares “the glory of God” and reveals “the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1-4). Our July 19 observation of Comet Neowise took place on a startlingly beautiful, clear summer night. The MIlky Way was brilliant overhead in all its glory—somewhat unusual on a mid-summer day when light pollution is a handicap to star-gazing in many locations. (Our neighborhood has strict ‘dark sky’ regulations.) Neowise is a fleeting treat for comet-watching stargazers, providing motivation for a detailed study of one of many fascinating wonders of God’s creation. 



  

Monday, July 13, 2020

Locust Plagues--Ancient to Modern

The term “plague” may loosely refer to any widespread calamity or affliction. In these highly unusual days, some have referred to COVID-19 as a plague. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, chapters 7-11, there were ten incidents initiated by the Lord Himself to force Pharaoh to release the Israelites from their cruel bondage. These episodes were termed plagues. Some of the plague events could still occur today owing to chance events on our meteorologically dynamic earth. More likely, the ten plagues of Exodus were orchestrated by God Himself for a specific purpose. They are classified as transcendent divine miracles—events outside or beyond the normal limitations of the physical laws and space/time dimensions of this universe. (Contrast this type of miracle with the far more common sustaining and transformational miracles.)

Our position is that events such as a broad spectrum of weather disasters, historic bacterial or viral diseases similar to the worldwide current coronavirus pandemic, or the current desert locust plague gaining more worldwide attention are but a small sample of multiple hazards of living on Planet Earth in our temporal sphere of existence. Those who wrestle whether the glass is half full or half empty may pronounce this world a place of brokenness and despair, or they may perceive our planet as a place to thrive. This blog site has often enthusiastically characterized Earth as a place to thrive, at the same time being aware of the oft-challenging God-ordained planetary conditions we are instructed to solve for our own benefit. Below is one of several posts to propose the mysterious concept of “God’s higher purpose” as we describe serious difficulties and tragedies in our world:


As if the devastating coronavirus pandemic, the substantial damage to the world’s normal economic system it has caused, and the social turmoil in which our country is currently embroiled were not enough, the world now faces a plague of desert locusts over huge areas of East Africa, the Mideast, and Southern Asia. The species schistocerca gregaria, the desert locust, began to appear in 2019 and early 2020. It is a type of grasshopper, of which 7000 species exist. Of these, 20 species are considered locusts. In the current outbreak, the desert locust is the species responsible for incredible crop damage.

Although several theories of long distance locust migration across ocean expanses have gained some attention, one account of the Rocky Mountain locust is worthy of mention. Marauding locusts devastated large areas of western US agriculture in the 19th century. Mysteriously, they then disappeared. It is theorized they became extinct for reasons not entirely clear.

The 2020 locust outbreak extending from West Africa to Southern Asia encompasses a large area—20% of the Earth’s land area. Current major hotspot outbreaks in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia are breeding grounds for future swarms of locusts. World health organizations are warning the world of an even more devastating locust plague. This depends on future weather conditions and agricultural deterrents such as pesticides which are of limited effectiveness in view of numbers of insects in the locust swarms. The speed and magnitude of locust proliferation is incredible. Eggs produced during drought or normal years have sprung to life in 2020 due to unusually heavy, sustained rainfall. It is the worst invasion of desert locusts in 25 years. One km2 may be populated by 150 million locusts. A single swarm covering 1200 km2 could support 50-100 billion locusts, each of which is capable of consuming its own body weight in vegetation daily. Locusts produce several generations in one year with a 20-fold population increase in only one generation.

A combination of factors is generating concern in the current locust crisis. Climate change may have exacerbated the locust plague by causing an unusual number of rain events in the past few years. Climate is changing long term; climate changes also occur short term. These changes have been present for thousands of years as have plagues of locusts.

Physiological changes resulting in behavioral changes result from huge numbers of locusts congregating and physically contacting each other in nymphal stages or early in their adult stages. This contact alters the insects’ phenotype—they become somewhat physically transformed from their early characteristics as well as substantially different in their behavior. They are now gregarious. They begin to swarm in massive groups, moving from one place to another over Earth’s geographical locations. This change in the locusts’ observable characteristics promotes their survival as a species. Sadly, this change in their behavior may result in famine, disease, and increased poverty among the inhabitants of Africa, the Mideast, and Southern Asia.

Our world continues to suffer from the coronavirus pandemic. Residents must cope with deleterious effects of COVID-19, the desert locust, and unstable political realities. It is incumbent on Christians to educate themselves concerning the locust and coronavirus plagues, not to mention existing political turmoil. We must pray for those affected by tragedies and for national leaders in these dire days.