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.