Word of the Day: Pyrocumulus

Ash cloud from Soufrière Hills, Montserrat.
Ash cloud from Soufrière Hills, Montserrat. Is this a pyrocumulus? December 17, 2005.

I rebooted this blog to enthusiastically rave about dragonflies, but apparently you get the Colorado Wildfire Watch instead. Today I learned a new word: pyrocumulus. A pyrocumulus cloud is a cumulus (‘pile-up’) cloud created by fire, such as a wildfire or a volcano. I am still not entirely clear on how to tell the difference between a pyrocumulus and an non-pyrocumulus smoke plume, though.

What blows my mind is that a large volcanic pyrocumulus (technically at that point a pyrocumulonimbus) can actually produce lightning, by a little-understood process.

Today another wildfire started outside Boulder, near Flagstaff Mountain, one of my favorite hiking areas. I actually went hiking up in Gregory Canyon about a month ago early in the butterfly season, and I have a bunch of photos I need to go through, so I’ll try to do a cheerful insect post soon. I’m not sure how much of the area is going to be left–the Flagstaff Fire is about 230 acres right now, but it’s aggressive and in difficult firefighting terrain. It seems to be burning toward the city of Boulder, which is not exactly an improvement. Meanwhile, the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs has moved into the western edge of the city, forcing 32,000 people to evacuate.

I’ll probably try to get some photographs of the Flagstaff Fire later this week, since I work in Boulder. I’m not a meteorologist, and not sure whether the plume qualifies as a pyrocumulus yet, but it’s pretty impressive, in that scary, depressing way.

It’s shaping up to be an incredibly bad wildfire season in the western U.S.


See Like A Bee: Ultraviolet Flower Photography

European Honeybee (Apis mellifera)
A European Honeybee (Apis mellifera) at Sawhill Ponds in Boulder, Colorado, USA. April 22, 2012.

PLEASE NOTE that I am NOT the photographer, and you should contact him directly through his website (linked below) if you are interested in using these images. According to his website, most uses will require a negotiable fee.

Some flowers and pollens fluoresce in interesting and sometimes surprising patterns under ultraviolet light. Alas, while pollinating insects can see these patterns perfectly to find the nectar and pollen, the human eye cannot without some help. Fortunately, professional photographer Bjørn Rørslett has photographed many of these flowers, revealing their UV and infrared patterns so we can “see” the flowers as bees do (more or less–the colors in UV photography are arbitrary).

Some of my favorites:

+Potentilla anserina L.
+Coreopsis sp.
+Crepis biennis
+Rudbeckia hirta
+Taraxacum vulgare
+Jasione montana
+Oenothera biennis
+Ranunculus ficaria
+Potentilla erecta
+Angelica sylvestris

Want to photograph your own UV flowers with a digital SLR camera? It’s complicated and not for the faint of heart or light of wallet, but Rørslett has kindly provided a tutorial if you decide to give it a try.

A version of this post was originally published on May 4, 2006. Somewhat bafflingly, this was by far the most popular post on my old blog, so I’m republishing it. Again, I am not the photographer of the linked images of flowers and I cannot provide permission to use them.

So long, Lonesome George

Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Tortoise
Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni), in captivity at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, Ecuador. October 24, 2009.

Today I found out from Lee at Worm Salad that Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abigdoni) died this morning. George was found on Pinta Island in the Galápagos of Ecuador in 1972, after the subspecies was believed to be extinct, and was probably between 100 and 120 years old.

George had been the focus of a lot of breeding attempts over the years, but none were successful, and even if they had been, they would have produced hybrid tortoises, not more Pinta Island Tortoises. But George had become something of an icon of vanishing species, a tragic survivor. Every day species die out, many small and uncharismatic, many unknown to us, and many because of our actions–George’s kindred, the Pinta Island Tortoises, died out because introduced feral goats (still a major problem in the Galápagos) destroyed the native foliage.

I visited the Galápagos Islands in 2009 with my mother and saw Lonesome George at the Charles Darwin Research Station. The park has an active breeding program for giant tortoises, and a successful one (George aside), judging by the number of baby tortoises we saw. George really did look lonesome, and our naturalist guide from Galapagos Travel, who had worked with him before, told us he could be rather mean to the other tortoises in his enclosure.

I’m sad that he’s gone, and that his subspecies is gone, but if tortoises can be happy, I’m not entirely sure he was a happy tortoise. He was a pretty old tortoise, and it looks like he died of natural causes, although we won’t know for sure until after the park performs an autopsy.

And I hope that we can avoid having many more Lonesome Georges in the future–that his memory will continue to serve as the powerful icon for conservation that he was in life.

So long, George. We’ll miss you.

The High Park Fire and Wildfire Recovery

High Park Fire from Estes Park
Smoke plume from the first day of the High Park Fire, seen from near Estes Park, Colorado, USA. June 9, 2012.

A few weeks ago, my partner and I went to the Wool Market in Estes Park. On our way there, taking the scenic route through the mountains, we saw this huge smoke plume to the northwest, but no one seemed to know what was happening.

The following Monday, the Front Range was blanketed in fire haze, all the way down to Denver, and we learned about the High Park Fire, which at 75,537 acres and 45% containment (down from about 60% a couple days ago–hot, dry, gusty weather conditions have made firefighting much harder) is now the second-worst wildfire in recorded Colorado history.

I’ve seen a lot of people talking about how it’s tragic, but it’ll solve the pine beetle problem and forests need fire and the forest will come back healthier. To the first–maybe, although pine beetles will continue being a problem in the future if winters don’t get colder again. To the second, yes, western forests are on the whole fire-adapted.

But the problem with the third is that we’ve practiced fire suppression for so long that between that and the beetle-kill, fuel loads are extremely high, resulting in fires that burn longer and hotter and travel faster. A fire that burns quickly through the undergrowth but doesn’t harm larger trees is one thing. A fire that burns everything to ash…well, up in the mountains of Colorado, where growing seasons are short and dry, a relatively small ponderosa pine can easily be a hundred years old. As dry as things have become, trees grow even more slowly now.

I spent a lot of time in the Cascades of eastern Oregon as a kid, and I saw the results of post-suppression subalpine forest fires after a few decades had passed. The forests weren’t back. There were trees, to be sure, but they were small trees scattered through a dry, non-native-grass-dominated high desert ecosystem, not a forest.

No matter how much mitigation and planting we do, we haven’t found a way to accelerate tree growth significantly.

There will be forests again eventually where the Hayman and High Park Fires have burned, probably–but not on the 20-year timeframe people seem to be imagining. Not even in our lifetimes.

Blue-eyed Darner (Rhionaeschna multicolor)

Blue-eyed Darner (Rhionaeschna multicolor) dragonfly
A Blue-eyed Darner (Rhionaeschna multicolor), Boulder, Colorado, USA. June 21, 2012.

Darners or hawkers (Family Aeshnidae) are one of the more frustrating species of dragonflies for me. They’re big and fast and never seem to rest, which makes them difficult both to identify and to photograph.

This one I found in a pond in Boulder, all but dead, which is how I could take a clear close-up shot with a cameraphone–a live darner would almost never hold still for that. Blue-eyed Darners (Rhionaeschna multicolor) like this one are the second species to show up in Colorado in spring, after the Common Green Darner (Anax junius), so I was pretty excited to get a close look at this one, even if it was dying.

I foolishly did not stick it in a bag to take home (lesson learned!), and two hours later, the scavengers had pretty much eaten it. Here’s a photo of what was left the next day:

Blue-eyed Darner (Rhionaeschna multicolor)

The transparent brown part is the thorax–I guess it has a lot of meat in it. The head and eyes were the first part the scavengers consumed. You can see here how the uneaten bits are much duller in color than in the photo from when it was (barely) alive; darners in particular lose color quickly after dying.