Posts Tagged ‘science’

Look up! Close encounter with a large asteroid Jan 26

This graphic depicts the passage of asteroid 2004 BL86, which will come no closer than about three times the distance from Earth to the moon on Jan. 26, 2015. Due to its orbit around the sun, the asteroid is currently only visible by astronomers with large telescopes who are located in the southern hemisphere. But by Jan. 26, the space rock's changing position will make it visible to those in the northern hemisphere. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This graphic depicts the passage of asteroid 2004 BL86, which will come no closer than about three times the distance from Earth to the moon on Jan. 26, 2015. Due to its orbit around the sun, the asteroid is currently only visible by astronomers with large telescopes who are located in the southern hemisphere. But by Jan. 26, the space rock’s changing position will make it visible to those in the northern hemisphere. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ready for a little excitement in the night sky?

According to the experts, a large asteroid, known as 2004 BL86, will swing past the earth on Monday, Jan 26th. How large? It’s estimated to be 500 meters in diameter, with nothing else of that size coming around again until 2027.

We are assured that no collision will result. Amazingly, it may be possible to see the moving object from your location. (Emphasis on “may”. It is a moving object.)

Here’s more on why asteroids are interesting, from NASA’s Near Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. According to manager Don Yeomans:

The asteroid is expected to be observable to amateur astronomers with small telescopes and strong binoculars.

“I may grab my favorite binoculars and give it a shot myself,” said Yeomans. “Asteroids are something special. Not only did asteroids provide Earth with the building blocks of life and much of its water, but in the future, they will become valuable resources for mineral ores and other vital natural resources. They will also become the fueling stops for humanity as we continue to explore our solar system. There is something about asteroids that makes me want to look up.”

You can read more at Earth and Sky, which mentions that “the Virtual Telescope Project will feature real-time images and commentary“.

According to coverage by the Business Insider, another way to watch comes from:

Slooh, the live online observatory, will broadcast the event starting at 11:00 am EST on Monday, Jan. 26.

The broadcast, provided below, will include commentary from experts including Paul Chodas, manager of JPL’s Near-Earth Object Program Office, and Lance Benner, NASA Research Scientist.

Dress warmly, if you head outside yourself, and good luck!

Maple syrup: sweet science and taste standards

Ungraded gold. Excellent maple syrup made by a friend. Photo: Lucy Martin

Ungraded gold. Excellent maple syrup made by a friend. Photo: Lucy Martin

The New York Times recently reported on an interesting new theory on anticipating what kind of syrup season to expect. Of course this is determined by many factors: overall seasonal weather, specific spring temperatures, moisture, tree health, etc. etc.

But at least one new study suggests seed cycles matter too, particularly something called a mast year. And that 2015 could be a good syrup season:

In a paper published recently in the journal Forest Ecology and Management, ecologists at Tufts University near Boston suggest that syrup and seed production are linked. Because 2014 was a low seed year for maples, the scientists reason, maple trees invested spare energy into producing more carbohydrates.

What’s the relationship? Again, from the NYT article:

“For a long time, maple producers have known that weather affects how much you get,” said Elizabeth Crone, a biologist at Tufts and an author of the study. “We knew how to predict sap flow, but how do we predict how much sugar there will be in the sap?” Dr. [Josh] Rapp and Dr. Crone found that they could consistently predict annual sap sugar concentrations by looking at seed counts from the previous year. A hypothesis formed: Every year, trees either invest in producing seeds and flowers, or dump their energy reserves into making extra-sugary sap.

Science Daily covered this topic in November:

Rapp explains weather’s role in these predictions: “The best way to predict syrup production is actually a combination of factors: proportion of trees with seeds, minimum and maximum March temperatures, and maximum April temperature. Those factors together explained 79% of the variation in syrup production in Vermont from 1998 to 2014.”

Because seeds develop a full six months before syrup harvest, Rapp hopes this study can help syrup producers plan ahead. “Maple syrup is a complicated natural resource,” he says. “Hopefully this research can give producers a window into the upcoming season.”

OK, all you sugar bush old timers out there, do these observations match your experience?

While on the subject of maple syrup, beginning in 2015, Canada is harmonizing the way it grades maple syrup. This matches a shift Vermont producers made at the start of 2014. Standardization is seen by government regulators and industry groups as a way to reduce consumer confusion and combat unclear or fraudulent labeling.

NPR reported on the new standards last January, detailing how the new system calls more syrup “grade A” with notations on taste that seem less pejorative than the old label of “grade B”.

Here’s an explanation of those changes from

The former Vermont designations — Fancy, Grade A, Light, Medium or Dark Amber, Grade B — are being replaced with four grades designed to convey information about the color and flavor profile of the syrup.

Now, all packaged maple syrup will be labeled Grade A, and will be classified as “Golden color/Delicate taste,” “Amber color/Rich taste,” “Dark color/Robust taste” or “Very Dark/Strong taste.”

“This change is a welcome one, representing the culmination of more than 10 years of effort in the maple industry,” said Emma Marvin of Morrisville-based Butternut Mountain Farm; she is executive board secretary of the nonprofit Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association. “The new grading system brings a level of consistency to maple syrup classification that simply hasn’t existed historically.”

Senator Nancy GreeneSenator Oh, Senator Nancy Greene Raine, Ray Bonenberg (President of Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association), Senator Mockler (Chair of the Agriculture Committee).

Senator Oh, Senator Nancy Greene Raine, Ray Bonenberg (President of Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association), Senator Mockler (Chair of the Agriculture Committee). Photo: Sen. Greene website

As reported by the National Post, Canada will be implementing the new system over the next two years. Canadian Senator (and former ski champion) Nancy Greene Raine championed this harmonization back in 2012, in the belief

… new regulations would also help marketers of pure maple products crack down on fraudsters who sell maple syrup that is often little more than flavoured sugar water.

“If you’ve ever been to a street market in Paris, for example, some of them have signs advertising ‘pure Canadian maple syrup,’ when what they are selling doesn’t actually contain much maple syrup at all,” she said.

“It’s mostly sugar water. They won’t be able to do that anymore. It’s fraud.”

Since over 80% of the world maple syrup supply comes from Canada, it makes sense to be clear about product standards. Do you think this grading system does that?

Citronella safety debate

Winter doesn’t seem like the time to talk about biting insects and ways to repel them. But bug season comes around every calendar year. And when the air fills with the sound of hungry buzzing, what do you reach for? DEET-based products are the repellant of choice for many. Others want something from nature’s medicine cabinet, like oil of citronella, which is extracted from several varieties of Cymbopogon (lemongrass).

Container of oil of citronella. Image by Feen, Creative Commons

Container of oil of citronella. Image by Feen, Creative Commons

Hence, many Canadians were startled by an announcement last September. Despite decades of use, citronella products would be pulled from that market by year’s end.

Why? As reported by CTV at that time:

…Health Canada classifies citronella oil insect repellents as pesticides that must therefore meet certain safety standards. Back in 2004, Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency completed a review of citronella-based insect lotions and sprays and said it was not convinced the products were safe.

While the agency found no “imminent health risks” from citronella-based repellents, it also said manufacturers had not provided them with adequate safety data to allow for the continued registration of the products as pesticides.

But on 12/23 CBC reported a reprieve, of sorts:

CBC news has learned Health Canada is now backtracking on its ban due to public pressure. After receiving feedback about the move, the agency has decided to re-examine its regulations around personal insect repellents containing plant-based essential oils, including citronella. Until the review’s conclusion, sometime in 2016, currently registered citronella repellents can continue to be sold.

USDA photo by Scott Bauer. Creative Commons

USDA photo by Scott Bauer. Creative Commons

There’s always debate about efficacy and safety. And it’s worth noting the EPA considers DEET safe.

Here’s discussion of that from a 2014 review:

EPA continues to believe that the normal use of DEET does not present a health concern to the general population, including children. As always, consumers are advised to read and follow label directions in using any pesticide product, including insect repellents. Currently registered uses of DEET are also not expected to result in adverse effects for listed and non-listed endangered species, or critical habitat. As such, EPA concludes “no effect” for listed species and no adverse modification of designated critical habitat for all currently registered uses of DEET.

Trying to look into this further, I found a .pdf from the EPA that had this to say about citronella

Assessing Risks to Human Health

In studies using laboratory animals, Oil of Citronella shows little or no toxicity. The only concern is skin irritation. Because some products are applied to human skin, EPA requires proper precautionary labeling to help assure safe use. Therefore, if used according to label instructions, citronella is not expected to pose health risks to people, including children and other sensitive populations.

Oil of Citronella has been used extensively since 1948 without any reports of adverse effects of concern.

Sorry, I don’t know how to easily link to .pdf sources like that one. But you can look up oil of citronella on the EPA’s Pesticide Registration Status website, here (under “o”).

There is also more on citronella from the National Pesticide Information Center. Which sounds like a reputable resource:

NPIC provides objective, science-based information about pesticides and pesticide-related topics to enable people to make informed decisions. NPIC is a cooperative agreement between Oregon State University and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Personally, I’d rather reach for the plant-sourced sprays than DEET.  But I must admit the citronella type products don’t seem to repel for very long. I usually cover up with clothes and even netting. And probably get more bites as a result.

Indeed, relief from those #%@**!^ blood suckers is one of many things I really, really enjoy about winters up north.

Out of curiosity, where do you come down on DEET-based products verses so-called natural remedies? How do you assess safety, or do you even care? As in: “any port in a storm”!

Conservation group buying unusual Ottawa Valley cave complex

Channel spring Gervais Property. Photo by: Daniel Brunton for Nature Conservancy Canada, used by permission

Channel spring Gervais Property. Photo by: Daniel Brunton for Nature Conservancy Canada, used by permission

Nature Conservancy Canada (NCC) is negotiating the purchase of a 75-acre property with most of the entrances to the Gervais Caves, located near Westmeath, Ontario, about 90 miles west of Ottawa.

The Gervais Caves are said to be among the longest underwater cave systems in Canada (see more on that below).

From the NCC’s webpage on the project:

Beneath the surface of the Ottawa River lies a subterranean wonderland seldom seen by the human eye – the Ottawa River Caves. The labyrinth measures over 10 kilometres in length under several islands throughout the Ottawa River, and includes a four kilometre section on the Ontario side of the river known as the Gervais Caves.

Small pool in the forest after high water. Image courtesy of Nature Conservancy Canada

Small pool in the forest after high water. Image courtesy of Nature Conservancy Canada

Additional funds are still being raised to complete the purchase, which is ranked as a high priority by the organization.

The most important features of the property are the karst landscape and sinkholes associated with the Gervais property. Karst landforms are an important variant of landforms created by flowing water. Water is routed underground via solutional cave systems instead of flowing at the surface in normal river channels.

At least 13 of these sinkholes are connected to the Ottawa River through this extensive network of underwater caverns. Fish such as sturgeon, walleye and smallmouth bass can be found hiding in the nooks of the caves.

Above ground, the Gervais property is just as impressive. This site is full of life – home to over 135 native vascular plant species and a number of at-risk plant species, including the endangered butternut tree, the provincially-rare Hooker’s orchid, regionally-rare moonseed and Hitchcock’s sedge. The mature forest features exceptionally large examples of Eastern white cedar, including two trees over 90 centimetres in diameter that are many centuries old.

Ottawa River shoreline showing limestone rock in which the caves have formed. Image courtesy of Nature Conservancy Canada

Ottawa River shoreline showing limestone rock in which the caves have formed. Image courtesy of Nature Conservancy Canada

Ottawa Citizen science reporter Tom Spears had more to say about the caves and the fish population within:

Their passages range from one to 38 metres wide. There’s no vegetation in the dark caves, but clams, crayfish, eels and sturgeon move in and out from the river.

Veteran cave diver David Sawatzky told a Citizen reporter several years ago about being ambushed by a school of pike during one zero-visibility dive.

“There are some fairly aggressive fish in the Ottawa River, and they’re in the caves as well. It’s like being punched,” he said. “Some of the larger fish hit very hard, so I got punched a few times by fish. When one hit my hand, I didn’t let go (of the rope). I sort of expected it might be coming.”

The caves aren’t for amateur explorers.

“These are pretty treacherous and completely flooded. It’s not like a system that you can walk into,” said Gary Bell of the Nature Conservancy.

Pretty on the surface. Spooky down below: two layers of murky caves – with attack fish. It’s great they’ll be preserved and I’m content to learn about them from others.


Footnote: This list of underwater caves calls the Gervais caves the second longest in Canada. Yet another ranks it at number 13. Perhaps it depends on qualifying definitions?

Here’s another site with an array of info and photos on Caves of Ontario


Maple trees and species migration

"Comfort Maple" (est. 500 years old), Pelham, Ontario, Canada Allegedly, Canada's oldest and/or largest Sugar Maple Acer saccharum. circa 1500 A.D. Located near Fenwick, Ontario. Image by Mac Armstrong, Creative Commons

“Comfort Maple” (est. 500 years old), Pelham, Ontario, Canada Allegedly, Canada’s oldest and/or largest Sugar Maple Acer saccharum. circa 1500 A.D. Located near Fenwick, Ontario. Image by Mac Armstrong, Creative Commons

There’s a lot happening in studies of possible effects of climate change and species migration.

Sometimes this concerns the the big picture, as with an alarming study from the National Audubon Society that half the bird species of North America are at risk of extinction by century’s end.

There’s also the migration of unwanted things, as with an Associate Press item this week about new tree pests showing up in New York State.

One school of thought holds that animals and plants may simply migrate to new territory, so to speak. Moving north, for example, if cooler temps are needed. That could happen naturally or with human help, as with the concept of assisted migration.

But (big surprise!) factors surrounding what grows where turn out to be somewhat complex. Case in point: a recent experiment on maple seed germination in Quebec.

Canadian Geographic interviewed the study’s led author, Carissa Brown, an assistant professor of biogeography at Memorial University in Newfoundland.

In a series of what Brown described as “character building” experiments, her team lugged about 800 litres of earth up and down the kilometre high Mont-Megantic in southern Quebec. Doing so allowed the team to simulate northward migration by simply changing elevation. Instead of moving the soil to higher latitude, they took it up the mountain where the temperatures were comparably cool.

To ensure their results were being determined by factors other than climate, they brought soil from high on the mountain, outside the sugar maple’s range, down to the heart of the tree’s range and planted the winged seeds kids often call “helicopters.”

They found that even in the best climatic conditions, planting seed in soil from outside the tree’s range resulted in less seedlings taking root, meaning trees would naturally have problems expanding their range. But the real surprise was waiting for the scientists at the top of the mountain, where they’d transported the good soil.

“We came to our pots and instead of finding seedlings we found the seed wing, but instead of a seed attached to it, we found little bite marks,” Brown says.

Whatever was eating the seeds was stifling the sugar maples’ range expansion more than other factors such as soil quality. To prove it they ran another series of experiments using cages to protect some seeds, and found that when protected and planted in good soil, the seeds would germinate at high elevation.

Here’s a link to the study “Non-climatic constraints on upper elevation plant range expansion under climate change“. And here’s more discussion about sugar maple range and climate change from 2011.

Tapping a sugar-maple tree, Ohio. Keystone View Company -- Publisher, Creative Commons

Tapping a sugar-maple tree, Ohio. Keystone View Company — Publisher, Creative Commons

Arctic tour puts unintended spotlight on climate change

This August, Stephen Harper became the first Canadian Prime Minister to travel to the Northwest Passage. Photo: Prime Minister's Office

This August, Stephen Harper became the first Canadian Prime Minister to travel the Northwest Passage. Photo: Prime Minister’s Office

For 9 years running, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has spent part of his summers touring Canada’s Arctic regions, including this year’s Operation Nanook 14.

He goes to wave the flag and bolster territorial claims in the area. He goes in anticipation of a coming boom once resources and shipping are more accessible. And many think he goes from a genuine respect for the history and potential of the far north.

On tour, or back in Ottawa, what Canada’s most important political figure seldom discusses is a little thing called climate change. Which is odd, considering how the Arctic absolutely, utterly proves that something big is happening to our planet.

Particularly in the U.S., one can still get arguments about the cause of receding glaciers, changes in sea ice, and shifts in weather, animal and plant life. But in the Arctic, it’s virtually impossible to deny major changes are happening, often even faster than initially predicted.

Residents there know that first-hand. The Arctic Rangers, a mostly-indigenous civilian reservist force that patrols the region, say nearly everything is changing. As reported by the Canadian Press:

“The elders used to be able to predict the weather by looking at the clouds; they can’t do that anymore. You can’t predict the weather anymore,” was a typical comment on the impact of climate change, which has reduced snow cover, led to earlier springs and generated fiercer winter winds.

Snowmobiles are becoming less available as the snow disappears, making it harder to travel.

“We never used to have forest fires. Now we have more and more each summer,” said one participant.

“There are new species now like small birds, ducks, salmon, foxes, grizzlies and an unknown species that is a cross between a polar bear and a grizzly,” said another. “We never used to see any of these species before.”

Meanwhile, staples of the indigenous northern diet — caribou, seal and polar bear — are migrating north to escape the warmer weather, leaving fewer animals to hunt.

“Polar bears used to be fat and tasty,” said one ranger. “They taste different now.”

And the Arctic is no longer a natural refrigerator for the hunt, said some.

“When we are on the land and living in tents, we dig holes to put the carcasses in to keep them frozen. Now even six feet down it is not frozen.”

Natural Resources Canada map showing

Natural Resources Canada map of estimated burn sites near Yellowknife NWT, toward the end of the 2014 fire season.

CBC news reports the fire season has been unusually bad in the Northwest Territories this year:

The worst forest fire season in decades has ravaged about 33,000 square kilometres of land — an area larger than the size of Vancouver Island.

Most of the destruction has been in the North Slave region, where Alfred Arrowmaker hunts and traps.

“I went out weeks ago, looking for moose, and there was nothing there. Everything is burned. There is absolutely nothing out there,” Arrowmaker says.

“I have lived in Gameti my whole life, and I have never seen this kind of fire in my life before.

Micheal Den Tandt traveled with Prime Minister Harper’s entourage for Postmedia News. Summarizing the tour, Den Tandt said it went very well, on the whole. With two glaring exceptions.

Problem one is improving the many frustrations and poor conditions still faced by Canada’s indigenous populations. And, as Den Tandt put it,

The second elephant in the room is, of course, climate change. In the Arctic this is neither debate nor symbol; it is a fact on the ground. Moreover, it’s one the government clearly recognizes, at least in deed. The opening of northern sea routes now in its infancy underpins virtually every aspect of the Harper government’s Arctic strategy, from the search for the Franklin ships, to the need to project sovereignty northward, to the military’s Operation Nanook on Tuesday, which envisioned a tourist ship running aground in York Sound, near the Davis Strait.

None of this would be happening were it not for the gradual withdrawal of the summer ice. Climate change is a fundamental to the emerging geography of the Canadian Arctic. And yet, the two words “climate change” were not uttered a single time over the span of six days, by the PM or any of his ministers, that I am aware of. At this late juncture, with the Arctic so central to their plans, that is simply astonishing.

Readers who are still with me are probably interested in the Arctic as a region. So I wanted to call attention to a fascinating article in the New York Times on the mystery of what happened to the Dorset, an Arctic people who survived well in isolation for 4,000 years before vanishing about 700 years ago.

The article concerns a new study published in Science Magazine this August “The genetic prehistory of the New World Arctic” which examined DNA evidence to conclude the Dorset were not absorbed into surviving populations.

Researchers feel the Dorset likely had problems caused by their too-isolated gene pool. But the coup de grâce may have been environmental, according to New York University professor Todd R. Disotell (who was not part of the DNA study):

Another possibility, Dr. Disotell explained, is that the Dorset braved generations of harsh tundra conditions only to succumb to the effects of climate change. In the Arctic, even minor shifts in temperature can devastate marine life, cutting off vital food sources. The archaeological record, in fact, suggests that several such events had nearly wiped out the Paleo-Eskimos before.

“When you’re dealing with sea ice, just a few degrees can be transformative,” Dr. Disotell said. “Three bad winters in a row where you can’t hunt seals, and you’re in trouble.”

Of course, some will seize upon the fact that climate has changed – dramatically – long before humans were burning carbon counts as another challenge to today’s understanding of global warming and its causes.

But maybe the salient point is this: climate change matters. Argue all you like about what causes it. Just admit that some of these shifts become issues of survival.

A striking image from the Prime Minister's 2014 Arctic tour.

A striking image from the Prime Minister’s 2014 Arctic tour. Photo: PMO

If the U.S. “stinks” at math, what’s the fix?

Students cheering at MoMath's Second Annual Suffolk County Middle School Math Tournament  (Image MoMath)

Students cheering at MoMath’s Second Annual Suffolk County Middle School Math Tournament (Image: MoMath used by permission)

Earlier this week the most emailed story from the New York Times asked “Why do Americans stink at math?

It’s a worthwhile article, if long. But, in general terms, it’s true: America’s math skills need work.

Numbers that indicate mediocrity at best come from sources like the Programme for International Assessment, or PISA. Their 2012 assessment of math competency for 15 year-olds (in 65 countries) ranks Canada in 13th and the U.S. in 36th place.

The problem is fairly visible but solutions remain elusive.

Many fault how math is taught, including Glen Whitney, a key founder of the National Museum of Mathematics. Located in New York City, “MoMath” is the only one of its kind in North America – in contrast to Germany, which has several math museums. Other countries with math museums include Japan, South Korea, Italy, Spain, Japan and Hungary. (Of course, many museums and similar institutions in the U.S. include material that is very much related to math.)

Interviewed by Molly Petrilla for Smart Planet, Whitney expounded on ways math gets misunderstood, or improperly presented, in the U.S.:

In the roughly 2,000 hours of math instruction you get in traditional K-12 school, you get a non-representative view of what mathematics as a human enterprise is like. You learn that every problem has a specific method, and it’s just a matter of matching up the problem to the method. If you follow that recipe, you will get the one correct answer. There’s no sense of creativity or imagination or beauty or exploration. I think exploration is at the core of what mathematics is as an enterprise.

There’s also this impression that math is utterly linear. If you reach an obstacle — whether it’s something you find difficult or just don’t like — under the linear model of math, you’re done. You can’t proceed. Math must not be for you. That image is wrong. Mathematics is actually extremely bushy. There are so many different areas, and there’s no need for people to feel that if they don’t like one area, then they don’t like math at all.

In a separate NYT Op-ed, math teacher Jordan Ellenberg says a good place to start is to make engaging games out of various math concepts.

For all the excitement around using math creatively, some would counter that better grounding in plain old fundamentals can’t hurt either. As different generations are exposed to new math, newer math or (most recently) common core math, an immense source of frustration comes when parents cannot understand content well enough to help kids with homework. NCPR’s David Sommerstein blogged about this in 2012 — see if you can handle his daughter’s first grade math work.

Of course, complaints that the young leave school poorly educated are not confined to low math skills. This is part of the bigger problem of what should be taught, how does that happen best and who’s going to make any of that happen?

But sticking to math, do you see a problem? How would you fix it?

The science – and silliness – of sinkholes

This 1977 photo is described as "Dead sea ecological disaster - Sinkholes"

This 1977 photo is described as “Dead sea ecological disaster – Sinkholes”

Every so often some new sinkhole makes the news.

This week the local hole worth knowing about opened up in West Quebec and closed Highway 148 between Luskville and Quyon.

That got me poking around the Internet on the subject of sinkholes in general.

Here’s a graphic from Canadian Geographic on how they form. That page included links to a few notorious sinkholes, like the one that shallowed cars at the National Corvette Museum.The Corvette Museum reportedly plans to keep their sinkhole, apparently it’s become a big draw.

Then there’s the big gulp of this watery sinkhole that just sort of eats trees.

A sinkhole in downtown Ottawa last February was linked to tunneling for the construction of a new light rail project.

But why stop there? Here’s a round up from ABC news of impressive sinkholes from around the world. And a Q&A from the UK’s Independent asking why we seem to be seeing so many of them all of a sudden.

Need more? How about memes on what caused a recent sinkhole in Malaysia (Godzilla, among others) including yet one more use for duct tape.

In case any fellow Luddites are wondering “Um, what’s a meme?”  Wikipedia explains the concept (pronounced “meem”) thusly:

…an activity, concept, catchphrase or piece of media which spreads, often as mimicry, from person to person via the Internet.[1] Some notable examples include posting a photo of people lying down in public places (called “planking“) and uploading a short video of people dancing to the Harlem Shake.

Of course, some might say the Internet is just a giant mental sinkhole. But it can be fun sifting goodies out of the muck.

On a more sobering note, we may be in for more problems of this nature, considering the interplay of humans and their sprawl combined with more flooding and more frequent heavy downpours.

Two new bear cubs move in at Watertown’s Thompson Park Zoo

One of the two new bear cubs. Photo via Facebook

One of the two new bear cubs. Photo via Facebook

I love bears, so you don’t know how excited this makes me. Basically, my entire life has been a lead up to the moment in which I get to hold one (as long as the mama bear isn’t around).

The Watertown Daily Times reports that the two female cubs were given to the zoo by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency.

The cubs arrived at the zoo in mid-March (more information is on the zoo’s Facebook page).

WWNY-TV reports that after they spent some time in quarantine and acquainted themselves with the zoo staff, the bears are now sharing an exhibit space with Tess, the zoo’s three year old bear cub who has lived at the zoo for about a year.

Although the American black bear is the smallest of the three bear species found in North America, this type of bear is widely distributed throughout North America from Canada to Mexico and resides in at least 40 states in the U.S.

Historically, the American black bear occupied nearly all of the forested regions of North America. But in the U.S., this kind of bear has for the most part been restricted to more secluded forested areas.

To celebrate the bears’ arrival, the zoo will host its first annual Teddy Bear Picnic on July 12 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., with loads of bear-themed activities. On this day, the zoo will offer discounted admission to children who bring their teddy bear. For more information, check out the zoo’s website.

If you can’t wait until you can get to Watertown to see the bears, here’s a video of the two ladies from the Watertown Daily Times. Enjoy!


Clarkson alum will help America explore space again

The Orion spacecraft. Photo: NASA/Daniel Casper

The Orion spacecraft. Photo: NASA/Daniel Casper

Later this year, Herkimer native and 1994 Clarkson University graduate Michael Sarafin will be a big part of America’s return to space exploration.

In (probably) November or early December (more from the Watertown Daily Times), the Orion’s Exploration Flight Test-1 will be launched (a handy fact sheet from NASA). The Orion program began in 2005, and Sarafin came on board two years ago.

The Orion, according to NASA, is

built to take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before. Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.

Cool. Sarafin, whose brother also works at NASA, will serve as the flight director at the Mission Control Center in Houston. According to the paper, Sarafin will be “responsible for Orion’s Exploration flight Test-1 from start to finish.”

You might be wondering what a flight director does. Here’s more information from a recent Clarkson press release:

Leading a team of flight controllers, support personnel and engineering experts, a flight director has the overall responsibility to manage and carry out space shuttle flights and International Space Station expeditions. A flight director also leads and orchestrates planning and integration activities with flight controllers, payload customers, International Space Station partners and others.

There’s a lot more information about the mission in the WDT article. If the Orion’s first flight is successful, NASA will arrange another unmanned test flight that will last roughly two weeks. If the second test flight is successful, NASA will be ready to send humans into space in Orion. But, Sarafin says “based on funding, we probably won’t be sending humans until 2021.”

So a Clarkson alumnus is attempting to make history at NASA who is also semi-local. This is exciting, both because it recalls the excitement of the Apollo era, and because it’s something new in space exploration. What are your memories and what do you hope to see come out of NASA’s next expedition?