What’s a Nor’Easter?

New England’s Nor’easter January 29-20, 2022
by Susan Fellows, guest blogger

What is a Nor-easter?

Dover, NH, 4:00 a.m. Temperature 5 degrees. The wind chill is probably close to -10 degrees. Wind gusts 40-45 mph throughout the day. What is a blizzard?  Wind gusts more than 35 mph. Snow blowing and drifting. Visibility less than 1/4 mile.  All more than three hours. We grew up with blizzards, know them well, and call them Nor’easters.

The description above is what I saw outside my living room window all day on January 29, 2022, in excess of eight hours. There is a large green space next to my apartment building with a stand of pine trees at the far end, where there is no snow. An area just outside my apartment going out about 20-30 feet where the wind blew the snow off all day long made it look like we had only a dusting of snow.  Beyond that, snow accumulated up to 1″-2″ per hour for several hours.  Most of the day, I could not see the trees which are less than a 1/4 mile away.

Following the Progress of the Storm

The well-predicted storm made its way up the coast from South Carolina, past Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and New York to New England. Snowfall reported in Bridgewater, MA, totaled 32″!  Out at Wellfleet on the south side of Cape Cod, wind gusts reached 82 mph. Fortunately, in Dover, NH, we weren’t hit with as much snow and wind gusts were in the 40 mph range. Most of the day and into the evening I watched snow blowing horizontally past the windows. Whiteout! An all-day blizzard.

Venturing Out

Snow on security door.

Opening the door was difficult

7:30 p.m. I decided to get my mail if there was any. True to the USPO motto, through rain, wind, snow, and dark of night the Post Office did deliver the mail! Getting out my door was difficult as the snow had accumulated to about three feet. So, it was hard to open the door.  Along the sidewall of the building I trudged. Not as much snow there.  But, once I reached the lobby door, I had to get to the security post to swipe my key fob to open that door. Snow spilled into my boots and I had to shove the door open about a foot to squeeze through. After picking up my mail, I made my way back to my apartment.

 

 

 

Manager & Snow Crews Respond to Safety Concern

The snowfall seemed to be easing up but it was hard to tell as the wind still picked up and carried snow horizontally past my window. Remembering that some Eastern big cities had had fires in apartments recently, I was concerned with conditions by the exit doors. So, I called the answering service of the apartment complex. Shortly our maintenance supervisor returned my call.  I explained the situation and my concern that in case of an emergency requiring evacuation of the building the other residents might not be able to get safely out. He replied that the snow removal team would return the next morning. After some discussion, with the supervisor being unrelenting with his statement that the team would be back in the morning, I simply asked who would be liable if an evacuation were needed and people could not safely get out. Then, I hung up.

Soon after the property manager called, respected the fact that I was observing the conditions and he wasn’t.  He called the supervisor of the snow removal team.  Within the hour they arrived!  I was relieved!

Blindingly Beautiful

Sunday, January 30, 2022. The day dawned bright and beautiful! What a change from not being able to see because of the blizzard!  People were out with their pets and children enjoying the light, fluffy snow. The snow removal team cleared the overflow lots and residents moved their cars so the parking log could be properly cleared.  Gigantic piles of snow were all over the place and sidewalks, doorways, and cars cleared of the eight inches of reported snow.  One town, right on the ocean about 12 miles away, got the state’s grand total of 13.5″. The wind, she kept on blowing and the temperatures were bitterly, brutally cold.

The next day, in appreciation, I called the supervisor to thank the crews for coming out in the storm and making sure residents were safe.

Prior to the storm, everyone had been told to stay off the roads, which they did.  All-day Saturday, I had watched a storm tracker show from a Boston station. Indeed except for plows and utility crews restoring power, the roadways were clear of vehicles.

I LOVE SNOW and this was quite an event!

 

 

 

 

How Do Birds Stand On One Leg?

As we ate breakfast during the deep freeze that descended on February 7th six wild turkeys trudged through the snow from nearby woods and feasted on corn scattered under our bird feeders. It was 20 below zero – genuine 20 below. With the wind chill, the air was even colder.

Turkey standing on one leg

Warming toes.

The turkeys each stood on one leg as they pecked corn. Every once in a while, they alternated legs. One leg was always holding the bird upright while the other was tucked in the bird’s feathers. We wondered how they do this, so we went to our favorite new bird book, David Allen Sibley’s, What It’s Like to Be A Bird. According to him, birds have several adaptations that make it possible.

Here’s what he wrote, “The center of mass on their body is below the knee and a knob on the pelvis prevents the leg from angling any higher. Balancing on one leg requires angling that leg so that the foot is directly below the body, and with the leg essentially locked in position, and the body leaning against the leg, tiny adjustments of the toes are all that’s needed to stay upright.”

We often wonder how ducks and geese keep their legs and feet from freezing when swimming in frigid water or standing on ice. They have a useful adaptation. A bird’s leg is high, muscled, and covered with feathers. What we see that looks like a naked leg is actually a modified ankle, containing bones and tendons yet lacking blood vessels. So, the vascular area remains warm beneath feathers as the bird stands on the ice.

David Allen Sibley

We had the good fortune to chat with David Allen Sibley after he gave a presentation at the Outdoor Writers Association of America conference a few years ago. An astute ornithologist, writer, and artist, his books on bird identification and behavior, and his tree identification book, are always close at hand in our home. We’ve learned much from him.

Birds Need Grit in Winter

Most bird species need to occasionally eat tiny pebbles. These end up in the gizzard, a powerfully muscled pouch, where pebbles act like grindstones reducing hard seeds into a slurry for digestion.

During periods of snow and ice birds have a tough time finding grit, so about once a week we toss grit beneath the feeders. Sand works, but we usually use fine and medium-sized grit sold to help chickens digest their feed. Once the snow melts there’s no need to add grit, as birds easily find plenty of natural tiny pebbles.

How Did Obsidian Get Around?

Obsidian on the Move

We have it easy. If we need to carve a roasted turkey, chunk up an apple, whittle a stick, or shave off a beard we just have to buy a knife or razor blade. They’re made in hundreds of shapes and configurations and sold in dozens of stores.

It wasn’t always that easy. A fascinating article about archeology in Yellowstone National Park is in the January/February 2021 issue of SMITHSONIAN Magazine. It gives a glimpse into yesterday.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s we were told that, before Columbus, Native Americans lived in primitive tribes that lacked technical sophistication.

The information was downright wrong.

Research Reveals Facts

Bill Desmarais and Rich

Looking over Obsidian samples.

Decades of research by archeologists and historians have proved that Native Americans had complex societies and vast ability to live sustainably off the land. The Smithsonian article gives a glimpse of how pre–Columbian North Americans made amazingly effective tools that were carried around the continent on vast trade networks.

Early Americans needed sharp tools to make clothing, butcher game, process plants for food, and make weapons and ornaments. They lacked steel but had one thing almost better than metal – obsidian and other rocks that could be fabricated into outstanding tools. Even today, no steel knife is as sharp as an obsidian blade.

 

Between Mammoth and Norris in Yellowstone Park is Obsidian Cliff, the source of some of the best obsidian in North America. It had been mined by Native Americans for thousands of years and traded widely. Obsidian artifacts can often be traced to their place of origin and some items made from Yellowstone rock have been found as far away as Hopewell in Ohio.

Origin and Sources of Obsidian

 

Obsidian Points

The smaller piece is the back of a point. The larger piece is the broken tip of a point.

Obsidian is formed when molten rock with high silica content cools rapidly, creating a natural glass. It fractures in fascinating patterns with keen edges. A skilled person can craft amazingly sharp and beautiful cutting tools from it.

Obsidian is found on most continents and has been used by people in Africa for hundreds of thousands of years. In the United States it’s found in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, all western states, but some have been discovered in Pennsylvania and Virginia. It’s always an indication of past volcanism.

Obsidian on the Move

It’s fascinating to think how obsidian got from Yellowstone to Ohio. Obviously, someone, or maybe many people in a relay, carried it the 1700 miles to Hopewell. Obsidian was so valuable that it made the trip worthwhile. It proves that Americans long before Columbus were involved in mining, long-distance travel, commerce, and manufacturing.

Winding Pathways is in Iowa. Nearly our entire state has a bedrock of limestone, a sedimentary rock. We lack evidence of volcanoes so no natural occurring obsidian has been found here. However, obsidian wasn’t the only rock used in trade and tool making. Iowa archeologists have discovered tools made from rocks that had been carried long distances.

Other Sharp Stones

According to Iowa State Archeologist, John Doershuk, there are dozens of varieties of chert that can be sourced to specific areas, knife River (ND) flint, Hixon silicified sandstone, jaspers, chalcedonies, and other rocks that came from distant points but were made into tools found in Iowa. Native people also transported and used copper and shells long before Columbus.

Winding Pathways is on an ancient sand dune high above Indian Creek. We’ve never found a natural rock on our property but love looking for stones when we walk along the Cedar River or other Iowa waterways. We often find chert that’s not been worked into tools but is still an interesting rock, and we keep looking for artifacts.

We know how lucky we are. If we need a new knife to slice a loaf of fresh bread, we don’t need to walk to Yellowstone to gather obsidian but can easily and inexpensively buy a knife at many stores near home.

 

A Forest is More Than Trees

We won’t forget August 10, 2020.  On that summer day, Cedar Rapids was hit with 140 miles an hour winds that tore off roofs, felled signs, and toppled at least 65% of the City’s trees. The damage was awesome.

We lost 47 of our 53 big trees at Winding Pathways and spent the next two months cutting up a twisted jumble of trunks and branches. We bucked up what we could for firewood and made huge brush piles on the north end of our property for wildlife habitat. We used chain saws for cutting but muscle power to haul brush and wood.

Nearly all woodland owners suffered similar damage, and most of them immediately began clearing away broken and downed trees. Some used heavy equipment to haul off debris, leaving bare soil in the woods, a perfect seedbed for weeds.

Resetting the Forest

The derecho reset Iowa’s woods. Prior to settlement most of the state was prairie with woodlands typically lining streams and rivers. Frequent wildfires raced through grasslands and never hesitated when they encountered woods. This created a savanna ecotype characterized by scattered fire-resistant big trees, mostly oaks, walnuts, and hickories, with a stunningly diverse array of wildflowers carpeting the ground.

Savanna was an “open” forest. It lacked a shrub understory, and because trees didn’t create a closed leafy canopy sunlight dappled the ground. Perhaps no forest is as beautiful or endangered as savanna.

Iowa’s settlers quickly suppressed fire. Gradually trees closed the canopy, keeping the ground in shade most of the day. Many savanna flowers need some sunlight and declined as a shrub layer, often of exotic invasive woody plants, thrived. Many woods that owners considered healthy were actually degraded by years of fire protection.

The derecho changed it within under an hour. Many trees fell to the ground, but others survived.   Woodlands will now have sunlight reach the ground, stimulating both invasive species and long-suppressed native wildflowers.

Planning and Planting

The woods on the east side of our house created nearly a complete canopy, but suddenly they fell. After we cleared away the debris, we did these things:

  • Planted a few white and bur oaks in the fall. We’ll plant a few more next spring.  All are protected from deer browsing with a stout ring of wire mesh.
  • Purchased a diverse mix of savanna wildflowers and a few kinds of grass from Pheasants Forever. Mid-November brought two inches of new snow, and we hustled out to broadcast the seeds on it. It’s called frost planting and works well.
  • Discovered some tiny oaks, hackberries, and walnuts amid fallen trees. We marked them and know they’ll grow rapidly next year.

Recovery will be slow. Newly planted trees grow slowly their first few years and savanna and prairie seeds take a few years to establish. We don’t expect to see much change in 2021 but our “new” savanna will eventually be gorgeous and look much like it would have in the early 1800s.

Sources

We bought our prairie seed from www.pheasantsforever.org.  Our fall-planted trees were ordered from the National Arbor Day Foundation www.arborday.org.  Spring planting will be of trees we bought from Chief River Nursery www.chief rivernursery.com.

We’ll follow up our planting with occasional prescribed burns to retard invasive plants and invigorate natives.

What Happens to a Photovoltaics System When the Grid Goes Down?

Four years ago, we installed a net-metered photovoltaic system on our barn roof. Photovoltaics, or simply PV, is a term that means “light electricity” or solar energy.

Solar panels

On sunny days solar powers our energy needs.

We appreciate our PV system. On sunny days, when our system produces more electricity than we use, it runs our meter backward as power flows out into the energy grid. At night and on cloudy days, when we’re using more power than we’re producing, we draw electricity in from Alliant Energy, our utility.  At the end of each month, we pay the “net” so it’s called a Net-Metered System. This eliminates the need to have storage batteries. We’ve had a monthly bill as low as $5!

But what happens when the grid goes down? It did on August 10, 2020, when a derecho roared through Iowa with 140 mile an hour winds. Hundreds of miles of wires were torn down as trees crashed into them. We joined thousands of other homes without power.

Important items to have along.

Solar chargers help keep people connected when the power goes out.

So, did our PV system power our lights, computers, and television? Nope. We used candles and lanterns when it got dark and couldn’t power our computer, television, or any other electric appliance for about two weeks.

Net-metered systems, like ours, have an automatic switch built into them so they don’t export electricity back to the grid when it’s down. It’s a safety mechanism designed to prevent a utility employee working to restore power from getting a shock. Our system produced electricity during the blackout, but it just dissipated. As soon as our power was restored the PV system again sent power outward.

 

An Important PV Safety Tip

Our PV system survived the wind intact but others were ripped from roofs and tumbled to the ground. A PV panel laying on the ground upright makes electricity.  Grabbing wires or the panel can give someone a tremendous shock. If a PV panel is on the ground stay away……or cover it with a tarp to darken it so it doesn’t produce electricity. It’s safest to wait until after dark to flip it.

 

Crinoids. Forsaken by the Iowa Legislature?

Sometimes blessings spring from catastrophes.  That happened years ago when a massive flood inundated Iowa’s Coralville Reservoir. Water overtopped the dam built to control downstream flooding. As the raging river gushed over the emergency overflow spillway it ripped soil from bedrock before invading downstream homes and businesses with gooey muck. When the flood subsided visitors discovered an amazing array of fossils in newly exposed limestone. Many were crinoids. 

Just what the heck are crinoids?

You won’t find a living crinoid in Iowa today because our ocean abandoned the Hawkeye state years ago, but about 600 species still live in faraway seas. Fossils teach us that millions once thrived here.

Iowa was once a vast ocean where calcium wafted down through the water column as it formed limestone. Dig down nearly anywhere in Iowa and sooner or later you’ll hit limestone. Chances are that the rock contains crinoid fossils, the remains of the vanished Iowa fauna. In some parts of Iowa, especially Southeast Iowa, crinoid pieces make up a significant portion of the bedrock.

In what is now Iowa, those crinoids lived some 310 to 485 million years ago, give or take a few million years. They looked more like branching flowers than crawling, swimming, or flying animals we’re familiar with.  Although they appear plantlike crinoids are animals.

Why doesn’t Iowa Have a State Fossil?

Iowa can’t claim them exclusively, as crinoids are found in limestone worldwide.   Missouri honored this humble animal by designating it their state fossil. The Cedar Valley Rocks and Mineral Society has worked for years encouraging the Iowa legislature to follow the example of our neighboring state and name our common crinoid Iowa’s state fossil.

In this day and age when public opinion and political parties are leagues apart, one would think to designate these ancient Iowans as our state fossil would be nonpartisan and popular. So far, no dice from the legislature. Iowa lacks a state fossil.

To learn more about crinoids and other fascinating rocks, minerals, and fossils check out the Rock and Mineral Society’s Website.  Everyone’s welcome to attend their meetings and lend a voice encouraging the state to honor Iowa’s crinoids.