All posts by Calder Cleavelin

Local researcher works to improve turtle crossings

Thomas Brown on a Loggerhead turtle. From the State Library and Archives of Florida.

Imagine you are small. The world is vast, full of dangers and obstacles, and you are driven by instinct. But your habitat is shrinking. Where once you could move freely, unfamiliar obstacles now hamper your travels, presenting new kinds of predators evolution hasn’t equipped you to deal with. Continue reading Local researcher works to improve turtle crossings

You are not a bear: 8 outdoor safety tips for Spring Break

Rule #1: We don’t demand that you hold hands while crossing the street (nor are we opposed to it), but the buddy system is tried and true. Whether you’re camping, hiking or kayaking, carving the mountains or carving the waves, the outdoors are way more fun with friends (and dolphins). Keep in mind that, no matter how tame your adventures may seem, accidents do happen; having a buddy helps keep them from becoming disasters.

Rule #2: GO WITH A BUDDY. No exceptions.

American Black Bear. Part of the Illinois Urban Landscapes Project:

Rule #3: The water may look clear, but remember that amoebas are really, really tiny. Before you eat or drink anything out in the wild, make sure you know where it came from, and what risks may be present by consuming it. You can boil your water, or chemically sterilize it, but more often you’re just better off bringing enough from home. Additionally, if you feel inclined to eat anything, make sure you know exactly what it is. Or better yet, if you find it on the ground, just leave it there. You are not a bear.

Rule #4: It’s highly unlikely that you will encounter a shark over Spring Break. Or ever. And despite what you may hear, it’s actually really difficult to hold yourself still in a little ball while a 20-foot apex predator evaluates you for marbling and tenderness. There are many (by now, cliché) defensive strategies you can resort to if you encounter hostile marine life – curling up in the aforementioned ball, or punching wildly at its gills, nose and eyes. But bear in mind that it’s not only sharks you have to be cautious of, and the safest way to enjoy the ocean is usually by staying where everyone else is. Your goal may be to avoid the crowds, but sharks and jellyfish feel the same way.

Rule #5: terephthalylidene dicamphor sulfonic acid, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane and chap stick should keep the elements at bay.

Geïmproviseerd zonnescherm / improvised sun screen from Nationaal Archief.

Rule #6: It rubs the sunscreen on its skin or else it gets the melanoma again – among the top ten cancer types in the US, according to the National Cancer Institute. Sunburns aren’t just annoying; they can be really painful, become infected, blister, and even leave scars. And by Spring Break your skin is primed for them – after hiding underneath layers of clothing all winter, your skin isn’t as ready as you are to deal with the sudden, intense exposure associated with frolicking joyfully on the beach. And just realize this: it’s much more fashionable to massage sunscreen into someones shoulders than to slather aloe vera all over their dry, sun-beaten back.

Bonfires Are Permitted on the Camping Ground of Long Key State Park, Midway between Key Largo and Key West. From Project DOCUMERICA

Rule #7: 10/10 doctors, teachers and Supreme Court justices agree that campfires are fun. But they can also go awry very quickly, and without you necessarily noticing. If you’re building a fire, make sure you follow some of the basic rules, like setting it in a pit (some campsites have them prepared for you) and clearing the area around it of all loose debris. Make sure the wind isn’t going to send your tent or anything else up in flames. And even when the embers look like they’ve finally cooled down, they haven’t. This is especially true with charcoal, which can remain hot for hours. Nothing can ruin your day like a surprise coal-walk.

Rule #8: If you go anywhere, particularly by car, it’s always handy to have a bag of snacks and supplies. Inevitably, somebody this Spring Break is going to get stuck on the road, in the middle of nowhere, waiting and wondering why, oh why did they not at least pack some Gatorade or bring the bag of Gummy Bears they left on the counter. Keeping some basic tools, a small first aid kit and some non-perishable snackage in the trunk at all times is an easy, one-time way to give yourself a little insurance against that one tack in the road. Also, toilet paper is like the evolutionary cousin of duct tape: it does one thing really well, but has endless possible uses at the same time. Pack a roll.

By Cade Cleavelin and Tina Casagrand

A quick guide to the Missouri night sky

One of the most under appreciated benefits of warmer weather in the spring is how bearable the outdoors become after sundown. With the absence of the sun’s direct radiation, winter nights have little going for them – nobody wants to be dark and uncomfortable. But for those of us without aversions to late nights, spring means the amount of reasonable outdoor time has just doubled, giving us the benefits of clear days, warm evenings and a very different kind of sky at night.

Stargazing is one of those iconic, all-American pass times we get really excited about when we go camping, or after watching the movie October Sky. But its origins go back as far as Old Babylon, when ancient philosophers-turned-stargazers attempted to explain the presence of these flickering ethereal points of light, deciding that some sets seemed to outline the rough contours of bears, scorpions and winged horses.

“See, that could be a horse. Kinda. Come on, doesn’t that look like a horse? I think it looks like a horse. It’s probably Pegasus.”

A view of the southern sky from central Missouri this time of year. As the season progresses these features will move gradually westward (to the right, in the image). | John Walker, Fourmilab.

And so, arbitrary as they were, the constellations became relevant. Today we understand that they’re made up almost entirely of dissociated stars, and it’s only our perspective on earth that makes them appear grouped.  But they’ve long served as markers and helpful guides, and to date there’s no better system of mapping the night sky.

If you would like better bearings on your orientation in the cosmos, there are several significant features you can immediately identify. A good place to start is figuring out roughly where the brightest objects, the planets, should be this time of year. Venus and Jupiter are the second and third brightest objects in the night sky (surpassed only by the moon’s intensity), and if you look to the west for the next few nights you can see them falling out of alignment. The brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, lies to the lower left of the constellation Orion.

The moon is our ever-present companion, and as such is often taken for granted. But with just a basic telescope or a nice pair of binoculars, its cratered surface is highly observable. With some longer lenses and a tripod, you can even snap impressive pictures from right where you stand (or better yet, you can attach your camera to a telescope with a camera adapter).

A waxing half moon | Dark Sky Astronomy

To get the best sense of the moon’s dimensionality, though, don’t hold out for a full moon, but rather just as it waxes and wanes. The angle of the sun’s light with respect to our vantage point on earth throws the moon’s craters into sharper relief than when the moon is fully lit.

Anyone who has spent any serious time looking at the stars will tell you, there’s nothing to make you feel small like looking at the entire galaxy. If you ever get a chance to see the Milky Way, it’s a fascinating and serene image. It’s maybe even a little intimidating to think that you’re looking straight into the core of everything visible in our galaxy.

Disappointingly, though, any serious stargazing for mid-Missourians is going to require a commute. Columbia is at the nucleus of a wide network of light pollution, breaking only briefly with that of Kansas City, and not at all on the way to St. Louis. It’s one of the hidden costs of being only 2 hours away from major metropolitan areas to the east and west.

Urban sprawl and scattered townships along I-70 produce a lot of light pollution in central Missouri. Light Pollution Map Layer by P. Cinzano, F. Falchi (University of Padova), and C. D. Elvidge (NOAA National Geophysical Data Center, Boulder). Copyright Royal Astronomical Society.

Light pollution can be thought of as smog. But unlike carbon-based pollution, light pollution is composed of photons. Light from buildings and street lamps reflects off of moisture in the atmosphere and is directed back towards the ground, creating a luminous haze that obstructs a clear view of the sky behind it. It’s the last barrier light has to overcome after at least a 16 year voyage through space and an entire atmosphere. Additionally, Columbia lies only a few hundred feet above sea level, so there’s more atmosphere on average getting between us and the constellations – not quite ideal.

However, if you can find a spot of open sky, you can still easily make out the major features of our solar system and constellations. In fact, huge swaths of open sky are nice, but having buildings and landmarks around you to serve as familiar reference points (when measuring the azimuth) is not a bad idea.

You can also visit the Laws Observatory atop the MU Physics building on Wednesdays from 8:00 p.m. to around 10:00 p.m. (weather permitting, of course).

So, if you find yourself in want of quiet stimulation on a warm, clear evening, there’s nothing like the entire galaxy to make one feel truly, cosmically insignificant. Grab some friends, or go alone (but know how to be safe!), and spend an evening outdoors appreciating the greater cosmos.