Friday, June 29, 2012

Rockies Under Siege

Credit: Sam Green/Cortez Journal
 One year ago, Audubon Magazine posted an interesting article regarding a new concept:  Megafires -- forest fires in the western states that over the past 20 years have shattered records.  Nothing brings the point home like watching the sky turn orange on your weekend.

Temperatures for the western states have been rising 70% faster than the global average for the past decade.  According to Science magazine, fire season for the Rockies is 205 days, almost 3 months longer than the average 25 years ago, resulting in 6 times the acreage burned per year.

Fire season this year went off with a bang in mid May:  The Whitewater fire in the Gila Wilderness (still burning at 300,000 acres), and closer to home, the Little Sand fire in the San Juans (still burning at 24,000 acres).  The Gila Wilderness fire will be of special interest for research, since it is in an area with lots of ponderosa pines that have been managed with prescribed burns.  Fires can burn at different intensities, and certain habitats are much better adapted to fires than others.  This month the Front Range has been having mega fires near cities that captured national attention.
Rock glacier moraine, Kismet, and Sneffels

This past weekend, we escaped the unseasonably hot temperatures by going for a hike in the mountains.  We went to Blaine Basin on the north face of Mount Sneffels.    It's a nice hike with a few waterfalls and cascades, with the basin having great views of the north face of Sneffels, Whitehouse, and Circque Mountain. There were lots of columbine, but most of the alpine wildflowers seemed to be dormant, waiting for rain to make up for the very low amount of snowpack this year.  Seeing the mountain streams burst out from the rock glaciers is profound: the start of a stream that joins a river and heads to the sea.
Primula parryi (Parry's Primrose)

Around lunchtime, we could smell smoke on the gusting south winds.  Since I had been smelling smoke from the Little Sand fire at Mesa Verde for the past 2 weeks, I assumed it was from that fire picking up in activity.  In another 2 hours, the sky turned a strange umber with the sun looking rusty orange.  Mountains in the far distance faded out from view, and a marmot looked at me with a concerned expression.  A huge flat rock in the stream reflected back the orange glow from the sun as if the water was catching fire.  Hiking up the saddle between the jagged peaks into the sickly setting sun, breathing smoke and feeling the altitude, made me imagine this to be the lair of dragons!

Here be Smaug the Dragon?
The following day, after a soak in the hot springs at getting my caffine fix at Mouse's Chocolate, we did a few caches near the miner's shrine in Silverton and finally headed home.  Driving west from Durango, I noticed a towering smoke plume in the distance.  I was really concerned that it was Mesa Verde going up in flames.  When we drove further west towards the La Platas, we realized that Menefee Mountain was all on fire.  Billowing smoke plumes, huge flames, and lots of cars going everywhere like an ants nest had been stirred.  Fortunately this past week we had our first glimpse of monsoon rains.  It didn't rain much, but the higher humidity and slightly cooler temperatures really helped dampen the energy of the fire.  A smaller fire started on the ridge due south from our house in Cortez, so a helicopter was diverted to put it out the following morning.
Springing from the weight of the mountains
Like the heart of the earth would burst

Maybe next season I'll look for a job in Alaska?

I found a fun new way to spend Sunday evenings: virtual Star Parties at CosmoQuest!  I always wanted a huge telescope with a smooth clock drive and a clue as to what to point it at.  Star Parties were always great because I could rely on others to have quality gear, point it at something cool, and most importantly, be able to explain what the heck I was staring at.  The virtual star party is the next best thing, since from the comfort of my chair we can watch many telescopes and learn about the stars from professional astronomers.  Very cool!  Now they just need to provide a remote app that lets me take control of a telescope.  :-)

Sunday, June 17, 2012


Calico Peak
A fun way to spend some free time is hunting down US Geological Survey benchmarks.  These are markers that were used to create maps, and many of them are historic.  Many mountain tops are perfect locations for surveying because they have line of sight to many landmarks, so these summits frequently have bronze disks where the survey station was positioned to triangulate new positions and determine elevations.  Because they can be remote, often the benchmarks have not been visited in a long time.  The National Geodetic Survey maintains a database of these marks and knowing if the mark is still usable could be valuable information.

Over the weekend, I visited two survey markers: one on Eagle Mountain and another on Expectation Mountain.  I followed Horse Creek trail up from Rico; it's a nice trail that begins with a pretty waterfall and passes by many old mines, such as The Puzzler, Nutmeg, and of course, Expectation.  Some of the rocks along the peak have sparkly crystals in them; the bright green tiny crystals that I think are olivine and a dark silvery crystal in the shape of small daggers that are probably galena.  Since it was kinda on/in the way, I also scampered up Anchor Mountain.  Climbing three peaks in one day was a little exhausting, but an excellent adventure.

The weather continues to be hot and dry, so burn bans are being implemented.  Let's hope the monsoons start soon!
Aptly named Eris and her moon Dysmonia

To help keep my cool, I've begin hunting minor planets made of ice again.  That's right, icehunters is back, this time reincarnated as IceInvestigators.  Log in, take the tutorial, and hopefully score New Horizons some additional  new worlds to explore. On the previous set of images from icehunters, volunteers had identified 24 Kuiper Belt Objects in the 2004/2005 data and so far about 18 unique KBOs in the 2011 data. No KBO yet found is reachable by New Horizons, but the closest one requires less than twice the available onboard fuel to be targeted -- so close.  As a bonus, a few asteroids and variable stars were discovered too.  Awesome!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Waterfalls and the Upcoming Transit of Venus

Red Mountain #1
It may not be the dog days of summer yet, but it sure seems like it.   The threat of forest fires is occurring sooner this year because of the warm spring, so the fire crew is rushed to complete some of the fuel-reduction treatments around buildings at Mesa Verde.  The buildings around Chapin Mesa are in the middle of Astragalus schmolliae (Schmoll's Milkvetch) habitat, so we needed to flag plants at risk so they wouldn't be mowed down.  Then we did some reveg work at Yucca House National Monument, where we found a state-listed rarity, Penstemon breviculus.  Finally, that led to us chasing Houndstounge, Cynoglossum officinale at the Morefield campground.  We've been fighting houndtoungue there for at least 3 years now, and so far it has not been seen outside the environs of the campground so we hope we can exterminate it before it infects another area of the Park.  The good news is that it seems like we're suppressing it well; the bad news is that the seed base lasts from 5-10 years, so it will take a few more sweeps before we can claim victory.

Gray Copper Falls
It was a hot weekend for Montezuma county, with temps in the upper 80's, so we escaped to the mountains.  There is a really nice hike near the ghost town of Ironton called Gray Copper Falls.  We spent the afternoon leisurely hiking up to the falls.  We found a tiny population of the uncommon orchid Calypso bulbosa (fairy-slipper orchid), and something I have dubbed the Snow Ghost mushroom.  We did encounter a little bit of snow, but it is nothing compared to last year when even on the 4th of July we were still humping over snow drifts.

By late afternoon, we had reached the falls in the shadow of Red Mountain Number 1 (really, couldn't think of a better name for a mountain?).  The
"Snow Ghost" Mushroom
hosetail-falls had the remnants of a giant snow/ice cone similar to Coronet Falls, but only the base was left.  We couldn't approach the base of the falls, but I continued hiking up to the top and found the collapsed tunnel of an old mine and crumbled down cabin on the north side of the stream.  Timberline was just a little bit further, but it seemed best to turn around and save peak-bagging for another day.  Before turning back to the trailhead, we saw a Golden Eagle circle the high mountain ridges.  Then we were visited by a family of mule deer.  It was really nice having the trail all to ourselves for the entire day!

We camped near the leach fields of Ironton (don't drink the water!) and had a nice, little fire by moonlight.  In the morning, we re-visited Cascade Falls in Ouray and payed traditional homage to Mouse's Chocolate. YUM!  We stopped at Little Molas Lake to soak in the vistas when lightning strikes chased us out from the mountains.  It was great to see it rain, since the wildflowers aren't going to make it on the snow melt alone.

I hope to see the Transit of Venus this coming week and then think of some way to celebrate World Oceans Day when I'm over 1,000 miles from the closest ocean.