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January 10, 2022

Is this the steepest river in the Appalachian Mountains?

Topographic superlatives are almost always a bit arbitrary, and comparing river steepness is about as arbitrary as it gets. How long of a stretch of river needs to be considered? How big does a stream need to be in order to be considered a “river?” Since a vertical waterfall is the maximum steepness possible, is the biggest river with a freefalling waterfall the winner? How tall does the waterfall have to be? These questions all have merit…

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December 10, 2021

Elephant Point and trees growing on ice

Librarian Judie Triplehorn solved the mystery of Elephant Point with a yellowed document she placed on my desk. In it, a writer for the Edinburgh Museum in Scotland in 1829 hailed the arrival of “two tusks of the Mammoth, brought home by Captain Beechey.”

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December 3, 2021

“Squirrel tail” synclines in the Appalachian Valley and Ridge

I settled on “squirrel tails” because Bartholomew and Lewis’ cross sections of the features reminded me of how a squirrel drapes its tail over its body and head. I am not sure if this is an effective comparison or not, but the overall approach seems to have served humans well when it comes to mentally organizing patterns of stars in the night sky. This structural style came across my radar after I mapped a similar type of structure ~25 miles (40 km) to the southwest, near the town of Max Meadows itself.

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November 18, 2021

Listening to the voices of killer whales

Hannah Myers has listened to many hours of orca calls in the Gulf of Alaska. The University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student often knows a killer whale’s family group after hearing just a few syllables of its call.

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November 17, 2021

Another intersection of lidar and 19th-century observations at the Silas McDowell slide, Macon County, North Carolina

McDowell described the slide as a “violent shock” which opened a “chasm” that remained visible for many years after the initial event. The date of the slide is unknown, but it probably occurred during the 1850s.

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November 11, 2021

Blown back to Alaska, bird perseveres

A bar-tailed godwit recently arrived in New Zealand on its second attempt to get there from Alaska, after a storm had blasted it back north. Keith Woodley of the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre on the North Island of New Zealand reported that a male godwit carrying a satellite transmitter first left the mudflats near the Kuskokwim River on Sept. 11, 2021.

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November 4, 2021

Shorebirds depend on wee slivers of Alaska

Pencil-beaked shorebirds with the ability to stay airborne for a week — flying all the way from Alaska to New Zealand — rely on a few crescents of mudflat to fuel that incredible journey.

Scientists recently found that almost the entire population of bar-tailed godwits that breed in Alaska fatten up on clams and worms on ephemeral sand bars just west of the mouth of the Kuskokwim River. In autumn, 80 percent of the birds rest and feed on islands within 15 miles of one another.

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November 2, 2021

A mid-1800s description of landslide topography meets 21st century lidar at Split Mountain, Haywood County, North Carolina

The “mystery” of Split Mountain specifically refers to episodes of falling rock, formation of lumpy “hillocks” on previously smooth slopes, split and tilted trees, and cracked ground that gave the mountain its name in the mid-19th century. Interestingly, none of the features Clingman described are readily apparent today, allowing the mystery to persist.

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October 29, 2021

Bus 142 to embark on final journey

“The bus is a touchstone for many things Alaskan: wilderness, exploration, personal discovery, survival,” said Patrick Druckenmiller, director of the museum. “It evokes very strong emotions. It’s exactly for these reasons that the museum is an ideal place to display the bus.”

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October 14, 2021

Red aurora rare enough to be special

Green auroras occur at about 60 miles above Earth. Pure red auroras are much higher, from about 200 to 300 miles up, which allows people closer to the equator to see them. An important gas remaining at that altitude is oxygen, and electrons that excite the oxygen atoms there produce a red light as pure as a laser.

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