Wednesday, July 1, 2020


From the instant of its creation, the universe has been in the process of running down. It's called "entropy". To quote African writer Achinua Achebe and Irish poet William Butler Yeats, "Things fall apart." Except for some miracle - a Big Crunch or the Creator's decision that it's time to wipe the old slate clean and create a new, the inexorable March to uniformity will lead, in a few billion years, to a vast ocean of hydrogen, atoms so far separated that there will be no opportunity for them to crash together to form anything more complex.

But there is turbulence in time. Diversity feeds on itself. As long as things actively fall apart, they also fall together. There are swirls in entropy that pushes it, through sheer momentum against itself. One quality of living things is that they transform. They create order out of disorder. The inert dust and muck around us fall together, against all probability, to

Life isn't the only builder. There's also chaos. Nature decrees that matter attracts matter and, when enough gas and dust is pulled together, the crushing results begin compacting hydrogen into helium and then larger atoms, under fantastic heat, until the energy is expended. The heaviest element that can be created in a star is iron, but the death throes of a star, the nova, is incredibly energetic, crushing even more atoms together to form brilliant spectacles in the sky, destroying everything in the cosmic neighborhood, and blowing out clouds of element rich dust to settle down on the universe.

The dust we see in a sun beam is mostly the detritus of life - dead microorganisms, and in our homes, skin cells sloughed off our own bodies and the tiny creatures that eat them. But a significant portion is micrometeorites, much of it, that fine dust blown out by dying stars. Over millions of years it has settled on Earth along with the usual products of erosion and, in the molten mix of tectonic plates, heavy elements concentrate in globs of magma to be extruded in cracks near (in geological terms) the surface where it can cool into rich veins of ore.

It might have happened in the crash of two such plates in the Earth's crust that buckled, what would be North America, thousands of feet upward to form the Colorado plateau. Or maybe before. That wasn't the first time the crust had been buckled around here. The Appalachians once rivaled the Himalayas in grandeur but, over time, they were worn down to the narrow band of mountains they are today. The Ozarks had their time.

But time has been working on the Wild West, too, eroding the smooth skyland of Colorado into deep ravines between towering mountains, dissolving ore veins into acidic, carbon dioxide rich lakes (the product of acid rains and dying organisms) where lead precipitated out into insoluble lead carbonate, cerussite, carrying other heavy elements with it, including silver. 

Nature values nothing. She just acts. But the new (in geological terms) animal invading the continent of North America brought a brain that valued much, especially that which is rare and that which glitters...and silver is both rare and glittery. Those that came from the east recognized the white sands below the highest mountain of the North American Rockies, Mount Elbert, to be composed of cerussite and understood that it often carries silver.

When that was confirmed, the new town of Leadville, Colorado, founded in 1860, began attracting miners and miners attracted other civilized creatures like the faro dealing Doc Holliday, fellow Georgian turned Coloradan (he's now buried in Glenwood Springs), and the unsinkable Molly Brown...

and myself. Yesterday, two friends and I, taking a break from stargazing and pendulum watching, traveled to this interesting little village below Mount Elbert to look at saloons and city halls preserved for posterity and tiny homes. And here are some pictures.

Mine dumps and mountains
The Old Church on Harrison Avenue and Mount Elbert.
Lake in the mountains

My personal transportation for several years has been the trains and buses around Denver but with Covid-19, I've avoided them since they require a mask and it's hard for me to get enough air through a mask.

I still walk to the shops in the area. There are always interesting things on the way.

One of my favorite wildflowers, the common milkweed, is blooming now.
Purple seems to be in vogue. This is Colorado and thistles are everywhere.

These rare gems are a variation of the Mallows that are everywhere. They're called "cowboy's delight" or "copper Mallows." It's strange to think of them so closely related to hollyhock, hibiscus, and marsh mallow (yes, marshmallows were originally a plant product, made by whipping up the thick, starchy solution from marsh mallow roots.)

We've been having moist air coming over the Rockies, giving us occasional rain storms to cool off our afternoons.
The public library has been closed for remodeling and now, with Covid 19, will it ever open? Stay tuned.

Much of our weather has a lot to do with the jet stream that shifts like an injured snake over us and the Rocky Mountains to the west. I've flown over the Rockies in a jet and from up there, they don't look quite so big and, after all, what's 14,000 foot mountains when the atmosphere is well over a million feet thick.

But when a tsunami is far out at sea, you can only measure a small change in the surface of the ocean. It's only when the depth changes that the sea turns into a great wall of water.

When air masses flow over the mountains and then out over the plains, they can set up vibrations. As the moist air moves upward, it cools off and water condenses out in the form of clouds. The air at the bottom of the waves is clear.  We get interesting rows or hatches of clouds. Sometimes, they're said to look like UFOs. Technically, they're called "lenticular clouds" for their resemblance to lenses.

Little Dry Creek is up now. It's not a mountain Creek, so it's not from snow melt. It's being fed by the afternoon showers and there seems to be a lag time between the rain and the rise in water level. I'll have to check that out sometime.

All walks are interesting. If you stay aware of your surroundings, there will be plenty to engage you.


Lillian said...

We have also had more moisture In Georgia this spring and early summer. It would be interesting to compare the lag time in the water levels of your creek with estimates from storm water software. A decade ago when I was studying GIS, I looked briefly at BASINS, an EPA add-on to an open source GIS. (

One big variable in runoff times is the landcover - how much it allows water to be absorbed and later drain out slowly like a sponge. There are coefficient numbers for these, but they are usually generalized to urban, suburban, agriculture, grassland, forest, etc.

From the point of view of reducing flash flooding, I’ve often thought it would be interesting to know the runoff coefficients of various landscape techniques, like permeable pavement, rain gardens, a even just improving the soil to become deeper and more organic. Then it would be interesting to calculate backward to see how many square feet would need to be installed to prevent flash flooding.

Another interesting thing would be to refine the coefficients to account for the permeability of good agricultural practices, and then do the same calculation of acreage of good practices required for flood reduction on a larger watershed. Allan Savory’s Holistic Management grazing, Gabe Brown’s no-till cover crop/grazing methods, and key line plowing are several agricultural practices that come to mind that allow more water to soak in instead of running off. I also wonder if there are also techniques that apply to forestry. The thing that started me thinking in this direction was hearing about a historic New England town built along a small river that was suddenly seeing repeated bad flooding in their downtown shops and offices. All of the standard FEMA mitigation solutions would hurt the historic character of the town, and I wondered if there might be a solution that could be applied to the whole watershed.

Wolf VanZandt said...

The Denver area has experienced several catastrophic floods but we seem to have gotten that under control with a series of dams and other constructions. As for the town in New England, I would be interested in finding out why the flooding is a new problem.

Lillian said...

That would be an important question to understand. I heard about it a while back aspart of a presentation on green infrastructure, and sadly can’t remember the town name.

Wolf VanZandt said...

Grph! Looks like they've been having a lot of flooding this year due to heavy rains. I see that Norwood, Massachusetts has been getting hammered.