Thursday, June 24, 2010

Rattlesnakes and Elevation

I'm heading up to San Gorgonio Peak tomorrow. I've mentioned to people that in one year of off-and-on trail running in San Diego County, I have (not surprisingly) seen more snakes than in ten years of much more frequent trail running in the Bay Area. Up there, the received wisdom is that if you're above maybe 7,000', you're out of rattlesnake territory. That's in the hills right around Tahoe, or on the way up to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite (but not down in the valley.)

But, latitude makes a difference, and I don't want to get complacent about putting my hands where I can't see them above 7,000' in SoCal mountains. Several online sources about the altitude limits of rattlers repeated numbers around 6,500 or 7,000', but then I found an old publication with attributions and named eyewitness reporters, (Rattlesnakes, L.M. Klauber, 1972) which says: "...there is no doubt that [the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake] does reach an altitude well over 10,000 feet in the San Jacinto and San Bernardino mountains of southern California. Joseph Ewan reported a southern Pacific rattlesnake at no to exceed 20 feet from the peak of Mount san Jacinto, elevation 10,805 feet." He goes on to give multiple eyewitness reports of rattlers at these and higher elevations, up to 15,000' in Mexico on Orizaba.

Whether or not these are outliers, they're possible. In nature there are few absolutes. From this weighty philosophical principle we can conclude: regardless of elevation, no putting handies and feeties in little crackies.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hey, Check Out the Idiot in the Comments on The "Abused Child" Post

S/he's a real winner. All mad at me because I said the solo-around-the-world girl's parents (plus the Everest-climbing kid's parents) are irresponsible. Seriously, s/he called me an "age-bigot"! That's the worst name anyone's called me in a while! Join in the fun, wontcha? If you're coming in on an RSS feed or you're just too damn lazy to scroll down and click, just click here.

I should add that this idiot is acting like a meanie and making very hurtful ad hominem attacks against your loyal blogger. Therefore I expect an apology for his/her insults from this moron, who no doubt is ugly, smelly, and drinks his/her bathwater.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Analyzing De-Motivation

My apologies if you actually waded through my kvetching in this post. If not, you didn't miss anything. For the record I did run 20 miles yesterday and today, and it really isn't that bad so far.

Lessons learned:

1) Get out of ruts with ruthless self-analysis.

2) Don't blog when you're really annoyed at yourself. No one wants to hear it, including yourself.

Ecozone Prediction From First Principles

We've all had that experience of running or hiking somewhere and saying, "You know, right here in this valley/mountain/prairie, you could trick me into thinking that I was in x." You might be thinking of another spot on the West Coast of North America, or you could be thinking of somewhere else entirely. As a recent transplant from NorCal to SoCal, I'm always noticing when somewhere in SoCal reminds me of NorCal. In the winter, in Miriam Bear if you squint, you can almost pretend you're in some parts of Marin County, and some of the parks in the hills behind Malibu similarly remind me of some of the more rugged East Bay parks.

I also find myself guessing more specifically at the impact to San Diego of various hypothetical climactic changes; instead of alternative history, it's alternative climatology. What if that wet winter San Diego had extended into June? What if this happened every year from now on? Unfortunate though it may be, we wouldn't look like British Columbia overnight; there aren't any Douglas fir cones around, for one thing, and the ferns would have to spread out of the very few canyons where we can now find them around here.* It would take awhile; after all, after the glaciers melted off of Europe 12,000 years ago, the preboreal period in Russia lasted a good seven centuries.

Of course such geeky speculation led me to further wonder whether you could take climate and geographic data and inductively fit an equation that would predict resulting vegetation with any useful kind of accuracy. For the ecozone values you could try to match your outputs to you could use the Köppen system. The most useful inputs would be:

Latitude - the further south you go, the more desert like it is. Pretty obvious, but it doesn't explain why there are redwoods in SLO County and deserts in British Columbia. The transition is often abrupt. Once in inland Washington State, I came out of the evergreens into the glaring July sun of a Western desert in the space of less than five miles - it was that abrupt (on Route 97 at the southern edge of Wenatchee National Forest.)

Distance from coast - again obviously, the further inland you are, the drier it is. Taking only the first two factors, a simplifed North America, e.g. completely flat, would look like the more gay-friendly map on the left, but in fact it looks like the map on the right:

Right about now you're wondering not without justification whether I've completely lost my mind. But do notice that I used humor just right up there. Because humans have been demonstrated to react positively to it. Also note that the no-mountains map isn't completely insane relative to the real-world map.

Of course the complication to the gay-friendly map is the terrain - elevation, drainages, plus angle and consistent gain of ranges. This is the tricky part of the equation, and it makes all the difference. A 30 degree slope for 100' of elevation gain? Who cares. For 3,000' of gain? If it's west-facing, it'll be greener. Look at the map of rainfall in San Diego County and you'll see what I mean. You can clearly see in the state map above the Cascades, plus the coast ranges and the Sierras. If you're in the lee of a real slope, you'll be drier and have less moderating benefit from the ocean. This is why Santiago, Chile has more extreme weather than Sacramento or even Bakersfield- Chile's coast ranges (as opposed to the next range inland, the Andes) attain 10,000'+, as opposed to California's which top out at ~6,000' with a ridgeline usually closer to 3,000'.

If you want to get really fancy you could use some measure of "evenness" of rainfall, i.e. what's the standard deviation on monthly precipitation? In Mediterranean climates this is high. San Francisco gets the same rainfall as Dodge City Kansas, except it pretty much all falls in a five month period from November through March. In Dodge City it falls pretty evenly across the whole 12 months.

But am I going to do this? No! The real proof in the pudding would be in comparing the real Köppen zones at some decent level of resolution (pixels of 100 sq mi?) and including the elevation information would require programming skills and time that I don't have. Also the end result of all this would be merely an exercise in predicting ecological regions from first principles. On the other hand, if there's an Earth-like planet among the 700 new exoplanet candidates that Kepler just unloaded, and you want to know where to buy real estate that's most like Santa Barbara, then give me a call and we can work something out.

*In other news the redwood cones I planted in January in case of massive climate shift haven't sprouted yet.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Monday, June 14, 2010

"The Best Post-Race Food, Ever, No Question"

Agreed. Why can't we have sauerkraut after races in California?

San Diego County Coast - Done, Finally

Friggin' hooray. Only 14 more counties to go. You think I can count the parts of San Mateo and San Francisco and Marin I did for my around-the-Bay thing?

Note: it is possible to run on one specific route through Camp Pendleton (or bike as most people do - south of Las Pulgas and north of Oceanside.) Just make sure you carry your drivers license, or your run ends at the entrance (North of Las Pulgas you don't need it.) It was very, very difficult for me to find this out - I ended up just driving to the guard box one day and asking them, since no one answers their public information line.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Abused Child Rescued in Indian Ocean

[Added 21 June 2010: turns out I'm not the only person to have such doubts. The whole article is worth reading but what jumped out to me was that Child Protective Services interviewed Abby Sunderland before she left for the trip. No word on whether it was a proactive family volunteering this to clear the air or a CPS representative who saw the press and wanted to be sure.]

Yes, I'm talking about SoCal 16-year-old Abby Sunderland, who was sailing around the world solo. A few days ago she put out a distress call when her mast snapped in the Indian Ocean; thank goodness she's now safe. Of course, this is on the heels of another SoCal kid (13 years old) who became the youngest ever to summit Mt. Everest. Both of these activities have non-zero chances of death. And at the end of the day, neither of them delivers more than bragging rights.

Why "abused child"? Because there's nothing inspiring or heroic in these stories at all, that's why. These are kids either being allowed to attempt, or being put up to, a stunt, by parents who are at best incredibly irresponsible and at worst willing to endanger their own children's lives to live vicariously through them. Abby Sunderland is a minor, and her safety is her parents' number one responsibility. Imagine those French fishermen hadn't found her; would people be so tolerant of her parents' permissiveness (or vicarious ambition) then? Or, imagine you have a 16-year-old kid, and she comes to you and says "I want to sail around the world solo." If you're a good parent, you'll say, "No. End of discussion." In fact you'll say that if you're a halfway mediocre parent. Frankly even Homer Simpson would say that. What do you think her chance of death was on this trip? Let's conservatively say 1%. Imagine your kid came to you and said, "I want to do X, but I'll have a 1% chance of dying." (For the record, attempting Everest has about a 5% chance of death.) What would the pay-off have to be for you to allow that to go forward? A hundred million dollars? Guaranteed entrance to Harvard? Most parents would be unable to even think about such a thing. If you have children, I certainly hope that there's no amount of money that would make you consider endangering their lives. Okay - so instead of money, what if the payoff was a few newspaper articles and an entry in the Guiness Book of World Records? Even more ridiculous, if that's possible. But she was really prepared! you (and she) might object. In case you haven't noticed, every teenager is immortal and knows everything. For that matter, everyone who's ever attempted Everest has thought s/he wouldn't be one of the statistics. But these are decisions each of us is free to make, for ourselves, once we've reached the age of majority.

If you think my tone is a little strident, please consider: do you find it distasteful, even borderline abuse, when children are allowed or pushed into the Hollywood acting scene by their parents? Then isn't it even worse that kids are allowed to (or encouraged to!) endanger their own lives with these kinds of stunts? The worst thing that happens to those Hollywood kids is a tabloid scandal and a stint in rehab ten years from now, and that's bad enough. But these kids could've died. Abby almost did.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Tourists in Guatemala is Some Goofy Bastids

Pacaya Volcano has been in the news recently for erupting. Really, it's erupting more now. I was there two years ago and it wasn't fully "off" then (volcanoes are not quantized). The mountain is less than an hour west of Guatemala City. I was in the country for a friend's wedding; he was kind enough to give me his camera to get some footage, and his father-in-law told me how to get to the highest village. Memorably, one kid in the village who was hustling people to try to get paid for giving tours was albino.

I took some video but only scrambled up most of the way. This is by far the most active volcano I've ever been on and if Hood or Rainier started acting like that, I would glissade down that minute, and then drive back to San Diego to boot. But this mountain was booming and shaking. And, there was lava coming out - as I soon realized, underneath the rocks I was standing on. Listen for the hiss when the water lands on the rocks:

In a rare moment of common sense, I turned around. That's actually how I ended up getting back down, by throwing water every couple steps so I could figure out which rocks weren't hot enough to fry eggs, and by extension where the lava was not. As you can imagine, it's a little concerning that tourists are flocking to this place now because, as the article says, "hundreds of people live in the nearby village so they must be safe". Nice heuristic! I bet Spirit Lake, Washington and Pompeii and Joya del Ceren probably felt safe too. Lightning is also a problem around volcanoes, even in Iceland, let alone in tropical Guatemala during rainy season.