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NATURE HAPPENINGS July 2018

July’s Cloudscapes
by Damian Fagan

Damian Fagan's blog

The fourth-century B.C. Greek dramatist Aristophanes said, “Clouds are the patron goddesses of idle fellows.” Wispy, ephemeral, scattered – these are the traits that make day dreamers and drifting clouds so interesting.

One particular day-dreaming cloud watcher was a Londoner named Luke Howard (1772-1864). As a child, he was entranced by clouds, their forms, movements, and variety. An average student in his studies, Howard did pay attention during Latin classes, something that would benefit him later in life.

As an adult, Howard was a pharmacist by trade, but a meteorologist at heart. On a cold winter day in 1802, the young pharmacist presented his observations about clouds to an esteemed group of science- minded members of the London Science Group or Askeian Society.

Howard’s presentation focused on the scientific naming or nomenclature of clouds. At this point in time, meteorology was in its infancy as a natural science. Howard knew from his years of observation that clouds came in many individual shapes, but there were only several basic forms. He named his three basic forms with Latin terms: cirrus (meaning tendril or hair), cumulus (meaning heap or pile), and stratus (meaning layer or sheet). Howard also observed that clouds were ephemeral and that their instability needed more definition. So, he devised 7 other names to represent intermediate or compound forms, such as cirrocumulus and cirrostratus named for wispy clouds that descended and transformed into a low-level sheet of clouds. His presentation literally opened up the skies to study and provided scientists and fledgling meteorologists a common language, a nomenclature of clouds.

Like clouds themselves, Howard’s initial system of names has been refined and reshaped over the years. His observations also concluded that clouds were subjected to the same forces of gravity as anything on the planet: clouds would gradually descend but could be kept aloft by warm air rising off the ground.

Today’s current cloud classification system is based off of 10 different types of clouds, with names for individual forms such as lenticular, mammatus, or roll clouds to name a few.

Throughout the year, clouds play an important role in advertising upcoming weather or defining current conditions. In late summer, the daily build up of cumulonimbus or thunderheads indicates that rain and/or lightning may occur. Cirrus clouds can indicate a change of weather on the horizon.

In Canyon Country, clouds often create a backdrop or highlight spectacular geologic feathers. A photograph of Delicate Arch with the snow-less La Sals in the background lacks the subtle punch compared to the same image with towering thunderheads capping the mountain peaks. Or maybe it is a series of roll clouds washing over sandstone fins in the Devils Garden provides creates an alluring connection between earth and sky.

Summer clouds also provide some welcomed relief from the intense sun, creating shade and a slight dip in temperature. Unlike shade sails fixed in place, these clouds provide a temporary respite. But for the modern-day cloud watcher, they provide an interesting aspect to this landscape that is separate yet connected to the activities on the ground.

So, the next time you’re watching clouds sail overhead, give a nod to the name whose title “The Namer of Clouds” was indeed an honor.


Damian Fagan is an accomplished writer who has published a number of guide books as well as numerous articles. If you would like to read more or find out what Damian is up to follow this link to Damian Fagan's blog.



So Many Stars in Our Summer Sky
By Ranger Scott Chandler
Southeastern Utah’s night skies are some of the nicest in the lower 48, yet with the coming of the summer solstice, they can be a little harder to stay up for here in July. I would argue that the nightly show of staying up that extra little bit is worth the small feeling of tiredness the next day.

Summer is the perfect time to see a multitude of fun things in our night skies. Just one example; to the naked eye this is our best opportunity to see the galaxy that we sit within: The Milky Way. During the summer we look towards the center of our galactic disk, meaning our eyes can pick up the light of more stars compared to the rest of the Milky Way and it appears brighter. The Milky Way also appears bigger during the summer, bulging out to take up more of the sky with the sight of the bulbous halo of stars around the center of our galaxy. The dark skies of our area bring out the darkness inherent in this galaxy too with massive dust lanes snaking along the Milky Way, obscuring its light and giving it a ghoulish, cloudy appearance. It is a wonderful show special to the darkest of places.

At the southern end of the Milky Way (as we Moabites see it) sits a glorious hook of a constellation. While some constellations struggle to fit their namesake or are made of faint stars, this one is another showstopper of our summer nights. It is also perfect for our arid environment. Scorpio the Scorpion will dance across our southern horizon throughout the month. Scorpio’s hook like shape is perfect, a long curved tail swinging down from a prong of stars indicative of pincers. The red supergiant Antares lies in the heart of the constellation, so distinct from other stars in coloration that it is the easiest way to find the constellation.

These two features couple perfectly if you have the ability to augment your vision just a tiny bit. Back before the telescope, we only knew the swoop of Scorpio and flow of the Milky Way for what our eyes told us: a connection of brightness. Pointing a pair of binoculars towards this section of sky shows us what the first astronomers to magnify our sight found. The section of sky that is our Milky Way is made of billions of stars, what looks like a general flow of light is actually coming from so many stars they fill a binocular’s view. Many of these are singular or binary stars, actually very far apart in space, but some are close enough to one another they are stuck in each other’s gravity. The disk of our galaxy, as it spins around, pushes gases and particles into one another, generating star formation and creating open clusters of bright, energetic, young stars. While the Milky Way is full of stars, it is amazingly apparent where these clusters are. Two open star clusters sit just up the Milky Way from the end of Scorpio’s tail, one is faintly visible to the naked eye.

Another type of star cluster sits near Scorpio and shows the differences of our galaxy’s structure. Looking just to the right of Antares, within the same view if using binoculars, sits a fuzzy blob of stars in a field of darkness. This star cluster is different. It is more circular, the stars less obvious to distinguish from one another. This is because these stars are far older, far fainter. While an open cluster, made in the spin of our galactic disk, will have a couple tens of bright young stars, a globular cluster was made when the galaxy was young, often as old as 11-13 billion years old and consisting of hundreds of thousands of dim red dwarf stars. These globular clusters sit independent of our galactic disk, hanging out in the bulge or “halo” of our galaxy, hinting that may be the original structure our Milky Way had. I imagine it would have been more aptly named the “Fuzzy Ball” back then…

The few objects in and around Scorpio are but a few of the immense number of starry features of Moab’s summer night skies. To the naked eye there are many vibrant and sprawling constellations to trace across space and then many a feature that with some magnification turns out to be far more. The night skies of southeastern Utah generally have little light pollution flowing into them so stargazing here is some of the best in the country, and the multitude of public lands in the area make access easy. Rangers from Dead Horse Point State Park and Arches and Canyonlands National Parks will be having night sky programming through the month to celebrate this vibrant show. Remember that Dead Horse Point State Park closes to anyone not camping at 10:00pm; luckily, Canyonlands National Park is right next door and open further into the night. Check with the individual parks about night sky programming happening soon (deadhorsepoint.utah.gov for my park.)
 
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