The DeBonds Chase an Eclipse to Wyoming

Solar Eclipse - Photo cred: Andrew DeBond

If you ever get a chance to see a total solar eclipse, do it. Growing up in a family of amateur astronomers, I have many memories of club meetings where members shared pictures and stories of various eclipses they traveled to see around the world. Almost everyone would go to one, get bit by the eclipse chasing bug, and then see another and another… and… well you get the picture.
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Cycling in the Carolinas and a Visit to PARI

Mike and I joined the Waterloo Cycling Club on their annual pilgrimage to South Carolina for a week of training camp. I was a bit of a hanger-on: the training camp is primarily meant to get the race team into shape for the season, although families do come out.  In other years, there are a few more casual riders, but this time things didn’t quite work out that way.  

First, the riding: I was a little bit stressed out about my abilities compared to the rest of the attendees, especially because I had limited pack riding skills and my fitness was not good. Working as a surveyor and spending all week on my feet means I’m often too tired to do much riding, other than casual paced coffee rides on weekends. This was exacerbated by coming down with a cold on the first day! Nevertheless our housemates were wonderful and understanding. One member of the race team gave me a piece of advice I have often applied since. Basically, that the world is beautiful and you should do whatever you need to experience it. If that means driving to the start, or part way into a planned route and meeting everyone, or riding solo, or whatever. Do something! Don’t miss out on what you CAN do because you are focussed on how you can’t measure up. So I did. I started a ride with the group, met them half way a couple of times, and on one epically long day, offered to drive to set up a rest stop with another less-serious cyclist, and ride from there. 

I started the day with the group and then solo-ascended Ceaser’s Head.

PARI and the Blue Mountains: The race team did an epically long ride, from our camp to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and then sweeping back. My friend Tasha and I offered to drive to the top of the climb up to the parkway, with drinks and food so that the team could carry less water. The team left early and we slept in, packed a cooler and then drove out. Winding through the Pisagah Forest and chatting, we suddenly passed a sign for PARI, the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute.  Oh my! I hadn’t made the connection that we’d be so close to PARI, I exlaimed. I then explained that my mother’s colleague from the David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill, Dr. Mel Blake, had taken a job there after completing his Ph.D., later moving on to become a professor at the University of North Alabama.  We decided after our ride along the parkway, we’d pop in and see if we could have a look around. After all, radio telescopes are pretty cool.

We met the crew at the top of their climb, and chatted with everyone as they took on water, food and pickle juice. Then we got our own bikes out for a cruise along the highway. The views were beautiful, and it was definitely worth bringing the bikes along! Once we finished our ride, we headed back to the car and made our way back through the forest to PARI. We got there just before close, and had enough time to take the self-guided tour as long as we were out before the gate closed, we were good to look around. I was pleasantly surprised to see Mel in the exhibit’s welcome video!

PARI is a very interesting place. It began in the ’60s as the Rosman Tracking Station, used by NASA to communicate with satellites and manned spacecraft. The western 26 m telescope received the first true colour photograph of the full Earth from space (taken by the ATS-3 satellite), predating the famous ‘blue marble’ photograph of the Apollo 17 mission, and the station’s telescopes received the first TV transmission from space in the same year.

ATS-3 image of Earth
The ATS-3 Image of Earth received by the Rosman dish at what is now PARI.

Later on, during the cold war, the site was used by the DOD. It was at this time the 4.6 m dish on site was painted with a smiley face for the benefit of Soviet satellites. The DOD ended their operations at the site in 1995 and the site was acquired by Don and Jo Cline, who converted it into the PARI facility that exists today. Since 2003, ‘Smiley’ and the site’s 12 m telescope have been available for use over the internet – they are some of the few radio telescopes in the world that are controllable this way!

We enjoyed the exhibits, and walked around the grounds briefly before heading out to meet the cyclists back at camp. I was pleased with how it all worked out; I followed the advice to cycle in a way that worked for me, helped the gang out at a rest stop, and squeezed in some unexpected astronomy. That day in the Blue Ridge Mountains was my favourite of the trip!

The PARI Campus with Smiley and the west 26 m telescope.

Rainy Days, the Monsoon and Taiwan

The word ‘monsoon’ may conujure up images of warm tropical rains, however the term monsoon refers to a seasonal wind that reverses direction during the year. The summer monsoon is typically a rainy season, whereas the the winter monsoon is typically dry. This is because during the summer, the Asian landmass gets heated by the Sun. This creates a low pressure zone over the land that draws in wet oceanic air which results in heavy rainfall and potential flooding. In the winter, the system reverses itself. As the land cool down, a high pressure system develops and cold dry air is pushed out toward the ocean.

Seasonal changes in the East Asian monsoon area, from Yi, 2011
Seasonal changes in the East Asian monsoon area, from Yi, 2011

In Taiwan, this story is complicated by the Central and Xueshan mountain ranges. The winter monsoon is blocked by these mountains, resulting in cloudy weather and orographic precipitation over northern Taiwan during the winter months, while southern Taiwan stays dry. The summer monsoon is rainy throughought Taiwan, and can be divided into three components. First, there is a rainy period in May called 梅雨 (Meiyu = Plum Rain). This is followed by a break in the rain, and then another rainy period that extends from July to September.

The winds were a big player in our decision to travel clockwise around the island when we went on our cycling trip – depending on the season, it can be better to go one way or the other. The rains that come with the summer monsoon were also pretty neat. Every afternoon you could count on a downpour (better keep a poncho in the scooter boot)! Hsinchu is in the north, so we also experienced winter monsoon rains. These were a little less enjoyable since getting wet in the 10 degree weather would sometimes get a little chilly. I worked out early on that flip-flops were a great alternative to dealing with wet running shoes during the winter rains. Here’s a chart showing average monthly precipitation in Hsinchu, prepared using data from 1992-2010 from the Central Weather Bureau:

Average Monthly Precipitation for Hsinchu from 1992-2010.  Data from the Central Weather Bureau.
Average Monthly Precipitation for Hsinchu from 1992-2010. Data from the Central Weather Bureau.

Extra reading: some neat papers about precipitation in Taiwan

Rain, wind and waves… Typhoons!

Typhoon Soulik (image credit: NOAA)
Typhoon Soulik dwarfs Taiwan (false colour, image credit: NOAA)

Typhoons are the the Northwestern Pacific’s equivalent to the hurricanes that occur in the Northeastern Pacific and Atlantic. They are formed when a number of factors (including a warm ocean and an existing weather disturbance) come together. When a typhoon makes landfall, it can bring high winds, torrential rain, huge waves and flooding.

Heavy rains and the occasional windy weekend were all the effects of hurricanes I ever experienced in Ontario, but I did experience Hurricane Igor in St. John’s, Newfoundland. While the storms themselves are similar to what Igor was, the frequency with which they arrive is amazing. There have only been 13 hurricanes that made landfall in Newfoundland since 1775, but Taiwan experiences about 2 or 3 a year! This, of course, means that there is much infrastructure put in place to deal with such storms, such as huge floodways and bridges that seem to be taller than one might think they need to be.

We experienced a few typhoons, the most serious of which was Soulik, which caused 4 fatalities, and among other things, the largest offset ever recorded at the mass damper in Taipei 101. For us, the winds seemed similar or less severe than those we experienced during Igor, but the amount of rainfall was absolutely astounding.

Comparing Igor and Soulik:

St. John’s Airport
Total Rainfall (mm) 120 823 (Bailan Township)
Peak Wind Gusts (km/h) 137 104

You can track typhoons near Taiwan through the Central Weather Bureau Typhoon Advisory page.

Check out excellent photographer (and my soccer teammate) Colin Peddle’s photojournal capturing the destruction of Hurricane Igor and a BBC summary of Typhoon Soulik (plus video).

Lessons Learned from My Master’s, Part 3: Writing

When I started my master’s degree I had envisioned 3 experiments, each taking up a chapter. My plan was to write up the results of the first experiment while performing the second and so on until I had the bulk of my thesis written. It seemed easy, but it did not turn out that way! The combination of the traveling required to do some of my analyses, and a rocky start to a few of my first experiments resulted in the axing of my seemingly straightforward writing plan before I could begin. Rather than my nicely timed data flow, I ended up having a massive data set that came in all at once, which left me with lots of writing all piled up at the end of my time as a student.

Although it did not go as planned, I still learned a lot about managing a huge writing task. I figured out some things that kept me writing even when I had no data yet, and also discovered some strategies later on that I wish I had enacted right from the beginning. So without further ado, here are some ways to keep on top of things, even when it doesn’t end up going as planned!

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Manuscript Accepted!

I am pleased to announce that Chapter 2 of my master’s thesis has been accepted for publication in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. It will be published in a special issue dedicated to the application of hydrogen isotopes as environmental recorders sometime soon! The title of the paper is Variable δD Values Among Major Biochemicals in Plants: Implications for Environmental Studies. I will post a link to the special issue once it is available.

Lessons Learned from My Master’s, Part 2: Good Weekly Habits

Last installment, I touched on 3 ways to improve data organization. Today’s theme is “good weekly habits”.

I always found my weeks filled up quickly in graduate school. There were always experiments to set up and execute, results to analyze, and don’t forget your coursework! However, there are a few things you can do that demand less immediate attention, but have big pay offs in the long run. Attending seminars and other departmental gatherings, keeping up on the literature, and making sure you’re on track are all things that are easy to put off, but you shouldn’t let them fall by the wayside.

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Lessons Learned from My Master’s, Part 1: Organizing Big Research Projects

One of the big reasons I wanted to complete a Master’s program rather than embarking on a Ph.D. immediately after my undergraduate studies was to get a handle on managing big projects. Everything in an undergraduate program is necessarily limited in scope to either one or two terms, and you don’t have to be particularly organized to get through that amount of time.

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Geological/Scientific Drawing

I saw these links posted on Reddit (/r/geology), and wanted to post them here for future reference. Here are some great resources for geological and other science illustration:

Geologic Map Patterns for Canvas (R), Illustrator (R) and Freehand (R) , from Andreas Plesch and the USGS

Integration and Application Network (IAN) symbol library, which contains 2604 science/ecology symbols (vector format), including lots of geologic environments.