Cloudy Views Through a Clear Lens: George Observatory Anticipates Research Explosion When Wet Weather Dissipates

It’s been a wet, cloudy year for George Observatory, but flooding and poor viewing nights at Brazos Bend State Park haven’t kept astronomers from dreaming. Big breakthroughs have happened at the George in the past, and with a complete restoration of the 36-inch, deep space Gueymard Research Telescope, a return to astronomical research is quite simply a waiting game. And with even more rainfall this week, astronomers will have to wait a little longer. The park will remain closed until at least July 12.

“We couldn’t do research forever because of the lens,” George Director Peggy Halford said, referring to the heavy deposits of grime the telescope suffered during its 50 years standing in the muggy climates of Louisiana State University and west Texas wetlands. “And as soon as we got the lens restored, the park flooded.”


Photo posted June 3 on Brazos Bend State Park Facebook page. The post reads, “In the history of the park (since 1984), water levels have never been this high.”


In spite of this development, both amateur and professional astronomers have been using the past 13 months, April and May 2016 in particular, to prioritize future projects using the refreshed equipment. As water over park roads continues to prevent access to the observatory, and cloud cover access to the night sky, these scientists are keeping their heads in the game through planning and pitching sessions.


Photo posted June 2 on Brazos Bend State Park Facebook page. The post reads, “We awoke this morning to find water over Park Road 72 for a roughly 1.25-mile section between Park Headquarters and the Nature Center and a small section between the park entrance and Park Headquarters.”

In an age of computer-guided photometry and NASA probes, the science of star-study from the ground “may not be that glamorous,” Halford offers, but it’s not without significant value. One project idea, for example, involves the study of what happens in space after a supernova goes off, or in science-speak, cataclysmic variable star system follow-up observations.


Artist’s rendition of a cataclysmic variable star. By Mark A. Garlick.

Not all stars are alone; some come in pairs. Cataclysmic variables are double-star systems that include a super-dense white dwarf and a normal star rapidly orbiting each at a rate of about once an hour. Because the white dwarf is so close to its partner, it strips off material from the normal star’s corona, creating an accretion disk around itself as it accumulates more and more mass..As this energy vacuuming proceeds, unstable matter in the accretion disk occasionally ignites, ejecting a flash of light called a nova. Eventually, the white dwarf will absorb enough of its partner’s energy to detonate a super-massive thermonuclear explosion of incredible power — a supernova. The novae and supernovae of cataclysmic variables are recorded in all cases, but few events are studied, according to Halford.

“The big surveys are great at catching these things in outburst, but there’s little value in the discovery if no follow-up is done,” Halford stated. “The follow-up photometry gives us the rate of fade, and an idea of the characteristics of a particular type of variable, or an idea of the angular momentum of accretion disk in a binary system, et cetera.”

In other words, the moments after novae are some of the most crucial in the effort to know more about these systems, and the lives and behavior of stars in general. Science being an empirical pursuit, the more data, the better. The Gueymard is particularly suited to this type of research given its deep-space capabilities as well as its accessibility to Houston local astronomers.


The relative size of all asteroids visited by spacecraft as of November 2010.

For the purists, the observatory offers an opportunity to discover asteroids — large bodies of rock and ice within our solar system — through classic methods. While computerized telescopes can now scan for inter-planetary bodies and minor planets much faster than a human ground observer, the pursuit is no less exciting or valuable when new discoveries are made.

“In years past, we’ve had astronomer teams that have discovered more than 500 asteroids,” Halford said. “We have a few people who are going to continue to do it by hand and by eye. If they did discover one coming toward Earth, it could potentially be life-saving.”

George astronomers have also proposed a project that could track light pollution in the area using the magnitude of stars. With this set of data, they could fight for more governmental regulation of municipal lighting. Halford and other interested volunteers at the George have already won battles in the fight to keep the skies dark.


Photos of the night sky before and during the Aug. 14, 2003 blackout in the northeast U.S. and Canada. In urban areas, the Milky Way and orbiting satellites suddenly became visible without light pollution.

“About 15 years ago when we heard the Grand Parkway was going to be built, with the museum’s support, we talked to the state legislature and got a bill passed that allowed us to talk to county commissioners about light in unincorporated areas,” Halford said. “There is currently a lighting ordinance around the George Observatory.”

As Houston and surrounding cities continue to grow, studies of how light affects the appearance of the night sky will provide continuing support for the astronomy community and preservation in general. From the star-lover’s perspective, the sky is yet another endangered species or threatened environment.

While the water continues to recede, these astronomers will continue to plan. The McDonald Observatory in west Texas is always an option, but that means a 12-hour drive and it’s expensive to get time on the telescopes, according to Halford.

“We can’t get to our telescope, so now’s the time to throw out some ideas,” she said. “For the local astronomer who wants to contribute to the scientific body of knowledge, this is the best place to do it.”

Hate Mosquitoes? Consider a Bat House! Fight Insect-Borne Illness by Partnering with Furry Fliers

The National Weather Service reported last week that 35 trillion gallons of water fell in the state of Texas during the month of May. The ground is soaked for what may well be weeks to come, our bayous have swollen far beyond their usual limits and residents in Harris and Ft. Bend counties continue to pick up the pieces after flooding pushed them from their homes. We know what 35 trillion gallons looks like in terms of disrupting the lives of Texans, but it’s difficult to imagine just exactly how much that is.


That’s a lot of water…

NBC’s Nelson Hsu put together a graphic breaking down the staggering amount of water that drenched our state — evenly distributed and dropped all at once, it’s enough to cover Texas in eight inches of water; enough to fill California’s 200 surface reservoirs to thrice their capacity, enough to cover Manhattan four times, and if we had caught all that rainwater and spread it across the globe, the world’s population would have a supply of 64 ounces of water for at least the next 27 years. And most people fail the eight-glasses-a-day challenge!

With Zika virus making headlines in the aftermath of May’s downpour, our soaking city seems like prime real estate for ground zero of the next outbreak. But fear not. Mosquitoes are ubiquitous, that’s true, but they’re easy enough to fight. They fly at less than 1.5 miles an hour, with a typical range of only about 300 feet in still weather. Their strength is in their numbers, not their speed — kind of like zombies.


America’s worst enemy, but to bats, they’re food for thought.

First, there have as yet been no locally-acquired cases of Zika virus in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control; the 618 reported cases were all travel-associated. It’s also important to understand that while Zika poses a serious threat to developing infants during pregnancy, the disease presents no more than a few days of flu-like symptoms in adults and children.

Second, since mosquitoes are the main vector of Zika, the best way to directly combat them is to wear insect repellent. Sure it smells nasty, but Off! and other spray-on products could save you from serious symptoms and the awful itching of the world’s most annoying insect.

Third, you can stop mosquitoes from breeding by eliminating areas of shallow, stagnant water. Take a lesson from the residents of Flamingo, Fla., a community in the Everglades and home to one of the most voracious populations of mosquitoes: Get rid of aluminum cans, bottles and plastic containers, store recycling in plastic bags, don’t let water accumulate in garbage can lids or empty garbage cans, flush bird baths and plant trays twice a week, store pet food and water bowls indoors when Fido and Felix aren’t using them, and use mosquito “dunks” in areas that can’t be drained. These dunks utilize bacteria that consume mosquito larvae but leave fish and other animals unharmed.


(Yawn!!!) It it dusk yet? I’m hungry for mosquito breakfast.

For the long term, my favorite method of laying waste to mosquitoes involves enlisting the assistance of another population of flying creatures — by hanging bat houses! The Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) is a hardy, numerous species (and they’re super cute), but their propensity to roost in a few huge colonies, like those you can find under bridges in Austin and Houston, leaves them vulnerable to habitat loss. Hanging one or two bat houses around your home keeps these adorable flying mammals close by, which means far fewer insects.


Vote Bat for Harris County Mosquito Exterminator! I eat bugs so they don’t eat you!

While female mosquitoes have an insatiable appetite for blood, which they need to lay their eggs, bats have an equally ravenous hunger for the insects. A single bat can eat around 1,000 mosquitoes every night, and a single small bat house offers shelter for up to 25 bats. Do the math with me — two shelters is 50 bats, which could eat a total of 50,000 mosquitoes a night or 350,000 mosquitoes a week. That’s not just the mosquitoes around your house; that’s probably every mosquito on the block. If you convince your neighbors to hang houses, too, you could form a bat colony coalition for an even more formidable mosquito-fighting force.


When we have a problem, we hug it out. #justbattythings

The capacity of a bat house, of course, is also adjustable according to its size. Many bat house companies, like P & S Country Crafts or Habitat For Bats offer a variety of dimensions available for purchase, or you can build one yourself. It’s an easy enough project to knock out in your garage in a few days, and an even easier project to hang up a pre-made one. Each house promotes an environmentally-friendly semi-symbiotic relationship with our adorable bat friends, which stay long enough to raise their pups and then move on when the weather cools down. And by this time, the mosquitoes will have disappeared for the season, as well.


Bat houses by, mounted on a pole. Bat houses can also be attached to the sides of houses or barns. Trees are not ideal for bat house mounting.

So do what you can to fight mosquitoes, but consider teaming up with the bats, our neighborhood insect-fighting superheroes. Check out Bat Conservation International for more information on ways to help these furry fliers.

Visit the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife at the Houston Museum of Natural Science to learn more about bats and other native species in need of conservation.

Because That’s How You Get Ants: Flooding Causes Displaced Critters to Run for Shelter, Too

Most of you probably didn’t make it in to work today, and after my short drive to the Houston Museum of Natural Science this morning, I would say that was a good call. There were plenty of cars stalled in intersections, and I watched a sixteen-wheeler make a U-turn on 288 because the water level was too high under an overpass.  

Expensive car repairs aren’t the only reason to stay home during the flash floods we periodically experience. When the water rises, it carries with it everything that is buoyant.  This could be trash that was thrown out a car window, chemicals that spilled from a car during an accident or were poured down the drain, or the critters that live under the soil and in the bushes.


One of the most awesome and horrifying things you will hopefully never see during a flash flood is a raft of fire ants. These little guys instinctively know how to survive the catastrophic destruction of their home. They are light enough to float individually, but they stick together. This allows the ants at the base to hold up those above the water for a while. The roiling ball of ants turns constantly to allow every member of the ball to get a rest and to get enough oxygen. The ants at the edge are constantly looking for something dry on which they can cling. The instant they find a tree or a street sign, up everyone goes.

This is also horrific because sometimes that thing is you.


The ants, which are pretty upset at this point, will absolutely swarm you if you touch this little ball of hate. They will get to the highest point they can and then they will latch on.  With their piercing mouth parts. 

So, my friends. While I applaud an interest in the out-of-doors and making new friends, please wait until the city isn’t flooded to engage in both. Because sometimes you pick your friends…


…and sometimes they pick you!


Editor’s Note: Learn more about the behavior of ants and other insects at the Brown Hall of Entomology in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. (When the floodwaters recede, of course.)

Memorial Day Floods: a natural phenomenon

Flooding changed the face of Houston Monday and Tuesday, turning the peaceful bayou into a raging torrent swelling beyond its banks, spilling over major highways and washing into communities where it did its worst damage. Busy roads turned into lakes of steaming vehicles as hundreds were lost in the floodwaters, and some 1,400 structures were critically damaged.  In the wake of the storms across the Southwest that killed at least 17 people, Gov. Greg Abbot declared 24 Texas counties disaster areas, tacking them on to the 13 counties already under declarations due to weather. To make matters worse, scientists are beginning to attribute the current rainy weather to El Niño, predicting a wet summer that could see more continuous rainfall.


Floodwaters rise in Houston Memorial Day. The water claimed an estimated 1,200 homes. Flickr Creative Commons.

When it comes to disasters, floods are serious business. In the U.S. each year, floods account for about $6 billion in damages, and floodwaters claim about 140 lives. Around the world, coastal flooding causes about $3 trillion in damages. It may seem like you can just power through rising water in your vehicle, with the confidence that if you’re in trouble, you can just swim to safety, but the safest route to take is to turn around, don’t drown. Get to higher ground.


Stranded motorists abandoned their cars to the floodwaters Memorial Day. Flickr Creative Commons.

Flash flooding occurs with heavy or continuous rainfall over an extended period of time, sometimes in areas nowhere near the location of the heaviest precipitation. Water runs downhill, filling riverbeds and waterways to capacity, and when the water doesn’t stop, it spills over the banks and into the flat areas beyond, called the flood plain. Meteorologists measure flood risk in years. The risk of flooding in the 100-year flood plain is about one percent every year; that makes flood risk in a 50-year flood plain two percent, and in a 500-year flood plain, one-half percent.

Global climate change might account for more common and stronger floods in Texas and worldwide, according to National Geographic, and information from the NOAA supports this claim. Floods in Texas do appear to have worsened in recent years. In 1998, a “perfect storm” involving two hurricanes and a stationary cold front led to a disastrous flood in Central Texas, swelling the banks of the Guadalupe River into the San Antonio metro area. More than 30 inches of rain fell in a small area south of San Marcos in 36 hours in what was classified as a rare, 500-year flood event.


Floodwaters rise near Allen Parkway Memorial Day. Flickr Creative Commons.

Four years later, yet another 500-year flood occurred in the same area, doing even greater damage over a larger part of the state. A low pressure system that formed over the northern Gulf of Mexico moved inland and stayed put, dumping record-breaking rainfall over San Antonio and several other counties in the hill country. Two massive, rare Texas floods in four years seems to spell doom for our state and the state of the planet as a whole. However, natural cycles suggest otherwise.

The extreme wet season in Texas and Oklahoma signals an El Niño year, scientists say. Few people may care about the weather phenomenon or understand it completely; they only know the cycle of drought and flooding in the south, of heavy snows and mild winters in the north. Scientists themselves don’t fully understand the causes and effects of El Niño, but they do know that oceanic and atmospheric phenomena are directly linked in the system, NOAA Meteorologist Tom DiLibertero told Al Jazeera.

El Niño occurs in cycles between two and seven years, officially named the ENSO, or El Niño Southern Oscillation in the scientific community. Cold water upwellings normally keep surface temperatures of the Pacific Ocean cool, but when that system fluctuates, the massive body of water warms in the sun. In turn, winds carry more moisture into the air which oceanic winds push over the Americas. Poised in the middle of the continent, this weather dumps heavy precipitation. In years following particularly strong El Niño patterns, the opposite occurs. When cool water returns to the surface of the Pacific, moisture stays closer to Indonesia, creating dry La Niña conditions for the continental U.S. Scientists agree this may be a natural pattern, but the degree to which climate change and warmer global ocean temperatures might worsen its effects is still uncertain.


The new Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology offers solutions to how we can be better stewards of our coastline.

Add to this that Houston was built on a wetland, an area known for flooding as a natural process, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster every few years. Floods can occur in other places from spring snowmelt, log jams, and broken levees, but for our area, the biggest threat is steady rainfall. After heavy rains from frontal systems and hurricanes alike, the rivers that feed the bayous swell and overflow into lowland areas we’ve built our city over.


In the Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology, guests can learn about the unique ecosystems of the Upper, Middle and Lower Texas Coast and how flooding affects them as a natural process.

In truth, flooding anywhere is natural and has been happening for millions of years, and humans have capitalized on the benefits of these raging waters around the world. It’s what we do as a species. “Famously fertile floodplains like the Mississippi Valley in the American Midwest, the Nile River valley in Egypt, and the Tigris-Euphrates in the Middle East have supported agriculture for millennia because annual flooding has left millions of tons of nutrient-rich silt deposits behind,” states National Geographic.


Placard information in the Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology spells out the damages Hurricane Ike caused to Houston and statewide in 2008.

The Weather Channel compared the Memorial Day flooding to other historical floods, including those caused by Hurricane Ike (2008) and Tropical Storm Allison (2001). “According to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, there were 86 days with reports of flooding or flash flooding in Harris County from 1996 through 2014,” their report states. “This equates to an average of 4-5 days of flooding each year over that time period.”


At the Do the Weather with Chita Johnson exhibit, a student learns how flood warnings are broadcast over television.

During the Memorial Day event, the water in some Harris County bayous exceeded totals measured during both storms, The Weather Channel found. Buffalo Bayou at Shepherd Drive crested at 33.73 feet Memorial Day, 32.4 feet during Hurricane Ike, and 40.2 feet during Tropical Storm Allison. Brays Bayou at Beltway 8 reached 65.9 feet this year and crested at 58.7 feet during Ike. And Greens Bayou at Shepherd Drive peaked at 34.02 feet Memorial Day, 36.2 feet during Ike, and at 44.04 during Allison. But these hurricanes are only two of the numerous flood events that have soaked Houston in the past 40 years alone.


At the Do the Weather with Chita Johnson exhibit, a student reads a mock-up of what a meteorologist might say during a flood event.

From The Weather Channel: April 2009; 2,100 homes flooded, freeways impassible. June 2006; 11 inches of rain, 3,000 homes flooded. Late summer 1998; Tropical Storm Frances and two other events flood a total of 2,700 homes. October 1994; 22,000 homes flooded, $900 million in damages, 17 killed. (Now that’s one awful flood.) June and July 1989; two separate events flood a total of 2,500 homes. September 1983; a nine-inch deluge floods 1,000 homes along Brays Bayou. July 1979; Tropical Storm Claudette dumps a record 43 inches in 24 hours, flooding 15,000 homes and damaging 17,000 vehicles.

The devastation that flooding has caused for the residents of Houston over the years is heartbreaking, but as disturbing as these number are, it’s no surprise that Houston gets its rain, and that floods happen. They nourish the ecosystem of the Upper Texas Coast and the Galveston Bay area, and it could be hundreds of years before they stop, if not thousands. For Houston, since its founding, flooding has come with the territory.


In the Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology, young students learn about coastal management using touch-screen technology.

Our species moved here to carve out a life and began retro-fitting the land to suit our needs, just like we’ve always done. In 1836, Houston was established on the banks of Buffalo Bayou, where trees, good soil, and slow-moving water helped rapidly establish a community. As the city continued to grow, it became a vital hub for energy and transportation, and a vital port to Texas and the southern U.S.

Agriculture establishes civilization; infrastructure moves it forward. Doesn’t mean it’s bad. Beavers do it when they change the course of a river with their dams; ants do, too, when they manipulate the soil or a tree to build networks of tunnels; birds do it to create nests and rookeries; coral and oysters build their own habitat and create hundreds of thousands of square miles of reefs around the world.

That’s why conservation and awareness of the natural cycles of our environment, wherever we choose to live, is imperative to our survival. As we encroach upon wetlands for our cities, we must understand that floods will continue to happen. Wetlands act as “natural flood buffers,” states National Geographic. If we live in the buffer, we’re bound to get soaked.


Learn more about the coastal environment at the newly-opened Hamman Hall of Coastal Ecology, and see how weather forecasters spread the word about flood events on live TV when you Do the Weather with Chita Johnson, both at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. If you or your family was affected by the flood, visit the Texas Organization Project for resources that can help you recover.