At Snow Flurry: Prancer, the Gossiping Reindeer

Since I’m an insider it’s hard not to share this news…

Prancer is a total gossip! He’s been living at the North Pole as long as he can remember and knows every little detail about everyone there. He knows what designer shoes the head elf is wearing, where Mrs. Claus keeps her most precious pearls, and whether Santa wears boxers or briefs! (Ok, that’s neither here nor there because who wants to know what kind of underwear Santa has on! …Ew!!!)

So here’s the latest gossip… Santa has lost it. He lost the list! He lost the list of which present goes to which kid! It’s a complete disaster (and so far it’s Prancer’s most highly acclaimed gossip article in the North Pole Daily). So it’s time for us to come through for Santa! Seriously, how many times has Santa come through for you?!? Gather up your friends, family, neighbors, the kids at the rec center – come see Santa at Snow Flurry and tell him what you want! My sister Amanda is certainly not going to want the cordless electric drill that her husband requested and my little cousin J.P. won’t want the Barbie his sister is asking for! This is our chance to help Santa straighten out this mess, Houston! Could you really turn down a pair of twinkling eyes and those merry little dimples?? 

Where can you find Santa? He’s going to be at the Museum this Saturday! All day long he will be collecting the wishes of little boys and little girls. Or you can just tell Prancer (he’ll be here, too). He’s a talker. Before you meet her in person at Snow Flurry, get a sneak-peek meet n’ greet with Prancer in the video below (and learn why all of Santa’s reindeer are girls).

See Santa AND Prancer at Snow Flurry! This Saturday, December 6 from 10 am – 4 pm. Seeing Santa is free -but did I mention there will be real snow there, too? 80,000 lbs. of it. Members $3 or non-members $5.

A Trick or a Treat?

In less than a week, people all over the country, including right here at our museum, will be celebrating Halloween. Perhaps your workplaces and schools are already festooned with ghosts, skeletons, graveyards, and the like.  If you stop and think about it, you may wonder just how it is that we came to celebrate by trying to disguise ourselves or by trying to frighten people.  Is this a trick or a treat?

Picket fence and yellow trees
Creative Commons License photo credit: joiseyshowaa

The short answer as to why we celebrate this time of year with images of death is that we are in the middle of autumn, the season when nature itself is dying.  To fully understand why we celebrate Halloween when we do, we must fully understand the seasons.

Earth orbits the Sun with its axis pointed at the North Star, Polaris. As a result, its axis is tilted by about 23.5 degrees with respect to its orbital plane.  This tilt, combined with Earth’s revolution around the Sun, causes the seasons.  If the North Pole leans towards the Sun, the Sun is higher in our sky and we get more direct sunlight.  Also, daytime is longer than nighttime.  As the North Pole begins to tilt away fron the Sun, the Sun appears lower and lower across the sky, and daytime gets shorter and shorter.  Eventually, the slanted-in solar rays and short days bring about winter.  Very cold air masses form in the darkened Arctic and begin to move south, some of which can even reach Houston.

Keep in mind that the Earth’s axis does not tilt back and forth; it points at Polaris the whole time.  In June, the North Pole is leaning towards the Sun, but by December, the Earth’s motion has carried it to the other side of the Sun.  The North Pole, still tilting the same way, now leans away from the Sun.

A common misconception is that the Earth is closer to the Sun in summer and more distant in winter, and that is what causes our seasons.  In fact, Earth’s perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) occurs just after the new year (January 1-4), while aphelion (greatest distance from the Sun) occurs around the 4th of July.  Earth’s orbit is an ellipse, but the Earth-Sun distance does not change by enough to affect our seasons.

where are you?
Creative Commons License photo credit: shioshvili

In the cycle of seasons, there are four points of note.  At the March equinox, neither pole is tilted toward the Sun and the Sun is directly overhead at the equator.  The is the vernal (spring) equinox for us and the autumnal (fall) equinox for folks south of the equator.  At the June solstice, the North Pole is tilted as much as possible towards the Sun, and the Sun is overhead at 23.5 degrees North (the Tropic of Cancer).  This is the summer solstice for us and the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.  At the September equinox, once again neither pole tilts toward the Sun, and the Sun is again overhead at the equator.  This is our fall equinox and their spring equinox.  At the December solstice, the North Pole is tilted as much as possible away from the Sun, and the Sun is overhead at 23.5 degrees South (the Tropic of Capricorn).  This is the winter solstice for us and the summer solstice below the equator. 

We generally think of these points as the beginning of spring, summer, fall, and winter, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  After all, nothing magically happens with our weather on these dates.  We could just as well consider these points the midpoints of each season.  In that case, the seasons would begin and end at points roughly halfway between the equinoxes and solstices, in early February, May, August, and November.  If the equinoxes and solstices are ‘quarter days,’ the points halfway between them become the ‘cross-quarter days.’

The ancient Celts of Europe appear to have divided their year in precisely that way.  Gauls living in what is now France used a calendar of twelve lunar months with a 13th month added every 2.5 years (similar to the Hebrew calendar today).  Their two most significant months were Gamonios (lunar month corresponding to April/May ), which began the summer half of the year, and Samonios (lunar month corresponding to October/November) which began the winter half of the year.  Julius Caesar noted that daytime followed nighttime in Celtic days.  By extension, the dark (winter) half of the Celtic year preceded the light (summer) half, making Samonios the start of their new year.

The Celts in the British Isles (Irish and Scots) also had festivals aligned with the cross-quarter days.  In early February was Imbolc (or St. Brigid’s day).  Weather predicting traditions of this day are preserved in our current Groundhog Day.  Traditional May Day celebrations are similar to those of the Celtic BeltaneLughnasadh, in early August, marked the start of the harvest. 

'' The Sentiment of Light''
Creative Commons License photo credit: jdl_deleon

The most important, though, was Samhain (pronounced ’sah win’, not ‘Sam Hane’, due to rules of Gaelic spelling), in early November.  This three-day festival marked the beginning of the winter half of the year and the start of the whole year, like Gaulish Samonios.  It was the close of the harvest opened at Lughnasagh, and the time for culling excess livestock.  At this time, the veil between the living and the world of the dead was considered thinner than usual, and people looked forward to meeting and communing with ancestors and relatives who had died.  A ‘dumb supper‘ was set aside for departed relatives.  To scare away unwanted spirits, people dressed in frightening garb.  Note that these spirits were considered unpredictable and possibly mischievous because they were not the familiar ancestors–not because they were particularly evil.  Divination was also practiced at this time, as people sought to predict whom they would marry or how many children they would have. 

Doing the math, you’ve probably figured out that Halloween is not quite halfway from the equinox (September 22) to the solstice (December 21).  But remember, the Celts used a lunar calendar.  They celebrated their festivals on a certain phase of the Moon, possibly full moon, occurring nearest the cross-quarter day.  Upon the adoption of the Julian calendar, which was not strictly lunar, the festivals were moved to the beginning of February, May, August, and November, although this meant they were no longer exactly on the cross-quarter days. 

Saint
Creative Commons License photo credit:
The Wandering Angel

In the eighth century AD, Pope Gregory III moved the church’s commemoration of the souls in heaven (All Saints’ Day) from May 13 to November 1.  Another name for All Saints’ Day is All Hallows Day.  (’Hallow’ is an older term for ’sanctify’ or ‘make holy.’  Think of ‘…hallowed be thy name’ from the Lord’s Prayer).  The next day became All Souls’ Day.  The day before All Hallows Day or All Saints’ Day is All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.  The traditions of Samhain, with its similar focus on honoring the dearly departed, were a natural fit for All Hallows Day and All Hallows Eve.

Halloween, then, is ultimately just one expression of the human need to come to terms with death as a natural occurence and to honor those who have gone before.  In the season of the fall of the leaf, with the Sun taking a slightly lower path across the sky each day, the natural world is going through its own ‘death,’ providing a perfect context for our own activities.  We can therefore think of Halloween itself as a treat, not a trick.

I wish everyone a Happy Halloween, with many more treats than tricks.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (7.24.08)

Hmmmmmm....where's your Canon gone then???
Creative Commons License photo credit: law_keven

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

“Cow Power” could meet 3% of North American energy needs - and reduce the animals’ greenhouse gas emissions.

Santa might need to start thinking about relocation – the ice at the North Pole was only 1.3 meters thick in summer 2007 – and it’s getting thinner.

The Perseid Meteor Shower is coming around again – get away from the city lights and see it at the George Observatory.

Japanese and Mongolian scientists have uncovered a complete Tarbosaurus (related to T. rex) – missing only a few neck bones and the tip of the tail.

The Physics of Bungee Jumping – or, Why You Must Be Extremely Tough to Bungee With Tree Vines (video).

Marking a shift from the tradition of naming celestial bodies after Greek or Roman gods, astronomers have named a new dwarf planet Makemake (MAH-keh MAH-keh) after the Polynesian creation god.

Seven significant changes

Recently, The Houston Museum of Natural Science has been working with the University of New Hampshire to create a new full-dome planetarium show – Ice Worlds (now showing). From the poles of the Earth to the exploration of other ice planets in our solar system, this film explores the state of ice and liquid water throughout the galaxy, and climate changes here on Earth. As part of the Ice Worlds program, we are featuring Ice Bulletins as visitors enter the planetarium theater. If you want to know what’s Hot on the Cold Poles, these are the best current events we have found. 

(We are also fortunate to have blog posts from Chris Linder, a scientist currently studying glacial lakes in Greenland. He will be calling in to the museum for a live-from-the-ice Q&A session on July 21.)

arg20080405.152
Creative Commons License photo credit: Irotzabal

1. Changing global temperatures have caused coastal erosion along the Artic Ocean and can cause increased storm exposure.

Coastal areas with open water have more potential for wave action (as well as flooding and hurricanes) than a frozen shoreline. Studies from 1950-2000 have indicated a warming trend in the Chukchi and southern Beaufort Seas, which corresponds to a decrease in sea ice coverage. Longer, warmer seasons translate to less ice, and more open water, which in turn leads to more waves, floods, and storms.

2. Increase in Russian river discharge to the Arctic Ocean.

The amount of water flowing through rivers to the Arctic Ocean in Eurasia has been increasing over the last 70 years. More recently, (2000-2004) this flow has increased even more. If the trend continues, some scientists predict this could impact the global climate, perhaps leading to the cooling of Northern Europe.

3. Greening of the Arctic “shrubiness”

The warming of the Alaskan Arctic during the past 150 years has accelerated over the last three decades. This is expected to increase vegetation productivity in tundra if shrubs become more abundant; indeed, this transition may already be under way, according to local plot studies and remote sensing.

Perito Moreno
Creative Commons License photo credit: untipografico

4. Acceleration of Greenland ice sheet melt.

Using satellite radar interferometry observations of Greenland, scientists have detected widespread glacier acceleration below 66° north between 1996 and 2000, which rapidly expanded to 70° north in 2005. Accelerated ice discharge in the west and particularly in the east doubled the ice sheet mass deficit in the last decade from 90 to 220 cubic kilometers per year. As more glaciers accelerate farther north, Greenland’s contributions to sea-level rise will continue to increase.

5. Opening of the Northwest passage

The legendary passage was first navigated with great difficulty using a relatively small ship by explorer Roald Amundsen in 1903 to 1906. Predictions for the opening of the Northwest Passage have ranged from 2012 to 2080 at their most conservative. “We’re several decades ahead of schedule right now,” said Mark Serreze, a senior scientist at the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, which monitors the region. Fully navigable, the Northwest Passage will make the trip 4,000 miles shorter for ships traveling between Europe and Asia, allowing them to avoid the Panama Canal. “The notion of coming to an ice-free Arctic Ocean even by 2030 is not totally unreasonable,” Serreze said.

polarbears
Creative Commons License photo credit: myradphotos

6. Polar bears are becoming an endangered species

The US Department of the Interior listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act based on studies claiming the loss of sea ice threatens, and will likely continue to threaten, polar bear habitat. The studies cite differences in sea ice from the fall of 1979 to the fall of 2007 and projected declines in sea ice by the middle of the 21st century. Although some females use snow dens on land for birthing cubs, polar bears are almost completely dependent upon sea ice for their sustenance. Any significant changes in the abundance, distribution, or existence of sea ice will have effects on the number and behavior of these animals and their prey. Canada has listed the polar bear as a “species of concern” since 2002 and is currently conducting a status review as of 2008.

7. Shortening of winter season means less lake ice and shorter time to use ice roads.

The oil industry and support services withdraw water from freshwater lakes and ponds to build ice roads and pads in the Arctic for increased access to remote sites. This technique is important to the oil industry, in that it allows oil field development or maintenance, while avoiding the environmental disturbance associated with construction of gravel roads and pads. The decrease in the time during which ice roads can be used is due to a changing climate. Ice roads are constructed using water from ponds, lakes, and rivers. Rivers themselves are traversed using ice bridges. The industry must have all drilling equipment back to gravel bases before the ice road deteriorates. The season ends when the first ice bridge is washed out. The ice bridge failures are a function of melting further south in the stream’s headwaters.

Learn more:

Breaking news from the Greenland Ice Sheet

Cold Ice & Warm Socks

Titanic and Today