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Dispatches : Science

An Amazing Black and White Image of the Northern Lights

8076943401_b2a65bb2fe_cAurora Borealis as seen from Space. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory/Flickr

On October 4 and 5, a coronal mass ejection from the sun sent an explosion of particles speeding toward earth. Three days later, those particles hit the earth's magnetic field. The magnetic field funneled the particles into the atmosphere near the poles, where they collided with gases in the upper atmosphere to release dramatic waves of colorful light over Canada's Quebec and Ontario provinces. You don't get to see the green and purple colors in the photo above—taken early on the morning of October 8, 2012, by a NASA satellite—but you do get a pretty good idea for the size and scope of the massive swell of light.

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The Nasty Environmental Impact of Making Snow

Snowmaking_tim_syndeySnow gunning. Photo: Tim in Syndey/Flickr

Pointing to the sacredness of the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, Arizona, a coalition of Native American tribes has been fighting the development and expansion of Arizona Snowbowl ski resort since 1979. It remains defiant, reports the New York Times, despite having suffered a key legal defeat this winter. A federal court ruled against the tribes in a nearly decade-old lawsuit that claims the ski resort's plans to use treated wastewater from Flagstaff's sewage system to make artificial snow for the resort would interfere with religious practices and mar the mountains. 

Wait. The resort will use sewage to make snow? Technically, yes. That's why the story has garnered lots of attention. But recycling treated wastewater for applications that do not require potable water is not nearly as icky, nor as uncommon, as it might sound. This type of water is commonly used for irrigating golf courses and soccer fields, for example.

While Arizona Snowbowl would be the first resort in the U.S. to use 100 percent treated wastewater to make snow, it's a common practice in Europe and in parts of Australia, says Hunter Sykes, an environmental sustainability consultant who closely tracks the outdoor recreation industry and produced a 2007 documentary about the environmental impacts of rampant ski resort development called Resorting to Madness. "Most people who work with wastewater don't see this an issue, because it's not going to make people sick and, as far as we know, it's not going to contaminate flora or fauna," he says.

Not everyone is quite so comfortable, though, with the idea of using treated wastewater for snowmaking. Among the groups that oppose it, on the grounds that the water may contain chemical inputs from pharmaceuticals and other potentially hazardous hard-to-trace sources, include the Center for Biological Diversity. Sykes agrees that there is still much we don't understand about the chemical agents that persist in treated wastewater and how they could impact the ecosystems into which they're released, but says if it was up to him, he would use the treated wastewater.

Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director for the Center for Biological Diversity points to a study that linked wastewater effluent released into a creek in Boulder, Colorado, with abnormal fish gender distributions. "There is an emerging and growing list of compounds [about which] we don't know the affects," he says, but we know that endocrine disruptors [in wastewater] will change fish sex ratios. This points to the need for additional research and more advanced water treatment."

But McKinnon and Sykes do agree on one thing: the real story here is the increase in snowmaking, industry wide, and the wider environmental impacts of making snow.

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Filming the World From a Bird's Eye View

GannetsWIngedPlanetGannets. Photo: Winged Planet

When filmmaker John Downer was in elementary school, he got down in the dirt of his parents' garden so that he could film the insects, frogs, and toads using a Super 8 camera. “I think that kind of, as I look back now, inspired my way of filming,” says the 59-year-old director. “Which is to try and get in the animal world.”

He studied zoology in college and then went to work in radio for the BBC before landing a job making TV shows for children. One of those shows involved filming life in a garden with miniaturized cameras that he built. “That was the first time I ever married advancements in technology with the capturing of images,” says Downer.

From there he got a job on the nation’s top-rated animal show, “Wildlife on One.” After making a show about snakes, he moved on to birds. He raised a duck from birth so that it imprinted to him as a parent, and a year later filmed it while flying in a parascender—a parachute pulled by a vehicle. He also stripped a Super 8 camera down to a lens, a film cartridge, a motor, and a battery so that he could put it on the back of a buzzard. The bird flew, and he got some grainy footage. “That was an inspiration,” he says.

But he knew inspiration wasn’t going to cut it for the film he ultimately wanted to make. He imagined capturing a bird's eye view of the world from multiple species. To do that, he needed to wait for smaller and more sophisticated technology. Twenty-five years later, he used drones, POV cams, and ultralights to film the new Discovery Channel show “Winged Planet” (October 6, 8 P.M. EST). I called him up to find out more about the making of the two-hour-long special.

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A Leopard Takes Down an Impala in Mid-Air

The video doesn't show the spark, the inciting moment that led the impala herd to bolt across the road directly into the path of a leopard crouching in the tall grass. But it does show the climax, the predator exploding from the brush into an esophagus-targeted leap that lands with such force that it leaves an ungulate reeling hooves over head in mid-air. A leg-jolting suffocation and a pre-dinner drag through the dirt follow.

One of the benefits of so many people having cameras and access to YouTube is the ability to share such rarely witnessed wildlife moments. Here's the description of how MiPixWildife happened upon this clip during a safari:

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NASA's 5 Favorite Photos of Extreme Weather

On May 30, 2012, at 3:00 P.M. MST, a series of thunderstorms formed over central and south central Kansas. They dropped golf ball-sized hail before lining up into a dark vanguard that barraged the countryside ahead with 70 mile per hour winds. News of the derecho—a long-lived line of fast moving thunderstorms with winds of more than 58 mph—led Brian Johnson to grab his camera and venture out to an open field where he had photographed lightning the previous night.

The amateur photographer chases big storms for a series of local radio stations. He fell in love with the behemoths at the age of seven, after witnessing the fury of a tornado up close. "My father still regrets saying the words 'Look at that,'" said Johnson. "Remember, if you take a frightened child out into a storm to show them how beautiful nature’s fury can be, they may turn out like me."

Johnson's photo was one of five winners selected for NASA's Global Precipitation Management Extreme Weather Photo Competition. The agency's Global Precipitation Management satellite captures data about rainfall and snowfall from space. Read on for the stories behind the space agency's favorite images, filed by people shooting in the storms' paths. 

  692399main_Storms-Stitch-1---Brian-Johnson---v2

"Storms Stitch 1," May 30, 2012; Kechi, Kansas Photo: Brian Johnson

“As a large squall line moved through the area. The National Weather Service had warned about a large scale Derecho forming and moving through. This spawned a couple brief severe thunderstorms that dumped hail on rush hour traffic before the main line moved in. As the bigger storm moved into the Wichita area, reports were coming in of 70 mph winds and hail. There is an open farm field roughly two miles from my house that I shot lightning on the previous night. I sat there for about 20 minutes before this large squall line pushed through the clouds. I was hit with a pretty good gust front as it got closer, but as the winds increased, I decided to get to shelter. This photo was one of the last ones I took. This story and others are available at www.ruminationofthunder.com and this specific story is at http://www.ruminationofthunder.com/2012_05_01_archive.html."

692397main_Ormond-Shelf-by-Jason-Weingart

"Ormond Shelf," May 15, 2012; Ormon Beach, Florida Photo: Jason Weingart

“I'm a photography student at the University of Central Florida. I began chasing storms a little over three years ago. This day started out like many other days. I was out on a storm west of the coast, photographing it even as the National Weather Service issued a severe warning. The NWS lifted the warning, but I decided to stick with it as it moved to the coast. Just as it started to move offshore to the east, it made a turn to the south.

I have shot many storms from the same spot this photo was taken, and I almost drove by to get a different vantage point, but something told me to just stop at my spot. I jumped out of my car and ran down to the beach. To my surprise, there were still several beach-goers taking in the sight of this massive shelf cloud, as well as a few surfers in the water, trying to catch one last wave. Of course, there was a Volusia County lifeguard standing there watching over everyone. I walked down to the water and took some shots, always keeping an eye on the lifeguard. As the shelf cloud approached, I swung back behind the guard tower, waited for him to climb up it and signal to the surfers to exit the water. I took several shots, then hopped back in my car and tried to stay south of the storm.

The storm actually pushed back on shore as it moved south, and then became strong enough for tornado warnings on three separate occasions. I saw a large wall cloud, another spectacular shelf cloud, and some very tight rotation in the couple hours I stuck with the storm after I left the beach in Ormond. Had I known what I already shot there, I probably wouldn't have even bothered. Definitely my signature shot of the year."

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