A blog about a first-time house owner learning to maintain his backyard, and thoughts about nature, science, history, and life.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Freeville Fall Flair

I took a walk and took some pictures of the various fall decorations around town.  Freeville can be a pretty festive place!  (Note: I really need to stop using my iPhone and get a real camera!)

Lots of pumpkins:

Plus scarecrows, witches, and other seasonal characters:

And some folks prefer to express their love of fall at night rather than in the daytime:

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

...and the dock was still there

Well, the worst of what had been Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, and the effects here in Freeville were remarkably light.  My new rain gauge measured a grand total of 0.35" of rainfall yesterday and overnight.  The creek has risen a bit, but the water level is still a few inches below the base of the dock, as you can see below.

The creek has risen a couple of inches since yesterday morning, as you can see from the pair of photos below.  Probably the best means of comparison is the small tuft of green towards the left that sits a couple of inches above water level in the top picture but right at water level in the bottom picture.  We're expecting to get some more rain today, but I don't think it will be enough to threaten the dock.

We had some wind with the storm, particularly last night.  It was consistently breezy, with some stronger gusts...but nothing like what folks experienced in the New York and Philadelphia metro areas.  The flag at the post office was flapping pretty steadily, and I could occasionally hear the gusts blowing against the house.  Overall, though, the number and size of branches down was considerably less than during some of the stronger thunderstorms we've experienced since I moved here.  We're supposed to have a little more wind throughout the day today, but like the rainfall, I don't expect any significant problems from it.  I was fortunate to get through the storm unscathed, and I hope, if you were in the path of the storm, you managed to avoid major problems, too.  Here's a look at the downed branches/twigs that I found around the yard (yup, that's it!):

Monday, October 29, 2012

Preparing for Sandy

First of all, I did get a little bit of work done between (and during) the rain showers this weekend.  Nothing exciting, though.  I did some raking in the backyard, and with the help of my parents, who were in town for the weekend, I got the leaves bagged from the front yard.  I also bagged much of the brush that I had cleaned up and piled in the garden (you can see some of it in the background of the picture above).  Finally, I now have a rain gauge installed in the garden, as you can see above.  Now I can monitor the rainfall much more closely over the next couple of days.  One other note - I was standing out by the dock on Saturday, when my backyard was subject to a bird invasion from the other side of the creek.  All of a sudden, cardinals, chickadees, tufted titmouse, and two red headed woodpeckers crossed over into my yard and made a dash for seeds and trees.  It was nice to see some bird action, finally.  Maybe the yard isn't in such bad shape after all!

Be warned that this blog will be in Sandy mode for the next 2-3 days.  I'll be reporting on excitements such as whether my dock survives and just how many branches come down in the front and back yards.  I've made my own preparations for Sandy, of course.  The biggest concern is that the winds will knock trees onto power lines, causing an outage.  For such an eventuality, I've stocked up on water for cleaning and toilet flushing.  I have plenty of bottled water, soft drinks, and pink lemonade on hand.  I'm planning to fill the freezer with plastic bags full of water (which will freeze) to keep things cold.  I have a flashlight, a small battery-powered lamp, and candles.  I'm also not parking my car under the tree in the front yard during the storm.

Right now, it's cloudy and relatively calm.  There's just a bit of light drizzle and a steady, light breeze.  At the Ithaca airport, 5.5 miles away, the wind is at 13 mph with gusts to 18.  The steady to heavy rain is expected to move into the area starting around mid-afternoon.  Winds will pick up as well.  The worst of the storm will come tonight into early tomorrow morning - this is when I'm concerned about a potential power outage.  Overnight, the National Weather Service is forecasting sustained winds of 28-33 mph (just under tropical storm force) with gusts to 47 mph.  The storm will wind down tomorrow afternoon into tomorrow night.  The current rainfall forecast is for a storm total of 1.23" in Ithaca and slightly less here.  This bodes well for the dock, as it's already survived a similar amount of rainfall this fall.  However, the creek is still running high from rains late last week and over the weekend, and I wouldn't rule out the possibility of getting significantly more rain than forecast (say, more than 2") if we find ourselves in the path of a heavy rain band or two.

I may check in with an update later tonight, and if not, I'll do my best to post an update tomorrow at noon, depending on my power situation at home and whether the Cornell campus remains open.  If you're in the path of the storm, stay safe!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Forecasting Sandy

I've been following the progress of Hurricane Sandy pretty closely.  This is a rare scenario - a late-season hurricane, with high pressure over the Atlantic, and an arctic cold front pushing into the Eastern Seaboard.  The result?  A storm that will have tremendous impacts over a wide area.  While there won't be the massive, wholesale destruction of a Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane, the effects will be spread much farther afield.  Tropical storm force winds will likely affect the states of North Carolina, Virginia, Washington DC, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, and in many places, those strong, sustained winds of at least 35 mph will persist for 12 to 24 hours.  On top of that, several inches of rain will fall over a wide swath of territory, saturating trees' roots and making them more susceptible to topple in the winds.  Power outages will be common and widespread, and it will likely take days to bring it back online everywhere.  But much of this is common knowledge by now.

I want to give you a look at the process of forecasting an event like this.  First, you have to know what's currently going on...forecasting starts with observations. In the US, forming the core of the observational network are the automated weather stations that are located at airports and other significant sites across the country.  These stations measure temperature, dewpoint, winds, clouds, and precipitation, among other things, and they are reported every hour.  There are other, usually local or regional, networks of automated weather stations as well.  It's important to understand what's happening not just at the surface, but also through the depth of the atmosphere.  Weather balloons are launched twice daily (morning and evening) from National Weather Service offices and other sites across the country.  In preparation for Sandy this weekend, over 200 extra balloons were launched in the afternoon to gain additional data about the state of the atmosphere...a first!  Of course, it's also important to have observations of precipitation, and for this there is a network of cooperative observers who report 24-hour rainfall every morning.  Much like for surface observations, there are numerous local, regional, and national rain gauge networks to measure precipitation at time steps from every 5 minutes to every 24 hours.

In addition to the measurements that are taken in situ (directly in the environment), there are two major means of remote sensing used by meteorologists.  Radar detects precipitation and estimates rainfall totals.  The national radar network is currently undergoing an upgrade that will improve rainfall estimates, improve detection of precipitation type (snow, sleet, hail, graupel, rain, etc.), and have other benefits to forecasters and researchers.  Radar can also estimate the direction of the wind field...this is what allows forecasters to find "Doppler-indicated" tornadoes.  In addition to radar, satellites provide information about clouds, precipitation, moisture, and even surface temperature.  For a storm like Sandy that has spent much of its life out to sea, satellite data is invaluable.

Once observations have been collected, they're fed into computer models that use the fundamental equations of the atmosphere to forecast future conditions.  There are several models, and each model is run several times with small changes to the observations and with slightly different ways of estimating atmospheric processes to provide insight into the different ways that the atmosphere might evolve.  The more similar the different model runs are, the more confident forecasters can be in what is likely to happen.  Early in the process of forecasting Sandy, the models disagreed on where she would go.  Most turned her westward and brought her onshore, but they disagreed as to where - anywhere from Virginia to Nova Scotia.  A couple of models took her out to sea and kept her away from the US mainland.  The following few figures show a series of predictions of the models' projected path for Sandy from late last week.  You can see that as time went on, the models tended to agree on a US landfall, and they began to narrow the location down.  Sorry for the blurry first figure!

Of course, forecasting is not left entirely up to the models.  Human forecasters look at the model output and the current observations.  Using their own knowledge of the models' tendencies, the trends from the current observations, and their knowledge of past storms, the forecasters make predictions about the most likely path for Sandy and the weather that she will bring.  The National Hurricane Center is charged with forecasting hurricanes, and they produce graphics like the ones below.  The dots indicate the most likely position of the storm's center, and the hatched area around it shows uncertainty in this path...the storm center is expected to stay within this cone.  For a gigantic storm like Sandy, though, the storm's effects are felt well outside the cone.  Take a look at the series of track forecasts below to see how the forecast has evolved over the last few days.


[Image of 5-day forecast and coastal areas under a warning or a watch]

[Image of 5-day forecast and coastal areas under a warning or a watch]

[Image of 5-day forecast and coastal areas under a warning or a watch]

[Image of 5-day forecast and coastal areas under a warning or a watch]

[Image of 5-day forecast and coastal areas under a warning or a watch]

Of course, forecasting the path of the storm's center is only a small part of gauging the storm's
impact.  The Hydrometeological Prediction Center makes forecasts of rainfall totals across the nation every day, and a storm like Sandy keeps the forecasters especially busy.  Below is a series of maps showing HPC's long-term (5-day) forecasts for total rainfall.  You can see how the rainfall forecast changed as predictions of Sandy's strength and path changed.  Here in central New York, we're looking at 1-3" of rain over the next couple of days, though more than that is possible in local areas, especially on higher ground.

http://www.hpc.ncep.noaa.gov/qpf/zoom/Rainfall_Days_1-5.gifStorm QPFhttp://www.hpc.ncep.noaa.gov/qpf/p120i00.gifhttp://www.hpc.ncep.noaa.gov/qpf/zoom/Rainfall_Days_1-5.gif

Here's tonight's rainfall forecast for the storm, issued by the local Weather Service office, located in Binghamton, NY.  These offices are staffed 24/7, and they'll certainly have extra help around for the duration of the storm.  The local offices are in charge of issuing watches and warnings (such as the Flood Watch and High Wind Watch that we're currently under) for their forecast areas.  They also coordinate with local emergency managers, storm spotters, cooperative observers, broadcasters, and the public to stay informed of current conditions and their impacts, and to alert the public to hazards.  Needless to say, many forecast offices across a wide area will be very busy over the next couple of days.  Here in Tompkins County, Ithaca is forecast to receive 1.42", and right here in Freeville, we're expected to get a tad less than that.  The forecast has gotten better over the last couple of days.  For my dock's sake, let's hope it stays that way.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Concern for the Dock

Storm QPF

By now, pretty much everyone in the US has heard about the ugly weather situation brewing for the Northeast early next week.  Under the influence of a blocking high pressure system in the Atlantic, Hurricane Sandy is forecast to slide to the west - quite rare but not unheard of - and make landfall somewhere between the Delmarva Peninsula and Long Island...it's increasingly looking like southern or central New Jersey.  Merging with a low pressure center approaching from the midwest, the storm will move inland and likely track just to the west of central New York.  The storm will slow down as it moves inland, producing an extended period of heavy rainfall.  Though we won't experience winds as strong as what they see along the coast, it will be windy and rainy, likely for well over 24 hours.  We can expect to see plenty of branches down and plenty of flooding.

I'm concerned about my dock.  I know that the last dock was washed away in April, when we received 2.12" of liquid-equivalent precipitation over a three day period, including 6" of snow.  The combination of snowmelt and rainfall produced widespread flooding across the county.  The current dock is anchored securely into the creek bed and has the added security of a steel cable, which ties the dock to a tree on the creek's bank.

The forecast calls for 1.75-3" of rain from Monday through Tuesday in the Freeville area...so it's likely that the new dock will be tested by similar rainfall to what took out the last dock.  I'm even more concerned, though, because depending on the exact track of the storm and the position of the heavy rainfall bands, rainfall exceeding 4" - roughly twice that from April's storm - is within the realm of possibility.  I've found in my research that 4" of rain in a relatively short period of time pretty much guarantees widespread flash flooding in the Northeast.  Furthermore, the creek is already running high from heavy rains earlier this week, and more rain is forecast for this afternoon through Sunday night, before the rain associated with Sandy gets here.  I'm imagining a wall of rushing water taking aim at the dock and shearing it in half - the rest of it left hanging by a steel cable thread.

When I look at the creek's bank, I see that the dock is in more or less the most vulnerable position along the U-shaped bend in the creek - at the lower right part of the U, right where the water approaching from the straightaway can slam into the dock.  Along the straightaway, the creek bank is low and vegetated, with a shallow incline, but entering into the U, the bank gets much steeper and much less vegetated.  Tree roots hold much of the soil in place to within about a foot of the water's surface, but below the roots, large gouges have been taken out of the bank.  Some of the largest gouges are right around the dock.

It appears that all I can do is wait and hope that the storm tracks farther east or farther west, moves faster, and that the heaviest rain bands miss Freeville and areas upstream.  I can't pull the dock out of the water, and there's nothing else I can do to reinforce it.  I'll have to hope that the nails hold fast and that the steel cable keeps the dock in place.  I knew that a test of the dock's sturdiness would come, but I didn't expect it so soon.  In any event, I'll keep you informed of the progress of the weather scenario and how the dock is (or isn't) holding out over the next few days.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Mystery of the Thorny Plants

There are two types of thorny plants in my yard, but for today I'm going to focus on one of them - the thorns in my side, if you will.  In the above picture, you can probably spot the well-worn deer trail just to the right of center.  To the left of the deer trail, and to a lesser extent to the right of it, are the thorny plants.  Now, it's a bit deceptive, because they're leafy, but you might be able to make out the purplish stems (or canes, as I found out they are called) arcing back down toward the ground.  (Incidentally, if you can see the green-stemmed plant right in front of the tree, with stems arching out in opposite directions, that is the second type of thorny plant.)  Note the difference in the photo below, which I took after removing most of the thorny plants.  The vegetation has been thinned out considerably.  (Of course, it also looks different because the fallen leaves are covering much of the shorter grass and weeds.)  Toward the upper left of the photo, to the left of the tree trunk, is another patch of thorny plants that I have yet to get to.

And here's a thorny plant up close. They're distinguishable by their purplish canes (stems) and those bright green leaves.

As I was working to eradicate these thorny plants from the garden, and later as I worked on this little patch of land near the deer trail, I began learn how these annoying buggers operate.  As you can see above, they can spread out in multiple directions from their launching point.  The shoots first grow straight up, without thorns (as I showed in a photo yesterday), but eventually the cane thickens and develops thorns, as it bends back down toward the ground.  When a thorny plant cane hits the ground, it begins to lay down roots.  These roots appear to grow pretty quickly, as even a thin cane-end can be attached to a well-developed root system, as shown below.  This new root can then become a new launching off point for more canes, as these aggressive plants march ever onward in their efforts for the conquest of my yard.

These thorny plants are stubborn, as they will grow pretty much anywhere.  See the purple shoot coming straight out of the short tree trunk in the photo below?

Now that I had a pretty good idea how these thorny plants operated (and I wasn't thrilled about it), I wanted some expert advice on how to handle them.  But first I had to know what they were.  I had also seen thick, dead vines and other, larger weeds (also dead) that had grown next to some of the trees in the yard.  (More on these in a later post.)  My fear was that these thorny plants were the pre-cursors of even larger plants that could cause even more damage.  In that strange state between sleep and wakefulness, I had terrible nightmares of evil super-plants bent on the destruction of my backyard.  I had gone from cautious optimism that these thorny plants might have some useful purpose in my yard's ecosystem to outright fear that they were no good at all.  Clearly, I needed a dose of reality.

I sent one of the above pictures to Craig Cramer, who works for Cornell's Department of Horticulture, and who runs an excellent garden blog, Ellis Hollow.  Now, I was expecting to hear that this was some evil, invasive plant from overseas with some stark name like Purple Death.  His reply was not at all what I was expecting...he suggested that these evil, thorny plants were wild raspberries.  I did some research on the web, and it turns out that these are indeed most likely wild black raspberry plants.  Of course, I had missed the flowering and berry stages because they happen in late spring to early summer, and I didn't move here until August.

Here's a little more information, based on a little web research, about wild black raspberries.  Wild raspberries prefer plenty of sunlight (which is probably why they thrive in that far corner of the yard) and slightly acidic soil.  They like to have plenty of organic matter in the soil, which is the case in the part of the yard that they are threatening to overrun.  Though the roots and crowns of the plants are perennial, individual canes first develop in the spring and live for two years.  The canes produce berries in the second year, then die shortly after.  Black raspberries are susceptible to extremely cold temperatures: they'll die if the thermometer drops below 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Of course, the question now is, do I want them in my yard?  On the one hand, I want berry plants in the yard to attract birds, and if these wild raspberry plants make the yard active with berry-loving birds for part of the year, it could be nice to have them around.  But on the other hand, I'm looking for a yard that's relatively easy to maintain over the long run, and with their wildly aggressive tendencies, wild raspberries don't necessarily fit that bill.

So the plan for now is to clear out some patches of wild raspberries, leave others in place, and see what happens when the berries ripen in May/June.  If there's a frenzy of bird activity, it may be worth keeping a wild raspberry patch in a secluded corner of the property.  And if not, well, so much for wild raspberries...