Thursday, April 22, 2010

Eyjafjallajökull: “the little volcano that could”

Eyjafjallajökull? Can you pronounce it? Apparently, it’s: “AY-uh-fyat-luh-YOE-kuutl(-uh).” If that helps, good for you! Even after hearing an Iceland native pronounce it, I still can’t manage to wrap my tongue around that many syllables.
First, a little geography – Iceland, sometimes called the land of fire and ice, is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and northern Europe. It’s about the size of Virginia with a population slightly less than that of Virginia Beach. At 65°N latitude, the subpolar climate would be brutally cold if the Gulf Stream ocean current did not moderate temperatures somewhat; Iceland's average July high is around 57°F and its average January high is around 34°F.
So why does Iceland have so many active volcanoes? Two factors. First, the island is bisected by the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the boundary between the North American plate and the Eurasian plate. The two plates diverge along this boundary, forming new crust along the ridge; therefore, Iceland is continually getting bigger. In addition, geologists believe Iceland is over a hot spot, an area of rising lava below the earth’s crust. Hot spots often breed volcanoes and sometimes new islands; the islands of Hawaii were formed over a hot spot in the Pacific. However, the Hawaiian Islands are in the middle of a drifting tectonic plate, rather than between plates, so an island in the Hawaiian chain will eventually drift away from the hot spot and a new island will begin to form over the hot spot. As long as Iceland straddles the mid-ocean ridge and the hot spot remains under the ridge, Iceland will remain one of the most active volcanic regions on earth.
Eyjafjallajökull may have cooled slightly, but today’s strong tremors indicate that the eruption is not over yet. Also scientists are concerned that Katla, a much bigger and more active volcano, may erupt next. Past evidence indicates that when Eyjafjallajökull erupts, Katla follows. Katla’s eruption could be much more explosive, and Katla is overdue. Explosive eruptions often send ash and other matter into the upper atmosphere where they stay for long periods often causing dramatic global climate change.
Now that Eyjafjallajökull has calmed somewhat, we can take a look at the impact and subsequent ripple effect this eruption caused around the globe. The most obvious: Eyjafjallajökull’s ash cloud grounded planes all over Europe, inconveniencing travelers who were stranded in airports for days and costing the airline industry over $1 billion in lost revenue. In addition, the eruption affected the economy and citizens of countries near and not-so-near the island of Iceland.
Kenya - thousands of laborers are out of work; flowers and produce cannot be shipped to Europe. 10 million flowers, mostly roses, have been thrown away.
Ghana – pineapple and pawpaw farmers’ incomes are suffering due to lack of refrigeration at Ghana’s capital airport.
Japan – Nissan stopped production at two of its plants on Wednesday because they ran out of tire pressure sensors due in from Ireland.
Australia – a family from Britain saved for two years to make a trip to Australia, then the hotel more than doubled the rates (because they could). The frustrated family moved to a hostel.
Iraq and Afghanistan – medical evacuation flights are taking up to 8 hours longer than usual because they cannot fly back to the US out of Germany but instead must fly out of Spain.
United States – the airline slowdown cost the US economy $650 million and affected about 6000 American jobs. BMW reduced production at its Spartanburg, SC plant due to lack of supplies from Germany. Brides in New York had no Dutch flowers (tulips, peonies, or daffodils) for their weddings. Marathoner David Gray missed his second consecutive Boston marathon while stuck in a hotel in Brussels (the first was due to injury).
If Katla erupts, the impacts could be even greater…

Thanks to CBS News for the international anecdotes and to the Associated Press for the photo.
For more info, go to
And for great volcano pix, go to -

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Flying Squirrels Play Baseball?

Play ball! It’s Opening Day at the Diamond! Today Richmond welcomes its new baseball team, the Richmond Flying Squirrels, with a sold-out Diamond! So why Flying Squirrels???
Well, flying squirrels are rather cute! And Virginia boasts 2 species: the Northern Flying Squirrel, whose range includes a few isolated high altitude locations (it is more common in states farther north) and the Southern Flying Squirrel, whose range includes the entire state except its westernmost tip.
Flying squirrels are nocturnal so they are rarely seen by humans. Their eyes are quite large to help them see in the dark. They spend most of their time high up in trees but come to the ground occasionally to hunt for food. Their predators are creatures of the night, including owls, raccoons, weasels, coyotes and domestic cats.
Flying squirrels do not actually fly but glide. Gliding is facilitated by the patagium, a flap of skin between the front and hind legs, which acts as a sort of parachute when the squirrel jumps from a tree. The patagium contains muscles that hold it taut while gliding and keep it close to the body while at rest. The fur on the patagium is short to reduce air flow resistance or drag.
A flying squirrel’s diet includes mast crops (acorns, hickory nuts, pecans, walnuts), seeds, insects, snails, plant buds and flowers, fruit, fungi, tree bark and sap. Flying squirrels are “scatter hoarders,” often stashing small quantities of nuts in tree notches and in shallow digs under leaf litter and logs. Southern Flying Squirrels are also known to store larger quantities of nuts and other “goodies” in "larder cavities."
For shelter, flying squirrels use several types of nests. The most common nest type is the cavity nest, often a natural tree cavity or a tree cavity made and then abandoned by another animal. In summer, flying squirrels often use outside nests called “dreys,” which are usually made of plant material. Aggregate nests are often used in winter. Flying squirrels are the most social of all squirrel species and they do not hibernate; therefore, to keep warm in winter, they will gather in a communal or aggregate nest for warmth. Other nesting sites may include birdhouses, stacked firewood and attics. We had flying squirrels living in our attic for a couple of winters until we figured out how to humanely “evict” them, but that is a story for another day…

Most of this material came from , an excellent source for almost anything you’d like to know about flying squirrels. Information more specific to Virginia can be found at and