Here on the edge of the great plains wind is integral to the landscape. Today it was between 30 and 60 mph out of the northeast, continuously and without pause. From our arrival until sunset the entire building rumbled from the force of the wind hitting it, and we had to keep the exterior doors latched to avoid eddies in the current violently whipping them open at random. At one point today a small plane had to set down to get out of the wind, and as it landed it came to a halt a few feet off the ground; despite having achieved zero groundspeed the headwind gave it a high enough airspeed to remain aloft. (This was, incidentally, the first plane we've seen use this airport all week.)
Panorama of the wind farm lining a ridge several miles east of Ft. Sumner, the New Mexico Wind Energy Center, located here. Click to get the huge version.
You can easily imagine a wind like this picking up enough topsoil to produce the epic dust storms of the Great Depression. Which leads me into today's links. A team of climate modelers at Goddard has published simulations of the climate during the Great Depression and demonstrated what I think was common knowledge to people that lived through it, that land use patterns were partially responsible for the dust storms. (via ars technica) Growing up I was always told that the dust storms came about because of all the dried-up farmland that had replaced the prairie grass of the great plains. What is interesting, though, is that the simulations suggest that the conversion to farmland actually amplified the drought itself. But again, that pretty much squares with experience.
Another nifty trick you can do with wide open agricultural spaces is tell directions. If you're sufficiently motivated, start recording what direction the cattle face as they stand around chewing their cud. The result turns out not to be random -- on average, cattle (and some types of deer as well) will tend to align with the magnetic north-south axis. It's long been wondered whether this is coincidence (due to some bovine preference regarding wind direction, sunlight, or what have you) or if herds of cattle can actually be used as large smelly compasses. Again from the PNAS, a group of European wildlife researchers suggest that the latter is true. The proof is quite elegant: when grazing near power lines the cattle will align themselves with the magnetic fields emanating from the lines, but with increasing distance will gradually revert to geomagnetic alignment. No indication is given as to why Angus like to imitate iron filings.
And while we're on environmental topics, you all knew that there is mercury in high fructose corn syrup now, right? HFCS is in essentially all processed foods, of course, at least in the United States, since it allows the massive amounts of corn we overproduce to be converted into sweets and preservatives. Making it is a somewhat proprietary (read: secretive) process, but it involves processing corn starch with, among other things, caustic soda and hydrochloric acid. One way to make those substances in industrial quantities is the mercury cell process, an electrochemical process in which salt is dissolved in mercury. While the process is designed to recover and recycle the mercury, several tons per year cannot be accounted for, presumably some of which is dissolved in the output products. There is no regulation restricting the use of chemicals made this way from being incorporated into food, and as it happens the FDA mostly does not include HFCS-containing processed foods in its mercury testing program. Awesome.