Friday, August 19, 2011

Cloud Clarity

By: Lacy Sellent, Writing Fellow at the Cable Natural History Museum

Like many others, I often catch myself cloud gazing. Some days I can’t help myself.  Days with bright blue sky and fluffy white clouds are the best. I might find myself looking at a rabbit or a mouse—noticing how one part of the cloud looks like a mouth or how other parts looked more like ears.

I always thought it might be fun to be able to name all the different clouds.  I knew a few of the cloud types—cirrus, cumulous, cumulonimbus—but which word goes with each cloud? With so many varieties (all sounding slightly similar), I sometimes felt like I was playing some sort of name game. Then my inquisitive side got the best of me and I decided to do a little research. Here’s what I found.

First, the cirrus cloud. These clouds form high—drifting across the sky at some 18,000 feet. That is more than three miles!  They are mostly made up of tiny ice crystals.  These crystals, like the water droplets that form clouds at lower elevations, are created through the cooling of humid air.  As the humid air cools, the water vapors in the air begin to condense.  Depending on the temperature and humidity, this process may take place at different elevations.  When this happens at higher elevations (10,000-20,000 feet), cirrus clouds are formed.

The cirrus cloud does not produce rain and can be found in the sky on many sunny days.  It is a thin, wispy cloud.  In fact, it is because of its wispy appearance that cirrus clouds have also come to be known as mare’s tails.  Now, whenever I look at a cirrus cloud, I can see the tail of a horse racing across the sky.

Cumulus clouds are big and fluffy and hang much lower to the ground than cirrus clouds. Some can form as low as just 330 feet above the ground. The bottom stays flat while more layers of clouds pile on to create a billowy top. Appropriately, the word cumulus literally means “pile” in Latin.

When a cumulus cloud continues to build higher and higher, it is no longer just a cumulus cloud anymore…it is a cumulonimbus. The top of a cumulonimbus cloud can tower more than 40,000 feet above the ground—that’s over seven miles high. Some cumulonimbus clouds have even reached nine miles in height!  As the cloud continues to build higher, it may eventually come in contact with the winds at higher elevations.  When the cloud meets the wind, the wind blows across the top of the cloud—stretching it out and giving it a flat-topped appearance.  This cumulonimbus characteristic has been dubbed the “anvil cloud”.

Cumulonimbus clouds, especially with anvil tops, are the harbingers of thunderstorms. They possess the power to make windows rattle and to turn trees upside down. With them can come some of the most severe weather in Wisconsin. When a cumulonimbus rolls in, it comes with a presence that demands attention. These are the clouds that give me the greatest feeling of awe.

Whether it is the wispy cirrus, the fluffy cumulus, or the thunderous cumulonimbus, I have come to find that each cloud has something different to offer. Or, to anyone working outside on a sunny day, most any cloud in general may have a great deal to offer. Well, maybe not the cumulonimbus. You might get more than you asked for with that one.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Naturally Important

By: Lacy Sellent, Writing Fellow at the Cable Natural History Museum

In the past, children seldom thought twice about going outside to play. There were always things to do—no matter the weather or the time of year. Rain was great for puddle jumping. Snow was great for fort building and tunneling. Even the wind could be counted on to provide fun. Nature brought something new and exciting each day.

The bond a child forms with nature is one that will not be broken quickly, even into adulthood. Being outside can teach lessons in patience, calm, and respect. Now that many of today’s generation no longer go outside, people are realizing just how important nature’s role has been.

One man in particular has researched and written about nature’s importance in our lives. His name is Richard Louv, and he is the author of the national bestseller, Last Child in the Woods. In the book, Louv explores the many benefits of time spent in the outdoors. He also presents studies that show the negative effects of sitting in front of a television.

One such study was done by Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, Washington. It found that “each hour of TV watched per day by preschoolers increases by 10 percent the likelihood that they will develop concentration problems and other symptoms of attention-deficit disorders by age seven.” As with many things, moderation is the key. A little television may be educational—a lot of television may be disruptive.

This is part of the reason why nature is so important to us. Another reason is that it can be a great stress reliever. While interviewing children across the United States, Louv found that many of the kids who went outside enjoyed a sense of freedom there. There was freedom from school and chores. There was freedom from scheduled activities. There was freedom from time itself. When given true “free time” to explore and experience the outdoors, kids (and adults too) really begin to relax. They can sense their own power and potential. Their imaginations can take off. Some kids learned about engineering indirectly while building tree houses. Others learned about ecosystems while playing along lakes and streams.

Nature can be a great educational tool, and an effective stress reliever. Problem is, we’re losing our connection to the natural world. A study at the University of Maryland found that kids between the ages of nine and twelve spent fifty percent less time outside in 2003 as they did in 1997. In a survey (from Manhattanville College in New York) of eight hundred mothers, seventy one percent said they played outside everyday as a kid. Sadly, only twenty six percent of these same mothers said that their children play outside every day.

It’s not just kids who could benefit from having more contact with nature. Louv recently published a second book, called The Nature Principle, because of the overwhelming response his first book received from adults. “It’s not just the children!” they said. Adults reap all the same mental, physical and emotional benefits from time in nature that kids do, and we also feel many of the same negative effects when there’s a lack of nature in our lives.

It is clear that many people are missing out on the benefits of the outdoors. Luckily, up here in the Northwoods we can still enjoy wild nature right outside our doors. Fall is one of the best times to be outside in Northern Wisconsin. Mosquitoes aren’t as plentiful, the air is cool and crisp, and the sunshine is still warm. Don’t take it all for granted. Get outside and enjoy the season!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Blueberry Smiles

By: Lacy Sellent, Writing Fellow at the Cable Natural History Museum

A few years ago my friends convinced me to head north on a blueberry expedition.  We took the back roads and kept driving until we ran out of pavement. Then we drove some more.  I have yet to tell anyone where we went.  Like a fisherman that never gives up his secret fishing hole, I cannot reveal the secret berry picking spot.  Which may or may not be due to the fact that I had no idea where we were in the first place.  After the drive, we found ourselves in the middle of a blueberry paradise.  There were so many berries that, at first, I just stood and stared at them all.

Some berries were small; no bigger than a pencil eraser.  Other berries were bigger than baby toes. Before long, we began checking to see who had found the biggest blueberry. This involved a little eye rolling when someone purposely held up their puniest berry.  We laughed a bit to think of all the animals we were scaring away with our little ruckus.  Then we quieted down.  All I could hear was the creaking of the trees as they swayed in the breeze and the soft plop of blueberries into our buckets.  What a great way to spend summer days.

Healthy on cereal, tasty in smoothies—blueberries make the perfect summer treat.  These scrumptious little morsels can be picked from mid July into August.  Depending on what the temperature has been like, blueberries may bloom at slightly different times each year.  Some years the peak of the blueberry season is in July.  Other years the peak may be in August.  Each year it varies. 

The blueberry bushes native to Wisconsin (Vaccinium angustifolium) are short, rarely getting to be much more than foot tall, but can live in a colder climate.  They prefer rocky or sandy soil and grow throughout the state. Some highbush blueberry varieties can only grow further south.  This is because the plant can’t survive more than a hundred and sixty days of frost.  In northern Wisconsin, there may still be frost in May.  Then, as early as September, the frost may be back again.  That makes quite a few days of frost. 

Picking blueberries doesn’t take a lot of skill.  There is no height requirement.  This is the kind of activity that anyone from kid to grandparent can partake in.  Not to mention it’s rich in outdoor fun.  I don’t know what it is about picking blueberries that I like so much.  I can’t quite put my finger on any one thing.  All I know is that, when I finally close my eyes after a day of berry picking, I see nothing but blueberries…and I can’t help but smile. 

For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The new exhibit, The Joy of Birds: Feathers in Focus opened in May, 2011. Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Also discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,