Wildfires and earthquakes and hurricanes, oh my!

Mother Nature seems to have it in for us here in the Tidewater region of Virginia this summer. Leaving aside the relentless summer heat that's just business as usual around here, including intermittent blistering 100 degree days, the month of August has hit us with a series of punches that are getting to be a tad bit tedious.

First off, as incongruous as a burning swamp may seem, the Great Dismal Swamp has been raging with wildfires since an August 4 lightning strike, sending a noxious pall of acrid smoke over the area to the point of frequent air quality alerts cautioning us to stay inside. It's incredibly difficult to contain, let alone extinguish, since the underground peat can smolder for months if it can't be overwhelmingly flooded.

Then, last Tuesday, we got rattled with a 5.8 magnitude earthquake up in northern Virginia. Fortunately the Great Dismal wildfire wasn't smoking things up too badly that day, since a lot of buildings in the Tidewater area were evacuated, making it difficult for people to adhere to air quality precautions. It did require inspection of the numerous tunnels and bridge-tunnels that are pretty much the only way in and out of the region to ensure they were still safe, especially considering that the third punch that was bearing down on us could easily have required evacuating the region through said bridge-tunnels.

Which brings us, of course, to Hurricane Irene. As of approximately 9:30 PM, the eye had passed by Virginia Beach just offshore.

We've had pounding rains all day, with total estimates ranging from about 8-12 inches depending on location; the heaviest arrived just about at high tide. Lots of flooding and closed streets, and the Midtown Tunnel and Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel have both been closed since around 10 or 11 this morning.

The winds have generally not been as high or sustained as had been predicted earlier this week – they were anticipating a landfall at Cat 3, and it ended up as a Cat 1 – but a lot of trees are down all over the area, and there were some tornados, one of which heavily damaged three houses in Sandbridge. (Sandbridge, BTW, was under mandatory evacuation.) Power is out over much of the area. For that matter, it's blinking intermittently here right now.

I am breathtakingly grateful that I had the dying corkscrew willow in my back yard taken down last year. As much as it pained me to lose the tree, it would have pained me a lot more to have it fall through my roof – or my neighbor's – in Irene's gusts. (Assuming that it hadn't already come down in the 12-inch snowstorm in January.)

I'm also dreading the very real possibility of my Bradford pear sustaining further damage, following on that major break back in May. The way those branches were whipping around, I'm expecting something to fall off any time. (My apologies for the video below being sideways; I never shot one before and didn't realize that apparently they can't be rotated.)

I just hope Mother Nature gives us a breather before unleashing the plague of frogs that I expect must be imminent. (We already have the locusts.)

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Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On

So. I'm lounging on the sofa just before 2 PM, working on my computer (I was telecommuting today), when I hear an odd noise over the A/C fan like it's suddenly windy outside, and hey, look, the chandelier is swaying slightly and the friggin walls are shaking! WTF?? Tropical storm winds and a bloody nor'easter don't make the walls of my house shake.

And then it stops. Good lord, could that have been... an earthquake? Do they even have earthquakes in Virginia? I don't even know what they feel like; I've never experienced one.

Until now.

No longer having access to The Weather Channel since scaling back my cable service some months ago (and does TWC even cover earthquakes?), I of course do the next best thing – I promptly Google "earthquake today", and right there at the top of the search is "Recent earthquakes" at earthquake.usgs.gov, with a 5.8 magnitude in Virginia at 1:51 PM. Holy crap.

This sucker was felt all up and down the east coast. Building evacuations all over DC (and even quite a few around Norfolk, apparently). It's the biggest quake felt in Virginia since 1897, when there was a 5.9. Checking the usgs site just now, I see there were a couple of aftershocks about 1 and 1.5 hours after the original, 2.8 and 2.2 magnitude. Fortunately, there was no tsunami involved...

So I've finally experienced my first earthquake, and a right unsettling experience it was, too. That's enough excitement to last me for a good long while, thank you very much Mother Nature. I don't think I'll be considering a move to California any time soon.

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Shiver me timbers

Last Tuesday, Hampton Roads was hit by a nasty band of thunderstorms with winds gusting to 80 mph – enough to blow over two tractor-trailers on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, as well as knock out power to 150,000 houses and take down trees all over the place. Whole thing lasted no more than 20 minutes.

I was fortunate. Didn't lose power at all (7500 people were still without power nearly 48 hours later), and only a few small branches got blown off the Bradford pear in my front yard, which really surprised me given the tendency of Bradford pears to come apart in high winds.

Alas, I was in for another surprise. in a remarkable display of delayed reaction, the tree apparently decided to wait through four days of unremarkable weather before making up its mind to abruptly drop a couple of major limbs to the ground as I watched. I had just returned from Lowe's and was transferring 18 petunias from the cargo area of my car to the driveway in front of the garage, when I heard an odd cracking noise and turned to watch the limbs fall off into my neighbor's yard.

It could have been a lot worse. As you can see in the photo above, my neighbor parks his pickup truck on the street under the shade of that Bradford pear. If the limb that shades the truck had been the one to let go - well, I think you can see my point. (And if I were he, I would definitely be having second thoughts about the desirability of that parking space. Heck, he was just saying to me the other day – before the storm – that he was surprised that tree was still standing. Most of the Bradford pears in the neighborhood are long gone.) Aside from that, the branches just missed one of the three decorative cherry trees he planted in his front yard a couple of weeks ago.

The trouble with Bradford pears is that they tend to have weak, narrow crotch angles that split apart from the weight of the limb. That's what happened here; in the photo below right (taken after I cut the branches off the limb and it completed its separation from the trunk), you can see the bark trapped in the crotch that made it so weak. That was about a 4-inch diameter limb.

This doesn't explain why the other, smaller limb (shown below) broke, though it's possible that its outer branches were entwined with those of the larger limb, and when that collapsed the weight simply snapped the other limb.

By the way, I just had this tree heavily pruned last year (technically, they "raised the crown") because it was overhanging the roof, the driveway, and my neighbor's yard so far. In fact, I was concerned after they were done that they might have taken too much off. But now I'm glad they pruned it so zealously; had they left more behind, I fear this storm would have deposited it on my roof and car.

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Salt of the Earth... and Pepper of the Vulcan?

StarTrek.com occasionally sends me an email "newsletter", actually a pitch for assorted Trekkie merchandise from the online store. No doubt this is a remnant of the days of yore, when said online store was operated by my erstwhile employer, aka The Company. Lord knows I haven't knowingly given StarTrek.com any reason to think I might order from them, at least not in the past 10 years or so.

Be that as it may, the proffered merchandise seems to get a bit more bizarre with each edition of the "newsletter". I mean, sure, T-shirts are ever-popular (but you'll note that, while Klingons and Starfleet are always in evidence, they never have a Romulan theme), and certainly you expect things like tricorders and phasers to turn up with regularity.

But I have to confess that it had not hitherto occurred to me that I might season my dinner from porcelain Spock and Captain Kirk Salt and Pepper Shakers, which, according to the newsletter, will "complete any table". I don't know about that, but they sure would be a pair of conversation pieces. Though I'm not sure the topics of conversation they might provoke would be appropriate for the dinner table. I keep wanting to apply captions:

Kirk: "Scotty, I asked you to beam us down next to those strange white rock formations, not on them!"

Spock: "Fascinating."

Perhaps, all in all, the Spock Cookie Jar would be a safer choice. Of course, removing Spock's head to grab a couple of chocolate chip cookies does seem a tad callous, especially when he appears to be stuck in quickstand up to his armpits. But I suppose that's preferable to having a large white cone in such a, well, uncomfortable location as evidenced in those salt & pepper shakers.

Never mind. I think I'll just keep storing my cookies (and my salt and pepper) in Tupperware.

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To scale or not to scale?

According to the local Sunday paper, the Great Southern Brood of 13-year cicadas, aka Brood XIX, is crawling out of the ground, even as we type. From the looks of the map included with the article, it doesn't look like the inch-and-a-half long bugs (said to be akin to "flying chicken nuggets" to dogs, birds, and squirrels) frequent the Hampton Roads area much.

But what did catch my eye in the article was this graphic comparing the sound level of the cicada's mating call (from a distance of 20 inches, though I don't know why you would be getting that cozy with a cicada, unless you are another cicada) to an assortment of common (?) noise sources, placing it at 105 decibels – between city traffic's 80 decibels (from the sidewalk) and a 110-decibel jackhammer (at arm's length).

The caption text points out that the decibel scale is exponential, making the cicada "hundreds of times louder than city traffic". OK, I get exponential scales. But I was flummoxed by the curious and confusing note (in the red ellipse which I added for emphasis, and enlarged below for clarity) explaining, if you want to call it that, that the "Decibel scale is not to scale".

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