A Science for Everyone, Community, Meteorology

Time to Look at Snow

In the last half of the seventies, the Monday after Christmas was committed.  I would meet Jay Penney at Graves Creek, get into the Snow Survey crummy and then we would measure the snow depth at Weasel Divide, Stahl Peak, and Graves Creek.  It’s so long ago that none of our measurements remain in the 30 year average.  We were the moderns – 440 cc Skidoo Alpines, and clockwork recorders that measured the snow-water equivalents through the month – all we needed to do was wind the clock and pack the chart away.  The guys we followed had done things differently – drive up Burma Road, snowshoe or ski to Weasel Cabin, build a fire, measure the snow course, eat dinner, sleep, hike into Stahl the next morning, measure the snow course, camp in the lookout, hike down, measure Graves Creek, reach the road and drive back into town.

My work was transitory – duplicating the traditional measurement dates and working with new recorders, battery power, early solar cells, and working with the technology that would make us unnecessary. 

My work was easier than my predecessors.  I used snowshoes where I couldn’t take a snowmobile.  Today, the remote monitoring is so good that I can click the link, and learn what the snowpack is on Stahl without leaving the warmth of my house.  Try it, you’ll like it.  https://www.nwrfc.noaa.gov/snow/snowplot.cgi?STAM8

DateTime PSTSnow Water Equivalent (inches)Snow Depth (inches)Snow Density (%)Precipitation To-Date (inches)Current Temperature (degrees F)

Nearly 19 inches of water in 67 inches of snow – 28% density, and warming after a near-zero night.  Of course, this is what would have been the January 1 run, and definitely not the time to announce whether the year was a high or low snowpack.  The next chart replaces the hand-written notes that Jay carried when I started, or that I carried after congestive heart failure took him off fortyfive time – 045 was the code we used for time spent on snow surveys.

26% above the thirty-year median.  It’s a number, but if we use it, we’re projecting from too little data.  Things can change with January and February’s snows – but above the mean is good.  Full soil profiles are good for plant growth and delay the susceptibility to fire.  And the Corps of Engineers paid that fortyfive time to get information to manage the reservoirs.

The next chart shows the 30 year mean, average and this year’s numbers in the lines – but the shaded area shows the variance.  You may note that by August 1, the snow is always gone, but the chart shows that it has melted off by the first week of June. 

As an old man, it’s good to be able to keep up on the information.  We did haul a lot of equipment in and out on those Alpines to help move toward the automated systems we have today.


Thinking About the Finns

I noticed a meme this morning, stressing the well known Finnish Sniper Simo Haya.  Like all memes, it is partly true – Haya’s rifle was a Mosin-Nagant.  It was also worked on to be competitive in target shooting, and he also used a submachine gun in racking up windrows of dead Russian invaders. 

Simo Haya is a well-known name compared to Aimo Lahti.  Of course, Finland is a small country, and allied itself with Germany in the second world war, so even the name Simo Haya doesn’t have a huge amount of recognition in the US 80 years after the war.  So I will write on Lahti.

I have no doubt that John Moses Browning was our nation’s top gun designer.  Likewise, it isn’t hard to put him above Mauser or Schmeisser – Browning worked with everything but bolt actions.  Mauser perfected the bolt gun.  Still, I would put Aimo Lahti at about the same level as John Moses Browning – an impressive gun designer, limited by his nation’s small size, and more impressively, forced into retirement as part of the deal to end the Finnish-Russian war.  In the English language, Kevin O’Brien probably said it best

“The spiteful Soviets, whose troops had been shot full of holes by many Lahti designs, demanded that that the Finn retire from arms design, and he did, living on a pension until 1970. His only child became a Finnish Air Force aviator and perished during the Continuation War.”  

The sentiment has probably been better written in Finnish, but I don’t read the language.  O’Brien has a lengthy post about Lahti and his accomplishments at https://weaponsman.looserounds.com/?p=15260 .

I’ll include another quote from O’Brien – more to encourage folks to click the link and read the rest of the story.  It includes photographs – and does a good job of explaining why I rate the man as the closest to John Moses Browning.

Aimo is little known in the Anglosphere, but his name rings a bell because two of his best-known guns bore his own name: the Lahti M/35 automatic pistol (also adopted in Denmark and in Sweden as the M/40) which combined the natural-pointing grip angle of the Luger with a completely different mechanism, and the Lahti M/39 semiautomatic antitank rifle, advertised for years in the pages of American Rifleman and other 1960s gun magazines. The M/39 was the object of every boy’s envy, later, even if by 1939 it was already marginal medicine on tanks. Lahti would use the same basic mechanism in the beefier VKT 40 anti-aircraft gun, usually seen as a twin mount.

He also co-designed the standard Finnish light machine gun of the Winter and Continuation Wars, the Lahti-Saloranta L/S 26. (It would be replaced by Russian DP LMGs which were captured in vast quantities). He was also responsible for some of the Finnish improvements to the Mosin-Nagant rifle, and for a modified Maxim for aerial and AA use called the VKT. All in all he designed over 50 weapons, counting designs like the M/27 rifle (a modified Mosin).

Lahti’s most influential gun did not bear his name at all. It was the Machine Pistol (“Konepistooli” or KP) 31, the famous “Suomi” (a word which just means “Finland.”) While by 1931 this submachine gun was not entirely revolutionary, we need to bear in mind that the 1931 model was an update of a 1926 model, which in turn was an update of a 1922 run of prototypes. That makes the Suomi, for all intents and purposes, a contemporary of the early Thompson, yielding primacy only to the Thompson and the German MP18.”

There is something I can really appreciate in a designer who comes up with a submachine gun capable of a minute of angle shots at 100 yards – particularly doing it with the tools available 90 years ago.


55 Miles per Gallon by 2026

The EPA has spoken.  All non-electric cars made after 2026 have to average 55 miles per gallon.  I remember how I felt back in the Nixon days, when someone explained, “It’s no big deal.  I’ll just trade the V-8 in on a four cylinder.”  I was already driving a 4 cylinder, and it got over mpg.  It was a 1960 Borgward, with a tall fourth gear.  2,469 pounds, and the factory stock specs were 22.3 mpg.  The blued and balanced engine helped for fuel efficiency as well as speed.  I once made the Bozeman to Trego trip on exactly 10 gallons of gas. 

Still, the easiest way to improve gas mileage is to lighten the car and shrink the engine.  The garage project is a 1988 Yugo – the Borgward engine had 91 cubic inches.  The Yugo measures in at 55 cubes and 1643 pounds curb weight.  I usually drove it with my right foot pushed into the carb – but on one trip from Libby to Havre, I kept it below 50 all the way, and almost coaxed 50 mpg out of the little beast. 

It’s another unyielding equation – gas mileage relates directly to the size and speed of the vehicle, with comfort also reducing mileage (neither the Borgward nor the Yugo had air conditioning, power steering or automatic transmissions).  If I remember correctly, the General Motors EV1 battery weighed in at 1150 pounds and a Tesla is about 1200 pounds.  There’s a lot of energy involved just in pushing those vehicles down the road (the lightest Tesla weighs about 3,550 pounds).

I recollect an all-electric skid steer built by our ag engineering department.  It didn’t pan out as practical compared to diesel – but weight on a skid steer isn’t a bad thing, and speed isn’t necessary.  Mentally, I toy with the idea of a little electric pickup charging on a couple solar panels and working around the place.  We have the technology to build the unit I envision – it’s just that few potential buyers share what I want the rig to do, and it is built in China, not the US.

The thing is (without checking my memory and sources) somewhere between half and five eights of US electrical generation comes from fossil fuels.  It’s not enough to say gasoline is bad, electric is good in this situation – every time you convert the power, the conversion takes power. 

Treehugger provides a chart of gasoline gallon equivalents, calculated by the same EPA. 

Gasoline Equivalents
Fuel TypeUnit of MeasureBTUs/UnitGallon Equivalent
Gasoline (regular)gallon114,1001.00 gallon
Diesel #2gallon129,5000.88 gallons
Biodiesel (B100)gallon118,3000.96 gallons
Biodiesel (B20)gallon127,2500.90 gallons
Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)cubic foot900126.67 cu. ft.
Liquid Natural Gas (LNG)gallon75,0001.52 gallons
Propane (LPG)gallon84,3001.35 gallons
Ethanol (E100)gallon76,1001.50 gallons
Ethanol (E85)gallon81,8001.39 gallons
Methanol (M100)gallon56,8002.01 gallons
Methanol (M85)gallon65,4001.74 gallons
Electricitykilowatt hour (Kwh)3,40033.56 Kwhs

Using my own power bill, I come up with $0.314 per Kwh (the total bill, divided by kwh – the demand charges, etc make the 0.04957 charge shown on the bill unusable for comparison)

Basically, if I were charging my non-existent Tesla at the old gas station, the price of electric power would be roughly equivalent to $10.53/gallon regular.  Kicking out the demand charges and other additions, and just using Lincoln Electric’s .04957 it’s $1.66/gallon regular. 

It’s useful information – if my hypothetical solar cell (powering my equally hypothetical electric vehicle) produces 400 watts per hour, and does so for 12 hours a day, it’s pumping 4.8 Kwh into my battery – so every week it produces the equivalent of a gallon of gas – something on the close order of a trip to Eureka and back every 10 days – ignoring clouds.

I’ve been fortunate to live in the gasoline powered era.


Julius Caesar and the Shortest Day

The Gregorian year is 365 days in 3 years out of 4, then 366 in the leap year.  The tropical year – the time it takes the planet to circle the sun is 365.242199 days.  That difference from 365.25 is why we had a leap year back in 2000 but didn’t in 1900.  It’s complicated, but the shifting dates on solstices and equinoxes provided the data for development of the Gregorian calendar. 

The Roman calendar, prior to Julius’ corrections, worked with a 355 day year, with some extras thrown in every so often.  It was a hard system to know what year it was.  Julius wasn’t a great astronomer or mathematician, but he did want to get his supplies on time – so calendar reform was important to him.  The Julian calendar consisted of 365 day years and a 366 day leap year every fourth year – essentially the same as the calendar we’ve known all our lives (despite the fact that we live under the Gregorian calendar – where a year is 365.2425 days.

His calendar was instituted in 45 BC, and was the standard until 1582.  After 1627 years, that extra 0.0075 had added up to 12 days – and that would not have been a big deal if it weren’t for the solstice and equinox.  Even with poor equipment and cloudy days, the error showed up (reliable clocks just weren’t around yet).  Add in about sixty years of a math error calling every third year a leap year, the problem became too big to ignore.

Still, Julius Caesar’s calendar was almost the same as our own – the thing is, every time the century turns over, it’s only a leap year if the year can be divided by 400.  Since 1900 wasn’t a leap year, and 2000 was, for our lifetimes, there has been no difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars.  Some of our youngest readers will live past February 28, 2100 – and experience the Gregorian calendar.

As for why February gets the extra day?  Those old Romans started the year with March, not January.


Jimmy Carter Never Was Our Worst President

I heard the comment that Joe Biden would replace Jimmy Carter as our worst President.  I have to stick up for Carter – we had extreme inflation on his watch, and the Iranians took over the embassy – but his accomplishments are insignificant compared to James Buchanan.  In Buchanan’s single term.  He came in as “Ten Cent Jimmy” – believing that ten cents was adequate pay for a day’s work.   He enforced the Fugitive Slave Act.  He tried to bring Kansas into the Union as a slave state.  Before he was replaced by Lincoln, 7 states had seceded.

Buchanan retired to Wheatland, secure in his belief that posterity would vindicate his decisions.  It never did – though Secession is more associated with Lincoln than Buchanon.  Admitted, I voted for Carter, but in my analysis Buchanan owns the title as America’s worst President.

And Buchanan has some runners-up that may keep Carter out of second or third place in the “Worst President” race.  Referred to as “His Accidency,” John Tyler was the nation’s first vice-president to move into the presidency when the President (William Henry Harrison) died of pneumonia. He ran for VP as a Whig, and as President, the Whigs tried to impeach him. 

We call George Washington the Father of His Country – though Tyler’s record of fathering 15 children may put him in second position there.  After the presidency, he was elected to the Confederate Congress, but died before being installed. 

Jimmy Carter banned hard liquor from the White House – John Tyler kept two barrels of whiskey on hand.  Buchanan, as a Senator, bought 10 gallons of whisky each week from Jacob Baer.  Some scholars have suggested that his whisky (and wine) habits influenced sending federal troops west for the Utah war (aka Buchanan’s Blunder).

Replacing Buchanan as the nation’s worst president is going to take some effort.  I guess getting 8 states to secede would do it, but it seems a pretty high bar. 


Maintaining Value in Money

Generally, inflation is a product of governmental monetary policy.  Stable currency isn’t often the goal of the politicians, so we wind up with inflation.

Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations wrote: “The value of any commodity, therefore, to the person who possesses it, and who means not to use or consume it himself, but to exchange it for other commodities, is equal to the quantity of labour which it enables him to purchase or command. Labour, therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities. The real price of everything, what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it.”  If you just print more currency – whether in the Weimar Republic, Zimbabwe, or Washington DC, you’re devaluing the currency – there isn’t much toil and trouble in acquiring it. 

If you travel into a third-world country, and tip in one dollar bills, you will see that even a single yankee dollar is valued above the tip in the local currency.  There are some nations that have gone through enough inflation (their local monetary policy) that they no longer print their own money.  Zimbabwe’s currency is worthless.  Ecuador uses the yankee dollar.

Gresham’s law simplified says “Bad money drives good money out of circulation.”  Since there are just under 200 nations in the world, and all politicians like to print more money, the simple answer to beat inflation is to have the best money.  A century ago, it was probably the British Pound.  We replaced that with the US dollar – and over the 20th century, removed the silver and gold backing.  Basically, during my lifetime, the US dollar has been the best money available – but not due to monetary policy.

The problem is, long term outlooks only run so far as the next election to most politicians.  We need a monetary policy that recognizes the advantages of being the world’s best reserve currency.  The dollars that circulate in Zimbabwe or Ecuador aren’t coming home to be cashed in.  It’s not like we need to eliminate inflation – we just need to have less than anyone else.

Both Adam Smith and Karl Marx recognized that value is produced by labor.  Marx wrote something to the effect “Capital is dead labor.”  The monetary policy is fairly simple – make sure you have the lowest inflation rate and the highest opportunity for production.  The problem is teaching our political leaders to look further than the next election. We can’t do it as individuals. If our dollar remains the world’s best currency, a lot of Franklins will be stashed in pillows overseas.  If it drops, those dollars will come home.


Homeless Students

Spending time on the school board provides a lot of information.  Some goes into the brain and must be forgotten unless a later incident brings it up.  Some are opinions that seem irrelevant, but are important to the person sharing them.  Recently, I’ve learned that a student can have a home but still be homeless.

Part of it is a social thing.  People like to own their own piece of the west – and raw land, particularly when it is less accessible and remote from the electric grid, is more affordable.  Here is the publication that defines homeless for Montana’s Office of Public Instruction:

OPI Guidance for Substandard Housing Determination (Unsheltered) for Students Identified as Homeless 

Homeless Liaisons should consider multiple factors when determining if a family’s or unaccompanied  youth’s situation meets the criteria of homelessness due to substandard housing.

  • Home must have a solid foundation and a roof that does not leak
  • Security locks must be on all exterior entrance doors
  • Home must be free from insect or rodent infestation
  • Home should have no more than five unrelated persons living in a single-family dwelling, or no more than two family members for each bedroom in the home
  • Each room must have a window or duct to provide ventilation, and interior air must be free of harmful pollutants such as mold
  • Home must have electric service and at least one electric outlet in each room
  • Home must have adequate heating facilities, and hot and cold running water
  • Home must have a separate kitchen and bathroom, each with an operational sink
  • Kitchen must have space for storage, preparation, and serving of food, including a refrigerator and stove or range with oven
  • At least one bathroom must have a bathtub or shower, flush toilet, sink, and offer privacy
  • Every sleeping room must have a window or door providing access to the outside

Additional factors that should be considered:

  • The family’s financial situation and ability to obtain suitable housing
  • The overall care of the children, including personal hygiene, cleanliness of clothing, nutrition, and healthcare

*Adapted from guidelines from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

It seems a bit unreal to live in a community where a family can pay over $1000 per year in property taxes, and find that their child is homeless.  Still, if you can own your home, free and clear, and still be homeless, it does say something about equality.

A Science for Everyone, Community, Meteorology

I Could Visualize the Adiabatic Lapse Rate

Fall ended, and my winter started in December.  It may be due to a warming global temperature – but in the seventies, when much of my life was dedicated to snow surveys, I would have been explaining it by la nina.  Add the tilde to the second n – the Spanish word for little girl, the situation of the coast of Peru that increases precipitation here in the northwest.

I’m not one to complain about rain – one of the predictable portions of our climate is that early Summer has rain, and we tend to harvest alfalfa later than the optimal 10% bloom because of rain.  After July 4, we’re moving into the dry times that make drying hay easier – even if its a bit late.  You develop an appreciation for rain when your climate gives you long, hot dry spells.

This Fall, I could watch Mount Marston and Stahl Peak as the snow would come and go – I have a good view of their western slopes, and my thermometer lets me watch the difference in temperature.  I live at about 3,000 feet elevation.  The top of those two mountains is about 6,000 feet.  It’s one of the great things of living here – mountains are great, and altitude kind of sucks.  Nothing personal, but I like 3,000 foot valleys and 6,000 foot mountains a lot more than 6,000 foot valleys and 10,000 foot mountains.  My lungs fit better.

Back to the topic – the adiabatic lapse rate.  As you go up, atmospheric pressure goes down.  It is kind of obvious – as you climb the mountain, there is less atmosphere above you.  Less atmospheric pressure means that there are fewer particles of atmosphere – nitrogen and oxygen – in any particular unit of volumetric measurement you care to use.  Colloquially, the air is thinner.

It kind of makes sense – with more space between the molecules, molecules hit each other less frequently.  Fewer molecular collisions correlate with a drop in temperature.  (Physicists might invoke causation here – my training really doesn’t let me offer an explanation, but I can point out a correlation.)

So we need two tools to develop an understanding of the adiabatic lapse rate – the thermometer and the barometer.  Evangelina Torricelli invented the barometer in 1643.  Fahrenheit invented the alcohol thermometer in 1709, and a more useful mercury thermometer in 1714.  Paul Kollsman modified the idea of the barometer and developed a usable altimeter in 1928.

The adiabatic lapse rate is defined as the rate at which the temperature of an air parcel changes in response to the compression or expansion associated with elevation change, assuming no heat exchange occurs between the air and its surroundings.  Aviation, and icing wings gave an impetus to quantifying this rate of temperature change – and the need for weather forecasts provided even more.  The number is 5.2 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1000 vertical feet, or 5 degrees Celsius per 1000 meters.  (in the real world it can vary from 4 to 9 depending on humidity, etc)

So this Fall, with its snows and thaws, left me with elevation contours I could watch on the mountainsides – something that the deep snows of winter do not readily allow in the Spring as things warm up.  Since nobody came along and asked “What’s the temperature half-way up Marston?” it has been a private observation – but it has been fun to watch.


Getting All the Government We Pay For

Ignore the dangling participle in the headline.  I know it violates the rules of grammar, if not conversation in my neighborhood.  Lately, I’ve been looking at the state closest to Montana in population – Rhode Island.  Until this last decennial census, it had two congresscritters and we had but one.  Next year, the shoe goes onto the other foot – we will have two and they will have one.

One of the Rhode Island stories I ran across was an article titled “I Battled Rhode Island’s Cookie Police.”  Now Rhode Island is 1214 square miles – in Lincoln County terms, about the size of a high school district.  The entire state consists of one metropolitan area – Providence.  I don’t believe I have ever been in Rhode Island – or if I have, I must have missed it.

Kara Donovan opens her story: “Friends raved when I started making hand-decorated sugar cookies for my children’s birthday parties in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. They often would tell their friends about me, and soon other parents were asking me to bake for their events. Before long a small business emerged in my kitchen. I called the enterprise A Spoonful of Sugar. As a stay-at-home mom with four children under the age of 12, I had limited opportunities for income. So, the revenue proved valuable.”

Her second paragraph ends “Customers also appreciated my commitment to food quality and safety. They trusted me, and I never received a complaint. Everyone was happy — except the Rhode Island Department of Health, which shut me down in January 2021.”

Obviously there was a law: “The reason had nothing to do with my facilities or processes. Regulators never even inspected my kitchen or sampled my work before taking action. They ordered me to halt my operation based on a zero-tolerance law in Rhode Island that blocks everyone except farmers from selling “cottage food,” meaning food made in a home kitchen for sale.”

She points out that there are fewer than 1800 farmers in Rhode Island.  Now that was interesting – if you split this little state equally between the farmers, each would have about 40 acres.  She wrote of her need to rent a commercial kitchen 7 miles away.  Now a farm has to produce $1000 worth of ag products in a year, so I’m not sure it wouldn’t be possible to qualify a backyard as a farm – but the point is her tax dollars paid the folks who closed her business, and, according to her story, it was a business that would have been legal in 48 of the fifty states. 

At any rate, it’s a good article, about fighting the cookie police in the state next to us in population.  She’s probably too civilized to think “X. Biedler, where are you when we really need you?”


I like the IRS Life Expectancy Tables

I have reached the age where IRA disbursements are mandatory.  A dozen years back, life expectancy tables became personal, as opposed to a general demographic exercise.  I walked away from my oncologist with a 3 year prediction, and I didn’t really like it.  On the other hand, a dozen years later, I believe that I have demonstrated that demographers are better at projecting the group tables than medical doctors are at individual predictions.  The tyranny of small samples is the basis for a lot of the world’s errors.

Anyway, I got this copy of the IRS tables from bankrate.com. They have a lot more information than the table – but it looks like the IRS is giving me until the middle of 2047.   That’s much more upbeat than what I got from the medical profession,  I kind of like the IRS view of life expectancy.

In comparison, social security and the IRS are both optimistic. But the optimism looks a bit different. With regards to their budget, the IRS cheerfully predicts that you will have along life (paying taxes). Conversely, Social Security happily gives you few years (in which to be an expense in their budget). Personally, the projections from the IRS are much friendlier.

IRA required minimum distribution (RMD) table

Age of retireeDistribution period (in years)Age of retireeDistribution period (in years)
939.6115 and older1.9
Source: Internal Revenue Service (IRS

I’ve never been so generous – perhaps the accountants at the IRS are just more upbeat and positive than sociologists.  The folks at Social Security have calculations closer to my own – but 2033 still is a lot more upbeat than 2012 was.