Friday, August 29, 2014

Almost Heaven Star Party at Spruce Knob Mountain Center

We had a great time at the Almost Heaven Star Party (AHSP) at The Mountain Institute, 22-26 August, 2014.  Although the weather did not cooperate for the first two nights, there was plenty to do with good food, science presentations, and great camaraderie among the attendees.
Once the skies cleared, we were able to enjoy one of the darkest skies in the Eastern US. People wandered around in the dark and it was fun to show strangers the best objects in the heavens. Folks from across the USA were in attendance, and I even talked to people from as far away as Bulgaria and Japan!
One of my favorite moments happened when a fellow of college age appeared out of the darkness at 3am on Tuesday. Wandering around without even a flashlight, he startled me, but we were soon talking and looking at the sky. Then I showed him how to operate the small refracting telescope we were using, and he was off exploring on his own! He spent around 90 minutes independently "discovering" some of the famous objects of the sky, like the Double Cluster in Perseus and the Andromeda Galaxy. He left just as Orion and Gemini were coming up over Spruce Knob in the east.
You see, the Star Party was not really so much about the sky. It was about the people who had gathered there on the mountain. I do not remember when I was last around such a fine and agreeable group of people. Many small acts of kindness were seen, such as when a neighboring camper gave me a can of Progresso soup - which he had warmed on the exhaust of his SUV! The people at the Star Party were friendly and genuine in a way which is not often seen these days, and many new friendships were formed amongst the attendees.
The Spruce Knob Mountain Center of The Mountain Institute is an ideal location for a Star Party. There is a feeling there on the mountain which is quite spiritual, and many of the attendees mentioned it. I felt so bad when the Party was over and I had to drive back down the mountain and rejoin the "real world."

I look forward to next year's Almost Heaven Star Party.
Glen Ward is a member of NOVAC, the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. For more information on the 2015 AHSP, please go to

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Warmer Summers Benefit Red Spruce Trees

Despite having spent only a couple of seasons as a Field Instructor at Spruce nearly a decade ago, the spirit and ideals embodied in the place have been with me ever since. As a geographer I am particularly sensitive to the importance of place. In the years since my time at Spruce I have been fortunate enough to spend time in a number of spectacular places in the world, but West Virginia, and Spruce, remain solidly atop my list of favorites. This past spring I was happy to share this place with students from the biogeography course that I teach at Colgate University. 

 One of my favorite things to do as a science educator is to actually do science with my students. By this I mean that we use science to address questions that none of us, including me, know the answer to, as opposed to me simply explaining processes and concepts, or having the students completing a laboratory assignment that I know the answer to. In biogeography we focused on the distribution of life on earth (i.e. plants and animals). Perhaps more importantly, we try to understand how physical and biological things like temperature, precipitation, or the availability of food, impact where different kinds of plants and animals are located. The red spruce forests that adorn Spruce Knob and other mountaintops throughout Appalachia have a geographic distribution that is interesting to biogeographers, and we humans are in the midst of a large experiment involving global climate.

This has led me to wonder how these red spruce ecosystems might respond to climate change. Red spruce forests are restricted to mountaintops in Appalachia because they like relatively cool and moist conditions. Further north, in places like New England and eastern Canada you can find such forests at lower elevations. My initial hypothesis was that more southerly red spruce forests, in places like West Virginia or North Carolina, will not fare well as the climate warms. We intended to test this hypothesis on our visit by taking tree cores from the red spruce stand just next to the yurts to look at changes in growth over time. Most people have probably seen the annual growth rings that trees produce on a piece of firewood or a recently cut stump. Tree coring involves using what is essentially a hollowed out drill bit to extract a ‘tree core’ in order to be able to count the rings without damaging the tree. By measuring the width of the rings, and then comparing the widths to things like average summer temperature it is possible to figure out if trees are growing more or less in warm years.

We collected thirty cores from fifteen trees while at Spruce. The largest trees were between 95 – 100 years old. By comparing the widths of the tree rings with climate data we found that the trees have been growing more during warmer summers. This suggests that changes in climate have benefited these forests. In the forest we also noticed quite a few seedlings and saplings, indicating the trees are reproducing and germinating well. It is important to note that the apparent positive benefits of a warmer climate are not unlimited, that is continued warming may eventually be harmful to red spruce trees. But for the time being I am happy to say it appears that the forest at Spruce is doing well. I am also happy to report that, despite the long van ride, the students thoroughly enjoyed a weekend away from campus (and cell phone service!) doing science. I’m already looking forward to our next visit. 

Mike Loranty is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Colgate University and former TMI Field Instructor. For more information about his research, visit his site,