The Blood of a Forest

A dead forest bleeds for years, its decomposition products flowing slowly into the soil, leached out by rains to turn tributaries as black as night. Those dark tributaries join forces, darkening streams heading inexorably to the sea. At last, the blood of the forest flows out into the surf zones, spreading a dark brown stain hundreds of yards wide, carried down shore by persistent currents.

I had been thinking about this topic for a couple of years, but was motivated to finally publish it after seeing a recent (February 10, 2021) article in Hakai Magazine, an ePub devoted to coastal environmental subjects. The title was The Environmental Threat You’ve Never Heard Of.” The lead sentence is, “It’s called Coastal Darkening, and scientists are just beginning to explore.

To quote from that article, “Coastal waters around the world are steadily growing darker. This darkening—a change in the color and clarity of the water—has the potential to cause huge problems for the ocean and its inhabitants.

Some of the causes behind ocean darkening are well understood… During heavy rains, for instance, organic matter—primarily from decaying plants and loose soil—can enter the ocean as a brown, light-blocking slurry. This process is well documented in rivers and lakes, but has largely been overlooked in coastal areas.”

In the coastal city of Panama City, Florida, entire patches of cypress forests were destroyed a few years ago, thus producing lots of decaying plant matter.

What can destroy a forest? The unstoppable force of a category 5 hurricane. In this instance, it was Hurricane Michael striking Panama City and the surrounding Florida Panhandle on October 10, 2018.

Ironically, although I had retired just days before, I attended an Office of Naval Research Workshop on diving, and had bragged to one of the attendees that Panama City was in a very lucky geographical location. We had not been hit by a hurricane since Hurricane Opal in 1995. And that was only a Category 4 hurricane.

Only a few days later, Panama City’s luck changed, horribly. Category 5 Hurricane Michael made a bee-line for Panama City, pushing a wave of water that swept away much of the community of Mexico Beach, just twelve miles east of the first landfall of Michael’s eye at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City.

12:30 PM Tyndall Air Force Base and its drone runway to the east is in the eye of the hurricane. Destruction to the home of the 1st Air Force was catastrophic.

The above radar imagery was captured on my iPad, using Foreflight aviation software while we safely sat in a hotel room in Birmingham, AL. The redder the color, the stronger the rainfall. Green represented low rainfall intensity near the eyewall.

12:45 PM. Callaway Bayou typically pours dark stains into St. Andrew’s Bay. The torrential downpours from passage of the red and yellow rain bands (color signifying rain intensity) would have forced even more tannins southward into the Bay. (It is unlikely that the satellite view and the radar view are synched together in time.)

After returning from our hurricane safe haven in Birmingham, AL to our damaged home on Panama City Beach, and as soon as the airspace opened up again, I surveyed some of the damage from the air. A month after the storm, areas along the Gulf Coast were closed to normal aircraft due to drones surveying the damage along Mexico Beach, and providing assistance to personnel looking for human remains. 

However, there were no restrictions to flying along the path of the hurricane, northeast of Panama City. So, on November 4th I launched in that direction and discovered that a huge swath of cypress trees had been flattened about 40 miles north of Mexico Beach. Since cypress trees love water, there were of course creeks running through the midst of them. The Florida Panhandle watershed runs inexorably south towards the Gulf of Mexico (GOM).

Fourmile Creek ran through the area I photographed. It is a tributary feeding the Chipola River. The Chipola in turn dumps into the Apalachicola River, the primary flow into Apalachicola Bay, home of the famous Apalachicola oysters.

A year or so later, as seen on Google Earth imagery of the affected area in Florida, some of the low-lying greenery began to return to the Fourmile Creek area. However, the skeletal remains of the flattened Cypress forest were still clearly evident.

My next flight was on December 18, 2018, after the coastal airspace had been opened back up to general aviation traffic. That was over two months after the hurricane hit shore.

Mexico Beach: December 18, 2018. Houses and buildings between Highway 98 and the beach had been swept off their foundations by the storm surge, and turned into kindling wood. The dark water Salt Creek on the lower left corner drained into the Gulf.
Another view of the decimated Mexico Beach. The normally crystal-clear water off the beach was dark, a residual from the hurricane.

On Sept 2, 2020, almost two years after the hurricane, I was flying from east to west along the coast, back towards Panama City. As I approached Mexico Beach, I saw a clearly defined dark area in the otherwise clear sea water. I snapped several photos as I got closer to the still struggling town. They are shown in sequence below, starting from furthest west, approaching town center.

On the beach, the El Governor Resort is on the right side of the photo.
Google Street View image reveals how high the storm surge rose at the El Governor. Image from Sept, 2019.
The worst of the staining came from a single source at the northern boundary of Mexico Beach.
Salt Creek was pouring its dark water directly into the Gulf of Mexico. Salt Creek drains an area of storm-flattened cypress only two miles north of the Mexico Beach shoreline.

The largest area of devastation of cypress forests surrounded Fourmile Creek which runs southeast before emptying into the Chipola River.

Due east of Panama City, the appropriately named Cypress Creek also empties into the Chipola River as the river feeds the Dead Lakes. In turn, the Chipola empties into the Apalachicola River southeast of Wewahitchka.

Nearer to Mexico Beach, there is yet another Cypress Creek which drains into both the Intracoastal Waterway at its northern end, and the GOM at its southern end. In the next aerial photo of Mexico Beach, Cypress Creek can be seen pouring its darkness into the ocean. Cypress Creek also drains a large swampy area of destroyed cypress trees.

The inset blowup of a dark squiggle in the sand, is an enlargement of the dark water outfall of Cypress Creek. (Curiously, Google Earth photos of the dark tannic water of Cypress Creek seems to show it emptying into both the Intracoastal Waterway to the north and the Gulf waters to the south.)

Remarkably, the greatest dark water offender on the September 2020 flyover was Salt Creek, with its outfall that lay two miles to the northwest of Cypress Creek.

Historical Perspective

Cypress trees have been in Florida for at least 6,500 years. During that time, their populations must have weathered tens of thousands of hurricanes. In spite of being knocked down due to being rooted in wet, soggy soil, and frequently rotting as a result, the overall population is well adapted to black water. Their blood, or rot if you will, produces more of the black water habitat that the cypress trees favor. Throughout the southeastern United States, Cypress forests (with isolated communities often called “domes”) remain ideal habitat for many species of fish, birds and mammals.

Tourists flock to the Gulf Coast’s so-called “Miracle Strip” of clean water and white sand that stretches from Pensacola Beach to Mexico Beach and slightly beyond. On a macro scale, the water and beaches are kept clear by the effects of the Loop Current, and its eddies, bringing clear Gulf water up towards the Gulf shores.

While the dark water periodically spilling into the normally clear Gulf of Mexico beaches may be repulsive to tourists, an experimental study described in the Haikai article notes that black water outfalls may favor certain zooplankton, providing a new food species for local fishes.

So, to this scientist at least, it may that in the Gulf of Mexico, periodic outpourings of dark water caused by heavy rains, tropical storms and hurricanes may be what is required to balance the estuary and marine ecosystem.

In other words, the concerns stated in the Haikai article may not apply to the west coast of Florida. Of course, to know for sure, further study is required.

In retrospect, when looking down upon flattened forests of trees, it seems nature is harsh. But nature works for the end game; survival of the environment. In Florida, the environment has survived hurricanes, and their effects on forests and water, for millennia.

Of greater concern to Florida might be the permanent destruction of the cypress forests by man, rather than hurricanes. Nature can recover from hurricanes, but cannot recover from man’s misguided intentions. After all, forests buffer the effects of hurricanes. Without them, Florida would lay flat and naked before every onslaught of a sometimes violent Nature.

The Patients, the Pilot, and the Politicians

Beechcraft_Baron_58TC
A Beechcraft Baron similar to the one used by Quest Diagnostics. (From Wikimedia Commons).

Every night a pilot from Atlanta makes a round-robin cargo flight to Albany GA and Dothan AL, then continues down to the coast to load cargo from Panama City FL, Pensacola, and Mobile AL before returning home. He used to fly a single engine Beech Bonanza, but now pilots a Baron, a twin-engine, 190 kt fast mover.

On really rough weather nights I’ve watched vicariously through FlightAware.com as he scurries away from lethal skies and diverts to any safe harbor. His cargo is your lifeblood, literally, but it’s not worth dying for.

He makes that flight each night because during the day in each of those cities patients had blood drawn at their doctor’s office. The samples that will tell the doctor the life and death stories of the day’s patients are whisked away to a large laboratory near Atlanta for processing overnight.

After taking off from Gwinnett County Airport near Lawrenceville, GA at 6 PM or so, the solitary pilot returns to his home base about midnight.

Centurion C210
A Centurion 210; not your ordinary Cessna.

I was alerted one night that a plane I’d flown to Houston and back, a Cessna Centurion 210, had a gear collapse at the local Panama City Airport. I knew the plane well.

Unfortunately, shortly after the only runway was closed the Quest Diagnostics Baron approached the area, attempting to land. I turned on my aviation radio and heard the “850”, as it’s called, being told to hold, circling, while airfield crews attempted to move the damaged Centurion off the runway.

PFN 2007
The original two-runway Panama City Airport, circa 2007. (Click to enlarge)

And that’s where the politicians come in.

Local Panama City politicians felt obliged to close down the Panama City airport with two runways (formerly known as PFN) and relocate to a larger facility, again with two runways. The new two runway airport, KECP, looked great in an artist’s rendition.

But artists don’t build airports. The reason why the second runway was not built is not a subject for this blog posting. What is the subject, is that promises made to the citizens of Panama City were not promises kept. And on that night as “850” circled overhead, there would be real consequences for the political decisions which had been made.

Once construction began on the main 10,000 ft long runway at the donated site, all mention of the second runway was forgotten; not by the local pilots, but by the local politicians and the land company.

Second runways serve important purposes. They are usually called “cross-wind” runways. I’ve landed many times on the cross-wind runway at PFN, and I’ve also been on Delta flights that used that runway when the wind across the main runway was dangerously high.

Cross-wind runways are not only a safety factor for overbearing wind conditions, but also provide an alternate landing site in case the main-runway is closed due to an aircraft being stuck on the runway.

That night as “850” was trying to land to pick up the day’s tissue samples from the Panama City area, the main runway was closed by the broken Centurion, and there was no backup runway. The pilot circled Panama City until his fuel became critical, and then he flew on to his next  stop in Pensacola.

So all the blood drawn from patients in the Panama City area that day missed the trip to the Quest Diagnostics laboratory, due to a promise made but not kept.

But I suppose that is hardly news. Rather, it appears to be deeply woven into the very fabric of politics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Furry Aviators – Bats

Not every animal that flies is an aviator. June bugs and mosquitoes fly without any particular destination in mind; they just seem to flit around, hoping to detect a random meal. In my way of thinking, to be called an aviator you have to navigate, to use the air as a travel medium with a destination in mind, either consciously or subconsciously. By definition, navigation is not random; it is purposeful. Migrating Monarch Butterflies qualify as navigators and aviators, and so do migratory Bats.

While visiting Austin, Texas, I searched the front pages of the Austin Telephone directory for points of interest. No. 1 on their list was the nightly bat show at the downtown Congress Ave. Bridge.

I was just one of hundreds (maybe thousands) of tourists waiting on and around the bridge to see the show that night. Once downtown I was told that about half of the 1.5 million strong Mexican free-tailed bat colony had already migrated to Mexico for the winter, but the remaining bats might put on a good show at sundown. They did.

Bats exiting the Congress Ave. Bridge, Austin, TX. From: http://joyridevideos.com/567/ignite-your-senses-in-austin-tx/

Once the skies had fully darkened, I saw what looked like a soundless horizontal waterfall of bats erupt from underneath the crevices of the bridge structure. Can you imagine 1000 planes a second leaving a major airport at the same time, using all available runways, with no controllers and no collisions? That’s how it seemed.

I watched with morbid fascination as a very fat bug made the biggest mistake of its short life by blundering near the bat departure pattern. At least five bats peeled out of the pattern and within milliseconds honed in on the hapless target. The first bat to the target must have gotten a meal because the squishy bug disappeared out of the traffic pattern with nary a puff of smoke. No NTSB investigation needed.

Walking up on the bridge for a different view I saw an even more incredible sight. Every once and awhile a bat jetting up the departure pathway would make a high speed 180° turn and head straight back into the torrent, without getting hit, best I could tell in the midst of the furiously flinging wings. It made the head-to-head passes of the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels look like child’s play. Why they did that I don’t know; maybe just for the adrenaline rush.

On the other hand, even the best aviators can screw up. I saw evidence of this back in Panama City while looking out at my pool one evening. In the dim light I could see ripples in the usually glass smooth surface of the pool.  On investigating, I found a Little Brown Bat in the pool, spreading its wings to support itself by the surface tension of the water. They really were — dare I say it — water wings. But it was clearly tired and in danger of drowning.

Had his bat radar gone on the fritz? Or did he just mess up like the occasional seaplane pilot who becomes disoriented by a glassy water surface. On the one hand, bats can maneuver safely through a storm of oncoming high velocity fellow bats, but could be foiled by something as innocuous as a still water surface. Strange.

I guess even great human pilots have messed up for lesser reasons.

A frightened Little Brown Bat.

I scooped up the bat in a net and laid the wet furball on the ground to recuperate. Oddly, after a minute’s rest, the bat started crawling forward towards my foot using the hooks on its wings to pull himself along. Then he climbed onto my shoe. My Granddaughter who was watching the whole scene thought that was very strange. I did too.

But then the little water-soaked bat started climbing up my slightly nervous leg. I assure you the sensation of having a bat crawl up your leg can be discomforting, but my sense of curiosity was far more compelling. I was trusting he wasn’t looking for a place to bite me. However, as he got closer to my most sensitive region, that thought began to really concern me.  Fortunately all he wanted to do was climb, to safety from predators I assume. At least he didn’t consider me a predator. Maybe he thought I was a tree: I was, after all, standing oh so still.

As he approached my neck I began to wonder whether he was a werebat, looking for a succulent neck. Then it occurred to me that fleshy earlobes might be ripe for biting — like fat bugs perhaps, in a bat’s mind. Yet strangely I didn’t feel threatened, even when I could feel his hooked wings gently grab a “handhold” on my neck.

I then realized that once he reached the top of my head he had nowhere to go. And the thought of a bat sitting on my head for a while was not all that appealing. I wasn’t about to pick him off my head without a thickly-gloved hand. They do have teeth.

So I choose a non-confrontational course of action. I leaned my head into a tall pine tree trunk, and sure enough the soaking wet little bat kept on going. The photo below taken from behind him shows him (or her) continuing the ever-so-slow climb.

Water-logged Little Brown Bat climbing up a pine tree.

I have mixed emotions about the fact that my granddaughter did not take a picture of me leaning my head against the tree — with a bat on my head.

Moral of the story for human aviators? The little guys are absolutely awesome fliers, with unbelievably fast reflexes, unerring navigation, and the best possible terrain avoidance equipment. But even they can screw up. And when they do, their survival depends on the help of others; others willing to take a risk to help the fallen air-critters.

I was pleased to share this Nature moment with my Granddaughter. After all, it’s not every day you get to watch a bat climb your Grandfather, from his toes to his head.

Below is one of the most endearing videos I’ve found of a Little Brown Bat. The teenager in the video is clearly enthusiastic about one of nature’s smallest aviators.  (Video borrowed from http://www.chesapeakebay.net/fieldguide/critter/little_brown_bat.)

[youtube id=”E4Kxcr7kq14″ w=”525″ h=”439″]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Flight to DeFuniak Springs

Affordable, high definition cameras are opening up a world of sporting video to those who can’t compete with the pros. For aviators, we get to share our passion, the beauty of flight!

I recently borrowed a GoPro camera and gave it a try. The flight in the Piper Arrow was short, 29 nm, from the new airport at Panama City (ECP) to DeFuniak Springs. The sky was spectacular and the air was fresh from the north but at a mercifully pleasant temperature for February (low seventies in °F).  The air was a little turbulent below 2500 feet, explaining the slight bumpiness of the video at low altitude.

After takeoff, climbing to smooth air, I circled over the cypress and hardwood-lined Choctawhatchee river which heads south from southern Alabama to empty into the Choctawhatchee Bay near Destin and Ft. Walton in the Florida Panhandle.  As shown below, that river drains some of the best scuba and cave-diving springs in Florida, including Morrison Spring, featured in the previous post.

Locally, there seems to be some nonchalance about the spelling of Defuniak, De Funiak or DeFuniak. The French care of course, but the locals don’t. Surprisingly, the town was not named after a French trader with the Choctaw Indians. DeFuniak Springs was named after Fred de Funiak, the first president of the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad who envisioned DeFuniak Springs as a resort for northern visitors.

A pilot can appreciate that in the video the approach to landing in DeFuniak Springs was not as well aligned as it should have been. I had fallen victim to the visual illusion spoken of in the blog posting Killer Optical Illusions – Size Does Matter.

I usually fly into runways between 150 and 200-feet wide, including current or former military runways and the airport at Panama City. It had been a year since I’d flown into DeFuniak’s narrow 60-foot wide runway, and even though I circled the field twice I still found myself too close-in on downwind (flying parallel to the landing runway, in the opposite direction). That, plus a strong tailwind on base (perpendicular to the runway) put me past the point where I would normally line up for landing.

Over-correcting close to the ground can be fatal due to an event called the stall spin accident. It occurs when aircraft are flown incorrectly close to the ground during that potentially fateful turn to “final”, trying to line up with the runway. Being mindful of that I kept my speed up and corrected no more than necessary to find my way to the runway.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my wife was parked opposite from my intended landing spot watching the approach. I’m glad that, all things considered, it turned out well. At least it drove home my previous point that “Size Matters”.

Technical details: This HD video was taken from the cockpit of a Piper Arrow. A GoPro camera filmed the action. Royalty-free music was generated automatically by Cyberlink PowerDirector 10 with SmartSound technology.

Outsmarted by an Octopus

Jim Duran and I started a night dive in about sixty to seventy feet of water several miles off the beaches of Panama City, FL. I was wearing double 80 tanks, held a collecting bag and lights, and fully intended to capture an octopus, alive.

At the time I was working in an invertebrate physiology laboratory at Florida State University, under the mentorship of Dr. Michael Greenberg. I had been impressed by the reputed high intelligence of the octopus, and was also interested in the effects of high pressure. The Navy base at Panama City had a new high pressure chamber, capable of simulating deep-sea pressures. Since I was in training in the combined Navy and NOAA program called the Scientist in the Sea, it seemed logical to me to catch an octopus, and study it to see if it would be a suitable candidate for testing in the Navy’s  giant hyperbaric chamber.

It sounded like a reasonable plan to me, and Jim Duran was willing to follow along as my assistant critter catcher. And to begin with, the plan worked. We spied our quarry only a few minutes into the dive. The gray-brown octopus was crawling over the sandy bottom, and initially seemed unaware of our intentions. But as the two of us closed in on him, specimen bag flapping in our self-generated current, he sprang off the bottom and squirted away.

But we were strong swimmers, and our quarry was in the open, maybe eight feet off the bottom. He had nowhere to hide – silly thing. Keeping our lights on him, and stroking like mad, I began gaining on him, at which time he let loose with his ink. I was prepared for that, and continuing to kick I soon caught up with him and got my hands on him, trying to stuff him into my bag. But he would have none of that.

Off we went again. What we didn’t realize was that the clever invertebrate was constantly turning to our right. We of course were too intent on capturing him to notice his strategy. And besides, invertebrates were incapable of strategic planning – or so we thought.

Apparently the octopus was determined not to be touched again, or else we were tiring, for we never quite caught up with him. So close, and yet so far away.

And then a curious thing happened. He collapsed his tentacles upon themselves, streamlining his body shape, and shot like a rocket from our depth to the sandy bottom. Once on firm ground again, he spread his tentacles as wide as he could, and his entire body turned white. I froze in shock.

In another instant, before I could recover my senses, he collapsed his body down to the width of an apple and slithered into his hole in the sea floor.

He was gone.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that the chase had started near his home, and he had led us at a furious pace in a large circle, which ended precisely where it had begun. He had maneuvered us to within striking distance of safety.

Humbled, and now growing low on air, and embarrassingly empty-handed, we headed back to the off-shore platform where our dive had begun.

It had seemed like such a good idea. Who knew that two graduate students would be outsmarted by an invertebrate.

Below is a link to a video showing an octopus’ ability to disguise itself, and some of the defensive behavior we witnessed.

[youtube id=”PmDTtkZlMwM” w=”500″ h=”400″]