Saturday, March 2, 2013

Call me Ismael (or call me Maelish)

I’d gone for a stroll on the beach.

The Pacific tide was still rising, waves lapping at sand pebbles strewn along an irregular dull green line of flotsam near the high water mark. The sky was a chalky blue and the air suffused with a thin halide haze, attars of iodine from kelp undulating languorously in the currents just off shore.

Shore birds, Hendry's beach, Santa Barbara, California
Here and there, willets and godwits minced about on stilt-like legs probing the sand with quick little  thrusts of their long, slender bills, searching for marine worms, sand crabs, and sea slaters.

On a cluster of tide-scoured rocks sat a gaggle of gulls, squawking, squabbling, and thieving from one another -- intruding upon the calm.

Overhead, meanwhile, whined a small, low-flying Bombardier passenger jet, its tail feathers provocatively deployed as it descended toward final approach, the pitch of its engines -- on account of the Doppler shift -- dropping as it zoomed by.

It was a late morning, like any other, along the quotidian coast.

All of a sudden, from the sands just in front of me sprang curls of steam, wisps of sea smoke, swirling swiftly upward and congealing into a small private cloud that seemed to have momentarily lost its way.

Sea smoke, Douglas Family Preserve, Santa Barbara, 
Startled, I quickened my pace to avoid being engulfed by the cloud – such  preternatural maritime miasmata being the typical hangout of saltwater undines and the bedraggled shades of drowned sailors.

Pretty soon, though, curiosity got the better of me, and  I turned back to see how the neophyte fog was faring.

The eruption of vapor had been so precipitous and of such an intensity that I half expected to observe a roasted shoat, clad in steaming banana leaves, bursting out of a luau pit munching a cinnamon apple. Or perhaps an unctuous walrus lugubriously chatting up oysters. Or line dancing lobsters of the spiny variety.

Such is life by the miraculous sea.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"to talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and.."
"Get on with it, please," the Carpenter plead,
"and stop your dither-ing!"

In the event there were no cabbages or kings, only the  little pillar of cloud – magic enough for me, by the by – which had drifted away from the water’s edge and up the cliff face where it now enveloped a small tree.

“Not exactly a burning bush,” I mused. “More of a beclouded or mystified one.”

As mixed metaphors go, though, this was divine.

By now it was almost lunch time and I could have done with a pillar of fire and some hot dogs, but alas, there were no snacks and no revelations, only the raucous chatter of four young collegians in beach plumage – vying with the seagulls for rumbustiousness –  the indolent splosh of the waves, and the little tree cloaked in its personal fog.

I took pictures with my digital Minox. Its not every day you’re confronted with a phenomenon of nature, and in this case there’d be no meteorite bits for forensics.

But what of the college students? Hadn’t they been privy to this magic as well? Might I have recruited them as collaborators, say, stalwarts as to the veracity of my observations?

Not a chance -- they seemed completely oblivious. No doubt they were sophomores.

Still, photos don’t lie, even photos of clouds. Call me Maelish if you must – it’s a whale of a tale, after all, not the other way around – but don’t call me crazy.

Now I haven’t the foggiest notion as to the import of things such as these, but here’s what probably transpired.

A nucleus of condensation is a particle upon which water vapor can condense to form droplets – water droplets, of course, being what mist, fog, and clouds are made of. Various particles, such as dust, ice, and salt (e.g., salt spray from breaking waves), are know to act as condensation nuclei, and recently its been found that iodine released by seaweed can do the same thing.

Off-shore kelp beds, Douglas Family Preserve, Santa Barbara,
In a 2008 report, researchers at the University of Manchester described how coastal seaweed – brown kelp – releases large amounts of inorganic iodine into the atmosphere where it may contribute to coastal cloud formation. This is particularly apt to occur under conditions of intense sunlight or drying during low tides, presumably to help create a protective layer of moisture for the kelp.

Then there’s hill fog that forms when wind blows up a slope causing the air to cool as it rises and the moisture in it to condense.

The pillar of cloud that emerged so abruptly during my turn on the beach may have resulted from all of these – salt spray from the waves, iodine from the kelp, and upslope air cooling.

So you see, this was neither miracle nor magic, simply science, and there’s no need to mythologize it.

Still, I do wish that garrulous walrus would’ve just shut up and served the damned oysters. I had carpentry work to finish, and his dithering brought me to tears.

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