by Whit Gibbons

December 6, 2009

The term "outreach" has a variety of definitions, one of which is "the extending of services beyond the usual limits." Thus, when the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory establishes a mechanism for offering ecological and environmental education to the general public, it is considered an outreach program. Last week I met two scientists, Doug Halford and Roger Blew, associated with the department's environmental outreach service. This outstanding program, tailored for southeastern Idaho, is known as "Ask a Scientist."

A question submitted to "Ask a Scientist" is passed on to a network of scientists in Idaho, one of whom will provide the answer. As stated in the guidelines, "Any submitted question may be publicly posted on our website," which is at In addition, the "Question of the Week" is printed weekly in the "Ask a Scientist" column in the Idaho Falls Post Register. Alana Jensen manages the program.

Not surprisingly, some of the questions about Idaho involve topics such as volcanoes and lava rocks, big game animals, and sagebrush. But more general questions have also been asked and answered, such as "How long can a bird fly without stopping?" and "Why does my hair stand on end when I rub a balloon on it?" Some have even had an extraterrestrial slant: "Where did the moon come from?" and "Why isn't Pluto a planet anymore?"

More than 40 scientists are available to answer the questions. Being a wildlife ecologist, Doug Halford answered the following one: "Are woodchucks, groundhogs, rockchucks, and marmots all names for the same animal?"

"All of these animals are marmots [but represent] different species within the genus. The eastern version is commonly called the woodchuck or ground hog; . . . the western version is known as the yellow-bellied marmot or rockchuck. Marmots are the largest member of the squirrel family. All marmots are burrowing animals and they rarely venture very far from their burrows. They live in family units of mother, father, and children.

"When a marmot sees a predator it whistles to warn all other marmots in the area (giving it [one of its] common names the whistle pig). Then it usually hides in a nearby rock pile."

Another question was "Why is eastern Idaho a desert?" The answer, given by Roger Blew, was a concise explanation that is applicable to many arid regions.

"Before it can rain, there must be moisture or humidity in the air. In order for there to be moisture in the air, water must evaporate. The best source for the air's moisture is the oceans. Air flows over these large bodies of water picking up moisture as it evaporates off the surface. The air then flows over the land and we feel it in the form of humidity. When air rises, maybe as it ascends a mountain slope or when encountering a cold front or warm front, the air cools and the moisture condenses into clouds and rain. Therefore, areas near oceans and lakes, and areas where the air flows off an ocean and up a mountain, are likely to get a lot of rain.

"Because we live on the downwind side of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, we don't see much rain. We call this [phenomenon] a 'rain shadow.' This occurs because most of the moisture falls out as rain as the air rises up the one side of the mountain. The air that descends the other side of the mountain is now dry.

"So, the process that makes southern Idaho so dry is the same process that makes the forests along the northwest coast of the Pacific so wet."

The answer also included a simple but interesting exercise on how to measure the size of raindrops. In the Southeast where rain occurs much more often, the technique could readily be used in a science project to see if raindrops vary in size under different weather conditions.

To find out the answers to the other questions mentioned above, check out the website. If you have a science question about southeastern Idaho, e-mail it to I'm sure you will get the answer.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

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