SCIENTISTS ANSWER INTERESTING QUESTIONS
December 6, 2009
"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."
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 www.stoller-eser.com/NIE/ask.asp.
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.
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
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?"
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.
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."
question was "Why is eastern Idaho a desert?" The answer, given
by Roger Blew, was a concise explanation that is applicable to many arid
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
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.
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."
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.
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 email@example.com. I'm sure you will get the answer.
you have an environmental question or comment, email