By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

I’ve gained 5 pounds since last summer. My body mass index (BMI) is still fine, but I need to stop gaining to keep it that way.

Grizzly bears put my weight gain to shame. In the late summer, they eat some 50,000 calories per day and gain more than 100 pounds. Then, when they hibernate, they fast and live on their body fat. While sleeping the winter away, they don’t pee or poop. They conserve their energy by having heart rates around 15 beats per minute. While hibernating, the sows give birth and nurse their young – activities all fueled by what they ate in the fall. When they emerge from their dens in the spring, the bears are much slimmer. In short, their “before” and “after” pictures are quite different.

Here’s the simple version of how grizzlies manage their huge weight transition. They first succumb to diabetes and then reverse slipping into that state. We know when they do this — researchers are now investigating how they manage the trick.

Drs. Lynne Nelson and Charles Robbins of Washington State University work with grizzlies kept in the only research-based grizzly colony in the country. They study the bears as they go through their annual transformations. In the fall, when the bears are packing on the pounds, they are fed commercial kibble supplemented by such things as salmon, venison and apples. The bears also have access to a grassy meadow.

“Grizzlies are grazers,” Nelson told me. “People don’t always think of that, but they eat a fair amount of grass.”

One secret to how grizzlies manage to stay healthy while becoming obese is that they have a lot of “good” cholesterol. And their cholesterol levels don’t change much when they pack on the pounds. Studying how they do that could one day help with interventions in human medicine.

A number of things the bears do while they hibernate are fascinating. The animals have a four-chambered heart, just like we do. But when they sleep the winter away, only two of the chambers keep working while two are at rest.

“Working on 2 of 4 cylinders makes sense because the demands on the heart are low,” Nelson said.

Even with that reduced cardiac output, grizzlies can stand up and move around during hibernation. Humans would black out in a similar situation. Again, studying what bears can do may help spur advances in human medicine.

As the winter months tick by, the grizzlies’ hearts lose muscle mass. Up to 25 percent of their hearts can atrophy. This change is then naturally reversed in the spring when they come out of their dens and begin a more active life.

Of course, doing cardiac research on grizzlies requires some special approaches.

“We start training the bears when they are cubs for exams we’ll want to do on them throughout their lives,” Nelson told me. “It’s easier to start on an animal that’s 4 pounds rather than one that’s 400 pounds.”

Nelson, Robbins, and those who work with them use positive reinforcement and “clicker training,” much like that used with dogs today. Food is used as the ultimate reward.

“Bears are faster learners than dogs,” Nelson said. “They are problem solvers.”

The goal is to have bears trained so that researchers can draw blood from them and administer exams like electrocardiograms (EKGs) and echocardiograms (an ultrasound test). To facilitate the research, the bears are taught to go into a crate.

“They sometimes fight to get to go into the crate first,” Nelson said.

The bears raised from cubs at the WSU facility are used to a lot of interaction with people.

“They need entertainment or work,” Nelson said. “Left to their own devices, they will dig up the sprinkler system (in their yard) or pull down the security cameras.”

The WSU bear colony currently has 11 animals in it. About half of the bears were raised at the center, while the other half were wild bears that started posing problems or a danger to humans and were brought to WSU rather than being destroyed.

As I struggle with my extra 5 pounds, I marvel at the weight transitions grizzlies naturally go through each year — and I wish the WSU researchers well as they study bear metabolism, weight transitions and cardiac function.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

As a child, I learned about the “valley of the shadow of death” from the twenty-third Psalm. A similar image is conjured up by economists who talk about the “valley of death.” They mean that potentially deadly stage in the life of a business when production needs to be massively scaled up but investors aren’t willing to make that leap based only on pilot-scale results or because the economics of full-scale production are still iffy. One segment of the young biofuels industry is approaching that valley.

Here’s the background: part of the biofuel realm is called the “cellulosic” industry. It requires breaking down cellulose from woody material like trees and crop residue, then using the simple sugars that result to ferment alcohol that can be used as fuels for transportation.

One of the nation’s leading experts in cellulosic fuels research is Professor Norman Lewis of Washington State University. He understands that alternative fuels must be economical to be useful.

“At the end of the day, people want to go green, but not if it means they are red in their pockets,” Lewis told me recently.

Lewis and others working on his team have some ideas that may help bridge the gap from what’s doable in the lab to what could be economically viable in the real world. They are researching the use of genetically modified hybrid poplar trees to produce specialty chemicals that command a considerably higher price than biofuels. One such chemical is 2-phenylethanol. That’s a mouthful written down as a chemist does, but it’s a delightful noseful when you sniff it as I did, because it’s the active ingredient in the scent of roses. And the rosy chemical is valuable stuff, much more so than high-volume but low-cost fuel.

Lewis’ team is working to make poplars that are biochemical factories that produce rosy and high-value chemicals that could one day help the emerging cellulosic biofuel industry bridge the “valley of death” and make it to the promised land of economic profitability. Ultimately, fast-growing poplars might yield the highly valuable specialty chemicals as they grow, while the full-grown trees could later be broken down for cellulosic ethanol.

The fact that Lewis’ poplars are genetically engineered to produce the specialty chemicals adds to the complexities of developing his efforts commercially. But with a test plot of some 12,000 trees living on 26 miles of drip irrigation, Lewis is forging ahead.

“I believe genetically engineered plants are important for sustainability and coping with climate change,” Lewis said. “That means that some people think I’m going against nature, even with overwhelming scientific evidence of their safety.”

Lewis doesn’t seem to mind the criticism that sometimes comes with working on genetically engineered organisms.

“People in sports go from being loved to hated in an instant,” he said. “They just get used to it. I think researchers can be much too sensitive.”

With that bold spirit, Lewis’ innovative approach to bridging the valley of death for biofuels continues to move forward – smelling great as it goes.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

I was living in eastern Washington State in 1980 when Mount St. Helens erupted after a massive landslide triggered by a magnitude 5.1 quake. Vast amounts of molten rock were violently released to the surface of the Earth, erupting as rocks and as fine-grained volcanic ash that floated on the breeze. Us “down-winders” were enveloped in conditions as dark as night until the ash finally fell to the ground.

A number of other volcanoes in the mountains of western Washington, western Oregon, and northern California pose similar potential hazards. One of the most beautiful is Oregon’s Mount Hood. Two researchers recently published results from their study of Mount Hood in the journal Nature.

Molten rock underground is called magma. The Nature article by Drs. Kari Cooper and Adam Kent explains that there are components of magma under volcanoes that are stored stably deep within the crust for long periods of time — tens or hundreds of thousands of years. An important question is how and when this stable magma can become mobilized and move upward to start the events that lead to an eruption.

When magma is within the Earth, it can cool a bit. It’s still very hot by human standards, but this cooler magma is stiff and resists movement — geologists say it has high “viscosity.” (Honey stored in your fridge has high viscosity, while honey kept on the counter at room temperature has much lower viscosity.)

The study by Cooper and Kent shows that magma underneath Mount Hood spends most of its lifetime in this stable, viscous state. However, viscosity can also change in a surprisingly short period of time — perhaps in as little as a couple of months — when hotter magma from below is injected into the cooler material.

The researchers argue that’s exactly what happened in Mount Hood’s last two eruptions, those occurring 220 and 1500 years ago.

The good news for Oregonians is that Mount Hood’s eruptions tend not to be as dramatic as the 1980 event at Mount St. Helens. At Mount Hood, magma tends to ooze out of the volcano rather than blasting its way up and generating tons of volcanic ash.

The researchers were able to do their work at Mount Hood by looking at the rocks formed by past eruptions. They could date the age of the crystals within those rocks using radioactive decay. But the growth of mineral crystals in magma is partially determined by the temperature of the magma (cooler magma leads to slower crystal growth).

Looking at both the mineral crystals’ ages and their growth rates gave the researchers what they needed to estimate the temperature threshold needed for making the magma mobile enough to cause an eruption.

“And what’s encouraging is that modern technology might be able to detect when the magma is beginning to liquefy or mobilize,” Kent emailed me, “and give us warning of a potential eruption.”

We all want to be able to better predict when a volcano will blow its top. This recent work is another step toward that goal.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

My mother lives with me and I’m involved in her medical care. She’s a tough cookie. But like many 88-year-olds, she has several health problems. We visit her doctor at least once a month to report what’s working and what isn’t doing the trick. Recently the doctor ordered blood work that showed she was low in vitamin D. So now I’ve added vitamin D tablets to her daily medication regime.

In the summer our bodies produce vitamin D when sunlight strikes our skin. But during the dark winter months, that source of vitamin D dries up. Vitamin D is in fortified milk (and some OJ) but my mama is living proof not everyone gets enough vitamin D from their diet.

Vitamin D is important in its own right in terms of what it does for us. But as a sideline, it helps us absorb calcium. As we age, getting more calcium to where it’s needed in the body can help us avoid osteoporosis. For that reason alone, it’s worth talking to your health care provider about vitamin D levels.

If you don’t like the thought of taking pills, there are foods that are good sources of vitamin D. The Mayo Clinic website recommends eggs, milk, fish and cod liver oil. (The thought of downing spoonfuls of cod liver oil makes taking pills seem like a pretty good deal — but maybe that’s just me.)

In extreme cases of low vitamin D, rickets can result. Rickets is a softening and a weakening of bones. My poor mother had rickets when she was a kid in the early 1930s. It’s quite possible the milk she drank back in the day wasn’t fortified with vitamin D. But you can experience some degree of vitamin D deficiency without developing rickets.

You may be at higher risk for vitamin D problems if you are obese, elderly, or you don’t get much sun exposure. People with inflammatory bowel disease are also more likely to have low levels of vitamin D.

According to the WebMD website, sufficient vitamin D can potentially help lower your blood pressure, as well as lowering your risk of diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and even such major maladies as multiple sclerosis.

Taking vitamins sometimes seems like a fad idea, and anything can be done to excess. There are also some ins and outs about different types of vitamin D, as well as the importance of complementing it with calcium intake. I would say it’s worth talking to your medical provider, not just trying to treat yourself blindly. Once you are at your doc’s office, a simple blood draw can determine if you are low in Vitamin D.

I’m glad my mother’s doctor tested her for vitamin D levels. I’ve now scheduled my own blood draw appointment for the same simple check. Like mother, like child?
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Energy companies work night and day to bring us oil and the many products made from it. Most of that work is uneventful and unseen by the public. But when things go wrong, a disaster of epic proportions can ensue.

Twenty five years ago — on the night of March 23, 1989 — the Exxon Valdez left the Alaskan port of Valdez filled with 53 million gallons of crude oil from the North Slope. The story of what happened after the giant ship, nearly 1,000 feet long, left the dock is documented by Angela Day in her new book Red Light to Starboard: Recalling the Exxon Valdez Disaster (WSU Press).

Day tells the story of how the captain of the Valdez made some fateful decisions, including turning over the ship’s controls to a junior officer. Despite warnings from the lookout, within minutes the ship slammed into Bligh Reef, where it was grounded. As later inspection would reveal, the seven-eighths- inch steel hull had been punctured by the force of the impact of the ship on the reef.

Day’s book relates the story of what happened to Alaskans — particularly fishermen and people who relied on the pristine waters of Prince William Sound for their living — in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill. The events of just one night were to change the lives of thousands of fishermen for many years. The book centers on the story of one fisherman and brings to life the personal impacts of the spill. Following one person through the aftermath of the spill makes for a good read that illuminates the full cost some people in our society pay for our use of petroleum.

The giant spill launched enormous legal battles. Many millions of dollars of fines and compensation were imposed on Exxon. But corporate payments, however large, have not fully restored parts of Prince William Sound. While the salmon catch and prices did eventually rebound, other parts of the fishing industry, such as the bait herring season, the spring roe herring fishery and a pot shrimp fishery, have not recovered. At this point, it remains a challenge to predict whether the fish and the wildlife of the Sound will ever recover to what they were before the spill.

What can we learn from the Exxon Valdez disaster and its aftermath? Day’s book points out that Alaskans from various walks of life had raised safety concerns before that fateful night 25 years ago. As she argues, employees in giant companies can be encouraged to raise safety issues rather than ignore them or remain silent for fear of reprisal. We need corporate cultures that value, rather than penalize, workers who raise safety concerns.

We can learn more from the tragedy that unfolded 25 years ago. Day’s book is a good place to start cogitating on the full costs of the petroleum we use each day.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

We’ve all seen globes in classrooms. They represent the Earth well — better than flat maps can do. But all the globes I’ve seen in schools have national boundaries on them, usually indicated by having nations in different colors. The U.S. is yellow, Canada is light green, Mexico is pink, and so on. When I was a child my big brother owned a globe like that, and I got to pore over it sometimes.

My sister-in-law has a different globe, one specially purchased for her by her father. It has no national boundaries — so all of North America is presented as a unit, as indeed is each of the land masses. I think her globe may have been inspired by the view of Earth from the moon, an image beamed back to us by astronauts.

Recently I thought of my sister-in-law’s globe when I read the news about a study concerning how air pollution in China affects us here in North America.

“Pollution from China is having an effect in the U.S.,” said Dr. Don Wuebbles, a faculty member in atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His remarks were reported by CNN.

Wuebbles is co-authored a piece recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. At first, I was taken by surprised by the research findings. My thinking was that the Pacific Ocean is vast and would protect us from Chinese air pollution. But apparently winds carry particulates and ozone over the ocean and some of it reaches our shores. It takes just days for the pollution to travel long distances, crossing both the Earth’s largest ocean and national boundaries as it does so.

It’s not that China can be criticized for air pollution while we congratulate ourselves for being “green.” One of the reasons China is the world’s leading emitter of man-made air pollution is that China is producing so much of the world’s manufactured goods. A lot of those goods come to us. In other words, we have outsourced our manufacturing to China, and that means we’ve outsourced the associated air pollution as well.

Wuebbles and his colleagues argue that air pollution in China that’s related to exports contributes meaningful amounts of sulfate pollution in the western U.S. Ditto for ozone. Those results are nothing to sneeze at.

One way of putting the facts in simple terms is to note that it’s a small world. We don’t see China’s smokestacks from our shores, but they impact the air those of us in the western U.S. breathe. We Americans are connected to our Chinese brothers and sisters, just as they are to us for a market for their many goods.

The bottom line for me is that my sister-in-law’s globe has the best representation of the Earth I’ve ever seen. There are no national boundaries when it comes to either Earth processes or man-made pollution. And what happens in one place can affect conditions on the ground thousands of miles away.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Every time I fill my gas tank, I see the notice on the pump that explains part of the fuel I’m buying is ethanol — a common biofuel. While biofuels can be good to promote national energy independence and possibly help with greenhouse gas emissions, the ethanol we all buy at gas stations is made from corn. With corn ethanol, we are essentially putting food into our gas tanks, a fact that some people take exception to.

A different way of producing biofuels is to use crop residues and woody materials as the source for the fuel. Those materials are full of cellulose and a molecule called lignin that is bonded to the cellulose within each plant cell. Researchers are looking for a cheap and clean way to neutralize the lignin and break down the cellulose into simple sugars.

We can break down lignin at high temperature and pressure, and with harsh chemicals. But can we find a way to remove the lignin that doesn’t require high costs and harm to the environment?

Researchers are looking at two organisms that can do the needed chemical tricks but at room temperature and pressure and without harsh chemicals. Certain types of fungi can break down cellulose, but fungal action is slow — very slow. So a number of scientists are looking at termites.

As we all know, termites can eat solid wood and make a living doing so. Their digestive systems break down tough plant material at room temperature and pressure in as little as 24 hours.

Termites start breaking down their food when they chew it and coat it with an enzyme. The termites then swallow the material, passing it into a three-part digestive system. By the end of that — in just a day’s time — the lignin is out of the way and the cellulose has been broken down into sugars that the termites live on.

Professor Shulin Chen of Washington State University is one scientist studying what termites do with an eye toward adopting some similar processes to make biofuels from crop residues and woody materials.

“We are studying the mechanisms for how the termite does what it accomplishes in its digestive system,” Chen told me. “The goal is to employ a similar mechanism in an engineered system.”

In other words, we want to learn from the termites and ultimately set up biorefineries that can break down crop residues and woody materials, doing so economically and in a way that doesn’t harm the environment.

“The final goal is to do better than the termite, to do the same basic work but at a faster rate and on a larger scale,” Chen said. “We know the basics of what’s going on in the termite, but we need to nail down some specifics.”

From where I stand when I fill up my gas tank, thinking about pumping food into my engine to be burned there, I’ve got to wish Chen and his team the very best.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

There are two main things most people would like to know about particular volcanoes: when is the next eruption and how big will that eruption be? Scientists in Iceland have taken another step forward in monitoring volcanoes to best predict when they will erupt and even warn people of the size of the coming eruption.

In May of 2011, a volcano in Iceland named Grímsvötn erupted. It generated a 12-mile-high plume of volcanic debris that temporarily grounded airplanes as far away as Great Britain. The problem wasn’t as great, though, as that which had occurred a year earlier, when another Icelandic volcano erupted. That 2010 eruption — from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano — grounded many flights across northern Europe and made major headlines at the time.

The 2011 Grímsvötn eruption was recently written up in the journal Nature Geoscience to illustrate an advance researchers made that may help us with future predictions of volcanic activity. Because scientists knew the volcano was coming to life, they had placed a Global Positioning System monitor on its flank.

About an hour before Grímsvötn erupted, the GPS device — rigged to send readings to scientists in real time — registered ground movement of a couple of feet.

Data from “a GPS site can tell you not only that there’s unrest at a volcano, but that it’s about to erupt and then how high its plume will be,” said Sigrún Hreinsdóttir, speaking to Nature Geoscience. Hreinsdóttir is a geophysicist at the University of Iceland and one of the authors of the journal article.

Obviously, the more information that can be known, the better, when it comes to eruptions. Any information about timing can help people evacuate the areas likely to be affected. And knowing how high the volcanic plume may reach can help pilots and air traffic controllers as they try to adapt to a situation that’s rapidly unfolding.

Grímsvötn is a truly active volcano, so inquiring minds may want to know why it’s not thoroughly covered in GPS monitors. The answer is that much of the volcano lies beneath an ice sheet. Ice sheets have their own movement issues, so monitoring them won’t give you good information about a volcano.  Researchers did what they could to attach a GPS device on a rare, rocky outcrop above the ice.

Next came a bit of math. The researchers didn’t want to just record ground movement, they wanted to estimate what they could about what such movement meant for changes in pressure in the underground magma chamber. Such pressure tends to correspond to the size of the eventual ash plume.

It’s long been the case that seismic instruments have been used to monitor tremors and give general predictions of when an eruption will occur. But the GPS measurements have the advantage of giving information about the size of the eruption to come, Hreinsdóttir explained.

The new GPS approach with the magma-pressure calculations still needs further testing.

“We need another eruption to prove we are right,” Hreinsdóttir said.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

Designing better asphalt

February 20, 2014

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Dr. Haifang Wen grew up in a rural area of Shandong province, in eastern China. In his youth there were not many paved highways in the Chinese countryside.

“Lots of the roads were gravel,” he told me recently. “They were muddy when it rained. I remember riding a cow on them, or going along in a wagon pulled by a donkey.”

Living in those conditions, Wen could see quite a bit of room for improvement in road materials.

“I thought, we can do better,” he said with a smile.

Thus was born Wen’s interest in asphalt, the cheapest material that can be used to pave highways. That interest propelled him through a university education and a Ph.D. Now a professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Washington State University, Wen researches  new ways of making asphalt better and cheaper.

Asphalt has traditionally been made from aggregate – small particles of rock – and products of crude oil.

“But the price of asphalt made from crude oil is pretty high, about $700 to $800 per ton,” Wen told me. “That really adds up. One lane of a highway, paved for one mile, costs about $1 million. Now you know where your taxes go!”

One alterative to traditional asphalt that Wen and the people in his lab are looking into is bioasphalt. Instead of using petroleum, waste cooking oil can be processed into asphalt.

Bioasphalt is grey, rather than a black, and after sticking my nose into a little jar of it, I can testify that it smells better than asphalt made from crude oil.

“Sometimes you can even smell what the restaurant was frying in the oil,” Wen said with a laugh.

The name of the game when it comes to designing asphalt is to balance the properties of the material so that it’s not too stiff (or rigid) but also not too soft (or ductile). If it’s too stiff, the material will crack in the cold of winter. If it’s too soft, a truck driving over the asphalt on a hot summer day will make ruts in the pavement.

Another part of Wen’s research involves the temperature to which asphalt must be heated to be used in paving roads. Traditionally, the material has been heated to 300 degrees. That’s very hot, and accounts for the blue smoke you can see wafting up from paving operations along a road in the summertime.

“That means a lot of energy is required for major paving operations. And the smoke is not good for the environment or the workers,” Wen told me.

Using different mixtures, Wen’s group is researching materials that need only be heated to 200 or 220 degrees. That’s a significantly lower temperature that allows for real energy savings and doesn’t produce the blue smoke.

Although Wen is glad to be working in this country, he still goes back to China to collaborate with engineers there.

“They are doing a lot of paving in China now,” he said. “The economy is booming.”

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

Small but splendid snowflakes

February 17, 2014

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Those of us living in the northern half of the country can be forgiven for being tired — at this stage of winter — of shoveling snow. I enjoy the brightness snow can bring to dark winter days, but I’m getting old enough that shoveling the walk in front of my house has very little appeal even though it’s good for me to do some honest work before I head into my desk job. I’ve now hired a man to plow my driveway and I feel fortunate to have that service – even though it means I pay a fee each time we have significant snow.

When I’m not grumbling about the labor or cost involved in shoveling and plowing, I remember there is something magical about falling snow. And, of course, there is considerable beauty in individual snowflakes.

Wilson Bentley of Vermont was the first person to photograph individual snowflakes using a microscope and camera. Bentley, who lived from 1865 to 1931, amassed a collection of some 5,000 snowflake images. His pictures introduced people to the beauty of many diverse snowflake forms. In 1925 Bentley wrote:

“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty… Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost…without leaving any record behind.”

You have probably seen a few of Bentley’s pictures at some point or those of the many people who have followed in his footsteps by taking microphotographs of individual snowflakes.

According to the EarthSky website, scientists in 1951 developed a classification system for the snowflake forms that Bentley had documented. The scheme placed snowflakes into ten different classes based on their shapes. Some of the ten are the ones you are familiar with — like the beautiful stellar crystals or flakes that look like needles or dendrites. Some are not so commonly published — like those that look like columns with little caps at their ends.

Recently I read on the EarthSky website about work on snowflakes done by Kenneth Libbrecht, a physics faculty member at the California Institute of Technology. He has shown that the more intricate snowflake structures are formed when the humidity is higher.

Temperature also affects snowflake formation. At frigid temperatures, like those below 8 degrees Fahrenheit, snowflakes tend to form in simple shapes. Flakes that have the branching patterns we admire tend to form at higher temperatures.

To sum up what I’ve learned from Libbrecht, the more beautiful snowflakes form in relatively wet and warm conditions.

The beauty of snowflakes can slip from our minds when we have work to do like clearing a driveway of mounds of snow. But when I’m inside, sipping a nice cup of steaming coffee, I’m ready to contemplate Mother Nature’s beautiful handiwork as shown in intricate snowflake patterns — beauty that’s all the more exquisite because it is short-lived.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.