Ep.6 Gotta Kutta Rocks
RR: K, so I’m recording, this Rock Rat with an episode of Rockcast Podosophy. We’re here with Evan Kutta, he’s on speaker phone. Say hi Evan.
Evan: Hello, Tori, it’s great to be here and thank you so much.
RR: Yea, so, um, Evan why don’t you start by introducing yourself and your background and then you can…I’ll let you lead the conversation about what you want to talk about.
Evan: Sure. So, um, I’m originally from St. Louis, Missouri. And I went to MIZZOU for my undergrad and my Master’s. My undergrad was in atmospheric science, my Master’s was in water resources and my PhD was in atmospheric science, again. After that I went to West Virginia and started research on climate change in the United States, but in particular West Virginia. Um, Because there was a gap in the literature for pretty much the entire Appalachian Region. There’s information about how the climate is changing, like it’s available, but it hasn’t been linked to the variety of different processes -in particular how the land use and land cover has changed over the last roughly century. And this is broad-scale land use and land cover changes. And to be more specific about that, let’s go back to about 1900. When Westward Expansion was in full swing. West Virginia was essentially clear-cut right around 1900 or somewhere around 1910. And at 1910 it was estimated that ¾ of the state was actually pasture land and farm land. So there were either crops or grazing occurring on 75% of West Virginia’s land surface. And this is actually fairly typical of many areas in the eastern United States because timbering was very profitable and all of the ancient-growth forests were ripe for the picking essentially. And they used the waterways to ship the lumber away. So it was easy for them to do. And that radically changed the climate of the area. Shortly after all of the forests had been cut down, Americans moved further to the West and started spreading agriculture all across the western United States and not too long after that, the Dust Bowl occurred.
Even though it’s thought that the Dust Bowl was primarily a Midwestern phenomena and only affected Midwestern areas because of all the dust storms that were associated with that area were actually widespread across the United States. And the 1930s was actually one of West Virginia’s hottest decades on record. Shortly after that, there was another drought. A major drought in the southwestern United States in the 1950s, but it wasn’t s highly publicized because of their land-use management practices of the time. So, going back to the Dust Bowl, that was entirely anthropogenic climate change. That is a specific example where the humans altered the environment with their plows, essentially, and fundamentally changed the climate system. Because instead of really deep, rooted grasses, that had been there for decades and had adapted to that climate, they instead planted annual crops and left their fields just open and bare in the winter time. And the wind would blow around and when the rainy season would come, in the 1930s, it lead to an enhanced land degradation that only exacerbated drought for almost an entire decade.
That’s what lead to national-scale heat waves. In particular, in the eastern United States, where there are a number of record heat waves still today. Especially with the Dust Bowl area. Moving forward in time, the forests in the eastern United States essentially regrew. So, in West Virginia, it went from about ¾ agricultural and pasture land to 79% forest cover by the mid 1960s. Since the 1960-1970s, it’s been essentially the same amount of forest cover. About 79%. Which is actually the third most forested state, by area, in the United States. So, it’s essentially a radically shift in the land use and land cover that has occurred in West Virginia and I think that that is a really interesting context to present these changes in climate in West Virginia. Which, I have found, that it is actually not getting hotter. So there narrative that climate change is going to make places hotter is perhaps not the right message to be sending people in the eastern United States in particular. Because, what I’ve found is that the maximum temperatures are actually cooling, whereas the minimum temperatures are increasing. The minimum temperatures are increasing faster than the maximum temperatures are cooling. But there’s but there’s still an average warming. However, because minimum temperatures are warming, it’s actually probably a better explanation of climate change in the eastern United States because it’s getting less cold rather than hotter. And when you think about that in terms of biological processed, that’s a really important distinction to be making.
And to further the point about forests in the state, since about …since they were reestablished, the species composition of the forests have been shifting. And this has been, in my opinion, in response to climatic changes that have occurred over the last 50 years or so. And so as the temperatures converge it’s actually becoming increasingly temperate. And the variance in temperatures is also decreased. So not only is there less temperature variance on an annual time scale, but there’s also less temperature variance long-term. On a longer timescale, up to a decade. So the hotter years are actually becoming less frequent, based on these observations. However, years with less cold winters are becoming much more frequent and that’s decreasing snow fall and doing other things to the climate of the state. But, um, this changing forest species composition is well documented across the United States, in particular the eastern deciduous forests are becoming more meso-cretaceou(sp?). So that means that species are shifting towards more mesic species, which means are better adapted to wetter climates.
So, what that- and the example that is most often presented in this is the shift from oak species which are typically better adapted to -they’re more drought tolerant species- and it’s shifting towards maple species. Which are, again, more mesic species, they’re adapted to consistent water supplies and the older generations, right? They’re actually quite vulnerable to stress. But the statistics are very very clear that maples are out-competing oaks at the moment. So, this begs the questions of…and a number of forest ecologists have believed that this is because of fire suppression, and deer over population, and there’s definitely truth to those claims. I think that the overpopulation of deer is definitely …there are fewer hunters today in the younger generation where there were a lot of hunters, is dying off. So that’s definitely a problem.
And in addition to that, all of the predators here have been eradicated by humans because they are predatory to livestock as well. In addition to that, there’s been the Smokey the Bear Era, which is perhaps started to caused problems on the west coast as well, with active fire suppression, resulting in an increase in fuels available for fires to burn. But in the eastern United States, fire prevention has been very successful, perhaps because things are becoming wetter, and as a result the forest fires are canopy thinning events. So it will kill trees and create gaps in the canopy and allow for other species like oaks that are adapted to full-sunlight. They want as much sunlight as possible and to be in dryer environments, where they’re able to outcompete other species, essentially. And, in addition to the transition from agricultural to forests land cover and from forests to a changing species composition, there’s evidence to suggest that the clouds in the area are also changing. So, it could actually be becoming more cloudy here which could explain why the maximum temperatures are decreasing, because there’s just less sunlight. And that would also tend to explain lower minimum temperatures because clouds are – I mean water vapor- is a greenhouse gas. There’s no difference in carbon dioxide. If there’s a lot of cloud cover then that’s greenhouse effect. Clouds actually reflect long-wave radiation emitted from the Earth’s surface which keeps the minimum temperatures warm.
Going further with that, there’s actually a seasonality in which cloud height…the height of the cloud base is actually increasing significantly during the winter seasons. However, during the summer seasons, it’s actually decreasing. The trend is not significant in the summer time. But the decrease suggests that the very humid summer climate that we have here is becoming more humid and there’s actually …it’s could be cloud forming more easily as a result of that. Which, again, in the summer time, clouds are generally convective, so they could become thunderstorms. After which thunderstorms produce heavy downpours that then produce flooding. So, this is just consistent to suggest that the forest is becoming more wet and perhaps more intense in the eastern United States.
So, I guess that was a really long-winded way of saying that the changes in land-use in the eastern United States have been profound over the last century and that those profound changes have been perhaps more contributing to climate change more than anthropogenic climate change has. However, anthropogenic climate change is definitely exacerbated the problem, because what global scale warming…global scale increase in water vapor and in general there is a theory that dryer places will get dryer and wetter will get wetter. I think what West Virginia is one of the wetter places that’s only going to get wetter with time. It’s important to highlight that in terms of disaster preparedness. People are preparing for droughts here, and I don’t think that that’s….I mean, I don’t think that’s a very reasonable strategy. Anyway. I’m done.
RR: What? No! No, I’m…Evan, I’m totally fascinated by what you’re saying. I, um, ya…so this study, it surprised you? That’s what you’re saying? Like, that’s what I’m hearing: it’s a lot to take in. That’s just incredible research, like…by the way- for anyone who’s listening, Evan and I go way back to college. He’s a meteorologist, he said that, he was a meteorologist. I was a wildlife person, so lots of like overlap there, as far as my understanding of what you have studied, Evan, over the years. This is probably the most digestible study that you have ever discussed with me. Because it is so ecologically driven. So like, from an ecology standpoint, what are your thoughts on like the forest and ,…humanity?
Evan: Well, I think that there’s actually a substantial risk to the forests. And we’re already seen that certain species, for example chestnut, has been completely eradicated from the eastern US from an introduced pathogen. And there are already a number of pests and pathogens ****the species of the eastern United States. There’s a huge biodiversity, I mean, it’s generally regarded as a bad thing. I mean, I’m more of the opinion of where, is it a good or bad thing? It’s kind of hard to say, because perhaps this will result in more rapid carbon assimilation. We really don’t know the answer to those questions. Because certain species, for example maple, could just be really well adapted to a West Virginia climate and what it will become in the future. And if we were to manage those forests well, then I think that there’s a great potential for having a wonderful, all-natural, organic sink that not only reduced the CO2 in the atmosphere but also produces a number of jobs in the area. And jobs are a really touchy topic here in West Virginia. Coal is part of the culture, because of that generation. I mean, it’s really unfortunate to see people that have been strung along with this illusion that as long as you go into the mines, you’ll have a career forever.
Like, that seems to be the mindset. There isn’t too much urgency for change, people just like it the way that it was and they want to leave it that way. I don’t a really have a problem with that, it’s just that, like, they’re stuck in….two generations ago. I feel terrible saying that, because there are a number of really smart people that are advancing in other directions. It’s just that that’s not what makes the most money. It’s always about that West Virginia coal miners want more coal to mine. And when you see that here….”Coal keeps the lights on,” bumper stickers and all sorts of that kind of thing..stuff. Like, “life is free, stay friends with coal,” like…..Why would you want to put that on your car?
Doesn’t it make you feel like…I don’t know. I’m getting politicized about it so I should …I should just not.
RR: Yea, no, it’s frustrating form an ecology stand-point. From like a conservation standpoint. That’s totally like, understandable man. Like, being in the south too, it’s just a whole different understanding of ecology and the economy is something else entirely. Like, out here we have compost as a part of the publicly funded waste disposal, ya know. It’s just a totally different mindset.
Evan: Oh my god, that sounds amazing. Like, the University forest that I have some, a variety of sensors and it’s like twenty minutes out of town…Like, you drive up the back road that goes up through the forest and there’s like three houses in the back that are like privately owned because people squatted on them generations ago and they haven’t left. And, anyways, along this road, there’s just trash dumps along the side. And I’m just like, “You guys really couldn’t just drive another mile and like find a proper trash can to dump this stuff in?” It’s just disturbing. It’s on university property, the university doesn’t really care.
RR: Yea, like, in Missouri-
Evan: It’s not a lot just by looking at it, but still….
RR: Yea. In Missouri, there’s a big problem with people dumping trash into sinkholes because we have so many caves. Like, the MDC, at least when I was back in there, they’re just like, “Yea, it’s totally normal to just like …on a farm or something, will have a sinkhole. Because of the karst topography, ya know?
RR: And like, no one will ever find it so they just dump of their trash into a hole and cover it with a thin layer of soil. And it can be- it can go totally unfound for like generations. It’s a very strange problem to have, like, random trash holes? Like, all over the woods, but it’s a thing. And it’s awareness thing, and it has a lot to do with accessibility and education and …..all that jazz. Well, I think that’s fascinating.
RR: Like…weather wise. So, can you tell me what a carbon sink is?
Evan: So yea, it’s just a …..so there’s sources and sinks. Just like *** there’s emissions, for which humans are probably the number one emitters, but there are natural emissions of CO2 as well. And there’s also sinks. So, trees are the best example of a sink, or sinking…not just a single tree. You really do need a whole forest for it to work properly. But, trees are better than nothing, a lot of trees are better than nothing. And yea, it just absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere and stores it in the ground. And eventually, it turns it into coal and oil and stuff. But, that takes a long time.
One interesting thing about plants that I don’t think many people realize, is that probably 2/3 of the carbon associated with individual trees is below ground. You can’t see it. So, 2/3 of the biomass is out of sight, in terms of roots. So, yea, that’s a pretty wild thing to see.
RR: Oh yea, like, what’s it called….mycorzea? Myc..
RR: Yes! Yea, um, like 70% of the biomass is underneath the surface.
Evan: Yea. Yea. And that’s how they’re able to effectively transfer the carbon into the earth, is through their roots. It’s physically putting the carbon into root development and burying it way under ground and then it just died there eventually.
RR: Oh, cool!
RR: Yea, no! That’s fascinating! I had no idea! That makes so much more sense, ya know? But like it’s the actual physical roots that are doing it, it’s not some mysterious inaccessible, difficult to explain chemical process. It’s like, no, plants have roots. Roots are underground. Roots are made of carbon.
Evan: Most of the top of the tree, like, when it falls over or whatever, it just decays. Bugs break it down and…most of the time, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere. Or a substantial fraction of it, anyway. So, it’s really the roots that are making the difference.
RR: That’s great.
Evan: And plants expend a lot of energy into root development. It’s their survival mechanism.
RR: Yea…wow that’s like…dope. So you have a horticulture degree, right? Wasn’t your Master’s in water…atmospheric…horticulture…
Evan: Water resources.
RR: Water resources.
Evan: I spent a number of course were related to plants. **plant physiology and green house management…. I spent a couple classes in greenhouses growing plants. So, I have a ….I would not say a degree in it, but I have a more-than-just-scratch-the-surface knowledge of it.
RR: Oh yea, that’s totally legit.
Evan: I have a good foundation, I guess that’s a good way to describe it.
RR: Yea, I think you have an intimate understanding of plants. Um, and I think, I certainly-
Evan: Well, at least how they use water and water use through them. Like water is…it’s needed for every single thing that the plant does. It’s critical. And that’s an interesting thing to note about the difference between oaks and maples, is that they actually have different phylum structures. So and as a result, this is perhaps what makes oaks more drought tolerant and maples less drought tolerant. Oaks actually have larger vessels that are formed in a ring. So when you cut the tree over and look at the cross-section of the trunk you’ll see all of the growth rings. On oak species in particular, if you look really closely and the edges of each of those rings, you’ll see a whole bunch of little holes.
And those are essentially the “straws” that the trees use to suck water from the root system. And it makes a new ring every single year. As a result, …and maples on the other hand have smaller, more evenly distributed vessels. So, they have more surface tension and so as soon as water stress overcomes maples, the stems….the smaller vessels just start to embolize(sp)- suck up air- and essentially become functionless. Once there is air in the system, it’s pretty much broken. But oaks, on the other hand, are actually kind of designed to break. So those larger vessels will pop open and they will actually reheal them and refill everything during the nighttime. Because oaks have deeper roots than maples, so maples also have…they can open and close their stomata. Whereas oaks generally just leave them open. They’re trying to use as much water as possible and assimilate as much carbon as possible. Because they want to be on top of the canopy where they can be less shade.
So, yea, the trade-off there is that oaks will assimilate more carbon in a drought situation, but maples on the other hand will probably out-perform oak species given non-water loving conditions. And I think that the climatic changes in West Virginia are a prime example of that. So not only is there an increasing amount of precipitation but the temperatures are becoming more temperate which means that it’s also becoming more humid which means that there’s just generally less atmospheric demand for water vapor. So, when things…when it rains, everything stays wet for longer. And if it rains- if the storms are getting bigger, which I think they are- and it rains a whole lot one month, then chances are that that large amount of water can keep the area wetter for longer. So, instead of…I dunno, a week or two weeks in the past, maybe it’s three weeks or four weeks now. And by the time that threshold has come, chances are that it will have rained again already. So the process will just continue. It will just stay wet and the maples will never truly be drought-stressed, so they’ll just be able to continue to reproduce faster than the oaks.
And that’s exactly how they’re quantifying that magnification. They’re just counting the number of older trees versus the number of younger trees and they’re finding that the ratios are disproportionate. By a fairly wide margin.
RR: That’s awesome. Yea, I had no idea about the oaks and the difference in their vascular tissue? Like, ecologically, that makes so much more sense….So like,
Evan: If you’re curious, the technical terms are “rainforest biostructures” and “deciduous forests biostructure.”
Evan: And it’s kind of a spectrum. Those are definitely the two categories, and conifer trees actually have a separate thing. But that’s for a different talk. This is purely deciduous trees. So, trees that grow leaves and shed them in the fall.
Evan: And yea, there’s a spectrum between the rainforest and the deciduous forests and I think that there’s a fairly solid reason for….a lot of evidence to suggest that the differences are purely related to how the species adapted to water resources. Like, how frequent is the rain? How …when do areas get flooded to most often? Is the plant submerged? There is just a variety of different adaptations along this spectrum that I think are related to water sources -or more specifically, water availability.
Oaks are just better adapted to droughts so you’ll generally find them on the tops of hills more often. Whereas maples prefer wetter spots and you’ll generally find them at the bottom of hills. Just, that kind of interaction with the landscape is an important thing to consider as well. There’s a lost of local climate variability in West Virginia because the state doesn’t have any flat surfaces. There are some in Missouri, like, …it was….it was so flat there. Especially on the drive to Columbia like there are areas that are just not that different from Kansas. And coming here and just seeing the hills, there is definitely some truth to the phrase “going up hill both ways.” Like, that’s….that happens here. It’s ….just because the terrain is so rugged. One interesting- another interesting tidbit about West Virginia- it has the highest average elevation of any state east of the Mississippi River. And that’s mostly because of the ****Plateau, where I am currently living on and Pittsburg is also on. The ***Plateau was never glaciated during the last Ice Age so, the erosion that occurs here is essentially just weathering from rainfall. For a long…long period of time. So all of the streams and rivers have eaten and incised this plateau…to the point where it’s just really run down.
The Appalachian Mountains are like 400+ million years old. Which is also pretty crazy to think about. Even when you drive through it, you can tell that they are totally different than the Rocky Mountains because it is so much more rounded off. There are no more jagged peaks anywhere, it’s just all very rounded and smooth. Fascinating from just a human standpoint and knowing why they are different and being able to see both of them.
RR: Yea, they definitely have a look of like worn erosion to them.
RR: ….which ironically leads us into our next segment. Which is about rocks. So. Evan, you….have in-depth knowledge of plants. And have explained weather to me in such detail on so many occasions. What can you tell me about rocks? Whether or not it’s like scientifically …ya know sound or emotionally driven. You came out here- what was it? A year ago?- and I wasn’t able to meet up with you, but you expressed interest in rockhounding. So, like, I kinda thought maybe you had some ya know rock interests…that you could…discuss?
Evan: Yea, in particular I’ve …..I like crystals. The reason for it is not like spiritual mumbo-jumbo but I am fascinated by the straight lines. As far as I’m aware, crystals are the only natural straight lines. Everything else that is created by nature does not have a straight line on it. But humans, however, if you look around a room, have straight lines frickin’ everywhere. Like they’re on everything. So it’s just a fascinating….I’m not sure the word that I’m looking for…intersection. Like between humanity and nature. Which I guess are really separate but, in society I guess. *** The built world versus the natural world.
I don’t….and what I was doing was I was just going to places where I could pay to go get rocks and smash things open and hopefully find something. It wasn’t like I was being a real rockhound and scoping out special spots and really working very hard. Like I went and I paid and I found stuff every single time. Which…means that I’m not hardcore right?
RR: Ha! That’s still-
Evan: I mean, I understand that but..
RR: No! No! Evan, that’s still being a rockhound! And that’s still seeking out the opportunities. Just because you have to pay for them does not make them any less valuable, like… I mean- and the straight lines theory! That’s-
Evan: And it’s not like I’m going to make money. I mean, I already invested money so if I were to sell them I would already be at a loss.
Evan: But I’m holding on to them because I think they’re cool.
RR: Yea, they are cool. I have an entire interview about childhood development and the psychology behind rocks. And so your straight line theory is of particular interest to because you’ve never mentioned that to me before. And that makes so much sense…I feel like I need to go on a research hunt now and find other evidence of straight lines in nature, because like you’re absolutely right. They are truly molecularly straight and that is-
Evan: And here’s the funny thing about that. I suspect that if you actually looked closely enough at the edge of the crystal, it would not be perfectly straight. Most of the time. Just because of differences in the way that they’re formed. So crystals form under a lot of heat and pressure and with a specific mix of …a specific gaseous mix. So if they mix of gases changes or if the physical properties of the gas-like temperature change- or pressure changes then the crystal growth habitat will change as well. So it will either grow less crystally and maybe a change in diameter or something along those lines.
Like scepters are a perfect example. Like, the larger crystal-or the crystal head on top of the longer more narrow crystal. Like, that’s just a change in the habitat of the crystal as it was growing. Which is weird to say, I just can’t quantify those…
RR: But that’s very true and we have amethyst quartz crystals that have grown out of Hansen Creek in western Washington. So I have seen- they look like magic wands, basically. They look totally unnatural and I think the unnaturalability of rocks ….like finding them is a lot of the appeal in some ways. Like, yea, they’re worth money and they’re colorful and stuff, but like I will hand someone a crystal or a rock and often times I will be like, “I pulled this outta the frickin’ ground, man! It was covered in dirt! I had to wash it off for days! I had to soak it in an acid to get rid of all the extra like soil and stuff…and I can’t believe this came out of the ground!” And it’s very organic, but it’s also very inorganic, ya know? Like, rocks are alive because we assign value to them, but what you’re describing is- Like, it’s very organic but it looks like something that is very mechanical. Like a perfectly straight line? Like that’s not human that’s not…it’s almost unnaturally perfect.
Evan: Yes. Exactly. And the way that nature is composed, there’s actually a video that I would…well, I’m not sure that it’s a video…ok, let me restart. There are videos about it on YouTube. In particular, I think it’s a Nova documentary about fractal dimensions and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested because it is …..as far as I can tell that’s exactly how nature has evolved. Endless repetition. If you look at something, like broccoli for example, you are looking at it from a distance it just looks like a green thing. And then when you look even closer at it you see the same pattern at dif