Janice Boekhoff

We Can Change the Weather!


I learned recently on The Weather Channel that people can change the weather (cue evil villain laughter). No, it’s not what you’re thinking. It refers to a phenomenon called the Urban Heat Island effect and it occurs, you guessed it, in urban settings.

Where people have laid down tons and tons of concrete, it’s not surprising to see some environmental effects, but change the weather? Really?

Absolutely. All that non-reflective concrete absorbs the sun’s radiation and reflects it as heat, whereas, a grassy meadow or forested land will absorb the radiation without reflecting it. In urban areas, this causes a bubble of heat (hence the name Urban Heat Island) right over the city. The temperature in outlying areas can be as much as 15 degrees Fahrenheit cooler, especially at night when all the heat soaked up by the concrete during the day is still radiating out.

But the heat isn’t the only weather change caused by urbanization. Areas downwind of cities can see twice as much rain as the city itself. This happens because the air in the city is warmer and can therefore hold more moisture, plus more pollutants from the city cause more nuclei within the air for moisture to condense around. When this warm air moves out and hits the cooler air downwind, it increases the relative humidity of the cloud, also increasing its ability to produce precipitation. I may have lived in Iowa too long, but the first thing I thought of is that I hope some smart farmers out there have taken advantage of this effect by planting crops downwind to capitalize on the rainfall.

Since half the world’s population live in large cities, the Urban Heat Island effect can be a serious thing. Heat kills more people than any other weather related event. But some cities are taking steps to reduce the effect by putting in more parks, special roofs that won’t absorb the sun, and even putting parks on the roofs.

Should more cities be taking steps to reduce the Urban Heat Island effect? I lean that direction because I think God gave us this planet and we have responsibility to care for it. But many people think this isn’t a big deal. What do you think?

References: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-sXHl3l-rM, http://www.urbanheatislands.com/, http://www.theweatherprediction.com/weatherpapers/008/index.html


Photo Credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/29941355@N04/4303224783″>Denver Skyline at Blue Hour</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>

Vacation Science

During my blog break in July, my family and I took an amazing trip to the Colorado Springs and Denver areas, so I thought I’d share some cool stuff about it. Here is a somewhat sciency (I love to make up words) run down of our vacation:

  • It’s possible to fall on Pikes Peak without falling off of it (my chiropractor was happy for the extra income). I fell at the top while walking around on some slippery boulders. It might have had something to do with me holding hot chocolate while climbing, but it’s really cold up at 14,115 feet.
This is close to where I fell on Pikes Peak, although it looks scarier than it was.

This is close to where I fell on Pikes Peak, although it looks scarier than it really was.

  • Rafting during a thunderstorm is still not a good idea, but nobody told the Colorado rafting guides this. It was sunny when we got on the bus to go to the river and pouring down rain with lightning when we got off the bus. Even so, our guides put the boats in the river and said get in. We did and thankfully, no one got electrocuted, although my son tried to drown himself, but that’s another story. (Sorry, no rafting pictures because frankly, rafting and my camera are just not a good mix).


  • Royal Gorge Bridge survived a wild-fire a couple of years ago with only some singed planks. This bridge is a suspension bridge with wooden planks that don’t fit together completely perfect, so you end up with enough space between the boards to look down 1,200 feet to the Arkansas River. It’s enough to scare the pants off this Acrophobe (fear of heights).
This is Royal Gorge Bridge over the Arkansas River.

This is Royal Gorge Bridge over the Arkansas River.


This is a view from the bridge looking down 1,200 feet at the Arkansas River.

This is a view from the bridge looking down 1,200 feet at the Arkansas River. The colored things you see in the water are kayaks.

  • Garden of the Gods is full of amazing sandstone spires, some rising up 300 feet. It’s constantly changing because it’s constantly weathering. I was shocked by how many people were attempting to climb in areas that were clearly not stable. But maybe that’s just the cautious geologist in me.
Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods

  • The decrease in humidity makes such a difference on a person’s comfort level. Really, 85 degrees with 85% humidity in Iowa is totally different than 85 degrees with 30% humidity in Colorado (and it makes a huge difference in my hair).
  • Last, but not least, the mountains affected me psychologically. I miss the mountains so much that I wonder if there’s a Pining-For-Mountains syndrome. And if I’m diagnosed with it, will my husband move us to Colorado? (seriously, if anybody knows if this is a real syndrome, please let me know).

Someday, I plan to live in Colorado so I can indulge my mountain obsession every day. Oh, and by the way, if you’d like to contribute to the Janice-moving-to-Colorado-fund, feel free to e-mail me to let me know your desired contribution (this is just a joke, people, please don’t send me money).

Bonus Picture:

The only double rainbow I've ever seen (Colorado Springs)

The only double rainbow I’ve ever seen (Colorado Springs)

Infectious Poison Ivy?


My sister called me this week to get sympathy about her persistent poison ivy rash. I suggested that the poison ivy might be spreading through her bloodstream—a diagnosis I’d received many years ago from a doctor after a severe case of poison ivy that made my entire face swell up like a boxer who went three rounds with Mike Tyson. My sister laughed and told me that was a myth.

“No way. I heard that from a doctor,” I said. I didn’t tell her it was thirty years ago when the doctor told me this.

Amazing how some myths can be so persistent. When we hear from a trusted source, we believe and don’t question. That can be a good thing, if the trusted source is God, but anyone other than Him shouldn’t be put on a pedestal of perfection. Everyone gets it wrong sometimes or at least doesn’t have all the information.

So of course I had to do the research on poison ivy and I found more myths out there than I would have thought. Here are some of them. Maybe you’ve been believing these, as well.

MYTH #1: Poison Ivy can spread through your bloodstream.

As a scientist, it hurts to admit I believed this for so long, but poison ivy does not spread through your blood. You must come into direct contact with the urushiol oil on the plant to get a rash. Many of us start out immune to this oil, but become sensitive to it through exposure, which stimulates our immune system. Most people develop sensitivity to the plant in their teens, but there are some people who never develop this sensitivity.

MYTH #2: You can get poison ivy just by being next to the plant without touching it.

To get poison ivy, you must come into contact with the urushiol oil, which then irritates your skin. This means direct contact from the plant or from other sources, like your dog’s fur or the pair of pants you wore or the hedge clippers you used. The only exception to this is when poison ivy is burned because then, the oil can become airborne on the particles of smoke and spread poison ivy to the eyes, mouth and respiratory system. Please do not burn poison ivy.

MYTH #3: The blisters caused by poison ivy can spread poison ivy to the rest of your body.

Actually, the weeping blisters are your body’s reaction to the urushiol oil and they contain no oil inside them (because the oil has already been absorbed into the skin). Even by itching the blisters and breaking them open, you can’t spread poison ivy to other parts of your body.

MYTH #4: Poison Ivy can’t cause a rash after the leaves fall.

All parts of the plant (except maybe the pollen) contain the irritating urushiol oil, therefore you can get a rash by coming into contact with the base of the plant after the leaves have dropped.

MYTH #5: If you eat poison ivy, you will eventually develop immunity to it.

This one shocked me. I’d never heard of eating the plant, but apparently some people have advocated this. Please do not do it. This can be at best irritating to your system and at worst can cause a fatal allergic reaction.

You might be wondering why the rash appears to spread if it can’t spread through your blood or by the blisters. This is because different areas of your skin have a different thickness and therefore take longer to develop the rash. For instance, few people develop poison ivy at all on their fingertips because the skin there is so thick. The oil can continued to penetrate and irritate your skin for one to two weeks. Also, you may be coming into contact with the oil on items you wouldn’t suspect. In my sister’s case, she discovered it was likely her shower puff.

Now that we’ve reached the summer months, be on the look out for that irritating three-leafed plant (see picture above). And for goodness sakes, don’t eat it!


References: http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/guide/understanding-poison-ivy-oak-sumac-basics, http://extension.psu.edu/pests/ipm/pestproblemsolver/house/lawn-landscape/weeds/poison-ivy-myths, http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=158752&page=2

Photo Credit: N03/3565493876″>Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) via photopin (license)

Pleistocene Park?


 Jurassic Park is one of my favorite movies of all time and while the concept behind it continues to exist in the realms of science fiction, scientists are inching closer to the threshold of de-extinction. And the newest candidate for the process is the Wooly Mammoth who lived in the Pliocene and into the Pleistocene Epochs.

De-extinction is basically what it sounds like—bringing an extinct creature back from the dead (that sort of makes them sound like zombies, doesn’t it?). This would obviously be accomplished through cloning of DNA since the creature would be, well, extinct. Which means you need DNA from somewhere.

In 2013, an exceptionally well-preserved Wooly Mammoth was found in Siberia, still frozen in the permafrost. Nicknamed Buttercup, this mammoth was remarkably complete with three legs, most of the body, part of the head and the trunk preserved. Scientists reported that a dark red liquid oozed out of the animal. Chemical analysis concluded it was blood.

Very recently (March, 2015), scientists from Harvard announced they have isolated Wooly Mammoth DNA and have spliced it into elephant cells. While the study hasn’t been peer reviewed or published yet, the geneticists say this is just the first step in bring back these creatures. Eventually, they may grow the hybrid cells in an artificial womb (it’s considered unethical to try to grow it in an elephant womb). So it will probably be a while before we have a Pleistocene Park where Wooly Mammoths lumber around.

Believe it or not, the de-extinction thing has been tried before. In 2003, geneticists succeeded in bringing back the Pyrenean Ibex (extinct since 2000) through cloning. Unfortunately, the cloned animal lived for only 7 minutes.

One of the things I loved most about Jurassic Park is the idea behind it. Imagine meeting a creature that no human being on earth has previously laid eyes on. You might call it the final frontier of sorts. A frontier that no one is actually sure we can explore.

What do you think? Should we be trying to reverse extinction? Are we ignorant of the potential consequences of de-extinction? Or is it our ecological responsibility to try and bring back these animals?


References: http://www.livescience.com/50275-bringing-back-woolly-mammoth-dna.html, http://www.foxnews.com/science/2014/11/18/can-long-extinct-woolly-mammoth-be-cloned/

Photo Credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/49503098502@N01/3724624458″>DSC02851</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>

Fun Science Fact


The zombie apocalypse is upon us! Well, in ladybug form, that is.

Scientists at the University of Montreal studied a type of wasp larvae that turns ladybird beetles into the living dead. The larvae of this parasitic wasp colonizes the ladybug while it’s still alive, feasting on it as the egg grows in the interior of the ladybug.

After about 20 days, the larvae breaks out of the body and spins a cocoon around the ladybug’s legs. The poor ladybug can barely move and is forced to allow the larvae to keep feeding on its body. The larvae won’t let go of the ladybug until it takes its fill and no longer needs its host.

Even more disturbing or amazing, depending on how you look at it, is the fact that about 25% of the ladybugs actually live through the process. Although, I’m not sure what life would be like with half your insides gone.

What do you think? Is there a high quality of life for a ladybug zombie?


Reference: “Larvae Turns Ladybugs Into Zombies,” Science Illustrated, May/June 2012, 5(3), p. 14.

Photo Credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonathan_bliss/10596227316/”>Moonrhino</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

Self-watering Plant


The desert rhubarb plant was uniquely designed by God to thrive in a desert environment. In the Negev Desert of Isreal, one of the driest places on earth, the average annual rainfall is 3 inches. So, the desert rhubarb can’t rely on rainfall. Instead, it uses a channeling system to irrigate itself.

The leaves of the plant are waxy to promote water flow and heavily grooved with miniature peaks and valleys to channel dew or any rainfall into the root system. In fact, the plant collects 16 times more water during a rain than other plants. Just look at the tiny mountain range on those leaves. If you were an ant, it would be like crossing the Alps.

Many desert dwellers have hoped to harvest precious water in the same way—from the dew that collects each night. Perhaps understanding how God designed the desert rhubarb will help scientists to create “smart materials” that can do just that.


Reference:   De Young, Don. July-Sept. 2011. Three-Foot Oasis. Answers, p. 40.

Photo Credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/cyclam/4499594902/”>flora.cyclam</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

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