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old dude, all hair, swell new teeth

02 February 2005

my nephew's Moulin lesson

Today I'm going to write in Trebuchet. Let me know if you like or dislike this font. Also, do you like the parchment template? Does anyone know how I can make the margins wider?

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My family spews out some curious people. "Art in the blood," said Holmes to Watson, "is liable to take the strangest forms." ("The Greek Interpreter")

Maybe later I will tell you about my nephew and niece-in-law (is that what she is?) who take turns each winter mushing their dogs through the blizzards of Alaska and Canada in the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, and do pretty darn well. They just had their first baby and named him Aven -- one of the first wildflowers that bloom in the spring in Arctic mountains.

In season, I get e-mails from relatives: "Shannon's passed the 383-mile checkpoint! She's in 12th place! It's 30 below! All the dogs are fine!" I can't begin to tell you how unprepared my previous family life has made me for these kinds of bulletins. I had a dog, his name was Tony, he was a lazy beagle, he went wild over Hershey bars, he'd escape and howl (still the most beautiful of all music to me) all night and show a young German shepherd pal how to tip over the neighbors' garbage cans. That was my pack bonding Alpha wilderness canine life up to the present.

Now there are Alaskan mushers in my family. (If you have mushers in your family, go to a good camping store and buy them socks made of SmartWool

But today I will tell you about his brother, my nephew the glaciologist.

A glacier is about 4 gazillion metric tons of freshwater snow-fallen ice, a giant very slow-moving very deep frozen river that is thousands or tens of thousands of years old. These things are unbelievably beautiful and extremely important parts of the machine that sustains all life on the surface of our planet. My nephew goes all over the world and studies them. He just came back from Chile, which has glaciers, you bet.

Some glaciers are quite easy to get to, wrapped within parks near highways, I guess with a parking lot and rest rooms, and you can spend a lovely spring or summer (or winter) day on the top of the glacier and have a picnic, take some videocam movies, and then drive home again. Other glaciers are in bizarrely remote difficult-to-reach places, scattered all over the world, the Alps, the Andes, the Himalayas. He goes to all of them he can, and learns all there is to learn about them. I suspect that eventually, some of the things he discovers about glaciers are going to help save our bio-butts bigtime. Or give us a clearer idea of how long we have left to gambol on the surface.

So anyway, on a rare swing through my Glacier-Lite neighborhood, we chowed down at the Korean restaurant, and this was the first time I'd had a chance to ask him 400 dumb questions about glaciers since he got into this racket. Up to now, I've become habituated to dangerous, deadly volcanos. He groks volcanos and enthusiastically validates my interest in them. The graduate students in the cubicles near his are seismologists and vulcanologists, whom he calls the Shake & Bake crowd.

But now clearly I must check out a glacier, up close. I will have him recommend an easy-on-easy-off Day Glacier, with a gift shop and restaurant or snack bar, for me.

I found my first deadly volcano without expert scientific advice. Also I found Wandering Migrating Polar Bear Town all by myself. Iceland has both active volcanos and glaciers, it's earthquake-prone, it's your one-stop island for great and rare natural wonders, including a park where you can wander down a narrow canyon where two great undersea tectonic continental plates smash into or subduct or pull away from each other in the middle of the North Atlantic. Very nice rest rooms, outstanding educational displays, souvenir shop and snacks down the road. Let me know if you'd like to hear more about Iceland. I can tell you Bjork's last name.

So anyway, a glacier moves downhill, courtesy of gravity, oh, about a fraction of an inch each day, thus something on the order of ten feet per year. (Just Google for more accurate numbers, in metric, lots of Glacier Stuph on the Web.) If you're standing in front of an approaching glacier, it's not hard to jump out of the way. Nobody gets run over by glaciers.

I mean, it's just a huge, barely-moving river of ice, so what can possibly go wrong on a glacier?

Here is what can go wrong on a glacier, my nephew tells me.

The sun warms the surface and makes a slippery film of melted water, little streams that flow downhill, and erode holes in the ice.

You slip on the slippery water film. Whoops. One little whoops. One little slip. Just like you slipped on the ice on the sidewalk yesterday when you went to get the mail. Or like slipping on the perfectly flat ice on a rink or a frozen pond. Faw down go boom hahahaha wheeeee!

But the glacier surface always slopes slightly downwards. You start to slide downhill. Maybe you forgot to put crampons on your boots. Maybe you can't get to your ice axe quick enough. You keep sliding down the surface of the glacier. Faster and faster.

You're still fine. Bit of an adventure, maybe some bouncing and bruising, like a mild skiing mishap, but you're still fine. You're just taking a long slide on your ass down a river of ice.

Then you come to the Moulin.

The Moulin is a surprise vertical hole in the ice sculpted by the surface streams. Glaciers just have Moulins here and there.

You slip into the Moulin, and slide down the Moulin, which is a mile or two deep.

You come to the bottom of the Moulin, or get wedged in a twist of the Moulin, and stop. Maybe you're still fine.

But no one will ever see you again. You're a half-mile or deeper down in the middle of the glacier.

Well, of course, climb out immediately. Or try. Also, scream for help. Maybe you have companions at the top with long ropes. Maybe eventually they'll turn around and notice you're not there anymore. From your slip to your slide to your vanishing down the Moulin, that all took maybe 20 seconds.

But if it's not just a Theme Park Moulin, if it's a Real Moulin in a Real Glacier -- no one will ever hear you, no ropes are long enough, you'll never be able to climb up to the top -- at least not before you freeze to death, because you're a mile deep in the bottom of a shaft in the middle of a gazillion tons of ice.

A couple of times each year, somebody slips, slides, and falls down a Moulin on a glacier. Sometimes it happens on one of those easy, nearby national park tourist glaciers, to a tourist or a teenager or your fiancee.

I assume my nephew always wears his crampons, and carries an ice axe, and other anti-Moulin gear I don't even know about.

Oh, they'll see you again. In maybe 800 or 1200 years. When the incredibly slow-moving glacier finally carries you to the Front End and pops you back out. A prehistoric guy from around 10,000 years ago popped out the Front End of a Swiss Alpine glacier a few years ago. Perfectly preserved, beautiful prehistoric clothes, in pretty good health, beyond being frozen to death. A real Time Capsule trip. Now we know exactly how guys dressed, what diseases they had, what they ate 10,000 years ago in the Alps, thanks to a Moulin.

Well, I WILL visit the glacier. But this time, you betchum, I am reading All The Warning Signs very carefully, and renting the crampons, and making sure there are other folks around me, preferably a Glacier Ranger -- or a certified glaciologist. I know one.

You think I'm making this up?


Blogger SteveHeath said...

The Beloved Spousal Unit took me to see Moulin Rouge a couple years ago and for about two hours I felt as if I were trapped deep in a dark I do have a bit of experience in this topic

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

I must have seen "Moulin Rouge" on TV, because I couldn't watch more than eight minutes of it. Clearly it was another of those cinematic triumphs made by a director who'd made his bones making MTV videos. What a mess! So inhuman, every single character so uninteresting, so repellent, not a single human being I cared what happened to.


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