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Al Stahler: Thirst

Al Stahler
The storm, as seen by GOES-West, a spacecraft hovering over the equator, halfway between Hawaii and the west coast. This (nearly) true-color image was captured on Monday, just before 6 p.m. PDT. The lights are already on in Vegas and Salt Lake.
NOAA/NESDIS Center for Satellite Applications and Research

Nut trees, this time of year, should be dropping bountiful crops of chestnuts, walnuts. Berry bushes should be covering their stems with blackberries.

But they’re not.

Blame the drought, of course. The trees and shrubs are thirsty – thirsty for water. What else could they thirst for, if not water?

Truth be told, the trees and shrubs … all plants … are thirsty for something even more basic, more “elemental,” than water.

Everything around us – including us – is made of atoms … gazillions of atoms, all glued together. Atoms are tiny, but inside atoms lurk tinier things yet: sub-atomic particles. To play with most sub-atomic particles, we’d need an atom-smasher, but one sub-atomic particle is available with very low tech.

On a dry winter’s day, pull your sweater up, over your head, and you make sparks. Sparks are composed of gazillions of electrons – sub-atomic particles that your sweater snatched off your skin. Electrons would rather hang out on wool, than on skin … until you pull the wool away, and the electrons jump back to your skin (making the air glow as they slam into it).

It’s a good thing wool cannot pull too many electrons off our skin. The atoms in our bodies, in rocks, in everything, glue themselves to each other by sharing and trading electrons. Steal away too many electrons, and things fall apart.

Much as wool pulls electrons off our skin, some atoms can pull electrons off other atoms. Chlorine bleach works by pulling electrons off the atoms that give things color; losing electrons, they lose their color.

In the same atomic family as chlorine is the number one electron thief, the atom that can pull electrons off pretty much any other atom: Fluorine. This makes fluorine super dangerous, super toxic. The first chemists to study fluorine, a century ago, tended to die young.

Second only to fluorine in its greed for electrons is an atom we all know and love. Of the nearly one hundred different atoms in the universe, the second-most-powerful electron thief is oxygen.

We see oxygen greedily gobbling electrons when we look into a fire.

When oxygen gobbles electrons, it releases energy – warmth and light. We keep ourselves alive with the energy released when oxygen gobbles electrons off atoms in our food. Food is packed with electrons – our major reason for eating. High-energy foods – fruits and nuts – are especially rich in electrons.

Where do plants obtain the bazillions of electrons they pack into their fruits, into their nuts, into pretty much every part of their (flammable) plant bodies?

Water is composed of two atoms of hydrogen, glued to one atom of oxygen: H2O. The oxygen pulls hard on the electrons that the hydrogen atoms thought were theirs, forcing the atoms to share, and keeping the atoms glued together.

Harnessing the energy of sunlight, green plants latch onto water and pull its hydrogen atoms – electrons and all – away from the oxygen. Green plants then use those hydrogens – with their precious electrons – to build sugars, fats … all sorts of energy-packed molecules they need to make fruits and nuts, leaves and stems.

Something over a week ago, typhoon Merbok spun up on the far side of the Pacific, a few hundred miles off the coast of Japan. The typhoon did nothing noteworthy, until, last weekend, its remnants reached Alaska, bringing wind and rain.

Merbok never reached California, but – according to Daniel Swain, in his Weather West post – the spinning low-pressure system re-arranged rivers of air in the upper atmosphere – rivers of air that, all-too-often this summer, steered hot, high pressure domes of air over us. But Merbok’s re-arrangement blessed us with waves of cool, moist, low pressure air. And, from that air – onto the thirsty earth – fell electron-rich rain.

IN THE SKY: Tonight, at 6:04 p.m., Earth passes through autumn equinox. Equinox, spring and fall, shrinks the twilight: The sun goes down, and it gets dark.

STAR PARTY: With clear skies forecast for this weekend, local astronomers will set up scopes, Saturday night (9/24) at 7:30 p.m., on the vacant lot where the old Downieville Highway meets SR 49. It’s free – bring the kids, and bring a sweater.

Al Stahler enjoys sharing science and nature with friends and neighbors, in The Union and on KVMR-FM. He teaches classes for both kids and grown-ups, and may be reached at a.a.stahler11@gmail.com.

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