Earth Matters Columns are written by John Frederick and featured in the Altoona Mirror.

A Geographers Perspective

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

America is a fascinating place. Being a geographer (and the son of two geographically curious parents), it is the landforms and landscapes that I find to be especially interesting. A plane flight to Texas (just a few days before the hurricane) gave me a chance to see some of that geography from 35,000 feet. Even on a hazy day, the view can be spectacular.

I am always struck by how many people get on a plane and never even look out the window. I, by contrast, am disappointed when the clouds get in the way of a great view.  For those of you that don’t fly much or have forgotten there was a beautiful America below you when you fly, permit me to share a few geomorphology lessons from my trip.

The Coastal Plain – My journey began at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport on the Atlantic Coastal Plain. All of us that have been to the beach understand how starkly different this region is from where we live. This same flat, sandy landscape runs from Cape Cod to the Texas Gulf Coast.
The Blue Ridge – A much harder group of rocks than those in our Ridge and Valley, the Blue Ridge stands taller than our central Pennsylvania mountains. Having been metamorphosed by heat and pressure, they not only stand higher but have a different shape that is easy to see from the air.

The Appalachian Ridge and Valley – The gentle folds of our own Ridge and Valley province look like a wrinkled green sheet from high in the sky. Once much higher mountains when they were originally folded 250 million years ago, they are actually stubs of those ancient peaks.

The Appalachian Plateau – Uplifted but not as badly deformed as the Ridge and Valley, the plateau begins on the western edge of Blair County. Rich in coal deposits, the strip mines are one of the most noticeable features from the air. (And they don’t look any more attractive from the air than they do from the ground.) The plateau runs from New York to Northern Alabama and actually continues as the Ozark Plateau on the other side of the Mississippi. As the plateau fades away in northern Alabama, we passed over several of the dams built by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The Mississippi River Basin – The power of the Mississippi (especially to us Northeasterners) is nearly incomprehensible. The Mississippi and its nearby tributaries are responsible for the expansive flat landscape that stretches from Cairo, Illinois to New Orleans, more than 200 miles wide in some places. This particular trip gave me a chance to finally see the Yazoo River Basin and its unique drainage pattern. Beginning just south of Memphis, Tennessee and continuing southward to Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Yazoo and several of its tributaries run parallel to the Mississippi but do not meet it for more than 200 miles. This happens because of the massive amount of sediment that builds up along both rivers creating natural levees that prevent the rivers from meeting any sooner.

So next time you travel (whether by train, plane or automobile), look out the window. I guarantee you’ll see some amazing things.

John Frederick writes on environmental issues every other Saturday in the Mirror. Visit www.ircenvironment.org for a few birds’ eye views of his recent trip as well as more on sustainability issues in the community.

Beauty and Squalor

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

As the sun cast its early evening light on the mountainside east of Tyrone earlier this week, it occurred to me that we central Pennsylvanians take our natural beauty for granted.

If left to their own devices, the Appalachians’ hills and mountain slopes in these parts are covered in deciduous trees. From the valley floors, these mountainsides look like green tufts of cotton in summer and are an especially deep green when the sun is at its lowest angle just after sunrise and just before sunset. It gives the illusion that one could jump into the billows of green and come gently to rest in the treetops.

Many of us are similarly mesmerized by the peaceful streams, creeks and rivers that run alongside so many roadways in the Appalachians. Highways end up in these valleys because the waterways have carved the path of least resistance through the otherwise rugged topography.

Not all these stream sides and mountain slopes are completely tree-covered though. Large chunks of rock (usually the erosion resistant Tuscarora Sandstone on the mountains) can leave a barren, rocky landscape in some spots. In stark contrast to the forest land, these islands of boulders can be seen scattered about on Brush Mountain and other similar ridges.

This forest land and these landscapes are part of the character of Blair County. While we revere very old and historic buildings and artifacts, we often forget that these mountains are quarter billion years old. In the same way, we underestimate their value as a community and aesthetic asset. Their beauty has great value, enhancing the attractiveness of the region to business and to our young people, that so often feel they must move away to pursue professional success.
Ironically, many of those young folks move to what they believe are more attractive regions of the country. I would argue that they move because we have not always protected those landscapes and incredible natural gifts with which we have been blessed.

This past Wednesday, I did a presentation to a kids’ summer camp sponsored by the Central Blair Recreation Commission. We talked about this natural beauty and I showed them pictures of both our amazing countryside and some of our ugliest urban and rural blight. These elementary school-aged children sat attentively as we looked at these starkly contrasting images of the town in which they all lived.

Despite their age, this diverse group of children came to appreciate and understand that far too many people did not value the importance or worth of maintaining their properties or preserving these landscapes. They gave me hope, as I watched them gaze upon the pictures, often looking in disbelief at pictures of gigantic piles of trash next to houses, collapsed porches or bricks falling off buildings.

I recalled three visits I made this summer to two homes and a business that had massive accumulations of trash. Code enforcement officers were called to the properties because the neighbors couldn’t stand the site or the smell of the mess left by their inconsiderate neighbor.

I realized that the adults responsible for this squalor may have been older than my young audience, but they certainly were not wiser. In a refreshing exhibition of intermunicipal cooperation, Williamsburg Council Person Carlee Ranalli is leading a group of local government officials in an effort to address blight throughout Blair County. Readers are encouraged to contact their own municipal officials to encourage them to be part of that effort.

Inspirational People

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Often times, it is not until someone of note in your life passes away that you take time to contemplate how that person might have influenced what you became. The recent passing of eco-pioneer and publisher Jerry Goldstein prompted me to have one such reflection.

Jerry Goldstein is not a household name here in Central Pennsylvania. He was, in fact, a Pennsylvanian of some note when it came to the topics of soil science, composting, organic agriculture and sustainable business practices. How he came to touch my life will require a bit of background.
I started my college days as an aspiring journalist and writer but would waiver into the environmental sciences during my sophomore year. What began as a love of being outdoors, evolved into a scientific curiosity of how the natural world all fit together.

It wasn’t just about the science, though. It was also about protecting those resources and finding a way to walk on the planet with the smallest footprint possible.

Sometimes it was time-consuming and a great inconvenience, but I tried hard to minimize my use of the automobile. Serendipitously, I also came to realize that my bicycle was more than a mode of transportation; it was a window to the world that was unlike any other. I planted a massive fruit and vegetable garden and did it all without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Not every gardening venture was successful, but my successes far outweighed my failures and I came to follow a healthier diet in the process. Following a much less traditional path than most of my classmates, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the environment in general and bicycling and gardening in particular. My major course of study, Geography, was an academic path that allowed me to further explore those interests. I read as much as I could outside the classroom, too.

I belonged to Rodale Press’ book club, from the publishing house run by Bob Rodale and Jerry Goldstein. I recall subscribing to four magazines and two of them, Bicycling and Organic Gardening and Farming, were also published by Rodale Press and the latter was edited by Goldstein. If the story ended there, it would not be so inspiring, but the rest of the tale is what makes it interesting.

After teaching high school Earth and Environmental Science for thirteen years, I came to work in the recycling and composting world. As I tried to bring myself up to speed on my new career, two excellent monthly journals became part of my regular reading. Not surprisingly, one of them, BioCycle, was published by Goldstein’s publishing house.

Becoming active at the national level, I had a chance to finally meet Jerry at one of his conferences in Philadelphia in the nineties. Though Jerry’s formal career was winding down by that time, he was still impassioned about composting, sustainable business practices and a host of related topics. Though my conversations with him were fairly brief, I felt blessed to have a chance to talk with him one on one. Jerry Goldstein has inspired me for nearly four decades and I trust that his writings will continue to do so even after his passing.

Flood of 1947

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

English poet William Cowper told us two centuries ago that “Variety is the very spice of life that gives it all its flavour.”

If we apply that premise to the weather, Pennsylvania is among some of the world’s zestiest meteorological places. Beyond considerable seasonal variation, there is an amazing variability from place to place in the Commonwealth as well. It is not uncommon for Philadelphia and Bradford to have temperature differences approaching twenty degrees. Average annual snowfall is five times greater in the northwestern part of the statethan what it is in the southeast.
Differences in elevation contribute to this profound variability in Pennsylvania. A difference of over 2,500 feet from the lowest to highest elevations can understandably bring wildly different weather.

Yet it is the variability from year to year that is sometimes most difficult to comprehend and explain. The anniversary of one of the world’s most extreme rain events brings to mind one such example. In the midst of one of the worst regional droughts in the last half century, we commemorated the 70th anniversary of one of the world’s most extreme rain events this past week. The Smethport/Port Allegheny Flood of 1947 took place on July 17 and 18, 1947. An almost incomprehensible thirty inches of rain fell in less than five hours in the town of Port Allegheny, not far from the New York border.

Three mechanisms can produce rain in these parts and all three showed up in McKean County on that fateful day during World War II. When air is lifted, it is cooled and water vapor condenses on dust particles in the air. When that air is moist those clouds will have enough moisture in them to produced not just clouds, but rain-producing clouds. Warm, moist air being pumped northward from the Gulf of Mexico provided the moisture.

A stationary front was hanging around the Pennsylvania/New York border and this provided an opportunity for something called “frontal lifting.” This happens along fronts where cold and warm air meet. Since cold air is denser, the warmer air is lifted upward, cooling and producing clouds and rain in the process.
Since there was very warm, moist air also present, there was an excellent opportunity for lifting of the air by thermal convection. In simpler English, that means that heating of the earth’s surface allows air to rise and produce clouds and rain.

McKean County is part of an old deeply eroded plateau and the topography of the region is rough. This provides the possibility of something called “orographic lifting.” That is to say that air can be lifted up and over mountains, again allowing cooling and cloud and rain formation.

One final element turned it into a record-setting deluge. As thunderstorms formed, they did something called “training” along the stationary front.
Training occurs when the rainstorms run or “train” along the front. When a front passes through, the associated rain passes through with it, but when the front doesn’t move much the rain can stay in one place a very long time.

So though July can be very dry, like 2012, the great flood of 1947 reminds us that it can be mighty wet, too.

Applied Weather Associates (appliedweatherassociates.com) did an excellent report on the 1947 storm. John Frederick ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) writes about environmental issues for the Mirror.

Curb Appeal

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Man-made landscapes do not have to be ugly. To prove that point, several municipalities in Blair County are embarking on a unique program to help folks take the first step toward improving their curb appeal. Especially in older communities and neighborhoods, some sidewalks and streetscapes are showing their age. The beauty of brick sidewalks and cut stone curbs can become transformed into deformed messes after decades of wear and frost heaving.
With this in mind, the Intermunicipal Relations Committee (IRC) Council of Governments pursued and secured grant funding to assist property owners with the materials needed to improve those aging streetscapes.

If you can provide some “sweat equity”, the IRC can provide some of the materials you’ll need to dress up your street-side tree well or level out that old brick sidewalk. All you have to do is fill out a one page application explaining what you intend to do. A small deposit will be required if you win one of the mini-grants, but the deposit will be returned if you attend a brief workshop and complete your project as proposed.

One workshop will help residents better understand proper tree trimming practices and another will provide helpful hints on relaying a brick sidewalk. Lowes, the national sponsor of the grant program through Keep America Beautiful, will host the workshops. The program will not be limited, however, to brick sidewalk renovations. Any sidewalk cleanup or tree well weeding and planting project could qualify for assistance. A limited number of street trees will be available in at least one of the municipalities through their Shade Tree Commission.

So here is what is available. Folks with brick sidewalks can get stone dust for the base under the bricks and sand to secure the bricks in place after they are set. It’s hoped that folks will tear up sections of their walk that is uneven, lay down a base, set the bricks on that base and fill in with sand.
If you want to renovate or spruce up a street tree well, free mulch will be available for qualifying homeowners or residents. Dig out any weeds and mulch around the trees. We hope to encourage proper tree pruning as part of this effort, too.

This is also a great time to remind folks that there is a right and a wrong way to trim a tree. Rather than just hacking away at branches that are in the way, look for the junction where a branch begins. This means that it often doesn’t look like the tree was even trimmed and, more importantly, it means the tree has a better chance of healing. This decreases the chances of disease or rot that could damage, or even kill, the tree. A trip to the library or an internet search on proper tree trimming can tell you more.

While it’s our hope that this mini-grant program will encourage folks to undertake some do-it-yourself work, some limited labor assistance may be available for those with disabilities or other hardships that prevent them from doing all the work. Simply note that on the application form.

Details are available on the IRC website, www.ircenvironment.org, or can be picked up at the IRC office at 100 Chief Logan Circle in Altoona or requested by phone at 942-7472 or e-mail, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Find us on Facebook!

Contact us.

Recycling News

For recycling info on the go, download the IRC My-Waste App!!

icon-android icon-ios