Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Mud Season 2K18 Astronomy + Maple Sugaring

Venus and Mercury (top center) over Mansfield Connecticut, March 6, 2018.
In between the weekly nor'easters that have been hitting New England lately, there have been some good chances to see the planet Mercury. Mercury is always fairly close in the sky to the sun and generally tricky to observe, and I don't think that I have ever spotted it before. However, this March, Mercury is not only bright and relatively high in the sky just after sunset, but also quite close to the very easy to locate planet Venus, which serves as an obvious marker of Mercury's location.

Venus and Mercury peaking out between layers of clouds.

I've now seen Mercury a couple of times, including the night before last week's snow storm, when the clouds were just barely moving in enough to create some interesting scenes, but mostly didn't block the planets. That evening I also glimpsed a really good shooting star, which lasted for a solid second or two. The planets are visible around half an hour to an hour after sunset, near the western horizon, with Venus being to the bright white one and Mercury being the dimmer (but still surprisingly bright), reddish one up and to the right of Venus. Last week they were quite close to each other, but they were further apart when I checked the other night, separated by the width of several fingers held at arm's length.

Maple sugaring, Mansfield Center, early March.
This year I made the decision to start my maple sugaring operation in mid-January, rather than the traditional Valentine's Day. There were quite a few thaws and warmer spells (the arctic outbreak around the holidays didn't last), and the early start allowed me to take advantage of some productive January sap runs. February saw warmer than average temperatures, including a couple of days in the mid-70s F that broke not only daily and monthly records, but set a new record high in the Hartford area for the entire meteorological winter (December through February). The sap flowed really well during the heat wave, but yielded a strong-tasting, almost black "cooking-grade" syrup, of the type that is usually only produced at the very tail end of the season.

Maple syrup from early February (left) and the February heat wave (right).
After the heat, temperatures settled back to more normal levels and freezing nights allowed sap flows to restart, after a bit of a hiatus. However, the flows haven't been very strong this month, and this week have almost stopped completely, so I suspect that the season is now basically over, several weeks before its typical conclusion. It was a good decision to get an early start!