Thursday, January 21, 2010

Confluence Field Station will enhance efforts of National Great Rivers Research and Education Center

Confluence Field Station will enhance efforts of National Great Rivers Research and Education Center

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When policymakers, planners and others need answers to questions about oceans, they turn to places like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts or the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California. But where does society turn for answers to questions about rivers, the waterways that are so vital to life between the coasts? How about Illinois, home of the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center?

The Center was formed in 2001 as a partnership of the University of Illinois, the Illinois Natural History Survey and Lewis and Clark Community College, which is located in the town of Godfrey and the site of its headquarters. This puts the Center near the confluence of three great rivers, the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Illinois—an ideal location for the research, outreach and education it fosters. [Artist's rendering of the Field Station's exterior when finished, showing green roof and natural stone wall.]

This Spring the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center will celebrate a great step forward with the opening of a new, state-of-the art facility, the Confluence Field Station, located right on the Mississippi River at Alton, adjacent to the Melvin Price Locks and Dam.

With the first phase of construction nearly complete, people associated with the Center are excited to talk about the features that minimize the Field Station’s environmental impact. These include a solar system for heating water; wind- and river-driven turbines for generating electricity; a host of measures for using water efficiently; state of the art heating, ventilation, and air conditioning; and extensive use of recycled materials in construction and furnishing.

On top of all this, the building is a pleasure to visit, which I did recently in company with a group of faculty members from the U of I: stonework on the walls evokes bluffs overlooking the river, big windows facing the river offer expansive views, and water features will bring the river itself right into the building. [Chancellor Robert Easter welcomes visiting University of Illinois faculty members on a visit to the Field Station in January.]

While it is laudable that the Confluence Field Station is a model of “green” construction, what’s even more significant is the work of research and education that will take place there.

According to executive director Gary Rolfe, the Center provides multiple benefits to a wide constituency. Construction and staffing of the new facility have created jobs and provided a boost to the regional economy, which will also receive a long-term lift from the researchers and visitors who come to it.

But the research and education enabled by the station will also benefit the many more people whose lives and livelihoods are bound up with the Mississippi and its tributaries. That broad group includes everyone from commodity transporters and commercial fishermen to sport anglers and other recreational users of the river, as well as people in communities that depend on rivers for their water supply.

“Other river research efforts have looked at various aspects of these large, complex systems in isolation,” says Rolfe. “Our goal is to establish a holistic program, one that encompasses land, water and people. Ultimately we want to facilitate management of large river systems that protects ecological values and enhances them for use by both present and future generations.”

The first researchers to take up residence at the Field Station will be a team headed by John Chick, an aquatic ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey. Chick’s group has already been working to monitor water quality, fish communities, macroinvertebrates, and aquatic vegetation along a 50-mile stretch of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers for over 10 years.

Working at the new facility will enable them to conduct aquatic research in simulated and controlled river environments, thanks in part to large concrete channels dubbed “mesocosms” that will contain flowing water and plankton pumped directly from the Mississippi River.

The Confluence Field Station will also facilitate efforts to educate people about rivers and engage them in conservation work. According to Marcia Lochman, director of environmental education at the Center, these efforts include internships for college undergraduates and graduate students, as well as a variety of programs for school-age children and adults.

In recognition of its ongoing excellent work in community and public engagement, the Center was recently awarded the University of Illinois 2009-2010 Campus Award for Excellence in Public Engagement.

The Confluence Field Station is slated to open in May of this year and will offer a speaker series and tours to the public. Displays in the lobby will feature the river and its watershed and will emphasize the broader mission of the Center, that of connecting interactive elements of nature--land, water, plants, people and wildlife.

For now you can see photos and video of the Confluence Field Station at the Web site of the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center at

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A preview of Spring 2010 U of I environmental talks, events

A preview of Spring 2010 U of I environmental talks, events

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Given the budget concerns and other other woes that have troubled the University of Illinois recently, it can be easy to forget that, one way or another, research and teaching that address the most important questions of our day is still getting done here. If you have any doubts on that score, let me call your attention to the many events addressing environmental concerns slated for the months to come, all which are open members of the campus community and the public alike.

Four talks are scheduled in a series organized by the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities called “Climate Change and the Humanities.” Talks in this series are given by scholars from around the country who, according to series organizers, “bring a unique perspective to our understanding of the human dimensions and to the projected lived consequences of climate change as it is expected to progress in the coming decades.”

The first of these will take place on February 10 and feature Andrew Light, who is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the Center for Global Ethics at George Mason University. Light will describe what he think ethicists need to do if they want to play a role in shaping national and international policy on climate change, which he construes as one of the most important moral problems of our day.

A series of talks begun last Fall under the Social Dimensions of Environmental Policy initiative headed by Jesse Ribot of the UI Department of Geography will continue with four talks this Spring. This series, “Climate and Society,” features researchers from around the world who are working on the analysis of climate and social vulnerability. The next talk in this series is scheduled for January 29 and will be given by Stephen Humphreys of the London School of Economics. Humphreys’ talk will address the question of access to technologies for climate change adaptation and mitigation under international law.

Other talks in the “Climate and Society” series will draw attention to water management in Brazil, the security risk inherent in conflicts over water, food and health in India, and the broader question of how much potential humans have to adapt to the coming climate.

The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center will continue its lunchtime seminar series on sustainability this semester with presentations that focus on opportunities in agriculture for conservation and curbing global warming.

A more interactive series called “The Human Place in Nature,” will bring together small panels of UI faculty for discussions that will open up to questions and observations from others attending. Through this ten-session series, which is organized by professor of law Eric Freyfogle on behalf of the Office of Sustainability, participants will be introduced to literature that addresses fundamental questions of how humans relate to the natural world. By this means, it is hoped, they will become better equipped to grapple with more particular environmental issues.

Following are Web links for details about these series, as well as links to some of the departmental seminars that might also be of interest to Environmental Almanac readers.

“Climate Change and the Humanities”

“Climate and Society”

“Sustainability, Energy, and the Environment”

“The Human Place in Nature”

Departmental series:

Department of Geography Colloquium

Illinois Natural History Survey Seminars

Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences faculty presentations:


February 18. Innovators Imrpov conversation on 'Sustainability’ at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

February 19. Advancing the Illinois Sustainability Vision.

February 23-24. Electronics and Sustainability: Design for Energy and the Environment

March 12 & 13. Naturally Illinois Expo:

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Eagle Scout project aims to attract falcons, help people connect with nature

Eagle Scout project aims to attract falcons, help people connect with nature

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Birders have enjoyed opportunities to see peregrine falcons in east central Illinois with increasing frequency over the past two decades, and that’s a remarkable thing to be able to say when you consider that the entire population of peregrines in the eastern U.S. was wiped out by poisoning from pesticides such as DDT before they were banned in the early 1970s.

But the peregrine falcons observed here have been transient birds, en route between breeding territories somewhere to our north and wintering areas somewhere to our south. The case has been different, however, with one highly visible peregrine, which is distinguishable by its pale coloration, and preference for particular perches. It has been seen regularly over the course of the past four winters on and around the tall residence halls along Fourth Street in Champaign on the U of I campus.

When Greg Lambeth of Urbana observed this falcon in company with a second peregrine on the side of Illini Tower back in April of last year, he decided to follow through on an idea he had been kicking around for a couple of years. That was to get a nest box erected near the top of the building, so that peregrines might be tempted to stick around and breed.

Lambeth was hopeful such a project might work because his father has succeeded with a similar effort where he lives, in Grand Forks North Dakota. A nest box installed on a water tower there has attracted a pair of breeding peregrines each of the past two years. Nest boxes have also played a role in the establishment of peregrines in Chicago, where about a dozen pairs now breed every year.

Enter John Patterson, a Boy Scout with Troop 6 in Urbana. He learned of Greg Lambeth’s idea and made it into the basis of his Eagle Scout service project last Fall. [Photo: Patterson atop the Illini Tower with the nesting box as it is being mounted on the wall behind him. Courtesy of Greg Lambeth.] When we spoke about the project, he told me, “I wanted to do something out of the ordinary, something that would really help people connect with nature.”

In cooperation with Lambeth, John secured a grant from the Champaign County Audubon Society to purchase materials for building two peregrine nest boxes, with the idea that having more than one would increase the chances of attracting birds to breed. He then led other scouts from Troop 6 in the construction and painting of the nest boxes (with additional, appropriate help from his father).

The first box was installed in December on the east face of the topmost structure on Illini Tower, thanks to approval from the building’s manager and the labor and expertise of building service workers. Plans are for the second box to be installed atop nearby Sherman Hall sometime in the very near future.

In addition to getting the nest boxes built and installed, John Patterson also wanted to provide the Champaign County Audubon Society and the Champaign-Urbana community with a resource for understanding peregrine falcons. Toward that end, he created a slide-show presentation about them for use by Audubon and the Urbana Park District’s Anita Purves Nature Center.

Greg Lambeth is thankful for what Patterson has accomplished, and he expresses hope that many others will benefit from the project. In his words, “More than a thousand people a day will have the opportunity to see these birds if they breed here, and peregrines are the kind of bird that inspire passion and appreciation for the natural world.”


Peregrine primer

  • In natural settings, peregrines habitually nest on cliffs, which explains why they have adapted so well to life on tall buildings.
  • The name “peregrine” means wanderer, and these birds come by it honestly. Some travel from the northern tundra to South America and back each year!
  • Peregrines are among the most widely distributed birds in the world, occurring on every continent except Antarctica.
  • Peregrines were protected under the federal Endangered Species Act until 1999, when, thanks to extensive breeding and reintroduction programs, their numbers had recovered to sustainable levels and they were de-listed. Peregrines were still categorized as endangered in Illinois until 2004, when their status was uprgraded to “threatened.”
  • Peregrines are good-sized birds, anywhere from 14 to 19 inches, with a wingspan of around 40 inches. At rest, a peregrine can be recognized by its gray back, the dark, helmet-like markings on its head, and the wide lines that extend down its cheeks like exaggerated sideburns.
  • Peregrines are known as the fastest animal on earth because they can hit speeds of more than 200 mph as they drop through the air toward prey. They can also reach nearly 70 mph in powered flight as they pursue other birds.