Thursday, March 25, 2010

Tambora Project reconstructs past climate cataclysm with eye toward future

Tambora Project reconstructs past climate cataclysm with eye toward future

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

In 1815 Earth experienced an event worthy of today’s most extreme disaster movies, the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia. The April eruption turned the whole mountain into what one observer characterized as a “flowing mass of liquid fire.” Ten thousand people were killed directly by the eruption, and another 90,000 people in the region died from starvation or ingesting water poisoned by volcanic material.

The consequences of the enormous eruption were felt around the world, too, because it released into the atmosphere a weather-altering cloud of sulfate gas the size of Texas and Illinois combined. In India the monsoons were disrupted, creating conditions that gave rise to a new, epidemic form of cholera that would eventually cross the globe, killing millions. Crop failure and famine crippled regions from China to Western Europe, Canada and New England, Food riots sprung up, environmental refugees swarmed across borders, while governments everywhere feared popular rebellion in what became known as “The Year Without a Summer.”

Perhaps Hollywood has been slow to pick up on this story because the true extent of the worldwide climate disruption involved has come to light only in recent years, as scientists have gathered information through the study of glacial ice cores and tree rings. A group of faculty members at the U of I has picked it up, though, with an eye toward what it might mean for people living today. According to professor of English Gillen Wood and collaborators from the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, the Tambora eruption provides an historical case study for the human impacts of rapid climate change. They are collaborating on the Tambora Project, which reconstructs the social, environmental and economic impacts of the eruption on a global scale.

One of the principal components of the Tambora Project is a sophisticated computer model simulation now being developed by Professor of Atmospheric Sciences Don Wuebbles and his students. The model will fill gaps in the historical record of the global climatological impacts of Tambora, and be used to create detailed time-lapse visualizations that enable us to see the dramatic effects of the eruption, including the dispersal of weather-altering aerosols, and changes in temperature and precipitation.

Another component of the Tambora Project is a risk estimate of the economic devastation that would result from a climate change event equivalent to the Tambora eruption today.

The Tambora team also plans a video documentary that will retrace Tambora’s volcanic cloud through the regions most impacted: Indonesia, China, Western Europe and New England. The goal of the documentary is both to reconstruct the global climate shock of 1815-1818, and to understand how governments in these regions are prepared, or not, for the climate crises of the 21st century.

Gillen Wood’s book, The Tambora Revolution: How Climate Change Changed the World, 1815-18, written for the general reader, will reconstruct the immediate impacts of the Tambora eruption from a global perspective and at the same time tell the story of the Tambora Project itself.

On Thursday, April 1st, Wood will give the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Humanities Lecture, “Climate Denial and the Philosopher King of Java.” In his lecture, Wood will introduce the Tambora Project, as well as make the case for humanists to become more engaged with the climate change issue. The Humanities Lecture will begin at 4:30 p.m. and take place in the Knight Auditorium at the Spurlock Museum, 600 South Gregory Street, Urbana.

RSVP through the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Environmental lobbying in Springfield with Faith in Place

Environmental lobbying in Springfield with Faith in Place

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Things were hopping at the state capitol in Springfield last Wednesday morning as the legislature anticipated the Governor’s budget address. But I was in town on a different errand. I had accepted an invitation from Brian Sauder of Urbana to accompany him and others as they lobbied state legislators on a suite of environmental priorities.

Sauder is a graduate of the U of I Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences who is in the process of completing a Master’s degree in Religion at the Urbana Theological Seminary. He also recently began work for an organization called “Faith in Place,” which seeks “to give religious people the tools to become good stewards of the earth.”

Sauder and his group from Faith in Place were in Springfield as part of a lobbying day organized by the Illinois Environmental Council that included more than 100 other people. Among them were representatives from the Sierra Club, Environment Illinois, Openlands, Environmental Law and Policy Center, Protestants for the Common Good and even some Girl Scouts.

Together these groups were seeking support for two legislative packages. One is a collection of bills designed to promote wind and solar power. The other is a measure that would ban use of the chemical Bisphenol-A (BPA) in plastic food containers.

The environmental groups were also asking legislators to oppose two measures currently alive in both chambers in some form. One of those would provide financing support for development in floodplains, and the other would lift the current moratorium on construction of nuclear power plants in Illinois.

Given the hectic schedules of lawmakers in session, I learned lobbying is a very hit or miss activity. The team I was with did much of its talking with staff from the offices of various legislators, who listened courteously and accepted our written materials to pass along.

We did manage to catch up with a few legislators in person, though. Among them was State Senator Michael Frerichs, who we sat down with for a 15-minute chat. He was highly favorable toward the renewable energy bills, and is in fact chief sponsor of one. But he pressed my teammates on their opposition to the development of nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuel, and indicated he would withhold support for a ban on BPA until he felt the question of its toxicity to humans was more settled.

We also touched base directly with Representative Naomi Jakobsson, for whom environmental legislation is a priority and who voiced across-the-board support for the lobbying day positions.

I suppose the participation of a group like the Sierra Club at an environmental lobby day requires no explanation. But I asked Brian Sauder to articulate what brought him and others from Faith in Place there. This was his answer: “As a person of faith I feel responsible to work for social and environmental justice. That means accounting for the way our treatment of the earth—as individuals and as a society—impacts others. In that light it’s important to help individuals change their behavior, but it is equally important to work for change on a larger scale, too.”

You can learn more about the environmental work of Faith in Place through its Website or contact Brian Sauder at 217.649.1898 /

Friday, March 12, 2010

Illinois State Geological Survey 3-D maps enable sound environmental decisions

Illinois State Geological Survey 3-D maps enable sound environmental decisions

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

In recent years the Village of Antioch in Lake County has grown so rapidly that the population sign on the road into town might as well be fitted with rolling numbers, like an odometer. Aware that such growth might overtax the shallow sand and gravel aquifer Antioch currently relies on for its water supply, village leaders undertook a serious investigation of their options in 2008. The question they sought to answer was whether the Village could continue to rely on its system of wells for water, or it should apply for a share of the state’s allocation of water from Lake Michigan.

To answer this question, Antioch’s leaders needed to understand how much water the aquifer holds, and for that they needed information about its depth, shape and horizontal extent. Conveniently for them, scientists with the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) were able to provide that information, since Antioch’s aquifer fell within the boundaries of a larger project, already underway, to create three-dimensional geologic maps of the Great Lakes region.

As you might imagine, developing a three dimensional picture that begins at land surface and extends down to bedrock is a complex task just about anywhere. But it is especially so in northeastern Illinois, where the advance and retreat of glaciers repeatedly added to and reshuffled the geologic materials that constitute the earth’s surface there.

Scientists from the ISGS employ data from a variety of sources to create such a picture. Their best data comes from continuous, three-inch diameter core samples they obtain by boring down to bedrock themselves. [Photo: ISGS scientists with a newly extracted core sample in Lake County. By Joel Dexter.] These samples provide an actual record of the types and order of materials present below the surface. Constraints on time and budgets limit the number of core samples scientists can obtain, however, so they learn what they can from other sources, too.

From the data they gather, ISGS scientists produce various depictions of geological features, including two-dimensional cross sections, three-dimensional block models, and even more complex visualizations.

Thanks to the information that the ISGS was able to provide them, village leaders in Antioch were able to see clearly that their aquifer was not as extensive as they had hoped, and that only obtaining a share of water from Lake Michigan would enable the village to grow without worries about the limits of its water supply.

Although I’ve given Antioch’s concern about its aquifer as an example of how three-dimensional geologic mapping is useful, I should emphasize that the information such mapping provides is important in numerous other ways, too. From zoning decisions that protect wetlands, to siting requirements for landfills, to understanding the potential impact an earthquake might have in a given area, it is valuable to know what’s down below our feet.

The University of Illinois Institute for Natural Resource Sustainability, of which the ISGS is part, will hold its second annual “Naturally Illinois” expo on March 12-13. Among the things to see and do there will be baby Illinois turtles, a 30-ft. wind turbine powering scientific instruments, fossils to dig, and biodiesel made from waste. This is a super event for introducing young people to the world of science and a great reminder to all of how Illinois benefits from the work of its state scientific surveys. Details at

Thursday, March 04, 2010

On the hunt for first flower of spring

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

On the hunt for first flower of spring

The weather last Wednesday morning was hostile. The air temperature had sunk to 16 degrees overnight, and the wind was blowing from the northwest at 15 miles an hour. What a day to go looking for wildflowers. But that’s exactly what I did.

See, if you wait until April, when showy beauties like Virginia bluebells carpet the woodland floor, you’ve missed the emergence of spring’s first wildflowers by more than a month already.

Thanks to guidance from Rick Larimore, who is a wetland plant ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, I found my quarry at the Middle Fork State Fish and Wildlife Area, north of Kickapoo State Park in Vermilion County. It was growing thickly in a large swath along the base of a hill, where water from the adjoining upland seeps to the surface and keeps the ground saturated through much of the year.

I have to admit that the flower of the plant in question, which goes by the scientific name Symplocarpus foetidus, is not attractive in conventional terms. It’s a small, spongy, egg-shaped affair that grows up hidden within a specialized leaf that forms a hood around it, in botanical terms, a “spathe.”

Unlike the flower it contains, however, this spathe is a work of art. Bulbous at the base, which you could encircle with your thumb and index finger, it extends upward in a twisting, tapering spiral three to six inches tall. In color, this spathe may be as nondescript as the winter ground from which it grows, dullest brown or gray. But it may also be quite dramatic. Some I saw were wine-red, marked with lighter shades the color of brick and speckles of pink.

Aside from the beauty of its spathe, Symplocarpus foetidus distinguishes itself from all other plants native to Illinois by the fact that it generates heat--enough so that its flower can remain 36 degrees F warmer than the surrounding air for a period of about two weeks. This capacity allows it to grow in frozen soil, and also provides an inducement for early emerging insects, by which it is pollinated, to hang around.

I’ve been coy about calling Symplocarpus foetidus by its common name because to do so is to draw attention to aspects of its personality that people may find unappealing. That’s “skunk cabbage,” and this is definitely a plant that lives down to its name.

As the flower of skunk cabbage matures it gives off a distinct, skunk-like odor, an odor that can also be produced by crushing any part of the plant. That’s unattractive to people, but a turn-on for carrion-eating insects, and, hey, a plant needs to please its pollinators.

Something cool about skunk cabbage that you can’t know by observing its above-ground components is that it grows deeper into the earth every year, pulled downward by a massive root system that alternately extends and then gradually contracts. On account of that, it is said to be impossible to dig an old one out of the ground.

If you are not inclined to seek out the wet areas where skunk cabbage grows in the next few weeks, you might look for it later in the season as its giant leaves unfurl, some to lengths of more than two feet. But don’t wait too long. As summer begins to wear, the leaves of skunk cabbage die back in their own unpleasant way, dissolving into a smelly black slime rather than drying out.