Thursday, July 27, 2006

Allerton Mansion Pond Makeover

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

The next time you visit the U of I’s Robert Allerton Park near Monticello, make time to observe the changes that are taking place around the Mansion Pond.

In the years between its creation in 1903 and the summer of 2003, a hundred years later, the natural value of the pond and surrounding area had become degraded. The small wetland connected to the stream that flows into the pond was choked with daylilies, which are a nuisance in natural areas. The upland surrounding the stream inflow had become overgrown with other invasive plants, Japanese honeysuckle, garlic mustard, and multiflora rose. And the pond itself was choked with algae and muddied by the rooting of common carp, which also prevented the growth of beneficial aquatic vegetation. In addition, the roots of trees growing on top of the dam were creating fissures that allowed water to seep through.

Over the course of the 2003-2004 academic year, sixteen U of I students investigated the problems facing the pond, and then devised strategies for resolving them. Their goal was to establish a healthy ecosystem emphasizing plants and wildlife native to the area, with attention to aesthetic values as well. Thus began a multifaceted restoration project that has continued in the years since with the assistance of hardworking summer interns. Visitors to Allerton can already enjoy many of the changes to the pond and surrounding area.

The inflow stream and edges of the pond are now graced by the growth of native plants, including cardinal flower, swamp milkweed, common arrowhead, and wild blue iris. The understory of the wooded upland has been opened up by the removal of invasive plants, which have been replaced by native wildflowers. Wildflowers have also replaced the trees that were removed from the top of the dam, which was reinforced and altered to better handle overflows.

With help from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the pond itself has been restocked—not with a typical mix of bass and bluegill, but rather some of the now rare nongame species native to the Sangamon River basin. At present, these include the ironcolor shiner and the lake chubsucker, neither of which you are likely to see since they shy away from the top of the pond. You should be able to observe the pond’s other new resident fish, the state-threatened starhead topminnow. It’s a two to three inch fish that is easy to see because it hangs out near the surface of the water, and easy to identify because it sports two very light spots, one on the top of its head and another on its back.

As the aquatic vegetation of the pond expands to provide cover for smaller fish, plans call for the introduction of native predator species, perhaps smallmouth bass and grass pickerel.

In the current absence of predatory fish, the amphibians that use the Allerton Mansion Pond are enjoying a population boom. You can see and hear bullfrogs and cricket frogs throughout the day, but the pond is also a breeding hotspot for grey treefrogs, chorus frogs, leopard frogs and two species of toads.

From a visitor’s perspective, perhaps the coolest aspect of the Allerton pond restoration project is the boardwalk just now under construction. When it’s finished, everyone will be able to enjoy an up-close view of this renewed ecosystem.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Addressing Light Pollution

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Sky glow, which obscures our view of the heavens at night, is the most commonly recognized effect of bad lighting, or light pollution.

But bad lighting also causes a number of other problems. It creates glare, which is light that shines in our eyes rather than on things we need to see, and light trespass, unwanted light that strays into our yards and windows. Bad lighting is also the source of what some call light clutter, the unappealing and visually confusing nighttime environment so common in modern cities.

Beyond its undesirable visual effects, bad lighting also wastes energy—a lot of it! One reasonable calculation puts the cost of wasted light in the U.S. at one billion dollars a year. The energy used to produce that wasted light would equal at least six million tons of coal, or twenty-three million barrels of oil.

Why is such waste so widely accepted? Because we’ve come to equate more light with better safety and security. But that is simply not the case. In fact, overly bright, misdirected light can actually do more harm than good. Light that shines in our eyes prevents us from seeing hazards as we walk or drive at night. Widely scattered, bright light also creates hard shadows, which can conceal criminals while making victims visible. Worst of all, excessive, poorly designed lighting can make us feel safe when we should actually be on guard.

The principles of good lighting are really pretty simple. Good lighting shines down, only where it is needed, rather than sideways, where it causes glare, or up, where it causes sky glow. Good lighting is bright enough to light only what needs to be illuminated, and does not
create harsh transition zones between light and dark areas. Good lighting is also energy efficient and on only when it is needed.

It’s actually pretty easy to spot well-designed light fixtures once you know what to look for. They have the light source high, with a top and sides that direct light downward. It’s worth noting that you can illuminate even large areas such as parking lots and ball fields with such fixtures.

In poorly designed fixtures the light source is not fully shielded, either on the sides or at the top. The worst offenders are drop-lens cobra fixtures—the ones that loom over our arterial streets in town and the lighted portions of many interstates. Most locales have a policy of replacing these as they wear out with far superior flat lens fixtures that shine light only where it’s supposed to go. Other poorly designed fixtures include the super bright barn light fixtures found on power company poles, and decorative globes that shine light in all directions

You can do your part to reduce light pollution by replacing poorly designed fixtures on your property with well-designed ones. And remember as you do this that you’ll likely recover the cost of new fixtures with the money you save on electricity to operate them. If you want to go beyond that, check in with the Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society or the U of I Astronomical Society concerning local efforts to promote dark skies.

With good lighting we’ve got nothing to lose, and an entire universe to gain.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Illinois Armadillos?

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

We’ve grown accustomed to the alarms raised when a new species of animal makes its way into Illinois, and in most cases with good reason. Creatures like the Asian longhorned beetle and the Bighead carp wreak havoc on ecosystems and threaten our economy. But there’s a newcomer to the southern part of our state that seems to be stirring up more curiosity than eradication plans--the nine-banded armadillo.

Nine-banded armadillos are the most numerous and widely distributed of the twenty species of armadillos that exist today, and the only kind that inhabit the United States. They are native to South and Central America, but they’ve been expanding their range for at least the past hundred and fifty years. They were first reported north of the Rio Grande in Texas in 1849 and have steadily spread north and east from there. During the early part of the twentieth century, another population of armadillos was established in Florida when they were brought there by people and released. That population also spread rapidly and converged with the Texas population in northern Florida and southern Georgia in the 1970s. Armadillos now also occupy parts of South Carolina, much of Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, southern Kansas, Arkansas, western Tennessee, and southern Missouri. Individuals have even been reported as far north as Nebraska.

Will Illinois be added to the list of states that armadillos call home? People have reported seeing them here since the 1970s, but a flurry of sightings in recent years has prompted Joyce Hofmann and colleagues at the Illinois Natural History Survey to look into the issue.

With support from the Illinois Wildlife Preservation fund, they surveyed 135 people familiar with the animal life of southern Illinois and solicited reports of armadillo sightings by birderwatchers. Respondents reported 76 different armadillo records from 22 counties between 1999 and 2003, mostly in the western half of southern Illinois. There were also reports in 2004 from seven additional counties.

How armadillos arrive in Illinois is an open question. They might be brought by people and released, as they were in Florida. Or they might come as stowaways in cargo on barges, trains, or trucks. Or they might arrive on their own power walking across bridges, or--unlikely though it may be--even somehow crossing the Mississippi river.

Although we know that armadillos can get to Illinois, we don’t yet know whether or how well they might become established here. Cold will eventually stop their spread north, since they can’t hibernate and depend for food on insects and other creatures they find by digging in the earth. Where the ground stays frozen for too many days in a row during winter they are unable to dig for food and can’t survive. The current prediction for their northern limit is a line that runs across the state about a third of the way up from the bottom.

Whether or not armadillos become Illinois residents, they are fascinating for their many quirks.

When they are startled, armadillos may jump four feet into the air, and they are surprisingly fast for such ungainly looking creatures.

Armadillos don’t float naturally, so they cross small bodies of water by walking across the bottom, like divers wearing weights. When they must swim, they can make themselves buoyant by gulping air to partially inflate their intestines.

Armadillos typically give birth to identical quadruplets every year, and they can delay pregnancy at the earliest stages to ensure that young will not be born until weather conditions are favorable.

And of course, armadillos are the only North American mammals that grow their own armor.

If you happen to see an armadillo in Illinois, make a note of the date and location and contact the Illinois Natural History Survey. You’ll be contributing detail to a unique ecological success story.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Wind Power on the Illinois Horizon

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Wind has an immediate impact on us just about any time we step out of doors. In winter a blast from the north adds insult to the injury of January’s bitter cold. On a summer day, even a slight breeze provides a touch of relief from the heat. But wind has the potential to play a much more significant role in our lives in the near future, as we harness its energy to produce electricity on a large scale.

Capturing wind energy to generate electricity is not new. Americans first used wind to generate electric power more than a hundred years ago, when a windmill with a fifty-six-foot-wide blade could produce about twelve kilowatts.

The scale of wind energy projects today is entirely different. Most of the high-tech, utility-style wind turbines being manufactured now generate between seven and eighteen-hundred kilowatts—up to a hundred-fifty times more than the electricity produced by the first wind turbines. Today’s turbines are much larger than their predecessors, with blades more than two hundred feet wide, and they convert wind to electricity much more efficiently.

The U.S. Department of Energy rates the potential for wind energy in most of Illinois as “fair,” but there are also areas that fall into the “good” category. If the potential were fully developed, it is estimated that power generated from these areas could meet between five and ten percent of current use.

At present there are four major wind energy projects operating in Illinois, and together they generate enough electricity to meet the demands of 25,000 to 30,000 households. A number of other proposed projects would quadruple that capacity.

One of these projects is coming to the UIUC campus in the near future thanks to the “Clean Energy Technology Fee” that students assess themselves, a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, and capital support from the University.

The plan is for the University to build and operate three one-and-a-half megawatt turbines. These turbines will be more than three hundred feet tall at the tip of an extended blade, and they’ll occupy a site on the new South Farms. Together they will provide just under three percent of the electricity used on campus.

The U of I’s wind turbines will also serve as a demonstration for landowners who might be interested in wind energy, and for teaching and research by U of I faculty and students.

None of this is to say wind energy is without drawbacks. Today’s turbines really loom over the landscape, and they’re not the sort of thing many people want to look at in otherwise unspoiled natural settings. In addition, they affect wildlife to some degree although careful siting and design can minimize their impact.

On the whole, the tradeoffs are compelling. Wind energy generates electricity without producing greenhouse gases or other air pollution, and it entails none of the immediate or long term environmental problems associated with nuclear power.

Credit for the information in today’s spot goes to Matt Malten, sustainability coordinator at UIUC. You can learn more about wind energy in Illinois from his article in the Spring 2006 issue of The Illinois Steward magazine.