Thursday, August 31, 2006

Speaking of Monarchs

Link: is the place to start further research into monarchs on the web.

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If you’re wondering whether you’ve been seeing a lot of monarch butterflies in the past couple of weeks, you probably have. Spurred on by cooler, shorter days, monarchs from southern Canada and the northern U.S. have already begun their southward fall migration. At our latitude, peak abundance for monarchs typically occurs between about September 10th and September 23rd, although variations in weather patterns and other factors shift the timing of this event from one year to the next.

If you are a native to Illinois, where the monarch is the state insect, you are probably familiar with some of the characteristics that make it one of the world’s favorite insects.

Chief among these is the fact that North American monarchs migrate, like no other butterflies in the world. Each year, the summer’s last generation of monarchs born east of the Rockies flies south to the mountains of central Mexico, a journey of more than fifteen hundred miles for some. Under normal conditions, migration advances at roughly fifty miles a day, although tagged individuals have been reported to cover close to eighty miles. Monarchs feed on nectar as they move south, and actually gain weight over the course of the journey.

At their overwintering sites, which were only discovered in 1975, monarchs congregate by the millions on Oyamel fir trees, resting quietly from mid November to mid April. As spring advances, the overwintering monarchs begin to mate, and they move north into the Gulf Coast states to lay eggs. The resulting young will become the year’s first generation of new adults. Members of this new generation will then continue the journey north, laying eggs as they go.

How the south-migrating monarchs of the fall locate the same clusters of trees their great great great grandparents left in the spring remains a mystery for scientists.

Monarchs are also memorable for the fact that as caterpillars they feed exclusively on plants of the milkweed family, which contain toxic compounds that make them unpalatable to birds and other would-be predators. Thus the showy bands of white, yellow, and black on the caterpillars and the vivid orange and black of the adult’s wings, are a warning to other animals: “Don’t eat me; you’ll get sick.”

This is not to say that monarchs have it easy. Monarch caterpillars are preyed upon heavily by ladybugs, as well as various other insects and arachnids, despite the toxic milkweed compounds that protect them from birds.

Monarchs are also quite frequently killed by cars. In fact, the first study to document systematically the magnitude of roadway mortality of butterflies and moths anywhere in the United States was conducted by a group including May Berenbaum of the U of I Department of Entomology. Extrapolating from counts of dead monarchs along roads near Champaign-Urbana, they estimated that, statewide, more than five hundred thousand monarchs became roadkill over one week during the course of their study.

Of course, the long-term well being of monarchs as a species depends on habitat. They are especially vulnerable at their overwintering sites, where logging and other disturbances can affect large portions of the population at once. But habitat alteration is also a factor here in the north, where suburban development and the expansion of agriculture leave less and less room for the plants that monarchs depend on.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Pleasures of Commuting by Bicycle

a group of citizens from the community working together to make Champaign County, Illinois the most bicyclist friendly county in the Midwest.

Photos of campus bike path hazards by UIUC professor Gary Cziko.
These illustrate why I leave bike paths out when discussing commuting by bike.

Bicycle Commuting web page by the League of Illinois Bicyclists.

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Between three-dollar-a-gallon gas and mounting concern over global climate change, more and more people are looking for ways to burn less fuel as they commute. In this quest, we often plow straight ahead to new technologies—hybrid cars now, hydrogen powered cars in the future.But you know, I bet you’ve already got a vehicle in your garage that can “out-green” any new car, a vehicle that’ll get you from point A to point B quickly and efficiently using century old technology. I mean your bike, of course.

I’ve been commuting by bike in Champaign-Urbana for just over twenty years now, and I’ve found that there are really very few days when taking the bike to work isn’t my best option. I don’t ride in thunderstorms, or when snow and ice make the roads hazardous. Otherwise, the weather here doesn’t present many obstacles that can’t be overcome with the right clothing. And the flat terrain means you never have to pedal all that hard.

Sometimes when I’m biking I’ll stop to talk with friends or colleagues who comment on the environmental virtue of not driving. But you know what? I don’t bike because it’s virtuous. I bike because I like to.

When I get to work on the U of I campus, I park right outside the door to my building and pay no money for the privilege. Aside from other bicyclists, who else does that? I am able to listen for birds all the way to work, and if I hear something interesting, I can pull over to take a look. I don’t need to make time in my day to “exercise” when that’s taken care of in my commute. I get to enjoy the sun on my face, and the breeze in my hair. And of course on my bike I never stop at gas stations.

I suppose there are plenty of reasons for people not to use bikes for commuting, but I suspect that the most significant one is automobile traffic. People fear being hit by a car while riding a bike . . . so they hop into a car, instead. The thing is, bicycle commuting need not be dangerous, and it’s not scary once you become accustomed to it.

In order to enjoy commuting by bike, you need to claim for yourself a place on the road. There are plenty of web pages and books that provide detailed instructions about how to do this, but the main idea here is really not that complicated.

As a bicyclist you are not in the way of traffic, you are traffic. You should operate your bike as a vehicle and expect others using the roadway to treat you as one. This means you use lights when lights are needed, you signal your turns, and you obey other traffic laws as you do in a car. You turn left from the left turn lane, you don’t pass on the right, and you don’t ride on the sidewalk. In short, you assert yourself and behave predictably.

Now, asserting yourself need not include riding on the busiest streets in town at the busiest times of day. One of the great pleasures of bicycle commuting is developing routes that allow you to enjoy the journey.

If you’re interested in touching base with others in our community who want to promote bicycle commuting, check out on the web. They are a newly formed group whose goal is to make Champaign County the most bicyclist friendly county in the Midwest.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Environmental Benefits of Mass Transit

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When the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District moved to annex newer housing developments in southwest Champaign last year, it ignited a controversy that has yet to be fully resolved. I don’t mean to take on the legal or political ins and outs of annexation, and I don’t mean to speak for how the MTD operates. But I would like to recall to your attention the environmental benefits of mass transit, benefits that are enjoyed by everyone in the community served, riders and non-riders alike.

When some people take the bus rather than drive in individual cars, we all benefit from cleaner air. You may hear people complain about the exhaust that buses produce. But from the perspective of the community as a whole, the real issue is the per-mile difference in emissions between bus travel and car travel. A bus does produce more exhaust than a car, but it also transports more people. In net terms, bus travel reduces air pollution.

When some people take the bus rather than drive in individual cars, we all benefit from a reduced demand for parking. Of course there’s money to be saved for every parking space that employers don’t have to build or maintain, but there are also important environmental benefits to not building parking, too. By not building parking, we reduce the rate at which land surrounding the urban area is gobbled up, and we refrain from putting additional stress on local waterways with more storm runoff.

When some people take the bus rather than drive in individual cars, we all benefit from reduced congestion on city and campus streets. According to Census figures from the year 2000, the average travel time to work for residents of Champaign-Urbana was 14.6 minutes. That relatively short commute is one of the factors that makes our community such a pleasant place to live, and mass transit helps to make it possible.

Local planners project that over the next two decades traffic congestion will increase to twelve times present levels, given current patterns of new development, which heavily favor travel by car. In other words, unless mass transit plays a larger role in the way our community grows, drivers in Champaign-Urbana will spend more and more time sitting in their cars in the years to come, using more gas, creating more exhaust . . . you know this picture.

Beyond the inconvenience increased traffic congestion means for drivers, it also creates an environment that is hostile to other means of transportation. As streets become more crowded with cars, they become more dangerous for people who walk or bike, in effect creating pressure for them to drive, too.

Clearly, not everyone in our community is going to use bus service to get from place to place. But that does not make the benefits of bus service to the community any less real.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Bumped by News Story

Environmental Almanac was bumped by a news story on August 10, but will return at the regular time next week!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Toward a More Sustainable Home Landscape

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For many of us, summer means lawncare, especially when the weather cooperates to really make grass grow. It’s probably not news to you that conventional lawncare has a significant negative impact on the environment. But it’s also possible to enjoy the benefits of a yard without compromising our own health or the health of the planet.

Before I talk about what’s wrong with the conventional lawn, I should emphasize that I like turf in my yard. My children play wiffleball and run around there. I play wiffleball and run around there. We have picnics, we wash the car, we catch up with the neighbors, we hang out laundry now and then. I even like the way grass looks.

But to have some grass does not require any of us to participate in the ongoing environmental degradation associated with conventional lawn care. According to the US EPA Americans spend twenty-five billion dollars a year on lawn care. Residential lawns and gardens are doused with eighty million pounds of chemical pesticides and seventy million tons of fertilizers each year, with far reaching environmental impacts. Some portion of our fertilizer runs off into local streams degrading those waters by promoting algae growth, and eventually contributing to water quality problems as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. In the yard itself, the insecticides used to fight pests typically kill all bugs, not just the ones we mean to target, and they pose health risks to those who apply them as well as children and pets who come into contact with them. Excessive lawn watering also represents a misuse of fresh water, already a scarce resource in some parts of the U.S., and one that we’re just beginning to value properly in the Midwest.

I mean to outline here some of the changes individuals can make toward creating a more sustainable home landscape, but for particulars let me also encourage you to explore the resources linked to this piece on the Environmental Almanac website [links below].

For high impact change, nothing beats cutting down on the amount of your yard kept as turf. Most of us tend more grass area than we need, or even want, out of inertia. Our yards are covered in grass when we get them, and we’re not highly motivated to change. But if we make the initial investment of time and energy to replace part of a lawn with native perennials, we liberate ourselves from some part of lawn care forever, and benefit the environment at the same time.

We can also cut down on the environmental impact associated with our yards by some basic changes in our practices: Watering less frequently but more deeply, mowing to a height of three inches rather than scalping the lawn, using organic alternatives to the ubiquitous commercial products--dry compost for fertilizer, or corn gluten as a weed preventer, for example.

A lawn managed according to sustainable principles may not meet the aesthetic standard set by pictures advertising conventional lawn care products. But it can serve our needs and contribute to the long-term health of our environment.

National Audubon Society "Healthy Yard" pages:

Ecology Action Center (Bloomington IL) Yard Smart pages: