Monday, December 17, 2007

Holiday gifts to help people connect with the natural world

Holiday gifts to help people connect with the natural world

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With all of the hype devoted to electronic entertainment, it can be difficult to remember that holiday gift giving need not involve batteries, or even a trip to the mall. Here are some suggestions for how to avoid those things and get gifts that can help people you care about connect with the natural world.

Start with field guides from the Illinois Natural History Survey, which you can order by phone (217-244-2161) or purchase at Survey headquarters, 1816 South Oak Street in Champaign. The field guides published by the Natural History Survey are similar to the national guides you may be more familiar with, but they’re written and photographed by scientists from Illinois, and they contain more detailed information about ranges and habitats in our state.

For people who appreciate the beauties of butterflies and moths, there are three guides to help distinguish among the many colorful species of these insects that inhabit our state for at least part of the year.

If you’re shopping for someone who’s interested in more down-to-earth critters, you can’t go wrong with the Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Illinois. Like other guides, this book helps to answer that most important question in the field, “what is it?” But it’s also an eye-opener. People who browse the photographs of some of the fascinating snakes, frogs, toads, lizards, and salamanders that can be found right here in Illinois might also be inclined to go looking for them.

Are there people on your list who enjoy kayaking or canoeing? Help them learn the difference between a rabbitsfoot and a pistolgrip with the Field Guide to Freshwater Mussels of the Midwest.

If you’d prefer to give a gift to be enjoyed inside, consider a year’s subscription to the Illinois Steward magazine, which is published by University of Illinois Extension (by phone, 217-333-5900). The Steward introduces readers to wildlife, natural areas, and important issues in conservation with captivating photographs and in-depth articles. It’s a quarterly reminder of the many natural treasures that are ours to enjoy and protect. The publishers of the Illinois Steward also produce a set of note cards featuring scenes from around the state that makes an excellent gift.

Another subscription possibility is, Outdoor Illinois, a monthly magazine published by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (217-782-7454). As a DNR publication, Outdoor Illinois may hold special appeal for the hunters and anglers on you list.

If you’re buying for birders, stop by the Audubon gift shop at the Urbana Park District’s Anita Purves Nature Center. There you can pick up Birds of Illinois (Lone Pine Publishing) a field guide with state-specific range maps and more detailed accounts of life history and conservation topics than you’ll find in bird guides with a wider focus. If you want a gift for someone who would like to bird more, but doesn’t know where to go, give them the book Birding Illinois (Falcon), which describes how to get around and what you can expect to see at more than 110 locations throughout the state.

With a little luck, you’ll be finished shopping early, and have some time to get out for yourself.

On the web

Illinois Natural History Survey Manuals

Illinois Steward Subscription

Outdoor Illinois Subscription

Information for Audubon Nature Shop at Anita Purves Nature Center:

Monday, December 10, 2007

University district lighting project can protect environmental values

University district lighting project can protect environmental values

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The cities of Champaign and Urbana and the University of Illinois have recently embarked on a cooperative project to update the outdoor lighting in the university district over the next 10 years.

Done well, such a large-scale project affords some excellent opportunities for protecting environmental values. Better still, taking advantage of these opportunities need not increase the overall cost of providing lighting, or detract from safety and security. That’s because the qualities that make outdoor lighting good for people also make it good for the environment.

I think most of us are so accustomed to the effects of poorly designed outdoor lighting, which are sometimes referred to collectively as “light pollution,” that we hardly even recognize them. But recognizing what’s wrong with much of our current outdoor lighting is important as we look toward the future. And don’t take my word for it. The next time you’re out at night, I bet you can spot all of these problems.

First, look for fixtures that direct bright light at or near a horizontal angle. Examples of such fixtures include the boxy-looking wall packs that are sometimes affixed to buildings and the old-style, drop lens cobra head fixtures that loom over many arterial streets. (Newer, flat lens cobra head fixtures direct light toward the ground.) Notice that as you walk or drive toward such fixtures it actually becomes more difficult to see obstacles and other dangers in front of you or off to your side. Notice also how bright light that shines horizontally creates harsh shadows and that it intrudes on neighboring properties.

Next, pay attention to fixtures that direct some part of their light up into space, like the historic-style globes around town, and the super-bright, so-called “security” lights on power company poles. The most direct bad effect of such fixtures is sky glow, the light that denies modern urban dwellers one of the most basic human experiences, the opportunity to look up at the stars and wonder.

Beyond producing undesirable visual effects, bad lighting also wastes a lot of energy. One study conducted in the mid 1990s calculated the cost of wasted outdoor light in the U.S. to be about a billion dollars a year, and there’s no reason to suppose that figure has gone down. The energy used to produce that wasted light would equal at least six million tons of coal or 23 million barrels of oil.

So what would a good campus lighting project look like?

Gary Cziko, a University of Illinois professor and Urbana resident has proposed what seem to me five very useful criteria for evaluating the options, all beginning with ‘E’:

• Efficient—fixtures should produce the greatest amount of useful light per watt of electricity used.
• Effective—fixtures should direct light downward (as depicted in photo, by Gary Cziko), and the light they produce should be of a color that enhances vision.
• Economical—the costs of operating and maintaining fixtures should considered in conjunction with the costs of purchasing and installing them.
• Ecological—lighting should be limited to areas where it is truly useful so that plants and wildlife are not disturbed unnecessarily, and attention should be given to disposal issues since some lights contain mercury.
• Esthetic—fixtures should be pleasing to look at both during the day when they are off and at night when they are on.

With the right design, the University District uniform lighting project can create an attractive space for people without creating undue stress on the environment.

You can see Gary Cziko's presentation on U of I campus lighting at:

Much more information about the why and how of good lighting can be found at the website of the International Dark Sky Association:

Monday, December 03, 2007

Weather watchers wanted in east central Illinois

Weather watchers wanted in east central Illinois

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One of the best lines I know about weather is the quote attributed to Mark Twain that says, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody seems to do anything about it.” I mention that here, however, in order to introduce an effort by weather researchers who are working to make it untrue. Sort of.

With support from the National Science Foundation and a long list of other sponsors, these researchers are developing a nationwide network of backyard weather observers who will work together to measure and map precipitation in their communities.

The official name of the project is the “Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow” (CoCoRaHS) network. CoCoRaHS began in Colorado in 1998, prompted by a strange storm that dumped more than a foot of rain in some parts of Fort Collins, while other parts of the city experienced much more moderate rainfall. The flash flood that resulted from this storm killed 5 people and caused more than $200 million in damage. Somewhere down the line it is hoped that the greater understanding of storms enabled by the CoCoRaHS network will help forecasters foresee the potential for such disasters.

The CoCoRaHS network is growing rapidly at this point; currently there are more than 7,000 observers participating in 26 states.[Right: CoCoRaHS observers measure and report precipitation daily. Photo by Steve Hilberg.]

In our area CoCoRaHS is being coordinated by the Illinois State Water Survey and the National Weather Service, in cooperation with University of Illinois Extension. Researchers at the Illinois State Water Survey have already used data generated by the network to more accurately describe rainfall patterns from storms in Illinois.

CoCoRaHS observers participate in an initial training session where they learn how to install their rain gauges and take readings using standard procedures. After initial training, observers commit to spending a few minutes each day measuring precipitation in their own back yards and reporting their findings to the network via the World Wide Web.

The CoCoRaHS network welcomes observers of all ages, and provides a great opportunity for families to work together. It’s ideal for learning some basics about science, such as how to collect data using standard instruments and procedures. But it’s also cool in the hands-on approach it requires; observers go outside every day to read their gauges, which are more accurate than the remote sensors that are so widely available.

People interested in joining the CoCoRaHS network are invited to attend an information and training workshop to be held on Wednesday, December 12th at 7:00 p.m. in the Champaign County Extension auditorium. There is no charge to attend the training session, but pre-registration is required. Call U of I Extension at 217-333-7672 or go to University of Illinois Extension, Champaign County, [] on the web and click the “Rain Spotters” link (near the top right on the page).