Friday, December 19, 2008

Some highlights of 2008 climate change science

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Some highlights of 2008 climate change science

The amount information now generated by scientific efforts to comprehend climate change can make it difficult to feel like you’re keeping up. But as 2008 draws to a close I think it is worth looking back at some of the year’s highlights.

Toward that end I checked in this week with Don Wuebbles, who is a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois and a lead author on the first two international assessments of climate change sponsored by the United Nations. Recognizing the continued, vociferous attempts to sow confusion by interest groups opposed to changes in public policy, Wuebbles emphasized that ongoing research substantiates the idea that the earth’s climate is changing significantly, and that that change is being driven by human activity.

The most dramatic aspect of the climate change story this year was the retreat of sea ice in the artic. Since 1979 scientists have been using satellites to measure the extent of arctic sea ice, and they use the minimum area it occupies in September as a benchmark for making comparisons among years. This year’s minimum was the second lowest recorded since satellite measurements began, following the record low set last year, and it was 34 percent lower than the average over the past three decades. [For short accounts see Sept. 17 NY Times article by Andy Revkin and Oct. 3 article from ScienceDaily. For much more information and cool animations of polar sea ice see "The Cryosphere Today" by William Chapman and others with the U of I Department of Atmospheric Sciences Polar Research Group.] At one point this summer both the Northwest Passage over Canada and the Northern Sea Route over Russia were open at the same time. The continued decline of ice in the arctic served to underscore the importance of designating polar bears as a threatened species, which U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did this past March after years of footdragging.

Another dramatic ice story comes from Greenland, where the focus of attention is on how fast the Greenland ice sheet is melting, and how that melting will affect sea level over the next century. The most recent estimates used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that the melting of Greenland ice would contribute between one and four inches to sea level rise over the next 100 years. But a study published this summer led by a University of Wisconsin geologist suggests that projection is too conservative, and that melting Greenland ice could contribute between one and two feet to sea level over 100 years. [ScienceDaily short versionNature Geoscience long version (requires access through library or subscription).] This projection is based on analysis of how the last great ice mass to cover parts of Canada and the U.S. melted under conditions similar to those expected for Greenland in the century to come.

Closer to home, professor Wuebbles collaborated with a former student as lead authors on the climate science component of the report, Climate Change and Chicago issued in September. That report projects that by the year 2100 summers in Chicago will resemble present-day summers in Atlanta, even assuming that the global economy make dramatic moves away from fossil fuels. Even hotter conditions are projected under a business-as-usual scenario, with as many as 80 summer days with temperatures above 90 degrees, as opposed to the current average of 15. Unfortunately winters are not projected to be so much warmer. The Chicago climate report also projects disruptive changes in precipitation patterns, with increased precipitation and greater storm events occurring in winter and spring, but less rainfall when it is most needed, later in the growing season.

The good news evident in Chicago’s Climate Action Plan is that it is possible for scientists, policymakers, and stakeholders to work together to confront the challenges posed by climate change. Perhaps there’s hope for such progress at the national level in the year to come.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

An environmental book list for the holidays

An environmental book list for the holidays

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As I put together Environmental Almanac from week to week I have the opportunity to interact with many thoughtful, generous people who are motivated by a wide range of environmental interests. For this week’s column, I asked some of them for thoughts on a list of books that readers might want to give as gifts or add to their own reading lists.

Judy Miller, environmental program manager with the Urbana Park District suggested two books that highlight a child’s perspective on the natural world: Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne “because it is just plain fun to read and the perfect example of how a four-year-old thinks and interacts with nature,” and A Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson, which Miller said, “reminds us what it is like to be a child experiencing nature for the first time.”

Robert McKim, a philosopher and head of the UI Department of Religion, recommended Daniel Quinn's 1992 novel, Ishmael. McKim called “Ishmael” “challenging, thought-provoking, wise, not at all heavy-handed, and a really enjoyable read.” Further, he noted, “It raises important questions about how we ought to think of our relationship to the other species with whom we share this planet.”

Jamie Ellis, a botanist with the Illinois Natural History Survey and board president of Grand Prairie Friends, suggested a work of nonfiction, Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality and Wildness in America. This book, by David Petersen, a takes a critical look at hunting today. Ellis said, “I feel that hunting brings me closer to the nature I want to protect and conserve, and this book provides the philosophy and thought behind my feelings about hunting.”

The staff at Prairie Rivers Network collaborated to recommend The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert by Craig Childs, which they describe as “an adventurous and poetic journal of a back-country guide’s treks through the water-shaped desert.” They also suggested, Staying Put: Settling Down in a Restless World, by Indiana writer Scott Russell Sanders,” which is concerned with the importance of putting down roots and of attachments to specific places.

Chris Phillips, a herpetologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey and UI faculty affiliate, suggested two books about the work of biologists in the field: Mean and Lowly Things: Snakes, Science, and Survival in the Congo, by contemporary herpetologist, Kate Jackson, and Into the Jungle: Great Adventures in the Search for Evolution, which tells the stories of earlier naturalists whose work provided the foundation for our scientific understanding of life on earth.

Cynthia Hoyle, a transportation planning consultant with the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District recommended Edens Lost & Found: How Ordinary Citizens are Restoring Our Great American Cities, by Harry Wiland and Dale Bell. This book, which is a companion to a PBS series available on DVD, tells the inspiring stories of how ordinary people have worked together to heal the Earth and bring hope and opportunity to our inner cities by uncovering and restoring the beauty of nature.

May Berenbaum, head of the UI Department of Entomology, and a leader in the ongoing, international effort to understand dramatic declines in honey bees, recommended a new book on that topic by Rowan Jacobsen called Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis.

Finally, if you could use a break from shopping and reading you might want to check out Hotspots, a new film that will air on public television nextweek. It provides a global perspective on the current wave of plant and animal extinction, so it won’t be a pick-me-up, but it promises a view that includes hope for the future.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Beavers in the Prairie State

Beavers in the Prairie State

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On a recent walk at River Bend Forest Preserve someone I met on the trail asked if I knew a good place in Illinois to see beavers. After a moment’s thought I answered, “Anywhere,” because there are unmistakable signs of them in so many places. Beaver-chewed trees, sticks stripped of bark and the slides beavers create by dragging branches down the bank are just part of the landscape along many bodies of water in the Prairie State. [Photo: Chewed trees, like this oak on the bank of the Sangamon River at Lodge Park in Piatt County, are an unmistakable sign of beaver activity.]

Looking back, though, I realized that my quick answer didn’t really get the questioner any closer to laying eyes on Illinois’ largest rodent. That’s because even though beavers live throughout the state, they are not often seen, since they are most active at night, or near dusk and dawn. My answer really should have been to say that if you want to see beavers your best bet is to find a site on a stream or pond where they’ve been active and quietly watch it in the hour before sunset.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when it was difficult to find beavers in Illinois at all, since prior to 1900 they were nearly extirpated from the state by unregulated trapping. They bounced back over the course of the twentieth century through a combination of protection and reintroduction, and are now common where suitable habitat exists. Indeed, today, beavers sometimes prove a significant nuisance when their ideas about suitable locations for ponds conflict with ours.

Of course, some humans admire the ingenious ways beavers modify their environment, and their ability to do this also benefits the many plants and animals that make use of wetlands. For beavers, the point of building dams is to create ponds that are deep enough not to freeze solid in winter. This allows them to construct lodges that are accessible only through underwater passages. The typical beaver lodge is a dome-shaped mound made of sticks, logs and mud, and a really big one may be 10 feet tall and 30 feet around. But many perfectly respectable beavers live in burrows excavated in the banks of bodies of water, too. That’s why you may find all of the other evidence that beavers inhabit a pond or stretch of river without ever seeing a lodge. Bank burrows, like lodges, provide beavers with protection from weather and predators.

Beavers possess an array of physical adaptations that suit them for a semi-aquatic life. They propel themselves through the water with webbed hind feet, using their signature, paddle-shaped tail as a rudder. Their eyes are protected by a clear, third eyelid, and their nostrils and ears can be closed when they submerge. A beaver may remain underwater for as long as 15 minutes at a stretch.

Unlike most other mammals, beavers are monogamous, and male and female beaver mates remain together until one of the pair dies. Beaver young live with their parents for nearly two years, so family groups include adults, yearlings and kits together.

If you would like to learn more about beavers or any of the other 59 species of wild mammals that occur regularly in Illinois, I would encourage you to pick up a copy of the Field Manual of Illinois Mammals published this year by the Illinois Natural History Survey. The manual contains all of the information you could ask for in such a book, but it is written with attention to the interests of readers who are not scientists, and it is distinguished by first-rate photographs and original color drawings.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Thanksgiving feast with local, organic food

A Thanksgiving feast with local, organic food

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I’d like to be able to say that my concern for the long-term good of planet earth guides all of my decisions about the food I buy and consume. But the fact is, I do most of my shopping where it’s convenient, and I’m as likely as anyone to hesitate when the sticker price on organic food is higher than the conventional alternative.

But I think Thanksgiving represents a fantastic opportunity for being more mindful about food—being thankful, first and always, to have enough, but also appreciating where it comes from, thinking about my relationship with the people who produce it, and cultivating an understanding of how food production for humans affects the rest of life on earth. Since contemplating these matters always leads me back to the same place, which is a renewed commitment to seeking out locally produced, organic food, I’ll spare you the philosophy.

Instead let me tell you about a conversation I had recently with Alisa DeMarco, who knows local food and what to do with it as well as anybody in east central Illinois. DeMarco is currently chef and associate cheesemaker at Prairie Fruits Farm just north of Urbana. Before coming to Prairie Fruits Farm, she trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, after which she spent some time cooking in Austin and was then chef at the Great Impasta in Champaign. (DeMarco also currently operates Big Spoon Custom Culinary Services.)

Over lunch at the reinvigorated Common Ground food co-op in Lincoln Square Village, DeMarco outlined her plans for a Thanksgiving Day feast featuring local food. [Photo: some of the local, organic produce currently available at Common Ground, including leeks, carrots, brussls sprouts, and chard.] She emphasized that a person need not make any painful accommodations to put on a locally sourced meal, given the abundance and variety of local food available now in east central Illinois.

Since Thanksgiving can be an all day affair DeMarco suggested that a cheese board would be the place to start and, naturally, cheese from Prairie Fruits Farm would be essential to that, along with, perhaps, a mix of sliced apples and pears.

The first course of a meal could then be a soup, featuring either butternut squash, or pumpkin, or maybe even both together. (See recipe below.)

Follow that with spinach salad, wilted with a little bacon from Stan Schutte’s Triple S Farm or another local meat producer, and topped with toasted walnuts.

For the main course nothing beats a locally raised turkey, although you’re unlikely to find one of those if you haven’t already arranged for it. If you’re stuck with a grocery store bird this year, you might make a note to yourself to sign up for one with a local producer at the farmer’s market next summer. DeMarco said she would be making her stuffing with a traditional mix of herbs and onions, but that it would also feature fig and walnut bread from Stewart's Artisan Breads and Desserts in Monticello (217.586.7816 |

We talked about so many possibilities for vegetables and potatoes that I won’t try to recount them all here. But DeMarco made the point that when you start with local produce, simple preparation is the key since the flavor is in the food itself.

While Thanksgiving is a great time to be mindful about the food we eat, it’s also a good time to recall that there are many among who need help just to get by right now. So as you’re planning what you’ll buy, you might also budget for a donation to the Eastern Illinois Food Bank. They can provide $10 worth of food for families facing hunger for every dollar contributed to them.


Silky Butternut Squash Soup with Nutmeg Cream, from Alisa DeMarco

serves 8

4 lbs butternut squash, peeled, cleaned and cut into 1 inch cubes
1 stick unsalted butter
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 celery rib, finely chopped
3 apples, peeled and diced
2 quarts vegetable stock
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup heavy cream
freshly grated nutmeg
fresh thyme, finely chopped

In a large 3-4 qt. saucepot, melt butter over medium heat. Add onions, garlic and celery and sweat, stirring occassionally, until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add apples and squash along with vegetable stock. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until vegetables and squash are just tender, about 20 minutes. Working with a blender or food processor puree soup until smooth. For a finer texture, pass soup through a sieve and return to pot. Adjust with additional stock if necessary. Add 1/2 cup of heavy cream, cinnamon, cayenne and additional salt and pepper to taste. Whip remaining cream to soft peaks and add freshly grated nutmeg. Re-warm soup and serve ladled into bowls garnished with a small dollop of nutmeg cream and chopped herbs.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

World’s largest fossil forest documented by Illinois State Geological Survey scientists

World’s largest fossil forest documented by Illinois State Geological Survey Scientists

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Three hundred million years ago the landmass that we know as North America occupied a place on the globe straddling the equator. Its climate was consistently warm and it received about 10 inches of rain per month throughout the year. Under these conditions the landscape of what’s now Illinois was dominated by lush, peat swamp forests where the waterlogged soil kept dead plant material from decomposing fully.

But changes were in the offing. The glaciers nearer the earth’s poles were retreating, giving rise to alternating wet and dry seasons in the tropics, which included Illinois. This meant that the waters emptying into the shallow sea nearby were charged with great loads of sediment. When a major earthquake south of Danville suddenly dropped a section of peat swamp below sea level and the water rushed in, this sediment accumulated at an astonishing rate, maybe as fast as ten feet in one year. As the sediment coalesced into shale, many of the plants that it covered were preserved, and a fossil forest was formed.

Despite the fact that the fossil forest now lies 250 feet below ground, scientists have been able to see it in recent years--in the ceiling of the Peabody Energy Company’s Riola coal mine. As miners dig out the coal seam—which is all that ancient undecayed plant matter, aged and compressed—they have opened up access to the underside of the lowest layer of the fossil forest. A person looking up at the ceiling in the Riola mine sees a slice of ancient forest floor, a worm’s-eye view, if you will.

Geologists John Nelson and Scott Elrick with the Illinois State Geological Survey say that at four square miles the fossil forest south of Danville is the largest preserved coal-age forest yet documented.

This forest lived and died long before dinosaurs roamed the earth, so there are no T. rex bones to be discovered there, and none of the 50 or so species of fossil plants found there is new to science.

Of course that doesn’t make them any less fascinating.

Largest and among the most abundant are the giant lycospids, which are also known as “scale trees” for the scale-like patterns on their bark. Reaching heights of more than 100 feet, giant lycospids grew like leaf-covered poles, developing a branching crown only at the end of their lifespan. [Photos by Howard Falcon-Lang: Part of the trunk of one type of giant lycospid, showing scale-like bark pattern, and tree fern branches with leaves attached.] Tree ferns, which are not closely related to modern ferns, made up the other most abundant and widespread group of plants in the fossil forest. Tree ferns were characterized by a large crown of feathery fronds, some of which are preserved with stems and leaves all still connected in the ceiling of the Riola mine.

Because it represents such an extensive sample, examination of the fossil forest has allowed the geologists and paleobotanists collaborating with them to answer the important question of how the mix of plants varied across the landscape of a coal-age forest. Previously, researchers could only speculate about the composition of forests at that time, since they had been able to study only isolated fragments of them.

You can’t go look at the ceiling of the Riola mine for yourself, but you can see a fossil covered slab of shale taken from it on display in the coal-mining exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. You can see also see more photos of it online at

Thursday, November 06, 2008

University of Illinois retrocommissioning team working to save planet one building at a time

University of Illinois retrocommissioning team working to save planet one building at a time

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When people envision reducing their carbon footprint they tend to look into the distance and see a greener future defined by shiny solar panels and towering wind turbines. But the fact is, both individuals and institutions can reduce their carbon footprint much more directly—and save money at the same time—by making the most of opportunities to conserve energy in the heating and cooling of existing buildings.

With this reality in mind, a new group was brought together last year within the Division of Engineering at University of Illinois Facilities & Services. Dubbed the retrocommissioning team, the group includes engineers, field technicians and tradesmen, who are working together to tune up campus buildings one at a time. The purpose of the retrocommissioning team is to restore optimal operating conditions for the heating, cooling, and ventilation systems of campus buildings, and to make or facilitate upgrades to components of those systems where that is feasible.

The team typically spends about two months on each building it works with, and it employs a highly systematic approach. That entails a thorough analysis of available documentation on mechanical systems by engineers, and a comprehensive investigation of operating conditions, equipment, and more by field technicians and tradesmen. The retrocommissioning team also depends on clear and open communications with the people who use the buildings they work on, since their intent is to best serve the needs of building users, not to restrict them.

One straightforward thing the retrocommissioning team does is to identify the maintenance issues that tend to multiply in overlooked places as facilities age—things like clogged ducts, stuck dampers, damaged coils and worn out sensors. [Photo: A blocked air silencer at the Tryon Festival Theatre had greatly reduce HVAC efficiency there.]

Beyond attending to such issues, the retrocommissioning team directs a great deal of effort toward enabling facilities operators to work more effectively. For example, at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts, the team installed digital controls and set up a web-based graphic interface that allow the director of facilities to monitor climate conditions for every part of the building from his computer. [Image: A web interface like this one allows facilities operators to monitor climate conditions and mechanical systems.] This system replaces one that required a person to visit each space to check on conditions there, no mean feat in a facility as large as Krannert.

Precision controls make it easier for facilities operators to dial back or shut down climate control systems when spaces are unoccupied, which can result in great reductions in energy use. In many parts of the Music Building, for example, significant mechanical systems are now shut down between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., saving about $15,000 a month in energy expenses.

If you think that’s a lot saved, you’ll be even more impressed by the overall numbers the retrocommissioning team is compiling. To date they have completed work on five buildings, and they are currently engaged with two more. In general they are able to reduce energy use and utility costs by 20% in the buildings they tune up. They calculate that the work they have done so far will result in an annual savings of approximately $875,000 per year. At the rate money is saved on energy, the work of the retrocommissioning team pays for itself in a period of just one to three years.

None of this is to downplay the pressing need for development of alternatives to fossil fuels. Rather, it’s to emphasize how retrocommissioning can help us move toward a sustainable future, in the words of one team member, “saving the planet one building at a time.”

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Celebrating Owls at Halloween

Celebrating Owls at Halloween

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If you’ve ever been awakened by the call of a screech owl, you know why people associate owls with all things eerie. But as Halloween approaches, I like to take time to appreciate the creatures of the night. The biggest fans of such creatures at my house are my children, Jane and Will, and they’ve joined me today to celebrate owls.

As birds that work the night shift, owls are equipped with some fascinating adaptations that enable them to locate and capture prey in the dark.

Will, would you tell about owls’ eyes.

Will: Sure. Owls see very well in low light. Their eyes are extra large for their bodies, and their retinas are super sensitive.

Since owls can’t move their eyes up and down or side to side the way we do, they have to move their heads instead. Sometimes it looks like an owl can turn its head around in a complete circle, but they can’t go quite that far.

Rob: Jane, why don’t you talk about how owls’ hearing helps them function in the dark?

Jane: Okay. Owls possess excellent hearing, which allows them to find prey they can’t see--like a mouse scratching for food under a pile of leaves. Owls’ ears are surrounded by deep, soft feathers that can be spread to make a sound-collecting funnel. The dish shape created by the owl’s face is also thought to collect and focus sound. It’s said that an owl can hear a mouse squeak from half a mile away!

Dad, we should also tell people that an owl’s ears are openings in the side of its head. Those tufts on top of some species are display feathers, which have nothing to do with hearing.

Rob: Thanks, Jane. I would add that while owls hear very well, they are also good at not being heard as the fly. They have specially adapted flight feathers that reduce the noise made by air passing over their wings. This allows them to swoop in on prey undetected.

Will, maybe you could say more about owls as hunters.

Will: Owls use their powerful feet and sharp talons to attack and hold prey. And just about any small animal can be prey for one owl or another.

Owls eat some small animals, like insects, worms, scorpions, crayfish, frogs and snakes.

Jane: Jane again. Owls also prey on mice, rats, voles, rabbits, squirrels, and many kinds of birds. The great horned owl, which has a poor sense of smell, even makes a habit of eating skunks.

You can tell what owls have eaten because they cough up pellets containing fur, bones, and other material they can’t digest.

Rob: One way to find owls during the day is to look for these pellets and for large splashes of owl whitewash at the base of trees, especially evergreens, and then look up.

Will: Or maybe you’d rather enjoy owls from a distance.

Jane: Listen to the great horned owl—

All: Halloween is just around the corner.

Credit for audio of owls calls to the Macauley Library at the
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
, Ithaca, New York. Special thanks to Tammy Bishop for her help!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

New Sangamon River Forest Preserve a testament to the value provided by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District

New Sangamon River Forest Preserve a testament to the value provided by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District

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I was delighted to learn this summer that the Champaign County Forest Preserve District had acquired a new 160-acre property along the Sangamon River north of Mahomet. I’m a frequent visitor to the four other preserves maintained by the district--River Bend and Lake of the Woods near Mahomet, Middle Fork River Forest Preserve in the northeast corner of the county, and Homer Lake--but one thing or another kept me from exploring the new preserve until earlier this week

I arrived there at mid morning under a clear blue sky. A red-tailed hawk wheeled overhead as I collected myself in the parking lot, and a large flock of white-throated sparrows, just in from their breeding territory in the north, brought to life the weedy edges and a brush pile nearby. The buzz of late-season insects provided a backdrop of sound, and as I began to walk each step through the drying grass flushed another handful of grasshoppers with wings that flashed yellow and black.

As an angler I always incline toward water, whether or not I’m going fishing, so I took the path that follows a small stream called Wildcat Slough to its confluence with the Sangamon River. The banks of the river are marked occasionally by crossings where the mud has been churned by hooves, confirming that good numbers of white-tailed deer use the preserve. Standing along the water’s edge were many of the “Y” shaped sticks that people fashion to prop up fishing rods, which tell at least that the river provides recreation, and maybe food, too.

Massive oak trees that predate European settlement are the most distinctive feature of the Sangamon River Forest Preserve. Some are scattered along the river, while others cluster together on an upland savanna. These trees provide a living link to the landscape the Forest Preserve District intends to restore at the site, which will also include significant prairie restorations.

In addition to the magnificent oaks at the preserve, an ancient and enormous green ash tree grows in the floodplain there. Forest Preserve executive director Jerry Pagac likes to note that it takes seven people to encircle it with their arms. [Photo: I wanted a person in the picture to provide scale but I was on my own at this point. So I propped my camera on my hat and used the timer to take a picture of me with the tree.] Use of an increment borer to count the annual rings confirmed that this giant ash tree is 206 years old. Many younger native trees also grow in the bottomland at the Sangamon River Forest Preserve, planted there with an eye toward the benefit of future generations by Ron and Karen Cook, the previous owners of the property.

Although the Sangamon River Forest Preserve is not yet widely known, and I was there on a Monday, I ran into other people enjoying the trails throughout my visit, evidence, I think, of the great value natural areas have for people who live in highly developed landscapes, as we do in east central Illinois.

If you value natural areas for conservation and recreation, you should be aware that on November 4th voters in Champaign County will be asked to approve a modest increase in the tax levy that supports the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. The additional revenue generated by the increase would be used to repair or replace aging infrastructure at current preserves, help establish and maintain the long-anticipated bike trail between Urbana and Kickapoo State Park, and make possible the acquisition of additional land for preserves along rivers and streams in the future.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

U of I faculty, local Christian leaders engage environmental issues from complementary perspectives

U of I faculty, local Christian leaders engage environmental issues from complementary perspectives

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I may be wrong, but I’m hopeful that most people meet news about the multiple and far-reaching environmental crises taking shape around the world today with the same sort of questions that occur when they encounter a minor car crash or some other day-to-day catastrophe--questions like, “What’s the damage?” “How did this happen?” “What can I do to help?” and “What should I do?”

When people ask such questions about environmental issues, it’s natural to look to university research for answers about the extent and causes of problems. Scientific study documents well catastrophes such as climate change and species loss, and it provides sophisticated models of what the future holds under varying sets of conditions. But when people wonder about what their obligations are in the face of environmental crises, they are apt to seek guidance in religion. As Robert McKim, head of the Department of Religion at the University of Illinois says, “Most people within a hundred miles of Champaign-Urbana are more likely to be influenced by what their churches say than by what academics say.”

With that thought in mind, McKim and a like-minded group of UI faculty from wide range of disciplines have this year launched an ongoing, extracurricular effort called the STEWARDship (Sustaining The Earth With Allied Religious Denominations) workshop. Its mission is to “bring together scientists, Christian leaders, ethicists, environmentalists, and scholars of religion with a view to sharing resources, and to promoting reflection, mutual understanding, and concern regarding our environmental responsibilities.” They have been joined in this effort by Ken Cuffey, president of the Urbana Theological Seminary, and Ken Howell, director of the Institute of Catholic Thought at the St. John’s Newman Center on campus.

The first event conducted by the STEWARDship workshop took place this past June. It was a small conference on campus that brought together interested U of I faculty with leaders from churches in and around Champaign-Urbana, and it focused specifically on Christianity and stewardship of the earth.

The STEWARDship Workshop will host its second event, which is free and open to all later this month, on Saturday, October 25. This event will consist of a morning of presentations and discussion about some of the ways Christianity speaks to the environmental implications of contemporary American modes of living. Speakers will include three professors from the University of Illinois. Jeff Brawn, who is an ornithologist with broad expertise in ecology, will talk about the consequences for biodiversity of ever-increasing human demands for land and energy. Paul McNamara, who is a professor of consumer and family economics, will address the issue of how churches can help their members move toward sustainable lifestyles with a better understanding of the economics of consumption. And U of I Professor of law Eric Freyfogle will speak on the impediments to collective action that hamper our ability to deal with all manner of problems.

Each of these half-hour talks will be followed by an equal amount of time for discussion, so this really is designed to be a participatory event rather than a morning of lecture. The workshop will be held at the Westminster Presbyterian Church at 1700 Crescent Drive in Champaign, and last from 9:00 a.m. until noon. Details are available at

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Aesthetic appeal, sustainability combined in “Passive House” under construction north of Urbana

Aesthetic appeal, sustainability combined in “Passive House” under construction north of Urbana

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Two miles north of Urbana, Margaret and Gregory Stanton are building a new house on the site of Margaret’s childhood home, where they plan to live in retirement. When it’s finished, from the road you’ll see an attractive, prairie-style house that’s two stories in the center with a single story annex on one side and a generous wraparound porch.

What you won’t be able to see from the road is that this is the house of the future.

The Stanton house is being built to the world’s highest standard for energy-efficiency, certification as a Passive House. (Here “passive” means that the house will require little, if any, heating beyond the warmth naturally generated by people, appliances, and lighting.) This standard was developed in Europe, where some 10,000 buildings have been built or remodeled to meet it in the past 10 years. The Stantons learned of the Passive House standard through Katrin Klingenberg and Mike Kernagis, who together founded and operate Passive House Institute U. S., which is headquartered in Urbana. The institute is actively engaged in a wide range of activities to further the implementation of Passive House standards and techniques nationwide, including education, research and consulting.

I call the Stanton house the “house of the future” because it represents a giant leap forward in energy-efficiency, but I should emphasize that this leap is accomplished with technology and materials that are readily available today, and at a very modest premium in the cost of construction.

To meet the Passive House standard, the Stanton house will minimize thermal losses. This means, in part, that it is extremely well insulated. The envelope of the house is made up of two components, both of which are filled with insulation: an exterior wall composed of 12” thick, box-like panels, and an interior wall built on 2 X 4 studs. The slab on which the house is built and the roof are both also super-insulated. In addition, all of the windows have three panes, rather than just two. Thermal losses are further minimized by the great care taken to eliminate air leaks, so no pipes or electrical conduits penetrate the exterior wall. In all, these measures prevent the transfer of heat up to three times as well as typical new construction.

In addition to minimizing thermal losses, Passive Houses are designed to maximize thermal gains. The Stanton house will take advantage of the warmth provided by the sun in winter with glass doors and extensive windows on the south side.

The materials used in the construction of the Stanton house were also chosen with regard for their overall impact on the environment, from the types of insulation used, to the floor finishes, paint, and exterior siding. In addition, the systems that use energy in the home, such as appliances and lighting, are as efficient as possible, and a solar system is used to supply hot water. The Stantons were even able reuse materials that they salvaged from the house that Margaret grew up in, especially the Douglas fir roof framing, which has gone into the exposed architectural beams, railings, and trim of the new home.

For the extra investments the Stantons have made in the construction of their home, they expect to reap substantial benefits. They anticipate spending 70-80% less on gas and electric bills, and using 90% less energy for heating and cooling than they would in a conventionally built house. They will also be living out the principles of good stewardship held by Margaret’s late mother, whose example of sustainable living led to the couple’s interest in the Passive House concept.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Fall wildlife spectacle of sandhill crane congregation a short drive away

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Fall wildlife spectacle of sandhill crane congregation a short drive away

It’s a disappointing fact of life for residents of east central Illinois that we have few opportunities to experience wildlife in great abundance. We have forest patches, prairie reconstructions, and stream corridors where we can observe and hunt and fish, but these fragmentary habitats aren’t home to great numbers of many creatures, unless you count insects. But fall brings us the opportunity to witness a truly impressive concentration of one magnificent species of bird only a couple of hours away. It’s the gathering of southward bound sandhill cranes at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwest Indiana.

As of this week there are some 200-300 sandhill cranes at the site, but their numbers will increase over the next month and a half until they peak at more than 10,000 in mid-November. This is a small fraction of the better known sandhill crane gathering that takes place on the Platte River in Nebraska each year, but it is still a remarkable sight to behold.

Sandhill cranes are among the largest birds that occur in North America. They stand about four feet tall, and have a wingspan that may stretch from six to seven feet. With their long legs and neck they bear some resemblance to the great blue herons that we can see year round, but sandhill cranes are identifiable by their uniformly gray plumage and bald head, which is bright red in adults. If you want to impress your friends by distinguishing between cranes and herons in flight, you need only remember that flying cranes stretch their necks out straight forward, while herons curve theirs back against the body in an “S.” Cranes are also far more gregarious than great blue herons, and it is typical to see them flying together in flocks that stretch out like long ribbons in the sky, rather than alone, as herons do. Adult crane pairs remain together year round, and crane young born in spring and summer stick with their parents through the southward migration in fall.

You will often know that sandhill cranes are coming before you see them from their bugling calls, which carry great distances, and sound as ancient as anything you’ll hear. And sandhill cranes should sound ancient. Their skeletal structure is identical to that of a 10 million-year-old crane fossil that was found in Nebraska, which makes them the oldest known species of bird now living on earth.

The most fascinating thing sandhill cranes do is dance. As they come together in the evening prior to roosting they seem to charge each other up, like children arriving at a birthday party. First one bows, and flaps its wings then does a little leap into the air. Then its neighbors join in and the energy ripples through the larger flock.

The best way to see large numbers of sandhill cranes at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife area is to spend an hour or two before sunset at the observation deck. There you can watch the cranes come in to a grassy field where they gather before flying out to roost in the marshes at night. If you arrive earlier in the day you can see individual cranes and smaller flocks in harvested agricultural fields nearby. Binoculars are essential for this trip, and a more powerful spotting scope is helpful if you have access to one.

Details about viewing sandhill cranes at Jasper-Pulaski are available on the web through the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. In addition, you may want to check in with the Champaign County Audubon Society, which conducts a field trip to see the cranes in November.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Illinois Natural History Survey to celebrate its 150th year as state’s “biological memory”

Illinois Natural History Survey to celebrate its 150th year as state’s “biological memory”

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Next week the Illinois Natural History Survey, which is based at the Research Park in Champaign and now officially part of the University of Illinois, will celebrate its 150th year of existence. It is one of the oldest, largest, and most successful state biological surveys in the country. That said, it may be better known among scientists around the world than it is among the citizens of the state it serves, even those of us who live close to its home.

The Illinois Natural History Survey calls itself “the guardian and recorder of the biological resources of Illinois---the state's biological memory.” Over the years its mission has been “to investigate the diversity, life histories, and ecology of the plants and animals of the state; to publish research results so that those resources can be managed wisely; and to provide information to the public in order to foster an understanding and appreciation of our natural heritage.”

Toward these ends, survey scientists collect and preserve massive numbers of specimens—presently some nine million in all. The oldest of these is a stonefly collected at Rock Island by then state entomologist Benjamin Walsh all the way back in 1860. Other specimens in Survey collections are as large as the full size bison mount you can see on display at Survey headquarters, and as small as microsproridea, single celled parasites stored in vials of liquid nitrogen. In between are all other manner of plants and animals, creatures preserved in jars, drawers crowded with insects, and shelf upon shelf neatly stacked with pressed flowers and leaves.

Survey collections help to document the occurrence and distribution of organisms around the state at specific points in time, so that we can understand how our landscapes are changing, whether for good or bad. Survey collections are also useful for answering more focused scientific questions. For example, scientists are currently assessing how levels of mercury in the environment have changed over time by studying fish specimens collected from the same site on Panther Creek in southeastern Illinois at intervals dating back to 1900.

When state transportation authorities in Illinois want to build new roads or expand old ones, scientists from the Illinois Natural History Survey assess the potential environmental impacts on areas that will be affected. They also help to develop and monitor wetlands that are created to offset wetlands destroyed by highway construction.

As someone who wants to learn everything he can about the ecology of our state, I value immensely the ways the people at the Illinois Natural History Survey make science available to citizens. They maintain a fantastic library, which is open to the public, and staffed by helpful experts. They publish a free quarterly newsletter, which provides accounts of current projects as well as informative features and useful activities for parents and teachers. They publish state specific field guides, nine of which are currently in print, including the newly released “Field Manual of Illinois Mammals.” And they conduct eye-opening educational programs for children and adults around the state.

You can learn more about the Illinois Natural History Survey and help celebrate its 150th birthday at events set to take place this week. On Friday, September 26th a day-long symposium will feature talks on “Conservation in the 21st Century: The View from Illinois.” On Saturday, September 27th, herpetologist and Animal Planet personality Mark O’ Shea will speak, and an afternoon expo at Survey headquarters on South Oak Street in Champaign will feature more than 40 displays and interactive exhibits.

Further details about the Illinois Natural History Survey and this week’s events are available at

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Appearance of New Zealand mud snail in Lake Michigan underscores need for ballast water legislation

Appearance of New Zealand mud snail in Lake Michigan underscores need for ballast water legislation

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This summer Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant announced that researchers at a field station of the Illinois Natural History Survey had discovered populations of an invasive species new to Lake Michigan, the New Zealand mud snail. If the name of this creature does not strike fear into your heart, the New Zealand mud snail’s appearance is unlikely to do that, either. In fact, you have to make an effort just to see individual New Zealand mud snails, since their shells average only about 1/5th of an inch in length.

What is scary about them is that you don’t ever see just one where they become established. In other parts of the Great Lakes, including Lake Ontario, where New Zealand mud snails were first found in 1991, they occur at densities of more that 5,000 per square meter. That’s thanks to the fact that female mud snails reproduce without need for a partner. In the course of her one-year life, each mud snail gives birth to approximately 230 young that are genetically identical to her.

As is often the case with invasive species, New Zealand mud snails thrive in a wide range of conditions, and disperse readily. They are able to pass through the digestive systems of fish and birds alive, they can float long distances on their own or in mats of algae, and they can even make significant progress moving along the bed of a lake or stream, albeit at a snail’s pace.

At home in New Zealand their numbers are limited by parasites and predation, but where they have been introduced around the world their populations grow unchecked. As their numbers increase they displace native mussels and snails, as well as other aquatic invertebrates, and thereby disrupt entire ecosystems. Scientists expect that the destabilizing impact of New Zealand mud snails on Lake Michigan will be magnified because the lake is already stressed by so many other factors.

Anglers and boaters can help slow the spread of New Zealand mud snails and other aquatic nuisance species by taking care not to transport any sort of plant or animal material from one body of water to another, and by decontaminating their gear between outings. But the sad fact is, there are no effective controls for such an organism once it becomes established.

You might wonder why we couldn’t just import a predator or parasite from New Zealand to limit mud snail populations here. Unfortunately, such fixes tend to create more ecological problems than they resolve, since predators and parasites may also run amok in new environments.

What we can do in the present is support federal policy designed to prevent the unintentional movement of plants and animals from one continent to another. Like many other aquatic invasives, including the well known zebra mussel, New Zealand mud snails came to the Great Lakes in ballast water discharged by oceangoing ships. At present the U.S. House has passed and the Senate is considering a bill that would require oceangoing ships to take measures to prevent the spread of nuisance species. Such legislation is the best means we have for promoting the ecological health of the Great Lakes by stemming the tide of invasive organisms.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

UI student studies fox snakes at Allerton to inform management decisions about natural areas

UI student studies fox snakes at Allerton to inform management decisions about natural areas

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Most people who visit the U of I’s Robert Allerton Park near Monticello seeking to connect with nature go to enjoy the beauty of the woodland wildflowers in spring or the colors of the changing leaves in Fall. Others may enjoy opportunities for watching birds, or participate in the fall hunt to manage and study the deer herd.

Few people go to Allerton to look for snakes, though, or even care whether they are present there. That’s definitely not the case with John Griesbaum, a University of Illinois student who is working toward a Master’s degree in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. Under the direction of Chris Phillips, a herpetologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey and U of I faculty affiliate, Griesbaum is studying how the management of natural areas at Allerton affects one species of snake that inhabits them, the western fox snake. The goal of his research is to provide information to managers of natural areas about how practices such as prescribed burning, mowing, and brush removal affect the well-being of individual snakes and the overall health of snake populations.

Why should anyone care about how well fox snakes are doing? Griesbaum provides two answers. One is simply that fox snakes are part of the natural heritage of Illinois, and ought to be conserved for all of the same reasons we ought to conserve other plants and animals. The other is that snakes constitute an important middle link in a grassland food chain, controlling the abundance of the small rodents on which they feed, and serving as a source of food for the larger mammals and birds of prey that feed on them.

Between April and July of this year Griesbaum captured 11 fox snakes that were large enough to be included in his study. [Photo: A fox snake with radio transmitter implanted is ready for release.] Each of these snakes had a tiny radio transmitter implanted under its skin, thanks to veterinarians with the University of Illinois Wildlife Medical Clinic. The snakes were then released back where they had been captured.

That’s when the real legwork for the researcher began.

Griesbaum’s study requires that he locate each snake every other day for one year after its release, which he does by means of a handheld antenna and radio receiver. This can be trickier than you would think if you’ve only seen it done on T.V. Fox snakes move through tallgrass prairie reconstructions and forest edges much more easily than people do, and they don’t simply slither across the ground. [Photo: Griesbaum tracks a snake from his study in the main tallgrass prairie reconstruction at Allerton.] On a day in late July when I accompanied Griesbaum in the field we searched long and hard for snake #5 even after the beeping receiver told us we were right on top of it; it had taken refuge in a burrow underground. That same day we located snake #11 well above the ground—six feet up in the hollow trunk of a small tree.

When Griesbaum catches up with a snake he records its location as a point on a map and then collects a suite of data about what it is doing and the habitat it is using, whether, for example, it is basking in the grass or on the move through the woods.

Ultimately he will use this data to describe the home range and habitat preferences of western fox snakes at Allerton, and characterize their patterns of movement. Such information will help land managers adapt their practices to better maintain the full character of natural areas, at Allerton and elsewhere.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Opportunities for enjoying September outdoors

Opportunities for enjoying September outdoors

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School is open, the pools are closing, and Labor Day is upon us. Much as I hate to admit it, summer is just about over. But that doesn’t have to mean an end to outdoor activity for the year. Indeed, the clear, dry days of September offer opportunities no other month can provide.

It’s a great time of year for a visit to a prairie remnant or restoration area. By the time September rolls around, the plants of the tallgrass prairie, which once defined central Illinois, have reached their full height—some, like compass plant, with flower stalks more than ten feet tall. Despite having lost a bit of color due to the lack of rain in recent weeks, Meadowbrook Park in Urbana has never been more beautiful, and other area prairie restorations, including Buffalo Trace in Mahomet, and those at Allerton Park near Monticello are also in their glory.

The profusion of late-summer prairie flowers is accompanied by a profusion of insects. Dragonflies are out now in force, and butterflies can be so numerous in places it’s difficult to focus on individuals long enough to identify them. In our area you can usually see more Monarch butterflies in the second and third weeks of September than at any other time of year. Spurred on by cooler, shorter days, Monarchs from southern Canada and the northern U.S. collect here as they journey to their wintering sites in the mountains of central Mexico.

Birds are on the move now, too, as anyone who maintains a hummingbird feeder can tell you. It’s a good time to see shorebirds, including plovers, sandpipers, and the like as they stop over on their journey from the northern tundra where they breed to the Gulf Coast and points south where they winter. Look for shorebirds probing for food around the edges of retention ponds and any wet areas that remain where farm fields were flooded earlier in the year.

Our local rivers may be too low for paddling in September, but that means conditions are perfect for wading in to turn over rocks and explore the life of these streams. Crayfish are superabundant now, and the low clear water makes it possible to find live mussels if you take the time to look for them.

If the heat of summer kept you from getting out on your bicycle, now is the time to put some air in those tires and get back in the saddle. In weather like this you could try riding to work, or you could reduce your carbon footprint by bicycling to a farmers market.

September offers great satisfactions for people who value local foods. Hot weather crops are plentiful now, and by the end of the month some of the cool season vegetables may even be back again, along with winter squash and the like.

The earlier onset of evening in September means you don’t have to be out much past dinner to see bats on the wing as daylight fades. Stay out a bit longer, though, and you realize that this can be the most comfortable time of year to sleep outside in our part of the world. If school and other activities prevent family camping trips, they need not kids from having one more backyard sleepout for the year.

September may be the month for letting go of summer, but letting go need not happen all at once.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Green roof on new Business Instructional Facility an example of UI campus as living, learning laboratory for sustainability

Green roof on new Business Instructional Facility an example of UI campus as living, learning laboratory for sustainability

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When the term “green” is applied to buildings, it typically refers to features that reduce energy consumption—effective insulation, efficient heating and cooling systems, electricity-saving lighting setups. And the University of Illinois College of Business’s new instructional facility nearing completion at the corner of Sixth and Gregory in Champaign has all of these things. In fact, the Business Instructional Facility will even generate some of its own electricity with solar panels, and it is set to earn one of the highest certification levels recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council.

But the Business Instructional Facility also incorporates a “green” feature that is literally green, its roof. (Or parts of its roof, anyway.)

One 1200-square foot section on the 4th floor of the building and one smaller section over the auditorium will feature this innovation, which is gaining momentum worldwide as an alternative to conventional flat roofing. Unlike a conventional flat roof, which is designed to move water off the top of a building as quickly as possible, a green roof features a layer of substrate that detains water, and in which low-maintenance plants are grown. Beyond discharging less water than a conventional roof, green roofs are said to discharge cleaner water, thanks to the filtering effect of the substrate and the fact that runoff doesn’t pick up additional pollutants from the roof itself.

A green roof also benefits the immediate environment by remaining cool in warm weather, rather than storing and radiating heat the way a conventional roof does. At the same time, it also insulates the top of the building as or more effectively than a conventional roof.

The green roof on the U of I’s Business Instructional Facility will differ from other green roofs around the country in an important way. Faculty and students from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering will be studying it to quantify how well it performs compared to an adjacent conventional roof.

With support from the University of Illinois Environmental Council and the College of Engineering, professors Arthur Schmidt and Charles Werth and a team of students are currently installing monitoring equipment on both roofs. [Photo: Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Arthur Schmidt and students attach the solar panel that will power their monitoring equipment on top of the Business Instructional Facility's green roof.] They will measure how much precipitation falls on each roof, how much of that precipitation runs off into the storm drain system, and how much water is stored in the soil of the green roof. Sensors in that soil will allow the researchers to track how moisture migrates across the green roof and how quickly it returns to the atmosphere.

Schmidt and Werth and their team will also compare the quality of the water that drains from both the green roof and the conventional roof by means of automated samplers that will test for pollutants. In addition, researchers will assess how the insulating capacity of the green roof compares to the insulating capacity of the conventional roof by monitoring air temperatures above and below them.

The data gathered in the process of this research will be used as material for study in current civil engineering classes, where students are learning about sustainable building and water-management practices. The knowledge that comes from this research also will help architects and engineers working on future projects--on campus, where all large new construction projects must meet green building standards, and in the world at large--know more precisely the benefits a green roof can provide.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Freshwater mussels: overlooked, under appreciated residents of Illinois streams

Freshwater mussels: overlooked, under appreciated residents of Illinois streams

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If you’ve spent time canoeing or kayaking on rivers in the Midwest, you’ve probably come across the shells of freshwater mussels from time to time. On the outside, mussel shells are seldom pretty, but the pearly shine of the interior surfaces often prompts people to pick them up.

Scientists distinguish among different species of mussels by focusing on the shape of certain parts of the shell. Here, for example, is how the Field Guide to Freshwater Mussels of the Midwest (Illinois Natural History Survey: click here to see free online version) describes the appearance of a species that goes by the scientific name Quadrula quadrula: “Shell quadrate to rounded, and somewhat inflated. Anterior end rounded, posterior end squared or truncated.”

Now, if that doesn’t bring to mind a very clear picture for you, try the common name for the same species: it’s “mapleleaf.” [Photo of Quadrula quadrula by Kevin Cummings, from the field guide. It reminds me of a maple leaf, anyway.]

Other Illinois mussels carry similarly evocative common names, which tell both what the creatures look like and what objects were familiar to the people who named them. Among them some of my favorites are washboard, pistolgrip, wartyback, heelsplitter, deertoe, spectaclecase, and pocketbook.

According to Kevin Cummings, a mussel expert at the Illinois Natural History Survey on the U of I campus, North America is home to a greater diversity of freshwater mussels than any other continent, with nearly three hundred species and subspecies. Some eighty of these are or were once found in Illinois. Many mussels have become locally extinct in former habitats, and only about forty species are regularly found in the state now.

Freshwater mussels live a low-key life for the most part. They pass their days hunkered down in the sand or gravel, usually in flowing water. They feed on microscopic plant and animal life, as well as other tiny bits of organic matter, which they filter from water they take in through one siphon and eject from another. Mussels are fed upon by a variety of fish and birds, as well as muskrats, otters, and minks. Minks leave the cleaned shells of mussels they’ve eaten in a pile near the water’s edge called a midden, which can be a great place to find and identify shells.

The early development of mussels is a bit more complex and dramatic. Mussel eggs are fertilized within the female, with sperm that has been released into the water by nearby males. Inside the female, the fertilized eggs develop into larvae, which scientists call “glochidia.” To grow further, these glochidia must be expelled and attach themselves to the gills or fins of a fish for some weeks, where they will take on their adult form, in miniature, before dropping off to live at the bottom of the stream again. By sending forth their young attached to fish, mussels are able to disperse much farther than they would under their own power.

Over time, freshwater mussels have served a variety of human purposes. Native Americans ate their flesh and used their shells for utensils, tools, and jewelry. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—before the advent of plastics—mussel shells were used on an industrial scale to make buttons. Since the 1950s, mussel shells have been exploited commercially for use in the production of cultured pearls in Japan.

It is unfortunate for mussels that they are not more cute and cuddly, because as a group they are among our most endangered animals, suffering from overexploitation, the pollution and physical degradation of waterways, and the introduction of exotic species to their habitats. Perhaps our best hope for preserving them comes from the growing awareness that the health of our rivers and streams is really a component of our own health.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Illinois ash trees imperiled by imported beetle

Illinois ash trees imperiled by imported beetle

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If you’ve been struck by the odd sight of purple boxes tied to trees this summer you’re not alone. Those boxes are traps used by the Illinois Department of Agriculture to monitor the spread of the emerald ash borer, an insect native to Asia that was first detected in North America only six years ago, when it arrived in the Detroit area by means of wooden shipping material. (Click here to visit the information-packed IDA website devoted to emerald ash borer.) Last week brought the grim news that two emerald ash borers had been found in Bloomington, which represents the first appearance of the beetle so far south in Illinois.

Of course, many residents of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and northeastern Illinois have already experienced the devastation caused by the emerald ash borer. North American ash trees possess no natural defenses against this insect, which in its larval stage, feeds on the active layer of wood just beneath the bark of a tree, killing it by cutting off its supply of nutrients.

So far some 30 million ash trees have been lost to emerald ash borers in the Midwest.

In light of this development, I checked in with Jeff Dawson, a U of I professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, regarding ash trees and what they mean to people.

Dawson pointed out that although we tend to lump them together, five different species of ash trees, adapted to varying conditions of soil and climate, help to make up forests in Illinois. (Click here for a helpful online guide to ash identification.) The species that most people are familiar with as a shade tree is the green ash, originally an inhabitant of river bottoms. [Photo: A line of green ash trees shades Kenwood Road adjacent to Centennial Park in Champaign.] The adaptations that enable green ash trees to flourish in that environment also allow them to thrive near pavement and in the compacted soils typical of urban and suburban settings.

Dawson emphasized that ash wood is at once lightweight, strong, and flexible, making it useful for products ranging from tool handles and commercial flooring to canoe paddles, guitars, and of course baseball bats.

While it is important to delay the spread of emerald ash borer so that cities, forest preserves, and park districts can manage the enormous and staggeringly expensive task of replacing ash trees, no one anticipates an effective fix to this problem. Homeowners and others can preserve prized ash trees through the use of systemic insecticides, but such measures are not practical on a larger scale. It’s depressing to say so directly, but ash trees are likely to go the way of American elm trees and chestnuts within the foreseeable future. We’ll be able to grow them under highly managed conditions, but they’ll be lost as a functional component of our natural areas and a source of wood for many products.

What can we learn from this experience? For one, diversity is essential to the maintenance of urban forests. It is sad but true that some streets left devoid of trees with the loss of American elms a generation ago were replanted with only ash trees, and are thus once again starting from scratch.

The introduction of the emerald ash borer to North America also reminds us that globalization can entail great costs, both economic and ecological. Many forests will be forever altered without a healthy ash population, and many municipalities will struggle to pay the bills for ash removal and replacement in the years to come.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that individuals have an important role to play. We can slow the spread of emerald ash borer by purchasing firewood near where it is to be used rather than transporting it long distances. Emerald ash borers do not fly very far themselves, and by not giving them a lift we can buy ourselves important time.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

UI Extension’s new website provides information about coexisting with wildlife

UI Extension’s new website provides information about coexisting with wildlife

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I usually enjoy watching wildlife, but I’ve had very different feelings toward the rabbits in my back yard this summer. Feelings more like the ones people have toward squirrels at their bird feeders, or like Wile E. Coyote has for the Roadrunner.

That’s because my rabbits have been feeding on the new prairie plants I put in this spring. At first they ate a little bit of everything--just to figure out what they really liked, I suppose. Lately, though, they leave the butterfly milkweed and little bluestem alone while they repeatedly chew other plants to the ground. It’s as ifthey are waiting to pounce whenever the spiderwort or the black-eyed Susans send up even a hint of new growth.

I had these rabbits in mind recently when I received an email from Wildlife Extension Specialist Laura Kammin saying that the website she has been building is now online. The site is called “Living with Wildlife” and it is a project of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and University of Illinois Extension. The purpose of the site is to provide people with information about Illinois wildlife, with an emphasis on animals that are adapted to life in urban and suburban settings.

So I surfed on over to find out what I could about coexisting with rabbits. Here’s what I learned.

The only kind of rabbits in my yard and most of Illinois are eastern cottontail rabbits. Cottontails are full size and sexually mature at just six months of age, and they really do breed like . . . well, you know. Female cottontails give birth to litters of four to six young as often as three times in a year. Good thing for them, too, because cottontails typically live only a year or so.

Some children, as well as adults of a certain sensibility, may be interested to learn that rabbits eat their own poop. After consuming your beloved plants they scamper off to a sheltered spot where they excrete lightly digested fecal pellets, which they then re-ingest for more thorough processing the second time around.

A fact that everyone should know about rabbits is that mothers leave their young alone in the nest on purpose, in order to not attract the attention of predators. So if you happen to find unattended baby rabbits it is important to leave them where they are—they do not need to be rescued.

How does one prevent rabbits from damaging plants? There are no easy, surefire answers to the question, but the “Living with Wildlife” website offers a number of possibilities. You can cut down on the amount of cover in your yard to make rabbits less comfortable there. And you can favor plants they don’t normally eat, although in tough circumstance they will eat just about anything. Or you can protect special plants with commercial repellents or wire mesh. My plan is to use domes made of hardware cloth to give new plants a fighting chance.

If you’ve got rabbit issues of your own, or questions about other animals, I encourage you to check out the “Living with Wildlife” website at [].

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bee Spotter Network and National Pollinator Week focus attention on conserving insects we can’t live without

Bee Spotter Network and National Pollinator Week focus attention on conserving insects we can’t live without

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You may already know that times have been tough for honeybees in the U.S. since the 1980s. That’s when a parasitic mite that devastates honeybee colonies was accidentally introduced here. You may also know that this past year has marked a dramatic turn for the worse, with the onslaught of a phenomenon that has been labeled “Colony Collapse Disorder,” or CCD. CCD has led to steep losses of managed bees in more than 20 states. So far, about 1/4 of all beekeepers in the U.S. have been affected, and, on average, affected operations have lost a staggering 45 percent of their bees.

On top of this, wild pollinators, such as bumblebees, also seem to be in decline. A 2006 report issued by the National Academy of Sciences emphasized that researchers don’t even have enough information about populations of wild pollinators to track whether or how steeply their numbers are dropping.

In combination, the decline of wild pollinators and losses of managed honeybees constitute a potential nightmare, since ecosystems and human food production depend so heavily on bees for pollination.

Scientists are working busily to identify the cause or causes of CCD. But ordinary people can help conserve bees, too. At the very least, we can promote the well being of pollinators in our own back yards by limiting our use of pesticides and favoring native plants in our landscaping.

People who would like to play a more active role can lend a hand to scientists by joining the Bee Spotter Network recently established at the University of Illinois. Bee Spotter is a web-based project designed to engage citizens in the scientific effort to establish baseline information about the numbers of bumblebees and wild honeybees that are out there.

What does it take to be a bee spotter? You don’t need a degree in entomology. To be a spotter, you need only the capacity to photograph bees with a digital camera and upload your pictures to the Bee Spotter website. You need not be able to identify every bee yourself, although the Bee Spotter project provides some excellent tools for making identifications. Most bee spotters simply photograph bees when and where they see them, although the project also includes an option for setting up regular monitoring of a specific place, too.

A workshop on how to participate in Bee Spotter will be offered on next Wednesday evening, June 25th, at the Urbana Free Library. Participants will learn how to navigate the Bee Spotter website and get hands-on training in bumblebee identification.

The Bee Spotter workshop is one of many activities connected to the observance of National Pollinator Week in Champaign-Urbana, which will kick off with an opening ceremony at the University of Illinois Plant Biology Conservatory on Sunday, June 22nd, from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. That ceremony will feature a pollinator art exhibit, tours of the conservatory, and information about local pollinator conservation efforts, as well as a welcoming talk by May Berenbaum, head of the U of I Department of Entomology and brilliant, articulate, entertaining advocate for appreciation of insects.

For further details about National Pollinator Week and the Bee Spotter project, follow the links from the UI Department of Entomology website at

Thursday, June 12, 2008

How life copes with floods in streams and floodplains

How life copes with floods in streams and floodplains

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This spring’s heavy rains in the Midwest have resulted in all manner of difficulties for people, from the tragedy of lost lives to the pain and hardship of flooded homes and farm fields. This is where humans need to come together and help one another out.

The other forms of life that inhabit streams and stream corridors are also coping with the high waters, some more easily than others.

At the bottom of freshwater streams, unusually strong flows may deposit large amounts of sediment on top of mussels, which live hunkered down in sand and gravel. Mussels cannot survive if they stay buried completely, so they must make their way up to the new surface of the streambed in order to survive. Where the streambed is scoured away in flooding, some light-shelled mussel species may be swept up in the current, and then left high and dry when floodwaters recede. After the Mississippi River flood of 1993, scientists from the Illinois Natural History Survey found stranded mussels at densities of up to 1 per meter in farm fields more than a mile from the river. Individual mussels stranded on dry land can’t survive, but the problem of stranding doesn’t seem to have a long-term impact on the overall health of mussel populations

Creatures that live on and near the streambed--including crayfish, insect larvae, and other invertebrates--need access to stable refuges in order to ride out flood pulses. Such refuges may include rocks or logs that remain in place, as well as undercut banks and other streambed irregularities that create pockets of reduced current.

Farther up in the water column, fish use their mobility to cope with rising waters, and they even benefit from floods in some circumstances. Fish may ride out a short-term flood by seeking pockets of water that are protected from strong currents, or moving up into smaller tributary streams. In more extensive, long term floods fish take advantage of the opportunity to move out into areas that are not normally submerged. Slow moving water on a floodplain quickly becomes rich in microscopic life, which attracts minnows and other small fish. And where small fish go, the larger fish that feed on them follow. The rich soup of flood waters also offers a variety of seeds from trees and other plants, as well as drowned insects, and more. If water persists in the floodplain long enough, some fish will even take advantage of the opportunity to spawn there.

The trees common to floodplains are also adapted to occasional high water in fascinating ways. Willows, for example, are extremely flexible, so that they bend in strong currents rather than breaking. A willow that’s bent over far enough to be buried with sediment can even send up branches that then emerge from the ground like new trees. So when you see a straight line of little willows on a gravel bar, you may actually be looking at shoots coming up from the trunk of a tree laid down by a flood.

While flooding in the Midwest was once an entirely natural occurrence, it isn’t anymore. Our streams now rise higher and faster than they used to because we are so good at moving rainwater off of the land quickly, with drainage for agriculture and paving and building in cities and suburbs. The real challenge to us now is developing landscapes that will once again hold some water back.

Friday, June 06, 2008

A Field Trip to Turkey Run State Park in Indiana

A Field Trip to Turkey Run State Park in Indiana

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When chaperones are needed for field trips to natural areas, my children’s teachers know they can count on me. I’m motivated to help out, of course. But really, most days there is nothing I would rather be doing than walking in the woods, and being out with enthusiastic young people makes the experience all that much more enjoyable.

So last week I went along with my daughter and her classmates at Campus Middle School for Girls on a trip to Turkey Run State Park in west-central Indiana.

One of the foremost attractions at Turkey Run is Sugar Creek, and when our path approached it the students made a bee line for the water’s edge. On the day we were there the stream was low and crystal clear, perfect for investigating a gravel bar and the nearby shallows. We found rocks with a variety of plant fossils in them, as well as mussel shells, and even one live mussel. To their credit, when someone caught a toad the girls jostled with each other for a chance to hold it rather than shrieking or running away.

Turkey Run is distinguished from other natural areas in the region by its deep, sandstone canyons, which were carved by torrents of meltwater from retreating glaciers during the last ice-age. As you wind your way along a small stream there with rock walls towering above you it can be difficult to believe you’re still in the Midwest. Lush ferns dot the canyon floor, and carpets of moss cling to the damp cliff surfaces. Even as summer begins to heat up, cool breezes slip down the canyon walls to make hiking more comfortable.

Some of the trails at Turkey Run include ladders and wooden staircases for getting down to the canyon floor and back up. As you climb, it’s easy to appreciate the immensity of the trees surrounding you. Some parts of the forest at Turkey Run have never been logged, and others haven’t been disturbed for a century or more. Many of the giants there--tulip trees, American beeches, and various oaks--reach heights of more than a hundred feet.

You’d like to think a forest that has survived the past two hundred years in the Midwest has outlived the greatest threats it will ever face. But that’s not necessarily so.

The emerald ash borer, a recent arrival to the North America from Asia, has the potential to wipe out ash trees here altogether. At state parks in Indiana and throughout the Midwest, natural resource managers are doing everything they can to persuade people not to transport firewood from one place to another, since that is how the emerald ash borer spreads fastest.

But wait. This is a story about a field trip to Turkey Run State Park, not a lecture on invasive species. By the time our group made it back to the picnic area for lunch, the students were happy just to enjoy some time on the lawn.

Meanwhile the teachers and other parents who had come along were interested to see the red-headed woodpeckers that were feeding nearby. I think. Or maybe they were just too tired to get away from the dad who had brought his binoculars.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

U of I's Dan Anderson on recent research about the benefits of organic agriculture

Recent research on the benefits of organic agriculture

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As sales of organic food increase from one year to the next, it is clear that American consumers feel good about organic farming. And the wide variety of organic products available indicates we’ve come a long way since the days of hippie farmers. But questions about organic agriculture linger—is it really better for people and the environment? And does it represent a realistic alternative to the conventional systems developed over the course of the 20th century?

I attended a talk last week by Dan Anderson, who’s a research specialist in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the U of I and Chair of the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Committee. In his talk, Anderson addressed three questions that are often raised about organic agriculture, with reference to recent studies that lend support to the good feelings people have about organic production with university research.

The first question Anderson addressed was whether organic food promotes human health. The answer to this is “yes,” at least in one significant respect. Researchers who studied the content of certain cancer-fighting compounds in tomatoes over a ten year period found significantly higher concentrations in those that were produced organically.*

The second question Anderson addressed was whether organic agriculture is less productive than conventional farming, which is an important consideration given the pressure worldwide to convert more and more land to human use. He answered this question with reference to a paper that brings together information from recent studies of corn, soybeans, wheat and tomatoes. In each of the studies cited, the productivity of organic systems was comparable to that of conventional systems—no lower than 94 % in any case. ** Anderson emphasized that this level of productivity in organic agriculture has been achieved with only miniscule support for research, noting that less than 1% of agricultural research funding goes to work on organic practices.

The third question Anderson addressed was how organic agriculture benefits the environment. In response he cited studies that show organic farms support a greater diversity of pollinators than conventional farms, which is especially important now, as both honeybees and wild bees that are native to North America seem to be in steep decline. Anderson also noted that organic production does not pollute waterways in the same manner as conventional production, and cited other studies showing that organic agriculture uses less energy per unit of output than conventional production, so it has a smaller carbon footprint.***

Despite all of the benefits he cited, Anderson does not envision organic agriculture replacing conventional farming practices altogether in the United States any time soon. He noted that while it is possible to grow row crops organically using all of the same equipment used in conventional farming, the change is not so easy when it comes to producing fruits and vegetables. That’s because producing fruits and vegetables by organic methods currently requires much more human labor than conventional methods.

You can link to video of the talk referred to here via the website of the Waste Management Research Center, which hosted it, at

You can learn more about support for organic agriculture at the U of I beginning at the home page for the Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture Program.

A forum conducted by the Illinois Local and Organic Food and Farm Task Force regarding the food system in Illinois will take place this Wednesday, May 28, 2008, from 7:00 – 9:00 P.M. at the Urbana Civic Center. The public is invited to hear from experts on the panel and to voice their interests and concerns for inclusion in a report that will be delivered to the Illinois General Assembly later this year. For more information about the forum, please contact Lisa Bralts at (217) 384-2319 or at .

References from Dan Anderson's talk:

* 2007. A. E. Mitchell, Yun-JeongHong, EunmiKoh, D. M. Barrett, D. E.Bryant, R. Ford Denison, and S. Kaffka. Ten-Year Comparison of the Influence of Organic and Conventional Crop Management Practices on the Content of Flavonoids in Tomatoes. J. of Agric. and Food Chem. American Chemical Soc.

** 2001. Bill Liebhardt. Get the facts straight: organic agriculture yields are good. OFRF Information Bulletin, Summer 2001, #10.

2008. J.L. Posner, J.O. Baldockand J.L. Hedtcke. Organic and Conventional Production Systems in the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trials: I. Productivity 1990–2002. Agron Journal, 100: 253.

*** 2008. Holzschuh A., Steffan-DewenterI., Tscharntke T. Agricultural landscapes with organic crops support higher pollinator diversity. Oikos. 117: 354-361.

2008. Rundolf M., Nilsson H., Smith H. Interaction effects of farming practice and landscape context on bumble bees. Biological Conservation 141: 417-26.

2007. Ziesemer, Jodi. Energy Use in Organic Food Systems. Natural Resources Management and Environment Department Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.