Thursday, October 30, 2014

Enjoying spiders

[In anticipation of Halloween and the spirit of throwback Thursday, this week's spot comes from 2005, when my kids were still young enough to do just about anything I asked of them.]

Enjoying spiders

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Halloween is upon us, the one time of year people put up spider webs at home instead of taking them down. It’s also a great time to celebrate and explore some of the things that creep us out. Like spiders.

Since children are usually a little more open to these subjects than adults, I’ve enlisted the young naturalists from my house, Jane and Will, to help out with today’s show.

Let’s start with the basics. Kids, are spiders insects?

Both: Nooooo.

How can you tell?

Jane: Spiders have eight legs; insects have six.

Will: Yeah, and spiders have only two body sections; insects have three.

Jane: Besides that, all insects have antennae, and most have wings.

Will: Spiders don’t.

There are more than five hundred species of spiders found in Illinois, more than three thousand in North America. The big ones like tarantulas, orb weavers, and wolf spiders tend to get the most attention, but they represent only a small portion of the spiders all around us.

And spiders are all around us. In an often-repeated bit of wisdom, which I pass along here without scientific confirmation, you’re never more than three feet from a spider.

Spiders thrive in and around buildings, on trees, in grass, under rocks, and in caves. There’s even a spider that lives most of its life under water, using air bubbles trapped in silk to breathe.

Kids, does this mean we’re in constant spider danger?

Both: Noooooo.

Very few spiders are aggressive toward humans. When they bite people it is usually because they have become trapped next to the skin, either in clothing or bedding. This is not to say a bite from a spider can’t be serious. In Illinois, both brown recluse spiders and black widows can deliver a bite requiring medical attention. As a rule, though, people greatly overestimate the likelihood and severity of spider bites. Spider venom is meant for spider prey, which is mainly insects and other spiders.

If it creeps you out to think of how many spiders there are around you, think of how many more mosquitoes, flies, and other pests we’d have without spiders on the scene to eat some of them. Or better still, enjoy some of these cool spider facts.

Jane: Some spiders with fierce names, such as the rabid wolf spider, are really harmless to people. Others, like the black widow, live up to their names.

Will: Trapdoor spiders live in burrows underground. At night they wait by the door and spring out to capture insects passing by.

Jane: Spiders can parachute. As you may remember from Charlotte’s Web, spider young send out a balloon of silk to be carried away in the wind.

Will: A bolas spider swings a strand of webbing like a sticky tetherball to catch moths out of the air.

Is your spider sense tingling yet?

Jane: We sure hope so.

All: This year, think spiders for Halloween.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Progress on Illinois Climate Action Plan a focus at U of I Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment

Progress on Illinois Climate Action Plan a focus at U of I Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment

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Let’s face it, conservation is rarely sexy. And stories of conservation can be difficult to tell, because they typically lack individual heroes and often turn on doing less of something, not more. To wit. Between fiscal years 2008 and 2014, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reduced its atmospheric carbon pollution (“emissions,” if you prefer) from 530,000 tons to 450,000 tons. That’s 15 percent.

As an institution we taught, housed and fed no fewer students, did no less research and outreach, and continued our world-class contributions to the arts and culture as before. We even added the significant energy demands of the National Petascale Computing Facility to the mix. And still, we reduced our carbon pollution by 15 percent.

That means we’ve made significant strides toward carbon neutrality by 2050, a commitment we undertook in 2008 by signing the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.

How did we make such strides? I spoke recently with Ben McCall to find out. McCall is a professor of chemistry at the U of I who also holds an appointment as associate director in the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment, which was launched in December 2013.

McCall reminded me that roughly 90 percent of campus carbon emissions are attributable to energy. “That’s the big fish,” he said, “so changes we make in energy usage, production and purchasing have the greatest impacts on emissions.”

Conservation—that is, the energy we are not using—is the most important aspect of the energy picture, and “energy use intensity” (defined as energy unit demand per unit of floorplan) is the metric used to gauge that. Between 2008 and 2014 energy use intensity on campus was reduced by 20 percent.

McCall was quick to point out that the lion’s share of credit for this reduction goes to the work of Retrocommissioning teams from U of I Facilities & Services. “They’re the ones who do the unglamorous work of going from building to building to tune up the mechanical systems, and that’s where the biggest savings come from.” (Those in charge of Retrocommissioning at F & S calculate the cost avoidance made possible by their work to be near $22 million.)

The context for McCall’s remarks about energy on campus was a broader conversation about the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP), which was developed in 2010 and includes other targets relating to sustainability. One of the important targets for 2015 that we’ve already reached is a 20 percent reduction in the use of potable water. Another we’re nearing is the purchase of 30 percent of the food used by U of I Dining Services from local sources.

In his role at the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment, McCall is coordinating the work of six recently established Working Advisory Teams, which bring together students, faculty and staff who have interests and expertise in various aspects of sustainability. Just this week these teams finalized assessments of progress the U of I has made on its current climate action targets, and released suggestions for revising the plan.

If you’re interested to see what the teams came up with, or even explore the possibility of joining one yourself, keep an eye on the Institute’s website, It’s a work in progress, but materials related to progress on the climate action plan should be available within the next week or so.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ancient oaks link us to the Big Grove

Ancient oaks link us to the Big Grove

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When people think about the landscape of central Illinois prior to European settlement they tend to think “prairie,” vast expanses of flat land covered in tall grass and tall flowers. And for the most part, that image is pretty accurate.

But groves of trees intruded on the grasslands here and there, especially on the eastern edges of rivers and streams, which created natural breaks to prairie fires driven by winds from the west.

Such groves were dominated by fire-resistant species of oak, and interspersed with hickory, ash, walnut, sugar maple and linden trees as well. 

[Photo by L. Brody Dunn. The bicentennial oak on the lot of the Quaker Meetinghouse in Urbana, IL.]

Prairie groves were quite hospitable to humans compared to the prairie itself, offering game and shelter, as well as respite from some of the discomforts of life in the open. They were preferred sites for American Indian villages, and the first places to be settled by Americans of European descent coming from the east.

One of the largest of these timbered areas in our region was named by settlers of the early nineteenth century the Big Grove.

As it was mapped in the original survey of the area in 1821, the Big Grove covered about 10 square miles. Its western edge roughly paralleled the Saline Branch, the stream that drops into Urbana from the north and runs through Busey Woods and Crystal Lake Park before turning east toward St. Joseph. Along its southern edge the Big Grove extended to about where Urbana’s Main Street runs today.

If you’re familiar with Urbana and the locales just north and east of the City, you know there’s no forest left that would merit the name, “Big Grove,” most of the wood from those trees having gone into houses, fences, farm implements and fires long ago.

But here’s something really cool. Some trees that began life in the Big Grove still stand today. You can touch them. Heck, you can hug them. They’re the kind of trees that elicit that response from people.

Near the corner of East Main and Maple Streets, a bur oak that predates the Declaration of Independence rises to a height of more than 80 feet from the yard outside Long’s Garage.

Farther from the center of town on East Main, a still larger bur oak can be seen on the eastern edge of the site of the Friends Meetinghouse. We can take this tree to be roughly 240 years old now, based on calculations made in 1976, when the International Society of Arboriculture recognized it as a “bicentennial tree.” 

At Leal Park, which is on University Avenue near the Carle complex, there’s yet another bicentennial oak marked with a plaque.

Greater numbers of oaks that predate European settlement can be seen—and hugged—at some other Urbana Park District sites. Some of the largest trees in Crystal Lake Park and Busey Woods are relics of the Big Grove, as are 10 or so of the trees at Weaver Park on East Main Street.

If you’re interested to do a little more reading before you head out on your treehugging adventure, check out the Website “Children of Giants” recently established by UI professor of entomology Stewart Berlocher at

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Local action on global warming

Local action on global warming

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This summer, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District maintenance facility got something really cool to go on top of its roof—a big photovoltaic system, more than 1200 panels.

According to Jane Sullivan, whose title at MTD is Grant Manager and Sustainability Planner (and who is a 2012 graduate of the UI School of Earth, Society, and Environment, where I teach), it’s the biggest solar array currently operating in central Illinois.

It will generate 350,000-kilowatt hours of electricity over the course of a year, which translates to about one quarter of the electricity used there. (The maintenance facility is a busy place, operating 24/7 when the U of I is in session and providing full service maintenance for the District’s fleet of 102 buses.) Sullivan said the investment in solar is in keeping with the broader environmental mission of the District. “We’re interested in finding as many ways as we can to reduce our environmental impact, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is an important part of that.”

The motivation for a solar array that went online at the First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana this summer was similar.

Holly Nelson, a member of the congregation’s “Green Team” who helped to instigate the project and see it through, characterized it this way: “We had taken smaller steps toward being more sustainable and caring for creation, including reusable dishes and a community garden. This was something bigger for us.”

The 32-panel array at the church is of a different scale than the one at MTD, but so is the need it serves. It generates the equivalent of roughly two-thirds of the electricity used to run the facility over the course of a year.

[Photo by Jason Hawksworth. Holly Nelson on the roof with solar panels at First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana.]

About forty percent of the money invested in the First Mennonite project was covered by a rebate from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. (If you’re wondering about solar for yourself, your business, or a nonprofit, you can look into this incentive here.) But the majority of the funding came from donations by the congregation dedicated specifically to the project. To Nelson, the congregation’s enthusiasm for the project was evident in how quickly that money came in. “It’s the biggest investment our church has ever made,” she said, “and we raised all of it in a month.”

You may remember from a commentary last year that Champaign resident and U of I physics professor Scott Willenbrock had installed solar panels on his family’s home in a quest to achieve “net-zero” energy use; that is, to generate as much electricity as the family used at home.

That’s an ambitious goal for a house built in 1929. But when we spoke recently, Willenbrock reported that in the first six-month period for which he had data (January 1 to July 1 of this year) they had achieved it. On top of that, they did so even with the demand for electricity added by an all-electric car they bought in April.

You can learn more about Willenbrock’s project, which has applications for anyone interested in conserving or generating energy at home at

In terms of conserving and generating energy, no building in town—or in all of the U. S. for that matter—is more ambitious than the new home of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the U of I. You can visit there and learn more about it at a public dedication ceremony tomorrow afternoon. The building is located at 306 North Wright St. and the ceremony begins at 1:00 p.m.