Thursday, September 24, 2015

University of Illinois action on climate change

University of Illinois action on climate change

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If you’ve been keeping up with recent news from the U of I, you already know that one of the most interesting developments on campus is the solar array now being installed on the South Farms. On the chance you’ve been distracted by other news, here’s the short version. The project is being implemented by a company called Phoenix Solar and made possible, in part, by a significant financial contribution from the Student Sustainability Committee. When complete, the solar farm will cover 21 acres and produce approximately two percent of the electricity we currently use in a year.

The solar farm might be of limited interest were it a stand-alone project. But it’s not. It’s one project among many that, together, are intended to make the campus carbon-neutral by the year 2050. That’s a goal we formally adopted when we signed on to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment in 2008.

To date, our progress toward carbon-neutrality has been guided by the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP), which was adopted in 2010. An updated version of that plan was created over the past year thanks to hard work and expertise from staff, students and faculty from across campus under the leadership of professor Ben McCall, in his role as Associate Director for Campus Sustainability at the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment, and Morgan Johnston, who is Director of Sustainability with U of I Facilities and Services.

I checked in recently with Johnston to get a sense of where the solar farm fits into the larger picture, and what’s new in the climate action plan. She emphasized that our greatest strides toward carbon neutrality have been made possible by reducing our demand for energy through conservation.
Tune-ups that ensure heating, cooling and ventilation systems are operating efficiently provide a good example. Teams from the Campus Retrocommissioning Group at Facilities and Services, which perform these tune-ups, have reduced energy use by an average of 27 percent in the more than 60 buildings where they have worked since 2007.

How should we characterize our progress? One way Ben McCall suggested approaching this question was to look at how much we’ve reduced our net carbon emissions; he estimated that to be 15 percent between fiscal years 2008 and 2014.

Johnston added there are other ways of characterizing progress, as well. She cited strong support among current leaders for efforts to make campus more sustainable, and she noted some of the key roles students play in these efforts, from their volunteer work at events that promote cycling to their service on decision-making committees. Perhaps what’s most important of all, she said, is that students are participating in classes where learning and doing take place at the same time, like the senior design lab that developed the plan for a rooftop solar installation at the Abbott power plant.

That’s because in the grand scheme of things a university—even a big one like the U of I—won’t change the world all that much by achieving carbon neutrality, since as a sector higher education emits only a small share of the world’s carbon pollution. It can achieve much more by sending into the world young leaders who understand the challenges of the twenty-first century and who have begun to develop the tools we need to cope with them.

If you’re interested to know more about confronting climate change, check out an upcoming public seminar on the topic sponsored by the First Presbyterian Church of Urbana The series will take place on six successive Sundays beginning October 4. Details available on the web through First Presbyterian Church of Urbana.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Grubbing for mussels with the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy

Grubbing for mussels with the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy

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Now and again it strikes me that the things I enjoy doing are not the things most other people enjoy doing.

Take grubbing for mussels.

This activity involves sinking your hands into a streambed and working your fingers through the sand and gravel to feel for the shells of mussels--smooth, hard, vertically-oriented disks, which might be as small and compressed as the face of a man’s wristwatch, or larger and thicker than an adult’s hand.

It’s difficult for me to say why I enjoy this activity. There’s something primal in the mental state it induces, akin to states induced by hunting and fishing and foraging, but beyond that, I’m not quite sure how to characterize it. I can say

that I’m not alone in losing myself as I grub. One of the rules when you’re with a group is not to grab the hands or feet of fellow grubbers underwater, especially when they’ve got that faraway, raccoon look on their face.

So there are select other people who enjoy grubbing for mussels, or who are at least find it tolerable in the name of citizen science. That explains how more than twenty of us wound up on our hands and knees in the shallow water of the Sangamon River on the Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend, in an effort organized by the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy (USRC). We were there, just downstream of the covered bridge at the Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve, to collect as many live mussels as we could in a little over an hour of searching, repeating a survey I participated in back in 2012.

Our findings this time around were quite similar. We collected 310 individual mussels including representatives of 15 different species, versus 314 and 13 in 2012. Neither of the two new species, a threehorned wartyback and a fawnsfoot, came as a big surprise, given the location and habitat, but it’s still cool that they were found.

Our most massive specimens were plain pocketbooks, some of which probably would have tipped the scales at more than two pounds (although weighing them wasn’t on the agenda). Our biggest specimens for shell circumference were pink heelsplitters, which grow to the size of a small dinner plates. The common names for many freshwater mussels are equally colorful and descriptive; among those we found were also pistolgrips and pimplebacks, threeridges, deertoes, Wabash pigtoes and fatmuckets.

The mussels we collected looked to be in good condition, they represented a wide range of ages and some of them were gravid. According to Sarah Douglass, a field biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey at UI who oversaw the scientific aspect of our survey, “it means they’re living well into maturity and reproducing.”

Douglass pointed out that our findings also provided other important indications about the health of the river. The continued presence of mussels there suggests the habitat has not been significantly degraded in recent years, and mussel reproduction in the stream also signifies that certain fish species are thriving there, since the larvae of freshwater mussels live on specific fish early in their development.

Would you like to experience the Sangamon for yourself and learn more about the life it supports? Check out the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy. It’s a group established in 2009 that seeks to “preserve, maintain, monitor, and promote public use and awareness of the Sangamon River.” Information available at New members are always welcome.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

An ecological look at acorns

An ecological look at acorns [originally posted 9/25/2014]

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Last week I found a walnut on my windowsill, a big fat one with an unblemished bright green husk. Soon after, another appeared stuck in the wheel of my car. Now they’re cached everywhere around the outside of our house, from the shelf on the grill to the flowerpots on the deck.

Acorns are everywhere now, too, as anyone who bicycles where there are oaks can attest. A person’s got to keep both hands on the handlebars to avoid having them wrenched sideways.   

While these seeds may be present me with minor annoyances, they’re much more interesting and important from an ecological perspective.

Scientists group walnuts and acorns together with hickory nuts and beechnuts in the category of hard mast. This they distinguish from soft mast, which generally refers to fruits like crabapples and blueberries but can also apply to other parts of plants that serve as food for wildlife.

[Photo by author. Gray squirrel eating an acorn in a Chinkapin oak.]

According to Ed Heske, a mammal ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey at the U of I Prairie Research Institute, “The most important thing about hard mast from the perspective of wild animals is that it’s storable. Without hard mast many mammals that don’t hibernate in winter would have little to eat.”

Of course, while it’s a good thing for squirrels that acorns can be stored for eating over the winter, it is not in the interest of oak trees to expend all of the resources needed to produce such wonderful seeds if all of them wind up as squirrel food.

Evolution has provided oaks with a clever reproductive strategy to avert that outcome, referred to as masting cycles.

 In most years, oaks produce a sort of baseline quantity of acorns, and populations of animals that depend on them become calibrated to that. But every few years or so, depending on weather and other factors, the oaks of a local area synchronize their energy and produce a bumper crop—up to a hundred times the baseline quantity of seeds in some species. With populations of acorn eaters limited by the leaner years, chances are that some portion of acorns from the bumper crop will go uneaten and grow into the next generation of oaks.

There is another wrinkle to this story, though. Some years back Heske and a colleague conducted a study that found acorns would result in new oak seedlings only if some of them were buried by squirrels and then never recovered, a situation expected primarily when acorns are superabundant in mast years. Otherwise something—whether it was a deer, turkey, mouse or weevil—always ate them up from the soil surface before they had a chance to germinate.

In addition to promoting new generations of oaks, Heske explained to me, bumper crops of acorns initiate a cascade of other ecosystem effects. Extra acorns, for example, enable forest-dwelling mice to reproduce especially well; during mast years they can add an extra litter or two, and add to the size of their litters as well.

Good for the mice, right?

But what’s good for mice is, in turn, good for great horned owls and the other predators that eat mice. They generally experience a bump in reproductive success in the year following a mast year.