Thursday, July 28, 2011

Drought, Flood & Fire: the future is already here

Two weeks ago, the weather experts were talking about how 2011 could turn out to be the driest July on record for the Chicago area. Well, driving to work today, I heard the news that July 2011 is now officially the wettest on record!

Would Mother Nature please make up her mind?

It's not like these have been "normal" rains either. They have been torrential rains, often accompanied by strong winds, wild lightning storms, fallen trees, electricity outages and flooding. Four or five inches of water falling in an hour. Nine inches in a 24 hour period. And not just one storm like that, but one storm after another, after another.

And, just like the "heat dome" I discussed earlier, this type of weather has been predicted as one of the by-products of global warming: more frequent, extreme weather events. Violent thunderstorms, massive, long-lived tornadoes, more Category 5 hurricanes.

Other predictions are coming to pass too. As reported by the BBC today, a 1,000 square mile area of Alaskan Arctic tundra burned in the summer of 2007. This was as much tundra as had burned cumulatively since 1950. So, for 57 years, an average of 18 acres of tundra burned each year. Then, in one year, 1,000 acres?

Remember, tundra rarely burns, because it is covered with ice and snow much of the year, and then kind of soggy during the very brief growing season. 2007 was a particularly dry year on the Arctic tundra, so, when a lightning strike ignited the fire in July, it was not extinguished until October when heavy snow snuffed it out.

Now, burning Arctic tundra isn't like a grass fire, or even a forest fire. The tundra is a type of habitat characterized by a layer of permafrost that can be as deep as 3 feet. Permafrost is an area of the soil that is always frozen. Only the top-most layer of the ground ever thaws - maybe 4-5 inches at the surface - just enough for small plants to grow in the very brief growing season.

Over millenia, this permafrost layer of perpetually frozen soil has served as a place where atmospheric carbon (CO2) was stored (sequestered). That is no longer the case, however. When permafrost actually dries out due to a combination of longer periods of time without snow cover and drier weather conditions, this previously stored carbon is released into the atmosphere again. Toss a fire on top of that, and the release of carbon is accelerated that much more.

In fact, while the tundra region was once considered a place where there was net storage of carbon each year, today it is a net releaser of carbon each year. Actually, release of carbon & methane, both so-called "greenhouse" gases because of the way they collect in the atmosphere and help to magnify the warming effects of the sun.

If you are like me at all, you are now thinking "Gee, thanks for that depressing bit of information that I can't do anything about!"

But that's when we need to pick ourselves up and change our thinking. We may not be able to directly stop the burning tundra, but each of us can surely start making decisions that will at least contribute in some small way to slowing the global forces that are accelerating around us.

My favorite quote ever is from Gandhi. It hangs on my wall. "Be the change you wish to see in the world." Do what you can. Lead by example. Do it now.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thoughts on heat, humidity, droughts and our future

I read today that a "heat dome" has settled in over the central US, covering about 1 million square miles. Some sort of upper atmosphere high pressure system that is moving v e r y slowly...

A short video I found on line has a nice graphic showing how the large, powerful heat "dome" deflects all other weather systems that are moving across the country. This is what leaves us with these hot, humid - but without rain - conditions and no relief for days on end.

It sounds like the system will break by Monday, but in the meantime, those with air conditioning are surely running it, and those without are probably spending a lot of time at the public library (or other cool public place).

I was surprised to read that humans actually tolerate heat quite well, provided we are able to sweat and have plenty of fluids. But, another important factor is that the sweat has to be able to evaporate - it is the evaporation that has a cooling effect on our bodies.

Unfortunately, when the heat is accompanied by high humidity, the air has little capacity for additional water, so that sweat doesn't readily evaporate. That means one is left hot and sweaty, but feeling no cooler. ugh.

Humidity comes in several forms from a scientific standpoint, and each one is calculated a bit differently: absolute humidity, relative humidity and specific humidity are all used. You can read the Wikipedia article for a thorough explanation of each. For we lay-people, the one that has the most relevance is relative humidity. RH is a measure of the amount of water vapor in the air relative to the maximum amount of water vapor that the air could hold without actually starting to rain.

RH is the factor used to calculate the "heat index", or the temperature it feels like to us when the humidity is high. For instance, when the weatherperson says "the temperature will be 93 today, but it will feel like 105," he or she is talking about the heat index that is adjusted for the relative humidity.

While reading about this weather phenomenon, I came across a 2004 article with information from the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The scientists had run some models to look at how weather systems are expected to shift as the climate changes due to global warming. Among their findings was that stationary high pressure domes that result in long-lasting heat waves will become more frequent over Europe and North America.

Some places, like Kansas and Nebraska, are predicting serious groundwater shortages this year as farmers are forced to irrigate crops that would otherwise wither and die from the lack of rain. An area can manage a drought year like this once in a while, but not several years in a row. China and Russia have suffered through record droughts in recent years, giving us some idea of what may be in store.

Seems about time we started figuring out a different system that will work with the available resources like water as well as the weather conditions that are coming. Not just in the US, but around the globe.

Too bad humidity doesn't water crops...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Of storms, rain & roads

Finally, a stretch of lovely, mild weather - well, with the exception of the brutal storm on Monday.

The storm knocked our power out for just an hour, but the Internet was down for two days. And then came Tuesday, and fields of purple coneflowers and monarda suddenly blooming! I guess they needed the rain.

The rainbarrels needed the water too -- ours were nearly empty, but the 3/4 inch storm managed to fill them back up with run-off from the roof!

In case you hadn't noticed, this isn't just summer - it is also road construction season. Construction and reconstruction, and then adding insult to injury, so many traffic lights out, further slowing any movement through Crystal Lake and points East!

Yes, I know, that sounds like a good reason to just stay home!

If you are like me, and drive on Route 14 between Woodstock & Harvard every week, you too have been witness to a perplexing series of road projects:

- first, crews were out replacing many of the centerline reflectors. They would remove one, fill the hole with asphalt, cut a new hole, and install the new reflector about 10 inches from the old one.

- then, they decided to do some pretty extensive patching. This was actually quite a fascinating process to watch -- and while waiting, or moving very slowly past the work crews for several weeks, I had lots of time to watch. First, the pieces of road to be removed were marked with spray paint, then someone came along with a piece of equipment designed to cut the road -- a big circular saw set to cut a line about 2 inches deep. Next, someone came along to blow the dust away from the cuts, presumably so the next workers could see the cuts. Then came a jackhammer machine to break up the road, followed by the big backhoe to dig the broken road out and put it in a dump truck. Finally, the holes were filled with asphalt, and compressed with a steamroller of some sort. They must have done over a hundred of these patches during the month of June.

- So, imagine my surprise when, July 5th, I noticed that ALL of the centerline reflectors (old and new) had been removed. And next thing I knew, they started grinding off the top two inches of the road all the way from Hughes/Hartland Road just west of Woodstock, to Dean Street. Now, in July, I have had the priviledge of watching a giant road-eating machine grind off the very same patches that were installed just a few weeks ago. I'm not kidding.

I have to believe that there was a more cost-effective way to manage this whole thing. Like maybe just do the current work, and skip the first two projects? I'm all for people having jobs, but do they all have to be employed to do (and undo) things on the same stretch of road?

Maybe I should spend some more time at home in the garden instead of out cursing the construction traffic. I certainly have plenty of rain water to use now!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fleming Road Update

Members of the Fleming Road Alliance sent a series of updates to the County Board over the last couple of weeks to cover topics ranging from road design standards to Groundwater recharge issues.

Their bottom line is this: Keep Fleming Road in the same footprint.

And they have a list of ideas for why and how that can happen:

1. Maintain 10-foot lanes and 1-2 foot shoulders. Minimize grading. Repair the [road] base where necessary...

2. Leave the alignment (sight distance) and drainage patterns the way nature accommodated them when the road was first a local farm road.

3. Reduce the posted speed limit to the lowest permitted by law.

4. Post the weight limit at 6 tons per axel (as before), to maintain safety and extend the life of the road.

5. Preserve one of the last remnant Oak Hickory Woodlands left in this county.

6. Respect the property rights of owners to the middle of the road.

7. Embrace the Natural Heritage Corridor [the easements that TLC holds with the Village of Bull Valley along the roadway] and take this opportunity to be a leader in Context Sensitive Solutions [a road design framework promoted by the State].

8. Direct MCDOT [McHenry County Department of Transportation] staff to acquire the necessary variances, waivers and exceptions to avoid application of standards that do not fit Fleming Road's unique glacial topography.

9. Maintain control over the construction process. [This issue came up when county staff commented that they don't control what the contractors do when they are actually building the road.]

I'm sorry, but these all seem very reasonable to me. And, I think that much too much is spent on road work anyway, so why spend more than is necessary? It should cost less than $1 million to repair the road base in a few areas and then repave the 2 1/2 mile stretch of Fleming, as compared to $10s of millions to rebuild the road. So what if they have to repave it again in 5 years, that will still cost less than rebuilding the whole thing. Heck, they could repave it every year for 20 years, and it would still cost less than rebuilding it...

So, kudos to you, residents of Fleming Road, for standing up to say "enough is enough." I hope people in the right places are listening.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Little Oak Poetry

A friend sent me this poem recently. I keep it on the desk where it is close at hand to lend some solace if I start to feel tense or frustrated. I highly recommend it.

By Mary Oliver

Black Oaks

Okay, not one can write a symphony, or a dictionary,
or even a letter to an old friend, full of remembrance
and comfort.

Not one can manage a single sound, though the blue jays
carp and whistle all day in the branches, without
the push of the wind.

But to tell the truth after a while I'm pale with longing
for their thick bodies ruckled with lichen

and you can't keep me from the woods, from the tonnage
of their shoulders, and their shining green hair.

Today is a day like any other: twenty-four hours, a
little sunshine, a little rain.

Listen, says ambition, nervously shifting her weight from
one boot to another -- why don't you get going?
For there I am in the mossy shadows, under the trees.

And to tell the truth I don't want to let go of the wrists
of idleness, I don't want to sell my life for money,
I don't even want to come in out of the rain.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Wild Parsnip: It can hurt you!

If you have it, you know it!
If you aren't sure, read carefully, because you want to be very careful around this plant!

Wild parsnip is phototoxic, meaning that the combination of the plant's oil and sunlight will cause severe burns. A friend gave us a picture of a burn he received from sunlit-contact with this nasty invasive. I won't post it here, but trust me, you don't want it!

I was at a conference a couple of years ago, and asked several experienced land managers about parsnip - before giving me their management advice, each one would role up his or her shirt sleeve and point out scars earned during parsnip management work to be sure I knew how dangerous the plant was.

Despite the plant's toxicity, it can be controlled. Use the plant's life-history to your favor. It is a biennial, meaning that during its first year of growth it focuses on putting energy into its root system, and in the second year (or sometimes the third), it sends up a stem and blooms to set seed and create the next generation of plants.

With this in mind, it is NOT effecive to herbicide the plant in year two, because the herbicide is designed to be delivered to the root when the plant feeds the root, and in year two, the plant is focused on producing seed, not feeding the root! That means the herbicide can't do its job. However, in the first year, herbicide works great because the plant is focused on putting food into the root, so if you are able to identify first year plants, spray away (using glyphosate, aka Roundup).

Here is a summary of the best advice I obtained about non-chemical control of the plant:
1. Wear long sleeves, long pants & gloves to be sure the plant does not touch your skin. After you finish any contact with the plant, thoroughly wash your clothes - including the gloves - take a shower just to be sure, and wash any tools that came in contact with the plant so you don't pick up the oil later. Another suggestion is to wear a miner's helmet with a light and cut the parsnip in the dark - the person who suggested this was quite serious!

2. If there are just a few plants, pull them out by the roots before they set seed. Destroy the plants by burning them. DO NOT leave the plants lying where you pull them.

3. If you have an infestation that is too large to hand pull, then try this approach: after the plants flower, but before they set seed, cut the seed heads off and gather the cut tops together to burn them. NOTE: the plants are likely to flower again and will set seed, BUT, the flowers will be smaller, there will be fewer seeds, and many of the seeds are likely to be sterile. In four or five years, this approach should result in a dramatically reduced number of plants. At that point, the remaining ones can be pulled.

4. If you decide to mow the parsnip (because of size or resources), use a pull-behind tractor type mower, not a push mower, and definitely not a rotary cutter or weed whip! Those are much more likely to scatter the oil around where you or someone nearby can be harmed! Mowing should be timed carefully to occur when the plant has finished blooming but has not set seed. Late July is usually a good time for this -- you want to get the plants cut before they turn brown, because once they turn brown, they have set seed. The area mowed should then be checked in a few weeks for resprouts, and if necessary mowed again.

5. One good piece of news is that sites with a well-established prairie planting are not likely to be invaded by parsnip, and, if an area is enhanced by adding native seed, the parsnip is likely to fade on its own over time.

6. Prescribed fire does not really help control the plant, BUT, it will make it easier to identify the first year plants in the spring since they will be some of the earliest plants to come up. I'd like to thank my friend Vern LaGesse from Springfield for talking me through the ins and outs of parsnip management, and for reminding me to check the INPC vegetation management website because they have pulled a lot of good resources together to help individuals with managing weeds on their property.

Some parsnip facts FYI:

Life history: Wild parsnip typically lives for two years. The first year, as a spindly rosette of leaves, it keeps fairly low to the ground while the plant's carrot-like taproot develops. It may live two or more years this way until conditions are right for flowering. The second year, a hollow, grooved flower stalk rises 2-5 feet high, first holding clusters of yellow flowers and later dozens of flat, oval seeds.

Leaves: Pinnately compound, with a main stem and 5 to 15 leaflets.
Flowers: Yellow, in flat-topped umbrella-like clusters at the top of the plant.
Season: Wild parsnip rosettes are among the first plants to become green in spring, and its flowers turn a prominent yellow in midsummer. After flowering and going to seed, plants die and turn brown in fall, but first year rosettes remain green until frost.
Habitat: Roadsides, abandoned fields, unmowed pastures, edges of woods, prairie restorations.

If you want to see it, good places to spot the plant in first and second year growth are along Route 14 between Woodstock and Harvard, and along 176 by Lippold Park in Crystal Lake. It looks a little like yellow Queen Anne's Lace (or a tall, tough Golden Alexander). Look, but don't touch!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What are You waiting for?

We each need to do something - now.

That was the message from Dr. Kathleen Dean Moore at last night's Moral Ground discussion at MCC. If you would like to leave a world to future generations as rich in possibilities as the world we were born into, then you need to take action.

Identify your passions - the things that bring you joy - and your gifts, and figure out where those intersect with the environment's needs.

For example, Dr. Moore is a philosopher and a writer - those are her gifts and passions. So she decided to write a book, and to use her skills as a philosopher to develop strong arguments that she could use to inspire others to act.

One of those arguments really hit home for me -- if you love the Earth (and all the known and unknown treasures it contains), and you believe that the Earth and those treasures are in trouble, you have an ethical obligation to act. It would be wrong to do nothing.

I do love the Earth and the abundance of life and mystery that it has. I love that there are many things that people will never know -- like what early humans thought when they looked at the night sky, what was the creature like that first breathed air into a lung, or did the first squirrel to find - and eat - an acorn think "Yum" (in whatever way a squirrel might articulate that thought!).

I do believe that the planet - the the way we live today - is going to be a thing of the past, sooner than we want to believe. When we consider that if everyone living in China today were to live in the same way that the average American lives -- two cars per family, television, computer, buying more stuff than they need at stores that don't even pay their workers a living wage, the world would not have the resources to support it!

Think about that. In America, we live in a way that will never be enjoyed by most of the rest of the world. And by continuing to live this way, we are in fact reducing the quality of life for others.We are contributing to the spread of more deadly diseases by insects that thrive in the hot environment that is expanding across much of the planet. We are contributing to rising sea levels and increased violent storms that are forcing people from their homes. We are contributing to a melting polar ice cap that is displacing Inuit peoples from the land (or ice) that has been their home for thousands of years.

As Dr. Moore commented: "If aliens came to our world and started treating it the way we treat it - dumping poisons into our water, ripping mountain tops off for the coal and tossing the rubble into the rivers, putting poisons into the products we give to our children... We would be outraged, and we would fight back at these invaders' treatment of our world." But for some reason, when we are doing it to ourselves, we just take it as the price of doing business, or perhaps it seems too big a problem to tackle, so we go back to the couch and click on the TV.

Well, whether you want your grandkids to inherit a world as full of possiblities as the world you enjoy, or think it's unjust to force other people from their homes because of the way we live, or just because you love the Earth and everything in it, act. Act now. Today.

Start small, start large, but make a change - and another and another. Do what you can, today and every day. If you care about the future, the time to act is now.