Tuesday, March 27, 2012

On Change

Today I attended a seminar by Mark Anderson, Director of Conservation Science at The Nature Conservancy.  He is an ecologist, was co-author of the National Vegetation Classification System, and continues work on the resiliency and connectivity of ecosystems over time.  One of the main subjects of his talk, and the one I found most fascinating, was the prevalence of change in ecosystems, and how we can work to conserve ecosystems and natural communities while still allowing change to take place.

What does this have to do with rivers and watershed conservation?  Well, aside from the connection between healthy ecosystems and healthy watersheds, there is a more conceptual connection as well.  Over the last decade or two, we are increasingly realizing that complex systems like rivers and ecosystems must change.  Change is in their nature, and our attempts to halt change, which humans have carried out for various reasons for centuries, are ultimately futile.  A river WILL meander, erode, and deposit, and our attempts to stop them from doing so are increasingly expensive and inexpensive.  Likewise, ecosystems can and will constantly change, and attempts to preserve them in a static state are essentially futile.  Change happens whether we want it or not.

(Centuries of change: clay laid down under an ancient lake, sand laid down by a long-gone manifestation of the Middlebury River, being re-cut by the river of the present day.  Each day the river eats away at the bluff more, exposing a fresh layer.  The rocks themselves are sedimentary and metamorphic, having originated in deposits in lakes and oceans hundreds of millions of years ago)

Some use the state of ecosystem change as an excuse to avoid conservation and management, but this of course is the wrong line of thinking.  As humans we can't stop change, but we can often work to choose a type of change that benefits the ecosystem's stability, and in turn ourselves, over the long run.  The same is true with rivers.  For instance, we can't encase the Middlebury River in concrete - even if we could ethically justify doing so, we simply can't afford it.  But, we also can't allow the river to change course and run down Highway 125, ruining most of the houses in town in the process.  What we CAN do is to encourage the river to continue using the forested floodplains it has access to, and perhaps open access to further forested floodplains.  In short, if we give the river space to be a river, we also have the economic and ecologic latitude to hold East Middlebury's space near the river for human, nonriver uses.  Much is the same with ecosystems.  Trying to preserve just one endangered species might be compared with trying to keep the roaming Middlebury River in one path for thousands of years.  Instead of concentrating on one path, we need to keep many paths open.  We need to adapt to, and thrive under, continued change.

As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, "No man ever steps in the same river twice".  Rivers, nature, indeed our lives are defined by change.

Change has been in my thoughts, because change has entered into my personal life as well.  This week, I started a new job, but one involving an old passion I pursued in my past life in California.  My work will not be directly related to watershed and river outreach, but instead to understanding, monitoring, and tracking ecosystems and natural communities.  I intend to keep this blog going, and hopefully avoid changing the theme of the posts, but readers may notice that the posts become a bit less frequent, and mention ecology and maps a bit more than before.

Like any change, there are positive aspects and negative aspects.  The job itself is overwhelmingly positive.  The one personal sadness in this change?  Because of my work location, I will probably be leaving East Middlebury this summer, and relocating to somewhere around the Burlington or Montpelier area (to be determined).  I am very excited to remain in Vermont and to be working with ecosystems over the entire state, but ultimately, the cost for doing this is leaving my home by the Middlebury River.

Part of me really hopes the oxbow cuts off before I leave.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Unprecedented Spring Warmth Offers Gamble for Vermont Plants

The unprecedented March warm spell that has affected much of the northern United States is experiencing its last day in Vermont.  At the moment, it is a bit under 80 in East Middlebury, under an almost-cloudless sky and a sun made even more intense by the lack of leaves on the deciduous trees.

(above: at the Green Mountain National Forest in Ripton, the hot sun blasts through the leafless maples and birches).

If hemlocks and white pines could laugh, they'd be giggling wildly right now.  A step into a pine grove offers the sweet smell of millions of sun-baked, actively metabolizing pine needles.  The conifer saplings in the understory, usually struggling for light, are bathed in sunlight and are undoubtedly being offered an early-season advantage over their deciduous competitors.

The maples, oaks, birches, and other deciduous trees are standing mostly bare, though many of the maples are now flowering.  Below is a photograph of a flowering red maple.  The sugar maples are not as far along, but apparently are far enough along in their life cycle that they are not producing tappable sap, to the unfortunate detriment of the syrup industry.



So why aren't the deciduous trees taking advantage of the warm, sunny conditions?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Vermont Lake Ice Breakup Visible On Wunderground Time-Lapse Webcam Videos

The unheard-of March warmth in Vermont (among many other areas) is leading to a dramatically fast breakup of ice on local lakes.  In truth, I was actually surprised the ice lasted as long as it did, but apparently the ice this year did manage to get rather thick, perhaps due to rain falling on its surface and freezing, and due to the lack of an insulating snow cover.  Still, any ice left on lakes is rapidly breaking up.

I recently discovered this large and very neat listing of webcams on Wunderground.com that includes time-lapse videos in many cases.  Many of these videos include archives going back several months or more.  Quite a few of these webcams include lake views, making it possible to see just when the ice melted off of each lake (I apologize for the overlap of the text with the videos).

Below is a video showing the breakup and movement of ice on Lake Bomoseen on March 17th.  The video starts at midnight, so give it a few seconds:

By the next day, the ice is all but gone.

In contrast, the video below shows the last day that ice was visible on the lake - April 15th!

Lake Bomoseen is a popular ice fishing destination, and people were out fishing on the lake every time I drove by when there was enough ice.  Unfortunately, the season ended quite early this year.

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There is another webcam on Mallett's Bay (I think), in Colchester.  This bay of Lake Champlain freezes much sooner than the main part of the lake (though this year the main part of the lake remained mostly ice free!)  On this video you can see the ice starting to form on December 29th:

The ice largely broke up on March 15th after several days of rain:

Two days later, a cold fog hung over the mostly-open water, but broke as the sun rose in the sky.  A few bits of ice still floated around.

I spent quite some time watching different weather videos (including some of Irene, which mostly consisted of rain too heavy to see anything through).  The lake videos are great, and it would be very neat if there were some river videos as well, as it would be fun to watch the water rise and fall with the weather.  Maybe someday I'll set one up.

Meanwhile, for another viewpoint on the beauty and complexity of melting ice, see my friend Neahga's post in his blog Writing for Nature.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Remarkable March Warmth in Vermont; Winter Arrives Late in California

Vermont has been experiencing a string of remarkably warm March days.  Here in Vermont it seems like Winter is gone and early Spring seems to have followed it - we often don't have temperatures consistently reaching near 70 like they did yesterday until May.  Yet, at the same time, California seems to be experiencing January two months late... a series of storms is currently beginning its onslaught into central and northern California, with all of the state forecast to pick up very well-needed rain and low-elevation mountain snow.

Above: After a surprise Saturday snowstorm, the last bits of soggy snow in East Middlebury met their demise early this week.  The mountains of California, on the other hand, could pick up a foot or two of new snow this week... if not more.

So why do Vermont and California appear to have traded weather?  The proximal cause, at least, is yet more unusual antics by the jet stream, which controls the track of storms and the movements of warm and cold air masses.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Will the Next Nocturnal Rain Awaken Vermont's Amphibians?

The cold nighttime spring rains of late March and early April do more than dissolve the last remnants of snow hanging in the shadows in the Champlain Valley.  As the water trickles into the thawing soil, it also awakens the many amphibians that had burrowed into the dirt and leaf litter the preceding Fall.  Almost all of Vermont's amphibian species take part in this early spring migration - including spring peepers, wood frogs, spotted salamanders, and blue-spotted salamanders.


Above: a spotted salamander, found during last year's migration.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Williams Woods: A Forest Sculpted by Water and Wind

Yesterday was a beautiful, unusually warm early March day, and I happened to be traveling through Charlotte, Vermont so I took some time exploring Williams Woods, a unique forest remnant that represents a mostly-lost habitat type, and one that has been closely sculpted by the actions of water and wind.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Small Streams Frozen Solid?

No matter how cold it gets, streams and rivers won't freeze solid.  There's always water moving under, and sometimes over, the ice.  Sometimes, however, smaller springs and seeps in cold areas like Vermont appear to be frozen in time, unmoving, almost as if someone dumped hot wax on the landscape.  Do these streams really freeze solid?


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Madrona Marsh: a Postage Stamp of Nature in Torrance

I've been posting a series of blog posts about Torrance, California, the city where I grew up.  Most of them revolve around trying to find nature, wildness, and forgotten, unmanicured spaces in this a of suburban sprawl.  Yet, I'd be remiss not to dedicate a post to Madrona Marsh, a small patch of nature right in the center of Torrance that was spared from development, and became a refuge for me as I was attending high school in the 1990s.

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