Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Ponkapoag 2016

This was our forth annual week at the AMC Ponkapoag camp, and our first time at a cabin within sight of the pond.  While I was busy studying much of the time, I did walk a bit and got out on the pond a couple of times.

Watching the sun set from my desk on the first full day.
If I have to be studying, at least I've got the best office!

A nice breeze off the pond for days meant no pages stayed on my desk
without rocks holding them down.

 The pond, and an animal I didn't expect to see in it (northern water snake, I think).

Mid-week sunset over the pond.

Puppy belonging to the camp manager went after a stick floating in the water, and returned through white water lily pads (Nymphaea odorata) and tape grass (Valisneria americana).

One of the rare times my son was on the dock instead of in the water.
Nearly all the other kids were much younger, but he was a good sport.

 Gypsy moths are another of the imported dangers to the forest.
Each of the brown egg masses on this trunk were laid by a female moth
that feasted as a caterpillar in the same tree.  The eggs will hatch next spring.

 I wrote about this situation three years ago:
"In an open woodland of oak and pine, a dead tree leans on a live tree.  The two form with the ground an isosceles right triangle, the live tree and the ground forming the right angle, the dead tree, fallen from twenty feet away and landed neatly in a crotch of the living tree twenty feet up, the hypotenuse.  -or not really neatly, since the dead tree shed rotten branches as it struck, which now form a sort of giant squirrel's nest where the two trees come together. 

"What happened here?  The living tree is a black oak, tall and straight with the high and narrow crown of a forest-grown tree, its only flaws the vulnerable crotch, a small dead sprout at its base, and a small dead limb in its crown.  From its state of decay and that of its branches, the other was long dead before its fall, so of unknown species, and a little bigger than the one-foot diameter of the black oak.  Perhaps the dead tree got its start a few years or a decade before the living, or perhaps the two were age mates, even siblings, the dead tree's slightly greater and earlier girth the result of a sunnier location, or a little more moisture.  What killed the one?  Not age, but some ill fortune--an infestation of caterpillars or a fungus borne by insects burrowing into its wood, a drought.  Perhaps it died when struck by an earlier dead-fallen tree now long vanished into soil. 

"How will events fall now?  Certainly the dead tree has damaged the slender forked oak, and that in a singular stroke of bad luck: the forking stems so narrow that a matter of a few degrees either way in the fall would meant a complete miss.   Perhaps the falling tree was so decayed that it did little damage.  Or perhaps even so the rotting wood provides habitat to a fungal or insect invader.  Moreover, yet another dead tree, somewhat smaller, stands at a similar distance, and inclines a little toward the burdened oak.  Might lightning strike twice?  Indeed standing dead trees are not uncommon in the wood.  Of course, the tall tree might equally benefit from the deaths of neighbors--if they stand southerly, the openings they create allowing more sunlight to feed the tree.  Every forest is indeed a slow race, with the prize of vital sunlight to the tree that can keep its crown above its shading neighbors.  But the future is never secure, and with the vagaries of chance even the most virtuous may succumb before their time."

The wood is scattered with glacial erratics--boulders bulldozed into place by ice sheets
and left behind at the end of the last ice age.  These boulders have had ten thousand years
 or more to develop "character."

The less water-phobic of our two little dogs went paddling with me about midweek.  (Actually, I did all the paddling.)  A tiny island beckoned.  Its size made possible a nearly-complete census of flowering plants in the space of a few minutes. 

Goose poop is the foundation of the soil here.

Golda, my assistant, eventually decided she'd seen everything.

"Island biogeography" this ain't: the fifty feet of shallow water
separating the island from the mainland is no barrier to plant or animal migration.

 No one was more pleased to be back ashore than Golda.
 She went directly to the door of the cabin.  She was not entirely pleased with me.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Ecological Footprint

I first encountered the "ecological footprint" fifteen years or twenty ago in a Boston Globe article, and was immediately hooked.  The article referred me to Redefining Progress (which now requires  a modest subscription).  There are so many environmental problems, from habitat destruction to water pollution, to over-fishing, to global climate change--and it's hard to keep them all straight in your mind at once: they all seem so different.  The ecological footprint solves this problem--and quantifies them--by putting them all on the same footing: LAND AREA.  

Land area is needed for farms to feed the world's growing population (and much more is needed to satisfy the developed world's love of meat).  Land area produces our lumber, our paper, our reservoirs for freshwater.  Land area (in forests) is needed to neutralize our air pollution and to soak up the vast amounts of carbon dioxide that comes from our power plants and cars.  And the wildlife habitat we destroy in pursuit of picturesque places to plant our over-sized homes is also land area.  All of the land area needed in all these ways to support your way of life is your Ecological Footprint.  Voila! our environmental problems are tied together: we can compare them, and add them up, and--best of all--know how far we have to go.

(There are, of course, issues not so easily converted into this currency of land area; still, a great many are.  Also, the differences land in land quality in different geographic locations must also be factored in.) 

Right now I'm a long-term substitute teacher in Environmental Science, and rekindling my interest as I teach it, and watch the kids find out their own "footprint."

It is enlightening and sobering to take a "footprint quiz" that will evaluate your lifestyle and determine you personal footprint.  More sobering still to realize that our collective human "footprint" is totally unsustainable--bigger, in fact, than the land area of Earth itself!  As a species, we are living unsustainably: we are using up the earth--consuming the "capital" instead of only the "interest."  Looking at the data nation by nation, we find that Americans have the biggest per capita footprint of any nation on Earth--such that it would take FIVE EARTHS to sustain humanity if everyone lived as we do!  We are head-and-shoulders higher livers than western Europeans, despite similar quality of life.  To make matters worse, the other ten million-odd species on earth must try to subsist on our one species' leavings--often unsuccessfully. 

Footprint quizzes usually have a feature that allows you to recalculate your footprint if you were to make positive lifestyle changes (such as downsizing to a more fuel-efficient car, insulating your home, etc), but of course the real impact comes in collective action and political involvement.  A sobering lesson is that even the most committed "green" American cannot live a sustainable life: there is simply too much greed, consumption and waste built into the very fabric of our society, and we must address it together. 

To that end, it is well worth your time to look more deeply into the "ecological footprint" concept, the relative impact of different aspects of our society (no, I'm afraid recycling barely registers!), and the systemic changes we need to make to have any chance of turning the human juggernaut around.  It is also interesting (for me, at least) to know a little of the ins and outs of how the numbers are calculated, the data sets used, and the assumptions that underlie the models.

Free versions of footprint quizzes include that of the Global Footprint Network, which includes a lot of comparative information.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Richard Primack on Fall

Richard Primack is professor of biology and plant ecology at Boston University, and famous among us for his study of effects of climate change, making use of  Henry David Thoreau's meticulous seasonal notes to study long-term seasonal change in Concord's woods.   In a recent interview he walks with WBUR's Meghna Chakrabarti in Webster Woods.  (The audio recording lasts eight minutes.)

The two discuss:
1. drought-induced early leaf color and fall (and even fall of green leaves)
2. governing of timing of fall color by temperature, day length, moisture, & frost events
3. fallen green oak twigs cut by squirrels, a sign of a shortage of food (here mainly insects, and perhaps hickory nuts, since acorns are about as abundant as last year).  Primack says squirrels are eating the inner bark on branchlets and dropping the twigs. 
4. Missing insects and early bird migration
5. I the Massachusetts drought linked to climate change?  No--climate change predicts wetter conditions here, on average.

Some surprises for me here: the big one is that gray squirrels are short of food: many of the trees losing twigs were heavy with acorns.  And some scepticism: the fallen twigs are the result of their eating bark, but there is no bark missing on the fallen parts and the twigs are cut off sharp. 

I have my doubts about the food shortage hypothesis:
this twig was cut with high-quality acorns still in place.