Thursday, December 29, 2011

Fire's Ecological Role

Fire is an important and beneficial ecological force. Writers like Stephen Pyne have documented how it was in past centuries an important tool for maintaining meadows and open woodlands even along the east coast. Many native plant species have evolved adaptations to and even dependency on periodic fire. In  past years, living in the midwest and later the piedmont of North Carolina, I was fortunate to participate in controlled burns of some small prairies. One prairie was right in the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where they regularly burn native prairie grasses and woodlands in their parks, in a very controlled way, of course. Controlled burns are being done at a few preserves in New Jersey, as described in a previous post about Schiff Nature Preserve 30 miles north of Princeton, and more widespread use would undoubtedly benefit habitat and ecological health.

This storyline is seldom encountered in news reports, which focus on war-like responses to wildfires out west.   A post at another website of mine speaks to the gap in people's knowledge perpetuated by this unbalanced reporting: Rethinking News Coverage of Wildfires.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Communal Bath for Robins

Flocks of robins have been appreciating the backyard minipond the last couple days, arriving in flocks of 20 or so to splash in the shallow water. Their frenzied head-dipping is reminiscent of the movement of the birds on this toy, and wooden birds are much more cooperative in front of a camera.

While half of the flock is in the water, the other half remains perched in the overhanging branches, to keep a keen eye or two out for any approaching photographers. The old apple tree next to the pond, half of its branches dead, serves this function well. The human inclination is to trim trees up and remove all the dead branches, but the birds make it clear they like lots of perches of varied heights--the better to scope out the ground before dropping in.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Let Them Be Cake?

Back in the early 90's, I had two jobs--taking care of indoor plants at a university, and playing weekends in a wedding band. Sometimes the band would play at large surburban reception hall complexes that serviced multiple wedding receptions simultaneously. During breaks, we'd walk the hallways, ornamented increasingly with plastic plants, and note how wedding parties were trending towards hiring D.J.s instead of bands. Real plants and musicians were steadily being replaced by imitations.

Given that indoor plants, and saxophonists playing Top 40 pop/rock, are seriously displaced from their preferred habitats, their phasing out cannot be compared to the rapid changes in habitat many native species are up against.

Something about this polar bear,

these penguins, and the Santa, encased like museum displays, made me wonder if and when the penguins of the southern seas, and the polar bears of the north, will join Santa in the world of make believe and memory. It wasn't a very sweet thought to mix with all that frosting.

The next day, part of the answer was provided by Stephanie Pfirman of Columbia University in a fascinating talk at Princeton University entitled "Managing Arctic Sea Ice".

The quick answer, for those in a hurry, appears to be that polar bear numbers will be decimated in coming decades, but that a residual population might survive through most of the century in an area just north of Greenland, where computer models suggest summer sea ice will linger. Her talk did not focus on penguins, though she did say that one colony of Emperor penguins at the South Pole has already disappeared, for reasons linked to changing climate. Changes at the South Pole are more subtle thus far than in the Arctic. Here is fuller account of her talk:

She began in an uncharacteristic way for a scientist. Back in 1992, when scientists assumed that the big impacts of climate change were 100 years off, she had a dream in which she was flying over the arctic, and all the ice was gone.

Her dream is looking prescient. It is now believed that most of the summer ice in the Arctic Ocean will be gone by 2035, and with it most of the habitat for polar bears and the ringed seals they feed on. Already, the diminishing summer sea ice has triggered polar bear cannibalism and interbreeding with grizzlies.

They still expect the Arctic Ocean to freeze over in winter, but the ice cover is getting progressively thinner. Ice that was 4 meters thick before is now half that. As ice melts in the summer, deep blue water is exposed, which absorbs solar energy that was before being reflected back out into space by the snow-covered ice. (Much like the difference between having a white roof, or a dark-colored one, on your house.) This radical shift, from reflection to absorption of energy, is causing much more rapid heating of the arctic than, say, is occurring in New Jersey.

The food chain of polar cod, seals and polar bears is being further stressed, surprisingly, by pollution that is carried on trade winds from northern Europe and Asia. As an example, Inuit indians have some of the highest levels of PCBs anywhere, and as temperatures warm, these pollutants become more mobile in the arctic ecosystem. Oil spills, an inevitable result as easier access to the Arctic attracts extractive industries, will pose an additional threat.

There is one small hope, however. Pfirman and others have used modeling to determine that the last vestiges of summer sea ice later this century will be found in an area north of Greenland. Discussions are underway to create a refuge there. In this way, a small portion of polar bears has a chance of surviving after others perish.

Though I felt a flush of sadness at the beginning of her talk, Pfirman described the devastating changes in a matter of fact way. Scientific inquiry can have its satisfactions, even when the subject of study is a human-driven process heading full tilt towards tragedy. People in dead-end jobs can seek new ones, but a polar bear in a dead-end habitat does not have that luxury. Some would say a polar bear is inferior because it cannot adapt, yet we are the one's who most clearly show a refusal to change, even in the face of well-studied consequences. It's the scientist's spirit of inquiry, that capacity to be dispassionate and yet deeply engaged, that we could all use, to get past the paralysis of guilt and denial, and figure out what we can do.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Visit From the Claw

A Visit From The Claw

'Twas the month before Christmas, when all through the town,
The streets were chocked full of great mounds of brown--
Yardwaste and tree limbs, dumped without care,
In hopes that the street crew soon would be there.

The kids, how they wished they could jump in a pile
Of leaves dry and crisp, where they'd linger awhile.
But all dreams were dashed! Their dad called a halt
To such thoughts of venturing near the asphalt.

The streets had become so exceedingly narrow,
That bicyclists mixed with the cars at their peril.
The street drains were clogged, the rains made a river.
I watched this insane spectacle with a shiver.

When just down the way there arose such a clatter.
I sprang to the door to see what was the matter.
From round the next corner at once there appeared
A caravan that was demonstrably weird.

With dump truck and pickup and street crew I saw
A giant contraption with grappling claw
That groaned as it scooped up the leaves in great gobs.
One thing that was clear was they wouldn't lose their jobs.

For no sooner did they the street cleaner make,
Than neighbors dumped even more leaves in their wake.
The mounds they grew higher than ever before.
I guessed that our town had gone nuts at the core.

How could such a state of affairs come to pass?
What sense underlies this self-made morass?
Is decomposition a thing to be purged
From yards prim and proper that so blandly merge?

The leaves, they have value, it's clear, don't you see?
To earthworms and robins and flowers and trees.
Let's make room between the back fenceline and shrubs,
And there place the leaves as good food for the grubs.

Hidden from view they will quietly mellow.
As Jefferson did at beloved Monticello.
To ground they return; no need for more work.
As they flatten and fade, no varmints will lurk.

Let humus and nutrients there feed your soil.
The mulch will kill weeds, and save you some toil.
The leaf-softened ground will soak up the rain
And lessen the floods that now seem to gain.

Or, grind up the leaves as you last mow the grass.
Okay, so it might take just one extra pass.
But saved be our streets from a public display
Of all that in nature is meant to decay.

I know that I'm fighting a dominant force,
That flouts local law as a matter of course.
No bureaucrat dares to deliver a fine,
Risking taxpayer wrath of a virulent kind.

But speak up I must, and speak up I will
As long as the streets continue to fill.
This dumping is wrong. It's an ongoing blight.
To all who love sense: Let's fight the good fight!

Background: Yesterday, a man overheard me talking to a friend at the Arts Council about all the leaves clogging the streets. He came over and said that West Windsor has the same problem, and that their town council had just thrown its hands up in exasperation, for lack of a solution to the annual deluge of leaves. The thought of towns all over New Jersey struggling with the same intractable problem, mixed perhaps with the flush of vitamins from eating swiss chard from the backyard garden, had the unexpected effect of later moving me to verse, which I read yesterday night at the Princeton borough council meeting. When faced with adversity, write a poem. By coincidence, The Claw came by our house as I was writing it. My apologies to Clement Clarke Moore for rerouting his 1822 "A Visit From St. Nicholas" down a very messy street.

Saturday, December 10, 2011