Stories tagged phenology

I'm throwing down the gauntlet and challenging Buzzers to contribute spring science haikus.

You know the rules: three lines (5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables), and it has to be, in some way, both about science and spring. Other than that, you're on your own.

Lilacs: This is what I'm waiting for...any day now...
Lilacs: This is what I'm waiting for...any day now...Courtesy Adam Kuben

Live sound and video from eagles nest.

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CNN posted a cool series of photographs of folks working to hold back the Red River. View the slideshow.

Cold weather eases flood threat

by Anonymous on Mar. 29th, 2009

Midwest flood region
Midwest flood regionCourtesy Adapted from NOAA graphic
The colder-than-normal March temperatures in the Upper Midwest have helped hold back the rising flood waters in North Dakota and surrounding areas. Residents and volunteers battling the water can relax for the time being as the rivers shows signs of receding, but the threat of further flooding still remains. Check out the website for some dramatic photos of events of the past week.

According to the National Weather Service, "flood stage" is the point at which a "rise in water surface level begins to create a hazard to lives, property, or commerce." In Fargo, that's at 18 feet. Today, the water level at Fargo climbed past 40.5 feet, passing all other recorded levels. If you're familiar with the city, here's an interesting list of flood stages as they correspond to geographic locations in the Fargo/Moorhead area.

By 10:15 this morning, the Red River reached 40.6 feet, beating the record high water mark of 40.1 feet set 112 years ago. The river's rise shows no signs of slowing, and the National Weather Service predicts that the river will crest at 43 feet on Saturday afternoon. (That's 3 feet higher than the 1997 flood, and 1-3 feet above earlier predictions for this year. Two inches of rain and snow in the last four days prompted the higher forecast.) Emergency officials can no longer rely on historical data to help them make decisions.

Fargo's main dike protects the city at the 43-foot level, and city officials have no plans to try to raise it any further. (There's no time.) In other areas, volunteers are continuing to lay sandbags, hoping to protect cities, homes, and farms in the river's path. But water is breaching some dikes and evacuation orders are being issued for some areas. Forecasters say the river is likely to remain at more than 40 feet for as long as a week, putting pressure on the already taxed sandbag and temporary dike system.

Minnesota Public Radio's Bob Collins is writing from Fargo on the News Cut blog. Check it out.


Ever wonder just why the Red River seems to flood so regularly? North Dakota State geology professor Don Schwert says:

"Fargo and Moorhead sit on one of the flattest surfaces on Earth. It's the lakebed of what was a gigantic lake at one time--glacial Lake Agassiz. Lake Agassiz was here from about 12,000 years ago to about 9,000 years ago, and after the lake drained, it left behind sediments that formed this flat surface. These sediments form the basis for wonderful soils, but they form as well this flat surface off of which water is reluctant to drain. And so the Red River is doing the best it can in trying to process water across this flat landscape. But what happens is that, during times of floods, as we're having now, water spills out of the channel and onto the bed of the old glacial lake, and the glacial lake sort of reappears."

"The Red River Valley is unusual compared to other river valleys around the world. Most river valleys are effectively carved by the rivers themselves (if you think about the Colorado River, or the Mississippi River). But the Red River Valley, the river itself couldn't have begun to flow until glacial Lake Agassiz drained about 9,000 years ago. Now the importance of that statement is that we normally measure the ages of rivers around the world in terms of hundreds of thousands of years, millions of years, maybe even tens of millions of years, and here we have a river that began to flow about 9,000 years ago, and began to flow across this flat surface. It hasn't had time and it hasn't had the energy to carve any kind of meaningful valley. The lakebed of Lake Agassiz becomes the effective floodplain in times of flooding, and the river spills out onto the old lakebed, and glacial Lake Agassiz kind of reappears."

"One of the problems with the Red River is that floods can't be confined, in an engineering sense, by means of dams. A dam crosses a river valley, and water builds up behind it, and it can store water. Well, here we have this expansive surface: the feature we call the Red River Valley is actually the lakebed of Lake Agassiz, and in some places it's 60 or 70 miles wide, and there's no way, really, of effectively managing water in terms of reservoir storage in the southern Red River Valley.... There's really no other river in the world like it."

"[The Red River flows north, which is not really unusual.] But it does have a consequence: typically, in the Red River Valley, a spring thaw begins in the southern portion of the valley. So waters are released in the southern portion of the valley and begin slowly to work their way northward at about the same pace, perhaps, as the the thaw is working its way northward along the valley. So as waters are being delivered northward, waters are also being released in portions of the valley. And everything's kind of clumping together and keeps on building up as the river and its waters and the flood are processed northward. So it becomes very problematic, particularly in the northern portion of the valley: massive, shallow, expansive floods. In 1997, in portions just north of the North Dakota border on into Manitoba, one could measure the flood, in terms of width, at 60 to 70 miles wide. An Ohio River flood might be 1,000 yards. Here it's 60 to 70 miles wide, so it's an incredibly expansive flood. It's sort of a rebuilding of the old lake, in that sense."

"Urban development, or urbanization, is a problem worldwide in terms of helping to exacerbate flooding of rivers. If we think about the path of a raindrop before human settlement, that raindrop would take a long time being delivered into the main drainage. But here in Fargo-Moorhead, or cities elsewhere around the world, we can process that raindrop in a matter of minutes or a couple hours in there, and it's immediately delivered into the channel. When we think about parking lots and shopping malls, housing and driveways and streets, highly efficient drainage ditches or drain tiles in agricultural fields--all of that is processing water, all of that is accelerating the delivery of water into the main stem drainages."

(You can listen for yourself at the link above.)

Glacial Lake Agassiz and the Red River Valley: Not all of this huge area was underwater at one time, but Lake Agassiz was bigger than all the Great Lakes put together and held more water than all the lakes in the world today.
Glacial Lake Agassiz and the Red River Valley: Not all of this huge area was underwater at one time, but Lake Agassiz was bigger than all the Great Lakes put together and held more water than all the lakes in the world today.Courtesy Figure 1-2 from A River Runs North, by Gene Krenz and Jay Leitch, Red River Water Resources Council (1993)

Lake Agassiz
Lake AgassizCourtesy North Dakota Geologic Survey

More interesting resources:

Minnesota Public Radio posted this cool time-lapse, shot over 20 minutes, of sandbag operations at the Fargodome on Wednesday, 3/25.

One more interesting/worrisome thing to consider: the area of Canada once covered by the glaciers and glacial Lake Agassiz is still slowly rebounding after being pressed down by the weight of the ice. According to the New York Times,

"For the north-flowing Red River, that means its downhill slope, already barely perceptible, is getting even less pronounced with each passing year, adding to its complexity, and its propensity to flood."


Measuring to detect changing climate

Jack-in-the-pulpit: photo taken May 3, 2004
Jack-in-the-pulpit: photo taken May 3, 2004Courtesy ARTiFactor
One way to measure climate change would be to keep records of when different species of plants first come up or when they first flower. I often do this with my camera which automatically records the time and date.

The National Phenology Network

The National Phenology Network is recruiting people across the U.S. to record when trees bud, flowers bloom and migrating animals return. I heard the project's executive director, Jake Weltzin, explain how tracking these trends can help scientists better understand climate change on National Public Radio Friday (click link to listen to the broadcast).

Become a phenology observer

Click this link to learn how to monitor plant phenology and sign up to contribute new observations to the USA-NPN national phenology database.

The USA National Phenology Network brings together citizen scientists, government agencies, non-profit groups, educators and students of all ages to monitor the impacts of climate change on plants and animals in the United States.

Select a plant

I especially liked the "select a plant" data base. In addition to telling you how and what to measure, it also tells why a particular plant is important. Click here to see information about my jack in the pulpit.

The New York Times' Dot Earth blog has a cool new post: "The many faces of water in winter." It has a link to a post about snow's "fluff factor."

Andrew Revkin, the blogger, is asking readers to send in photos or video (via Flickr or YouTube) of " of your environs that you treasure, that are imperiled, or that otherwise matter." Doesn't say they have to be of New York, and Minnesotans know a thing or two about beautiful places and water in winter or both.


Many bird populations across North America have declined in recent years and researchers have been busy trying to determine why populations of birds are declining.
Dusky flycatcher nest: These dusky flycatcher eggs might be safe when it comes to researchers, but something is still amiss here: those speckled eggs are brown-headed cowbirds, not dusky flycatchers. When they hatch, they'll outcompete the flycatcher chicks for food.
Dusky flycatcher nest: These dusky flycatcher eggs might be safe when it comes to researchers, but something is still amiss here: those speckled eggs are brown-headed cowbirds, not dusky flycatchers. When they hatch, they'll outcompete the flycatcher chicks for food.Courtesy West Coast Birding

My research focuses on factors that could affect survival of birds during the breeding season. The breeding season is an important time for birds because this is the time when individuals have an opportunity to raise young and the ability to successfully raise young can have a big effect on the bird population. However, producing young can be quite difficult for birds. In fact, the number one factor that affects the ability of birds to raise young is nest predation. Nest predation occurs when a predator, such as a chipmunk or squirrel eats the eggs or young in a bird’s nest. But do all birds have an equal chance of survival during the breeding season? Research suggests that the chance of survival for a bird’s nest is not equal and chances for survival change during the breeding season. Why might survival change during the breeding season? I have some ideas or hypotheses that might explain why survival changes during the breeding season. I am investigating whether plant cover, food resources for predators, temperature, or number of predators affects the ability of songbirds to raise their young.
When birds build their nests, they often hide them in plants to reduce the chance that a predator will find their nest. But many birds begin building their nests early in the spring and in early spring we often notice that plants and flowers in the forest are just starting to grow. So birds building their nests during this time have fewer plants to hide their nests in which could make their nests more visible to predators, such as chipmunks and squirrels. Because plant cover may be a key factor preventing predators from eating the eggs or young in a bird’s nest, I experimented with plant cover to test the importance of plant cover. I removed plant cover around Wilson’s Warbler nests and compared the fate (i.e., were the parents able to raise their young) of these nests to nests that did not have plant cover removed. I also measured plant cover at nests of Wilson's Warblers and Dusky Flycatchers and compared the amount of plant cover to the fate of each nest.
In addition to seasonal changes that we see in plants, the amount of food available in the forest for critters to eat also changes as we move from spring to summer to fall. Early in the summer, there may be less food available for the predators because pine cones and seeds from other plants are not yet available. If predators such as chipmunks, mice, or jays have less to eat they spend more time looking for food to eat in the forest. The increase in time spent searching for food could also increase the chance that one of these predators will find a bird nest and eat the eggs or young in the nest. Because the amount of food available might affect survival of a bird’s nest I conducted another experiment to find out if this was the case. I provided food (sunflower seeds and corn) to predators to see if providing extra food to predators will increase the ability of birds to raise their young.
Determining how both vegetation and food affect survival of bird’s nests during the breeding season is challenging but fun because I am able to experiment with nature and find out what happens. As a scientist I am like a detective trying to figure out why bird populations are declining. Finding the answer is challenging and exciting, but hopefully we will find an answer that will prevent further losses of our bird populations.