Sunday, September 25, 2016

What does the drought mean for Boston?

Posted by Richard B. Primack

“There is now a remarkable drought. Many white birches long since lost a greater part of their leaves, which cover the ground.” 
-Thoreau’s Journals. August 19, 1854. 

Eastern Massachusetts is experiencing an extreme drought, with less than half the normal amount of summer rain. The average August temperature was 6 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, making it the hottest August on record. The combination of low rainfall and hot days has dried the landscape and stopped flows in streams and springs.

What does this mean to the plants and animals of the Boston area?

Unwatered lawns and playing fields are brown. Numerous shrubs and trees in yards and roadsides have died; many branches have withered. The forest has an autumn look as the leaves turn yellow. Wildflowers like hawkweed and aster have drooping leaves and have stopped producing new flowers. Even if the rains resume, it is too late for these plants; they are finished for the year. 

Corn drying out in an unwatered field

The lack of rain means that most of the young fruits and nuts have shriveled or fallen from shrubs and trees. Birds, squirrels, chipmunks and other animals have nothing to eat, and many birds have started their southward migrations earlier in the autumn, leaving the forests quiet. No rain also means no mushrooms; it is a terrible year for mushroom hunters.

Insects in our fields and forests are also faring poorly due to the dry conditions and lack of flowers. This year there are almost no mosquitoes and flies, and relatively few butterflies. Bees and other insects are concentrated in well-watered gardens where there are flowers. Hummingbird feeders are another center of activity, for hungry hummingbirds, woodpeckers, and wasps.

Downy Woodpecker at a hummingbird feeder

Extreme seasons and events such as the summer of 2016 show how a changing climate will affect the natural world and our lives, and provides an example of why we need to get involved to slow and stop (and unfortunately, adapt to) climate change.

Longer versions of this post were published in the Newton Tab and the Concord Journal.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Salamanders need a home

Posted by Jonathan Regosin (Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife) and Richard B. Primack

“I am glad to recognize [a great blue heron] for a native of America—why not as an American citizen?” 
-Henry David Thoreau

Compared to common red-backed salamanders, yellow-spotted salamanders are massive. They are 4-6 inches long, have the girth of an index finger, and look almost pudgy. People usually see adult spotted salamanders only on the first warm rainy nights of March, when they migrate to breed in vernal ponds—small ponds that dry out in summer and lack predatory fish. When the pools dry out in summer, the young salamanders depart for the surrounding forests where they burrow in the ground and are rarely seen.

In Newton, yellow-spotted salamanders live most abundantly just west of Hammond Pond Parkway in the Webster Woods and breed at Bare Pond. It is called Bare Pond because it dries out or is “bare” during the summer. It is hard to know how many yellow-spotted salamanders live in Webster Woods, but a reasonable guess would be several hundred adults. Spotted salamanders are protected by Massachusetts state law; people are not allowed to collect or possess spotted salamanders, and vernal pool habitats and the surrounding forest are given some enhanced protections.

The future of Bare Pond and the surrounding upland forest habitat where adult yellow-spotted salamanders live, now hangs in the balance with the recent sale of a large part of the Webster Woods to Boston College. Developing any of the land just beyond the pond could directly harm spotted salamanders living in the ground and indirectly damage the water quality of the pond. Action is urgently needed to protect a unique natural area in the Webster Woods for the yellow-spotted salamander, other forest creatures, and future generations of Newton residents who enjoy nature.

A longer version of this article was published in the Newton Tab.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Social Media & Science at ESA

Posted by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie

The Ecological Society of America Meeting each August is a chance to engage in the larger community of ecologists, to connect our work with our colleagues, and to hear about the exciting new research emerging across our discipline. At recent ESA meetings, I’ve enjoyed the growing conversation, the so-called “meeting-within-a-meeting,” that pops up on twitter and social media during ESA. Live-tweets and blogged recaps provide a new level of engagement at ESA — alerting me to talks I might otherwise miss in the sea of concurrent sessions, or allowing me to catch a presentation, even if I can’t be physically present for it.

Hard at work as a PLOS Ecology Reporting Fellow at ESA

This year I worked the social media scene at the ESA Meeting in Fort Lauderdale as a PLOS Ecology Reporting Fellow, tweeting and blogging for the PLOS Ecology Community. PLOS created this new fellowship to foster communication and collaboration among ecologists at ESA and online. As a part of the Fellowship, I live-tweeted the session COS 14 — Climate Change: Ranges and Phenology II under the PLOS Ecology twitter handle (@PLOSEcology). I also blogged about science communication, recapping the popular Up-Goer Five Ignite Session that challenged speakers to present their research using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language. My other blog posts reflect my interest in the history of ecology; I was drawn to write about ESA sessions that repurposed old data and classic methods. In one post I worked with another Ecology Reporting Fellow to outline current uses of common gardens in climate change research. On my own, I wrote about iDigBio’s amazing and diverse organized oral session “Leveraging the Power of Biodiversity Specimen Data for Ecological Research.”

A sampling of my live-tweets from the Climate Change: Ranges and Phenology II Session
I had expected that the live-tweeting and blogging would make me a little frantic and prone to distraction, but I noticed instead that the Ecology Reporting Fellowship forced me to sit still. I was tied to a single session for the whole morning while I live-tweeted, instead of racing from one concurrent session to the next. This made my ESA experience both less and more spontaneous. I didn’t just wander from room to room as I have in the past; I had a strict schedule and little time to happen upon amazing talks from outside my corner of the ecology world. At past ESAs I have had incredible wander-luck: I actually found Richard Primack this way at ESA 2010, and I likely wouldn’t know about Robin Wall Kimmerer’s incredible writing or Eric Sanderson’s Welikia project if I hadn’t gotten lost in the corner of the convention center near their ESA sessions. But tweeting in place all the way through a session forced me to sit through talks that in previous years I would likely miss. I work exclusively in temperate ecosystems, but I stayed through the Climate Change: Ranges and Phenology talks that focused on Mediterranean and Semi-Arid and Savanna Type (SAST) biomes and watched engaging speakers tackle questions that are surprisingly relevant to my research. The blog post on common garden methodology grew organically out of sitting through the first Climate Change: Ranges and Phenology session on Monday afternoon. In previous years I likely would not have seen the repeated use of common gardens in various study systems, I would have jumped into the room for a talk or two, and then left to find coffee, or a talk on temperate plants or National Parks. The work of sitting, staying, and making deeper connections across talks in the same room would be valuable for anyone, whether or not they were live tweeting the session.

Tweeting from my own account while I took notes for a blog post — the conversation expands beyond ESA to people who were not in Florida!

Science communication begins with communicating among scientists. ESA is an opportunity for ecologists to share their work with each other, and many ecologists rose to the occasion with clear, engaging, and memorable presentations. From a social media perspective, I found that the best tweets and the best blog copy were often snippets of behind-the-scenes stories that were included in presentations, but would likely not make it into a publication. For example, Emily Meineke introduced her talk tracking evidence of herbivory captured in herbarium specimens by confessing the kitchen-table-procrastination origin story of her project. Nicole Rafferty asked the audience to imagine a grocery store in a future without pollinators before talking about her experiments tracing plant-pollinator migrations upslope in Colorado. The ESA Meeting is clearly full of creative science communicators: Fort Lauderdale featured a Fashion Show, a The-Moth-style evening of live story-telling, and a whole session of Up Goer Five talks. But in my opinion, some of the best story-telling took place in the small moments within traditional talks, and I hope my social media coverage of ESA celebrated and elevated these wonderful moments to the larger online community.

My poster at ESA — I wasn't just on social media all day!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Concord Temperatures, from Thoreau to now

Posted by Richard B. Primack

"The phenomena of the year take place every day in a pond on a small scale... The night is the winter, the morning and evening are the spring and fall, and the noon is the summer."
-Thoreau in Walden

For a week in 1860—June 30 to July 7—Henry David Thoreau used a thermometer, presumably a mercury thermometer, to record the temperature of Concord’s springs, brooks, rivers, ponds, and a swamp. He found that springs have Concord’s coldest water; brooks emerging from shady swamps are colder than brooks from dry, open uplands; and temperatures of rivers and ponds are affected by day-to-day air temperature.

Recently, over the course of 7 years, I repeated many of Thoreau’ observations of water temperatures using a digital thermometer. Springs are still Concord’s coldest waters. For example, Thoreau measured Brister’s Spring at 49 degrees, and it varied from 48 to 52 degrees during my years of measurements.

Brister's Spring in Concord, MA

Many of Concord’s brooks have distinctly warmed since Thoreau’s measurements. This is because a dam pond or beaver pond has slowed the water, giving it more time to be heated by the sun than in the past. The temperatures of the brooks are also affected by yearly variations; they are warmer in warm summers and colder in cool summers. 

The sand pit on Brister's Hill in Concord, MA 

On the afternoon of July 12, 2016 (just about one month ago), with an air temperature of 88 degrees, Concord showed that it still has hot and cold places on land as well. The treeless sand pit near Route 2 on Brister’s Hill is like a solar oven, and that afternoon it had a ground temperature, measured with an infrared thermometer, in the range of 130 to 148 degrees. Inside the nearby wildlife tunnel that passes under Route 2, the temperature was a cool 57 degrees, 31 degrees cooler than the outside air temperature. On a summer’s day, Concord residents can walk through three seasons from the cold waters of Brister’s Spring, to the glaring desert-like conditions of the sand pits, and finally the cool autumn climate of the wildlife tunnel, all without even having to cross a road.

The wildlife tunnel under Route 2 in Concord, MA

A longer version of this article was published in the Concord Journal.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Reaching the Public with the Message of Climate Change

Posted by Richard B. Primack

“The audience are never tired of hearing how far the wind carried some man or woman or child – or family bible – but they are immediately tired if you undertake to give them a scientific account of it.”  
-Henry David Thoreau, from his Journals, Feb. 4, 1852

A major goal of our research group is to inform the public that the effects of climate change can be seen right here and now in New England. We also want the public to know that climate change could have devastating impacts on our economy, coastal environments, and human health. 

Discussing Walden Pond as a living laboratory on Boston's WCVB5 (link below)

Last week, I was interviewed for a TV program and a radio program where I had the chance to present our results. In both cases, these media outlets learned about our research from my book Walden Warming and articles that I had written for newspapers. This opportunity highlights the value of doing popular writing along with producing peer-reviewed scientific papers.

The first interview was with the Connecticut Public Radio program Where We Live. I was the featured guest discussing the effects of climate change on the plant and animals of New England, and the connections to Thoreau and the need to take action. 

Explaining how Walden's cattails are growing under unusual conditions this year, on Boston's WCVB5

The second interview was for a Chronicle program on the Boston TV station WCVB5 focusing on New England swimming holes (click to watch segments onetwothree, and four). I am interviewed about the low water levels at Walden Pond in segment three. 

Demonstrating the low water levels at Walden Pond by walking across the seldom seen Walden sandbar known as Thoreau's Cove

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Tree Swallows at Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary

Posted by Lucy Zipf

“Swallows are more confident and fly nearer to man than most birds.  It may be because they are more protected by the sentiment and superstitions of men.”
Henry David Thoreau, May 20, 1858.

This summer I have been working with Mass Audubon’s Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary. With the help of sanctuary director Elissa Landre, I am investigating how climate change is affecting tree swallow nesting behavior, especially the timing of reproduction and clutch size.

Broadmoor’s Wildlife Pond fields dotted with nest boxes

A nest box at Broadmoor

Volunteers at Broadmoor have been monitoring the nest boxes on and off since 1987. There are 55 nest boxes on Broadmoor’s 624 acres, 44 of which were occupied this year by tree swallows.

A tree swallow looks out of a nest box at Broadmoor (Photo by Broadmoor Volunteer Chris Leuchtenburg)

Tree swallow nestlings in a nest box at Broadmoor (Photo by Broadmoor Volunteer Chris Leuchtenburg)

Preliminary analysis indicates that tree swallows are nesting earlier now than in the past, and are nesting earlier in warmer springs. While clutch size has not changed over time, clutch sizes are lower in very rainy years perhaps because there are fewer flying insects to eat.

Volunteer Richard Kent counting tree swallow eggs in a nest box