Category Archives: Earth Science

Beyond the Jeep Road Sits Coyote — Wilderness in 2015

Southwestern desert

Southwestern desert

By Levi Old

On the first day of a 90-day expedition, our team made camp at the end of a jeep road. The afternoon sun, low in the sky, blanketed the desert’s red and orange rocks. Daylight quickly shifted into dusk. The rocks faded into shapes, and dropped shadows on slick rock in the crescent moonlight. The wind-worn surfaces that stood so vibrant in daytime were gone.

After dinner and a meeting about the next day’s plan, we embraced the opportunity to sleep out in the open. I found a flat boulder, climbed into my sleeping bag, and looked up at the night sky. The 10 students wandered around searching for sleeping spots, chatting with nervous anticipation and preparing their new equipment for a night’s rest.

“I bet this never gets old,” said Ben, 20, from Wyoming.

“Seriously,” agreed Lily from New York, “I’ve never seen stars like this before.”

I peeked over the lip of my sleeping bag and noticed the students gazing at the night sky.

The two college students traveled far from their comfortable existences to attend a three-month wilderness leadership course in the heart of the southwestern desert. Along with my colleague, I was their instructor. Around us, there was a more distinguished instructor— wilderness.

The students arrived set to journey through wilderness, the classic romanticized remote landscape, and a wilderness of their mind, body and souls. Students often do not realize that they will travel through a type of land designated by law as Wilderness.

The Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964 designates lands that are separated from roads and motorized use. The act is the federal government’s strictest land preservation law. In 2014 the country celebrated the Act’s 50th Anniversary. The question remains open and often debated by private property activists, business, economists, environmentalists, and others: “Does wilderness still matter?”

Yes. Wilderness is more relevant and timely than ever. Wilderness preserves pockets of ancient ecosystems — from coasts, to endangered grassland prairies, to piedmonts and fragile alpine systems. They remain largely intact. Nearby human communities receive a boost in tourism, and recreational users travel to these wild places for respite. Lyndon B. Johnson said upon signing the bill into law:

“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”

In 1964, there were 54 Wilderness designations in 13 states totaling 9 million acres. The first Wilderness Area designations included the Gila in New Mexico. The original bill laid the foundation for many other Wilderness bills, some of which were passed into law.

Today there are more than 750 Wilderness Areas from coast to coast. These wild landscapes exist in this country because of the forethought and persistence of conservation leaders.

The Wilderness movement is one of the few times in history in which we as a society designated places set aside for what they are and set at a distance from the human species ability to dominate, take and destroy the very things that help us survive. Wilderness lands are dedicated to preserve havens for clean-water, carbon sequestration, fish and wildlife, and recreation.

Wilderness areas provide the headwaters habitat for clean water sources that reach many of our country’s largest cities: Miami, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Seattle and New York, to name a few. The roadless nature of these areas also makes them valuable fish and wildlife habitat. The law allows regions of our country’s landscape to remain inhabitable by large predators and serve as an example and testament of biodiversity and ecological processes. These wild places include home to grizzly bears, elk, and wolves, and watersheds where native salmon and trout maintain their genetic integrity.

Three-Fingered Jack in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness Area, Oregon

Three-Fingered Jack in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness Area, Oregon ©Levi Old

Wilderness draws humans in for many reasons. They arrive to separate from their everyday existences. To vision quest. To challenge comfort zones. To rejuvenate.

The students on these wilderness courses often look to escape the symptoms that follow hours spent in front of a screen, or those times when the hand drives itself to the cell phone on its own. Many seek to separate from the trauma of war or family troubles. For others the symptoms may arise in traffic jams, or walking on concrete so often that the body forgets the intricate features of wild, naked earth.

There are others who are content with the notion that wilderness solely exists:

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in,” said writer and Wilderness advocate, Wallace Stegner. “For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

Wilderness is a victory in this country’s heritage and an Act and idea that deserves and needs to be defended. Even within the environmental movement itself, the debate continues as to whether these places exclude humans too much. There is a belief among many that we should intermingle in the environment and not feel as though we need to separate ourselves from it and that the concept of Wilderness separates humans further from nature.

Mending Old and New Practices

The leap into the 21st Century passed. The country is in a continuous war for resources. Our earth’s population is over 7 billion and predicted to grow towards as many as 10 billion in 2050 (the elephant in the room). Today’s movement towards ecological peace or “the environmental movement” has deepened the longstanding discussion on the value of setting aside preserved lands. The environmental movement, once driven by large policy and conservation of public lands, now has a new, or at least more diverse presence.

Giant Mountain Wilderness, New York ©Levi Old

Giant Mountain Wilderness, New York ©Levi Old

The neo-environmentalists have treaded bravely into new territories. More young farmers stake claims each year to grow local food, tend soils, and use sustainable agriculture. Urban planners are improving public transportation to offset carbon use and cut down on pollution. River restoration groups remove dams so that salmon can once again swim to their native birth grounds and reestablish themselves as staples of cultural tradition and food sovereignty (a role they held for thousands of years).

Universities and Walmarts employ sustainability coordinators who wash shades of green into their operations. Even permaculture, a regenerative way of living, commonly appears in the national press.

Each of these steps forward is part of a story’s thread — the story of a battle upstream for humanity and earth’s natural systems. They’re not separate, yet woven like an orb weaver’s web — like the web each student will navigate throughout life.

The modern environmental movement’s new approaches should make any longtime fighter in this work proud. However, it should not allow us to sit still or dismiss victories of the past and their value in the present. At the closing of the Act’s 50th year, we celebrated the role of Wilderness in our country’s past and future. In 2015 and beyond, however, our work must continue. The managed landscape cannot be mistaken for unmanaged country.

Looking at the Mission Mountain Wilderness Area, Montana

Looking at the Mission Mountain Wilderness Area, Montana    © Levi Old

One loss in the walls of Washington, and this Act could be stripped of its foundations, making wild lands exposed to numerous threats. Direct attacks on the law take place each year in our nation’s capitol.

One bill (H.R. 4089), for example, pushed by the extractive industries and disguised as pro-hunting legislation would have allowed motorized use and other development in protected Wilderness areas. It passed the U. S. House, but died in the Senate. These bills have the ability to destroy the hard work and value of these unmanaged landscapes.

We should not be fooled that Wilderness areas are completely devoid of human impact. Not only are humans visitors to Wilderness areas, the interconnectedness of ecological systems makes non-native species, climate change and air pollution among the many threats to these lands. These landscapes are delicately chosen because they are like no other areas — for their values to humans and ecological processes.

Named after the famous conservationist, the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area in the Everglades National Park represents the woman who fought hard to protect this ecosystem of cypress marshes and mangrove forests. She secured a future for Miami’s water source and a haven for biodiversity. She stated at the beginning of her book, The River of Grass:

“There are no other Everglades in the world.”

Everglades National Park, home of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area

Everglades National Park — home of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area

Will we let these special places be exploited for short-term benefit, or will we fight to maintain and protect more? The younger generation and new breed of environmentalists can step up and lead the charge, mending new conservation techniques with foundations like the Wilderness Act.

Fracking and Fire

On the expedition’s final night we sat around telling stories, and Ben reflected on the gratitude he felt for the places set aside from our own species ability to fragment and destroy. He said he appreciated the lack of roads or drill rigs in the Wilderness areas we traveled throughout the course. He told a story about his home in eastern Wyoming, where drills checkered the landscape and trucks carried water to natural gas fracking operations.

The boom really changed the sagebrush steppe landscape where he grew up. He spoke about how the land’s value to human needs will outlast the natural gas extraction, and he hoped it would not ruin his hunting and fishing grounds, or his family’s water source.

Out here we know that there are wild landscapes protected by the Wilderness Act, which we learned about on course, he explained. “What forethought went into the protection of these places,” Ben said. “Those advocates were wise and planning for future generations. I would like to be one of those people.”

That night we sat in a cliff-side cave overlooking an arroyo. After weeks of challenging herself with primitive fire techniques, Lily started the fire we sat around. She also canoed, backpacked, wrestled with group leadership, communication, cooking, and a fear of heights — all under the guidance of Wilderness.

Each night Ben, Lily and our expedition crew stargazed far from city lights. As an educator, Wilderness provides me the finest of classrooms, a wild place that doubles as a wise mentor. That evening, I sensed we all knew that Wilderness can be harsh, often unforgiving, yet rewarding beyond the best author’s and the best speaker’s words.

As we went to bed, coyotes yipped into a light covering of cirrus clouds.

Rare pocket of thousand year-old, old growth Pacific Yew trees. Indian Creek, Frank - Church River of No Return Wilderness

Rare pocket of thousand year-old, old growth Pacific Yew trees. Indian Creek, Frank – Church River of No Return Wilderness ©Levi Old

Douglas, M.S. (1947). The Everglades: River of Grass. New York, NY: Rinehart & Company.

Govtrack.us. (n.d.). H.R. 4089 (112th): Sportsman’s Heritage Act of 2012. Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr4089

The Wilderness Society. (n.d.). General Format. Retrieved from http://wilderness.org/article/wilderness-act

 

Freshwater Sharks

Snorkeling in frigid waters for a species at-risk

By Levi Old                                                               

Salvelinus confluentusOn a dead-still summer night, I army-crawl upstream.

“We have a large adult!” says Jen.

I rise to one knee and pull the fogged snorkel mask off my head. “A big one?” I mumble in a haze.

“Yeah, really big. Much larger than I’ve ever seen this far up the creek,” she replies, pointing to where it kicked its caudal fin gently against the downstream flow. “It’s right there beside you.”

I cinch the mask on my face, place the snorkel in my mouth, and dunk back into the frigid water:

Twenty-six inches of wildness.

Jen pops her head out of the water and says, “Isn’t that just a beautiful creature?”

She snorkels one side of the creek and I snorkel the other. An assistant in waders walks the creek, tallies our fish sightings and makes sure we do not go hypothermic.

Jen O’Reilly, a biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, leads the recovery effort for the Odell Lake population of bull trout, a Threatened Species under the Endangered Species Act. The recovery team consists of US Forest Service, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Trout Unlimited. In order to monitor recovery of bull trout, biologists conduct an annual juvenile count in Trapper Creek, the only known spawning location for this population.

Trapper Creek is a tributary to Odell Lake. In the shadow of Oregon’s Diamond Peak, the lake lies in a glacier-carved basin physically detached from the Deschutes River by a 5,500 year-old lava flow. The flow enclosed the lake, genetically isolating this population of bull trout.

At midnight this past July, ten of us in dry suits and thick neoprene hoodies shimmied up different reaches (Fig. 1) of Trapper Creek. Shallow in most places, the snorkel is more of a crawl and scramble than a leisurely swim upstream. Even in mid-summer Trapper Creek is icy cold.

We closely observed the nooks of each piece of in-stream wood and dove into pools where rapids converged and bubbles enveloped our sightlines. We held dive lights, counted each fish and estimated its size class. We kept our eyes peeled for the creek’s bull trout.

Bull Trout – A species at-risk from Levi Old on Vimeo.

Named for their broad heads, bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) serve as apex predators in aquatic systems of the West. Often called “Dolly Varden (S. malma),” they are in fact a separate species. Bull trout exist in less than half their historic range and prefer clean, cold waters. As a member of the char genus, they grow to be shark-like beasts in comparison to their trout relatives. Bull trout can measure up to 41 inches and weigh as much as 42 pounds.

Screen Shot 2014-10-24 at 9.34.32 PM
Figure 1: Trapper Creek runs north into Odell Lake. The three primary snorkeling reaches are labeled on the map (Richardson and Jacobs, 2).

The Trapper Creek bull trout population is known as the only adfluvial, non-reservoir population of bull trout in Oregon. During the 20th century, the building of railroads, construction of revetments, and removal of woody debris turned the creek into a large ditch of rushing water, unsuitable for spawning bull trout.

In 2003, this all changed. The recovery team restored the channel to increase spawning and rearing habitat by deconstructing revetments, placing woody debris and rebuilding a meandering channel. The annual snorkel count of juvenile bull trout increased from 26 in 1996 to 150 in 2005. Restoring, sustaining and monitoring native habitat is crucial to the survival of this iconic species.

If you find yourself on western waters, keep an eye out for these stream predators. Light spots of yellow, red and orange cover their dark bodies, and a white margin can be found on the leading edge of their ventral fins. And watch out, anglers: they will steal a hooked fish right off of your line.

Enjoy the video:

Bull Trout – A species at-risk from Levi Old on Vimeo.

Sources:
  • Montana Water Center. (2009). Trapper Creek. Retrieved on October 16, 2014, from http://wildfish.montana.edu/Cases/browse_details.asp?ProjectID=36.
  • Richardson, Shannon and Jacobs, Steve. (2010). Progress Reports. Retrieved on October 16, 2014, from http://oregonstate.edu/dept/ODFW/NativeFish/pdf_files/Odell_BT_Report_final.pdf.

The Nuclear Option for Dragonflies

By Bryan Pfeiffer

anax-junius-flight-860x550

A Common Green Darner (Anax junius) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

On a crisp, sunny day in September, after what was probably a typical summer for a dragonfly (which involves flying around, killing things and having sex beside a pond), a Common Green Darner took off and began to migrate south. As it cruised past the summit of Vermonts Mt. Philo, with Lake Champlain below and the Adirondacks off in the distance, the dragonfly crossed paths with a Merlin.

The Merlin, a falcon that kills in flight, swerved, plucked the dragonfly from the sky with its talons and began to eat on the wing. As the falcon and its prey continued southbound, all that remained in their wake was a single detached dragonfly wing, falling like an autumn leaf toward fields at the base of Mt. Philo.

Eagles, hawks, falcons and Monarch butterflies aren’t the only migrants moving south past mountains this fall. Joining them are dragonflies. Although biologists know plenty about the fall raptor and Monarch migrations, we are only beginning to discover, with some creative chemistry, where these dragonflies go and how migration figures in their conservation.

Fly or Die

Most dragonfly species do not migrate. In fact, most are now dead, having already mated during the summer season, leaving behind eggs or larvae to survive the winter. The killing frost will finish off much of what’s still on the wing. But some survivors will leave.

Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Among the 460 or so dragonfly and damselfly species native to North America, at least five are classic migrants: Common Green Darner (Anax junius), Black Saddlebags (Tramea lacerata), Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens), Spot-winged Glider (Pantala hymenaea) and Variegated Meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum). Each species is on the move this fall.

Dragonflies migrate for the same reasons other animals migrate: to avoid inhospitable conditions, in this case habitats that freeze or become too cold for the dragonflies themselves or their insect prey. Monarchs go to Mexico. Broad-winged Hawks leave for wintering grounds stretching from southern Mexico into South America. Dragonflies head south to who knows where.

Having studied birds for two centuries, biologists know well their breeding and wintering distributions , even to the point of learning the destination of a particular warbler or sparrow after it leaves us in the fall. Ornithologists catch lots of songbirds in nets and place around one leg a tiny silver bracelet embossed with a unique number – an avian social security number – and then release the birds to the winds. A small percentage of them, still sporting their bracelets, are later recaptured while in migration or on wintering grounds thousands of miles away. Better yet, we’re putting small electronic transmitters on large birds, such as Bar-tailed Godwits and American Woodcocks, and tracking their movements real-time with satellites.

On of my tagged Monarchs before heading off toward Mexico.

A tagged Monarchs before heading off toward Mexico.

We can even track the movement of a single butterfly. I myself have placed little stickers, each bearing a unique alpha-numerical code, on the hind wings of more than 1,000 Monarchs here in Vermont and elsewhere in North America, and then set each one free to fly toward Mexico, where many are later encountered by conservationists searching for the buttterflies once they arrive in Mexico. With each recovery, we learn more about Monarchs and how they migrate.

The “Heavy” Hydrogen

Dragonflies aren’t so obliging. For one thing, we’re clueless about where they go. Monarchs concentrate each winter in stands of Oyamel Fir in mountains west of Mexico City. So we know where to find them and how to protect them. Tagging or somehow marking a dragonfly would be like putting a message in a bottle and tossing it out to sea. Actually, I suspect we’d find the bottle before the dragonfly.

Yet it turns out that we need not tag or otherwise mark these migratory dragonflies because they themselves carry clues about where they have been. If the Merlin doesn’t get it first, we can catch any migrating dragonfly, analyze trace elements in its tissue and determine roughly how far it has flown.

Our marker is water, more to the point the two hydrogen atoms in water. Recall from high school chemistry that hydrogen nucleus normally contains a single proton and no neutron. But a tiny fraction of hydrogen atoms around the world carry one proton and one neutron. We call it “heavy hydrogen,” or deuterium. And unlike other such atomic variations among elements (which can be radioactive), deuterium is stable in the environment – a “stable isotope”– and stable in the wing of a dragonfly.

isoscape

Credit: Migratory Dragonfly Partnership

The amount of deuterium in water varies somewhat predictably in North America. You can map it. The ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in water falling as rain or snow changes on a gradient corresponding roughly with latitude. Water in Alberta, for example, carries a different deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio than water in Alabama.

Because dragonflies grow up as nymphs in water, they incorporate the local deuterium ratio into their tissue. It’s like a dialect or an accent that a dragonfly bears for life – whether as a nymph in water or a free-flying adult in migration. A Common Green Darner on the wing over Mt. Philo or Miami unwittingly carries a particular deuterium ratio, a birth certificate that tells us generally where it grew up. You are what you eat – or drink.

This science isn’t perfect. We can’t pinpoint a dragonfly’s natal waters in the way we know where a banded bird hatched or a tagged Monarch emerged. But stable isotopes are helping us track the range of migrating dragonflies. It’s “better living through chemistry.” After all, we can’t really know a bird or butterfly or a dragonfly – and what it might need in the way of conservation – until we know all the places it lives or wanders.

By the way, you need not be a chemist to help track dragonfly migration. We’re counting dragonflies in the same way we count migrating raptors during hawkwatches each fall. Learn how to do it and report what you find with help from the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership.

And while we’re out there counting, if a Merlin happens to catch a dragonfly first, we can still make a difference … by catching one of those dragonfly wings floating toward Earth.

Bryan Pfeiffer is a writer and field naturalist who specializes in birds and insects. He teaches writing in the University of Vermont’s Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning Programs.

Before It’s Gone, A Primer on Snow

By Maddy Morgan

Any skier or snowboarder knows that snow does not come in just one form.  Snowpacks are as variable as the snowflakes that form them.  We have all heard the claim that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow (actually, I discovered, just more flexibility in how root words are modified), but what about our terms for snow?  Skiers talk about corduroy and corn snow, but the variation in snow types extends beyond the ski slopes. 

601124_677097335993_631112764_nHere is your late-in-the-season glossary of snow.  Maybe your optimism tells you that the snow won’t be with us much longer, but it might be in your best interest to brush up, just in case.

Snow forms when the atmospheric temperature is at or below freezing.  In certain conditions, it is even possible for snow to reach the ground when the ground temperature is 41 degrees Fahrenheit.  Freezing atmospheric temperatures, combined with moisture in the air, forms snow crystals.  Snow crystals exist in four forms: snowflakes, hoarfrost, graupel, and polycrystals.

  • Snowflakes, which we are all familiar with, are clusters of ice crystals that fall from clouds.  Their shape is dependent on the conditions in which they are formed and through which they fall.
  • Hoarfrost is our name for ice crystals that form on small surfaces that are open to the air.  When a surface’s temperature is lower than the frost point of the surrounding air, moisture transforms directly from vapor to solid, forming delicate laces of surficial ice.
  • Graupel is the round, pellet-like snow that resembles a softer hail.  When ice crystals fall through super-cooled cloud droplets (which remain liquid although they are below freezing temperatures), the droplets freeze to the crystals, forming a clump.
  • Polycrystals are flakes made up of many individual crystals.

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A “Solst-Ice” Report: The Season’s First “Big Chill”

DSCN7727By Matt Pierle

In the aftermath of a backwoods Solstice party in Lamoille County we awoke to a small mountain of dishes and no electricity. The longest night of the year had wrapped us in an icy bear hug.

Cold rain followed by dropping temps had frozen everything stiff.  Tree trunks, branches, rocks – anything not moving fast enough to dance off the cold crystalline bonds – was treated to an icy exoskeleton.

As more precipitation came, the ice coats thickened. The substrate for later drops to adhere to grew as the ice put on layer after layer. Classic positive feedback.

Next year’s already-formed buds and catkins, shelf fungi, conifer needles, marcescent oak and beech leaves were all locked inside one-quarter to a full inch of ice. The forest and hill farm landscape performed back-to-back versions of John Cage’s 4’33”.

NPR news from a crank-operated radio reported, “hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses without power in Michigan, New York, and the Northeast”– no doubt a result of trees and frozen limbs coming down on overhead transmission lines. Continue reading

Orion Rising

orionWe all have our routines, those mental checklists we complete to make sure that our day will run smoothly. Some are entirely rational, others seem almost ridiculous, but all are part of what makes our own worlds go around. One of my self-affirming habits each winter evening is to look for Orion, to make sure that his giant frame is poised for battle in the night sky as he has been since the ancient Greeks raised his mortal body into the heavens almost 3,000 years ago.

Orion’s nighttime traverses actually began long before the Homer immortalized his character in The Iliad. The configuration of the constellation has been visible from Earth for about 1.5 million years and should stay recognizable for about 1 to 2 million more years. Ultimately, the stars will rotate within our galaxy and change their relative positions to each other, as well as to Earth. In the current wintertime sky, Orion routinely rises in the south to southeast at sunset, big and broad, early enough to entertain those of us who aren’t night owls. Betelgeuse, the supergiant that is his right shoulder, is by far the reddest object on the dark horizon and holds the allure that it may explode at any moment, collapsing under its own weight and rebounding into fiery supernova glow. The odds that this impressive event will occur tonight are “astronomically small,” but it is always worth another look.

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Reflections

Sundogs over Huntington, Vermont.

My third-floor office is a commanding venue for a nap.  Reclined in a worn swivel chair with my unsheathed feet stacked on the heat grates, I slip into my best unproductive hours.  When my eyes deign to open, the scenery is ripe for a Chamber of Commerce brochure.  The golden chapel domes and brown brick mortar of the university sit regal and prim before the white speckled ribs of New York and the glass pool of Champlain.  It’s plain lovely.  Especially on biting cold mornings, near 10:00, when some change of guard ushers students out from every academic pore to wade the gray salty paths to their next nook.  It’s one vain pleasure up in my aerie, watching without sympathy the cold scholars scurry. Continue reading

Rock: The Best Thing about Vermont

by Becky Cushing

I’m not a geologist, but recently I learned a thing or two about Vermont bedrock that bumps it above maple syrup or cheese on Vermont’s “Best of” List.

By nature, I ask a lot of questions: What trees are those? How deep is this soil? What bird lives in that nest? Turns out, a lot of the answers are directly or indirectly related to the kind of rock below. And in Vermont, those are calcium-rich rocks—which create an alluring hotspot for many cool, rare or economically important plants.

Picture Vermont 500 million years ago, covered by a vast ocean full of planktonic organisms—a primordial soup. Over time, generations of these tiny organisms died and their bodies drifted to the seafloor laying down sediment full of calcium. When the land shifted and the ocean receded, these compressed sediments formed the basis for the calcareous bedrock of today’s Champlain Valley, mostly dolostone.

So what’s the deal with calcium? Plants need it for metabolism and structure, just like we do. It also helps to raise the pH of the soil (thus lowering the acidity). The chemistry gets a little complicated—but find enlightenment (like I did) in a bottle of Tums. Calcium carbonate, well-known for soothing heartburn, also neutralizes acidity in soil making it more alkaline. Who cares? Bacteria, for starters. And those rascals are necessary for making nitrogen available to plants. In fact, under acidic conditions many nutrients give plants the cold shoulder—instead they’re hooking up with each other or leaching out of plants’ reach. Where dolostone (or limestone) is close to the surface (thanks to several glaciations and years of other erosive processes) these nutrients are more willing.

Farmers have known this forever and call neutral or alkaline soils “sweet.” Plant biologists know it too. I’m embarrassed to admit it took nearly a semester of botany for me to pick up on the pattern of our field trip locations—calcareous bedrock stared me straight in the eye.

Maidenhair Fern

Maidenhair fern near Gleason Brook (photo courtesy of Ryan Morra)

For instance, check out the Long Trail near Gleason Brook in Bolton, VT. If you park in the lot off of Duxbury Rd. and hike up a quarter mile or so, you will start to see telltale plants of calcium-enriched soils like maidenhair fern, wood nettle, blue cohosh, plantain-leaved sedge and white baneberry (doll’s eyes). Sugar maple, white ash, basswood and hophornbeam dominate the tree canopy while striped maples sit eagerly in the understory. Stay on the trail to find the dense patch of pale touch-me- not, an irregular pale yellow flower, at the base of a steep slope on the south side of the trail. Here the downward movement of soil and nutrients from the upper slope along with the exposed calcareous bedrock create a double whammy of plant nutrient bliss. Scientists describe this type of vegetative community as a Rich Northern Hardwood Forest—sounds fancy but Vermonters are spoiled with this natural community-type in ample abundance.

Wood Nettle

Wood nettle near Gleason Brook (photo courtesy of Ryan Morra)

Vermont’s best-kept secret, dolostone, has broader implications than satisfying curious botanizers. Conservation planners, for instance, can use geologic surveys to identify potential priority areas for rare plants among Vermont’s varying bedrock landscape. If you travel a few miles farther on the Long Trail up toward the summit of Camel’s Hump your heartburn might return—the rock transitions to more resistant igneous and metamorphic rocks resembling the bedrock geology of our neighbors to the east in “The Granite State.” At the summit’s rare (seemingly masochistic) alpine plants thrive under harsh, acidic conditions—yet another botanical treat thanks to the state’s multifarious geologic past. Motley geology begets vegetative diversity.

So, next time you douse your pancakes with maple syrupy goodness, take a moment to thank the nutrient-rich soil conditions integral to the Sugar maple-dominated forest community of Vermont.

And remember the best—and oldest—thing about Vermont is the rock.

 

 

Winding Through the Path of Least Resistance

by Ryan Morra

“Slow down, you’re moving too fast, you’ve got to make the moment last.” Simon and Garfunkel phrased it well. If you look at aerial photographs of the Winooski or Lamoille Rivers in northern Vermont, you’ll notice how dramatically the rivers snake through Champlain Valley with one horseshoe-shaped bend after the next.

The Winooski River

The Winooski River flowing through Burlington and Colchester, VT

The Lamoille River

The Lamoille River flowing through Farifax, VT

Launch your canoe into these rivers and you will come face to face with the phenomenon known in the scientific community as fluvial geomorphology. This phrase has become increasingly familiar to the public in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, where fluvial geomorphologists have been called upon to explain the widespread flooding experienced across the state. But what exactly does fluvial geomorphology mean? It refers to the ability of flowing water (fluvial) to shape (-morpho-) the earth (geo-). To be precise, it is the study of all that (-logy).

Half Moon Cove

Half Moon Cove in Colchester, VT

An easily observable way that rivers shape the earth around it is the formation of the horseshoe-shaped meanders, called oxbows, seen in the Champlain Valley. More curious are the crescent-shaped lakes alongside the river, the most dramatic example of which is Half Moon Cove in Colchester. If your instincts tell you that this U-shaped lake may have once been a part of the Winooski River, you are correct. How it formed river can be explained by first thinking about the path of least resistance for a river.

Paddling down the final stretch of the Winooski in a canoe is a dramatically different experience than trying to navigate the steeper rivers found in the mountains. In the Green Mountains, the steep slope causes the water to flow fast and cut out a straight channel on its way down to Lake Champlain, and there is little need to propel yourself along (adrenaline junkies will still find cause to do so, however). Once the Winooski reaches the Champlain Valley, it begins to follow a far more convoluted path, and it is hard to go anywhere in your canoe without paddling.

The soils in the valley are soft clays, silts, and sands that provide little resistance to the now slow-moving river, so the river will bend around at even the slightest obstacle. Once a meander has developed, a feedback process begins that causes further erosion and meandering. Along the outer edge of a curve, the water moves faster than the water on the inside of the curve, since the water must travel a greater distance in the same amount of time. The water erodes the banks along the fast-moving outer edge of the curve, and deposits the silt and sand along the slow-moving inner bends.

If you want to land your canoe during your trip, you will have greater success along these inner bends, where gradually rising sandbars have been built up through this deposition process. Trying to exit on the outside curve of a river bend will prove far more precarious, as the streambank drops of sharply into the river! As the river cuts away at its own banks, it can eventually cut through the remaining bit of land at between the two river bends, and the channel straightens.

Meander Process

How a meander becomes an oxbow lake (source: http://www.geocaching.com/seek/cache_details.aspx?guid=a2541785-59cc-492b-aefb-06ce29e973c6)

Major floods like those experienced after Tropical Storm Irene are sometimes the catalyst for this final step. While we may continue to alter the flow of a river through creating new dams and reinforcing the banks below streamside roads, river waters will constantly look for their path of least resistance, and we may find that our interests are in conflict with the hydrologic forces facing us.  Next time you enjoy a float down the sinewy channels of the Winooski or Lamoille river, note where each bend and twist occurs. When you take your children and grandchildren out in the future, it may not be the same—fluvial geomorphology may have worked its magic.