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Burn, Baby, Burn!

Posted on April 9, 2021

We all like a good fire, though we often think of it as a destructive element, difficult to control and consuming everything in its path. In other words, fire is great as long as it stays nicely contained in your firepit.

But fire can also be extremely beneficial—necessary, even—for a healthy ecosystem. It’s a common and very effective tool in the land management and restoration toolbox…and it’s one we just used this past week when we did a prescribed (or controlled) burn at the Chris Thompson Memorial Preserve, as a part of the prairie restoration we’ve undertaken there.

Why fire? Well, it’s a natural way to get rid of invasive plant species that have encroached the ecosystem, and it also helps prevent the spread of diseases and pests that can be harmful to the native plants and animals. A fire rejuvenates the ground by recycling essential nutrients back into the soil, promoting healthy growth of native trees, grasses and wildflowers. This in turn creates desirable habitat in which native wildlife can thrive. Finally, it reduces hazardous fuels that can build up in the ground over time, protecting surrounding human communities from destructive, uncontrolled fires.

Of course, there is a reason why these beneficial fires are called prescribed burns. A lot of planning and expertise is necessary to keep the fire under control, burning only what and where you want it to! A good burn plan considers lots of factors. Weather is a big one, for obvious reasons. How humid is it, how windy is it? Which direction is the wind blowing (we don’t want a big cloud of smoke hanging over I-94, for example)? We also will consider the level of moisture in the vegetation. It shouldn’t be bone-dry but we probably don’t want to do a burn when everything is fully leafed out and very green either. For this reason, spring and fall are typically good times of year to do a prescribed burn.

Other considerations include what kinds of fuel and ignition types will be used to light the fire? We want it to spread and be sustainable, but also to move slowly enough that we are able to manage it, and to allow any wildlife to get outta Dodge until it’s safely out. Also, what boundaries are we using to ensure it doesn’t spread somewhere we don’t want it to go (like a neighbor’s yard)? These are called control lines, and they can be natural, like a river, or man-made, like a road or a dug out trench line.

After the burn, native vegetation comes surging back surprisingly quickly! So while the front part of the Memorial Preserve looks kinda charred and ugly now, just give it a month or two… you’ll be amazed at the transformation! Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram… we’ll be posting progressive “after” pics of the regrowth!

Things are happening at the Chris Thompson Memorial Preserve!

Posted on February 5, 2021

It may be cold and snowy, but that doesn't mean our land restoration efforts go into hibernation! In fact, during the past two weeks, we've been working hard on the very first phases of our plan to restore the large open field area that makes up the majority of the Chris Thompson Memorial Preserve.

If you've walked the preserve in the last week, you've probably noticed that the field has been largely mowed down. You might be thinking, "What the heck? It looks all ugly and scrubby now!" Well, we can't disagree that it looks less than fabulous at the moment, but it's all part of a larger restoration process that will ultimately result in a beautiful restored prairie and woodland

The large open area on the northern part of the preserve is actually an old agricultural field, abandoned in 2007. Since then, it has grown up in a mix of native and invasive plants. Prominent among the non-native varieties are autumn olive, purple loosestrife, and reed canary grass-- all very aggressive plants that can quickly take over and destroy native habitat, throwing the natural ecosystem out of whack. Mowing that stuff down is an effective and efficient way to remove those invasives, particularly the woody, tree-like autumn olive plant. Upcoming phases of invasive plant removal include a prescribed (controlled) burn, which we hope to do in the spring. 

The larger plan for the preserve is to restore the field to three distinct habitat types based in part on the natural succession already taking place. The northern section of the field has fewer trees and will be restored to a native prairie, full of native grasses and colorful flowers in the summertime (for a preview of what that might look like, take some time next summer to check out Burns Prairie Preserve, which is several years into the restoration process!). The southern segment, which has quite a few trees growing already, will be restored to a forest, and the transition zone between these two habitats will be restored to a relatively sparsely forested savanna. 

These restoration efforts will lead to a greater diversity of native plants that will support a vibrant population of wildlife, including pollinators, birds, and mammals. Trails will wind through each of these habitats so hikers can enjoy all the colors on display throughout the seasons.

We'll keep you apprised as we continue the restoration process. STAY TUNED!

On second thought, DON’T smile for the camera…

Posted on January 21, 2021

We’ve all been there. You’re sitting in a Zoom meeting while other people talk. You want a snack. Or to refill your coffee cup. Or to check to see what the kid or the dog is getting into. So mid-meeting, you click off the camera on your laptop, get up and go do it. Are you being distracted? Inattentive? Well, yes. But did you know you were also helping the environment? 

IT’S TRUE! According to a new study, leaving your camera off during video calls can reduce your footprint by 96%. The study, conducted by researchers from Yale, Purdue and MIT, looked into the environmental impact of internet use… a timely topic in our current era of working and socializing from home. The authors point out that although our new at-home, digital lifestyles are benefitting the planet in many ways—like reduced carbon dioxide emissions related to travel—it has dramatically increased our internet use. 

Even pre-pandemic lockdown, the internet’s carbon footprint was steadily increasing, accounting for 3.7% of greenhouse gas emissions. Electricity draw from data centers makes up 1% of global energy demand… more than the national consumption of some countries. Since March, most countries have seen internet demand increase by as much as 20%.

Estimates of the approximate carbon, water, and land footprints associated with each hour of data spent on popular internet apps. Image credit: Purdue University/Kayla Wiles

The study analyzed the land, water and carbon footprints for each gigabyte of data used on a variety of online platforms. It’s no surprise that video-heavy platforms had the highest footprint. The research suggests that if one million virtual meeting attendees turned off their cameras, monthly carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by more than 9,000 tons. Users of streaming services like Netflix can reduce carbon output by up to 86% simply by streaming their favorite movies and shows in standard definition rather than HD.

According to the study’s authors, “Small actions such as turning off video during a virtual meeting, reducing the quality of streaming services, decreasing gaming time, limiting time on social media, deleting emails and unnecessary content on the cloud-based storage services, or unsubscribing from email lists can significantly reduce the environmental footprints of Internet use.”

So the next time you get the overwhelming urge for a sandwich in the middle of a long online meeting? Turn off the camera and go do it!* You’re saving the planet, after all!

*we cannot be held responsible if you are asked a question while you are in the next room playing with your cat.

For Lake Michigan, Less is More (at least right now)!

Posted on January 15, 2021

So, who would like to hear some good news, you know, just for a change of pace? We know we sure would. So we were pretty happy to read that water levels in the Great Lakes are finally starting to recede a bit from the record highs we’ve been seeing recently.

This is really fantastic news for Lake Michigan and Lake Huron in particular, which have been at the highest water state of all the Great Lakes as compared to average this past year (as a reminder, Michigan and Huron are measured as one lake when it comes to water levels, as they are joined at the Straits of Mackinac). The result of those record high waters has been that these two lakes have had the most striking and destructive shoreline erosion last year too, as we here on our little piece of the Michigan coast know all too well.

Just in the past month, Lake Michigan/Huron has dropped a full three inches, and is now six inches lower than it was this time last year. The main reason this is happening is a lack of precipitation this winter. Also helping? The lake hasn’t really been freezing over.  Now, you might think this is because ice cover limits evaporation on the water’s surface. That’s true to an extent, but more important is the amount of ice cover in the previous year. The more the lake freezes, the colder the water will be the following summer, which delays the evaporation season (late fall/early winter) in that year. So that means the lack of ice last winter means more evaporation this year (remember when we talked about how warm the water was this summer?).

According to MLive meteorologist Mark Torregrossa, Michigan/Huron water levels are predicted to drop another inch in the next month, possibly two inches if our dry spell continues. Check out this water level forecast:

If this holds, the most likely water level this summer will be nine inches lower than last summer, which hopefully means less damage to our dwindling shoreline. And we are so here for that!

When the Stars (and planets!) Align

Posted on December 18, 2020

Left image credits: NASA/ Bill Ingalls

Say what you will about 2020, but it has been a pretty decent year for stargazers, featuring a variety of meteor showers, comets and other interesting astronomical events. And to close out the year, there’s one more cool once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon coming our way as two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, will appear very close together in the sky… just a tenth of a degree apart!  The last time such a close conjunction of these planets was observable was in 1226.

The two planets have been moving closer and closer together for weeks now, but they will appear at their closest on December 21. Of course, while they appear to be really close from here on Earth, in space they are actually hundreds of millions of miles apart. The event's proximity to the holidays has earned it the nickname "The Christmas Star" (the fact that it's happening on the Winter Solstice is just a coincidence).

You'll be able to see the conjunction with the naked eye on a clear night, since both planets are typically quite bright. Find an unobstructed view of the lower southwestern sky, and look close to the horizon immediately after sunset. Jupiter (which will look like a bright star and be very visible) and Saturn (slightly fainter, above and to the left of Jupiter) will likely start to really shine around 6:00 or 6:15 p.m. But don't dilly-dally! Both planets will sink behind the horizon shortly thereafter.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Read more about this conjunction at friend of COL Chuck Bueter's great Nightwise blog!