This Topsy-Turvy Winter: Blame Climate Change

Last week’s winter storm piling first snow and then freezing rain on Roxborough and the entire region was just the latest in a long string of severe storms rocking us this winter—with more to come. And the storms have been far worse elsewhere, as several dozen Americans have now died from severe winter weather from Texas into New England. 

That’s a stark and strange contrast to last winter, when almost no snow fell at all, when there were no snow days the entire winter. Just when we thought that last year’s extreme might be the new normal, that climate change had made even snow an endangered species, Old Man Winter came roaring back this year with a vengeance. 

You’d think people like me who continually warn about global warming would be wrong. Think again.

“This week’s storms,” read an Associated Press story widely published in newspapers across the country, “fit a pattern of worsening extremes under climate change and demonstrate anew that local, state, and  federal officials have failed to do nearly enough to prepare for greater and more dangerous weather.”

And that dangerously liberal newspaper, USA Today, asked the key question last week in its headline: “Record cold, intense storms and tornadoes amid global warming: Could there be a connection?” The answer, sadly, is yes. 

Rae Hearts Design & Photography

For the last few years, I have been warning that Philadelphia’s climate was becoming hotter, wetter, and weirder. While this weather is decidedly not hotter—more on that in a second—it has been wetter this year, and wow is it ever weirder. That’s one of the downsides of climate change, that our weather wildly vacillates among extremes: too hot, then too wet, then too dry, then thunderstorms of too much intensity. 

For in addition to last week’s snowstorms, a tornado killed three people in Sunset Beach, North Carolina, the second deadly tornado and third significant tornado of a very young 2021. Tornadoes in winter? Yes, that’s weird.

Let’s start with the simple notion that what goes up must come down. A warming climate—remember, globally the six warmest years on record are the last six years—creates more evaporation: more water vapor rising into the atmosphere to form more clouds. All that water vapor can’t stay there forever; gravity makes it come down eventually, and in winter it may come down as snow or sleet. So last week’s storm covered a wide swath of the United States, dumping snow on 100 million Americans. At one point recently, some 75% of the country was under a blanket of snow. That’s weird.

About that cold. First, our winters now average almost five degrees warmer than they did 50 years ago, and the mercury has not dipped below zero in more than 25 years. Our winters are trending noticeably warmer, even with this cold spell.

To explain this year’s winter, we need to travel to the Arctic circle. In a more typical winter, the polar vortex—that gigantic circular upper-air weather pattern that covers the North Pole—is kept in place by the jet stream, which essentially pens it in. In any winter, the jet stream can wobble or weaken, allowing the polar vortex to slide down into North America. That happens every year. 

Enter climate change. “There is evidence,” said University of Georgia meteorology professor Marshall Shepherd in that same USA Today article, “that climate change can weaken the polar vortex, which allows more chances for frigid Arctic air to ooze into the Lower 48.” Piling on, climate scientist Jennifer Francis, who has published a study on the phenomenon, said in 2019 that “warm temperatures in the Arctic cause the jet stream to take these wild swings, and when it swings farther south, that causes cold air to reach farther south.”

And the data clearly shows the Arctic circle is warming at a faster rate than the rest of the planet, and Arctic Ocean ice has retreated to its lowest levels in, well, ever in recorded history. In January 2021, Arctic Ocean ice measured almost 400,000 square miles below the 198–12010 average. The Arctic is warming, and the jet stream is wobbling.

Francis called the recent weather “a major breakdown” of the polar vortex. “It’s been unusual for a few weeks now—very, very crazy,” she concluded. “Totally topsy-turvy.”

One last thought. Texas has been notably slammed by this winter’s wild weather, and people are freezing and even dying under blackout conditions. It’s absolutely horrible. But that state’s governor oddly chose to blame the Green New Deal and wind turbines for this breakdown. Please don’t swallow this whopper. Texas long ago decided to be independent in its electrical grid to avoid federal regulation, and has resisted advocates asking the state to weatherize its system. Texas is sadly paying the price for avoiding this action.

Wind turbines played no role there. But climate has played a huge role in the weirding of this winter’s weather.

–Written by Mike Weilbacher
Photos by Rae Hearts Design & Photography

Nature’s Music At-Home Activities

This week’s nature kits focus on the different sounds that we hear outside. From the calling of birds to the whistling of wind to the crunching of leaves—nature is alive with its own special type of music. 

Every Saturday, nature kits have been given out on a first-come, first-served basis from 10:00 am–12:00 pm. Nature kits focus on a different theme each week and are meant to be done along our trails. If you can’t make it out to the Center to pick up a kit, make sure to check our blog each week for ways to get in some nature exploration at home.

Activity #1: Sound Scavenger Hunt

In our own neighborhoods, there are sounds specific to nature and sounds not specific to nature.

  • Print out a sound scavenger hunt and go on a hike to see if you can hear the sounds on the sheet.
    • As you hike around, pause at a few points and cup your hands around the back of your ear to look like the ears of a deer. This helps to amplify sound or make it louder.
    • Animals like deer and rabbits have large cup-shaped ears so that they can listen for predators such as foxes and coyotes.
    • Which sounds on your scavenger hunt sheet are sounds from nature? Which are sounds that are not from nature? Are there any sounds that you hear that aren’t on the scavenger hunt sheet?
Activity #2: Animal Charades
  • Take a piece of paper and cut it into strips.
    • Brainstorm some animals that make distinct sounds and write (or draw for younger children) one animal on each piece of paper.
    • Put all of the slips of paper in a brown paper bag.
  • Go outside and find the perfect stage to perform your charades.
    • Have one person from your family pick a piece of paper from the brown bag and make the sound that that animal makes.
    • Can everyone else guess what animal it is?
    • Have another person take a turn.
      • For an extra challenge, split your family into teams and see who can get through the most animals in a set amount of time.
    • Which animal sounds were really easy to guess? Which were really hard?
Activity #3: Family Nature Band
  • It’s time to create your very own rock band!
  • Have each member of your family find a nature instrument.
    • Some examples include: using a rock and stick for a drum set, making an xylophone out of different sized sticks, or just grabbing some leaves to crunch.
  • Have one person from your family act as a conductor.
    • When the conductor moves their hands quickly, the music should go faster.
    • When the conductor moves their hands slowly, the music should slow down.
    • The conductor can also tell certain people when to stop or start playing.
      • Point to someone to tell them to start playing.
      • Act as though your hand is a mouth and clamp your fingers together to tell someone to stop playing.
  • Can you put together your own family song?
Activity #4: Jingle Sticks
  • Find a Y-shaped stick in your backyard or a nearby park.
  • Tie a piece of yarn onto one side of the stick.
  • String materials that would make sound through the yarn.
    • Some examples include: dried pasta, beads, or buttons.
  • Once your materials are added, tie the yarn off on the other side of the stick.
    • You can wrap the bottom of your stick in yarn or color it with paint.

 

If you do any of these activities, be sure to snap a picture and share it with us on social media (tag us @schuylkillcenter)—we’d love to see what you discover in your own backyard!

Valentine’s Day Nature Kit: At-Home Version

Happy Valentine’s Day weekend! This week’s nature kits focus on the unique ways that animals find mates. Whether it’s by impressing their partner with elaborate courtship dances, showing off their brightly colored feathers, or by serenading them with beautiful calls, “love” in the animal kingdom stretches the gamut from cute to quirky to downright bizarre. 

Every Saturday, nature kits have been given out on a first-come, first-served basis from 10:00 am-12:00 pm. Nature kits focus on a different theme each week and are meant to be done along our trails. If you can’t make it out to the Center to pick up a kit, make sure to check our blog each week for ways to get in some nature exploration at home.

Bright Colors to Attract a Mate

Most flowering plants require the help of pollinators, such as butterflies, birds, birds, and even moths, to make new flowers. When pollinators pollinate a flower, they move pollen in the middle of the flower from one flower to another. When pollen moves from flower to flower, eventually a seed is created, and a new flower can grow from that seed. Since pollinators help to create new flowers, plants want to attract them. One way that they can do this is by being bright and showy.

  • Draw three flowers on a piece of white paper.
    • Use crayons or markers to color the outside flower petals bright colors, making sure that each flower looks different.
  • Go to your backyard or a nearby park and place the flowers in three spots.
    • Your grown-up will pretend to be a bee.
      • While you are placing the flowers, have them close their eyes.
      • Make sure to not hide the flower completely.
      • Your grown-up should still be able to see at least part of the flower from where they are standing.
    • Have your grown-up turn around and try to locate the flowers by their bright colors.
      • Did the bright colors help them to locate the flower?
      • Which flower were they able to see first?
      • Was this the most colorful one?
    • Have your grown-up then move the flowers as you pretend to be the bee.
      • Activity Extension: Color the center of each of your flowers with a different color of chalk. Grab a cotton ball and pretend to be a bee by traveling from flower to flower. At each flower that you visit, rub your cotton ball bee in the “pollen,” or chalk, in the center. After you’ve visited each flower, look at the colors on your cotton ball. Is each flower’s pollen color represented on the cotton ball bee? If so, this means you’ve done a good job pollinating!

 

Dancing to Attract a Mate

The males or boys of some species will actually dance to attract a mate. These dances can often be really funny looking.

  • Use this courtship dance sheet to make your own funny dance.
  • Start by listing five movements that will be part of your dance.
    • Movements can be things like stomping your feet, patting your head, or snapping your fingers.
    • The number column is the number of times you would do that movement before moving onto the next one.
    • Fill out the sheet and then perform the dance as a family.
    • As an added activity, have each person in your family create their own dance.
      • Vote on who you think had the best dance.

 

Using Sounds to Attract a Mate:

Animals such as frogs, crickets, and owls will use mating calls to attract mates. They will call out loudly and their potential mate will decide whether or not to answer back based on if they like what they hear from the call. For this game, you’ll want to start out by finding a large field or backyard to play in. Have your grown-up close their eyes.

  • Choose one spot on the field to stand.
  • Have your grown-up clap their hands.
    • Whenever they clap their hands, clap yours back, making sure to stay in one spot as you do so.
  • Have your grown-up use their sense of hearing to find you.
  • Once they’ve found you, switch roles and try to use your hearing to find your grown-up.
  • Instead of clapping, try to make a different sound.
    • You can stomp your feet, snap your fingers, or make your very own noise maker (dried pasta or rice in a jar works well).
      • What noises make it easy to find one another?
      • Which noises make it a little harder?

 

Animal Valentine’s Day Cards:

Animals will care for one another by providing food to their young, helping their mate to build a den/nest, or even by warning one another of danger. There are ways that we can care for one another, and one way to do that is by telling the people in our lives why they are important to us. Valentine’s Day is a great time to do that!

  • Print out the animal Valentine’s Day cards that you like best.
  • Decide who you want to give your Valentine’s Day card or cards to and write, or have your grown-up write, their name in the bottom box.
  • In the message box, write or draw a picture that tells why that person is important to you.
  • Try to think about the things they do for you or the things that you like to do with them.
  • Give or send your Valentine’s Day card to that person.

 

 

 

Naughty by Nature: A Valentine’s Day Special Event

Birds do it, bees do it, and sentimental fleas? Don’t even ask. 

In celebration of the coming Valentine’s Day holiday, the Schuylkill Center cordially invites you to a special edition of our new Thursday Night Live series. “Naughty by Nature” features the amazing stories of sex and courtship in the animal kingdom, as these stories are extraordinary and just not shared often enough. I’ll be offering this PG-13 lecture on Thursday, February 11 at 7:00 p.m. The event is free, but you’ll need to register and get the Zoom link. 

Animals possess a wide range of adaptations to court their mates. So lion manes, buck antlers, firefly flashes, cricket chirps, cardinal songs, and peacock feathers—among many others—are all adaptations to seduce females. Let’s start with those buck antlers.

The antlers give a female strong visual cues as to the health and vitality of the male—the size of the rack matters, and as bucks mature the antlers tend to get larger and larger. But the story doesn’t stop there. Many times on autumn walks around the Schuylkill Center’s trails, I’ve come across a buck’s rut, a scrape in the ground made by the male. He not only scratches the ground clear of grass, but urinates down his hind legs, the urine mixing with hormones secreted by glands in his knee joints, and a witch’s brew of liquids puddles in the mud. The does find the smell, well, irresistible. He has staked out his turf, laid down his calling card—and likely will find does there the next evening. This system works exceptionally well, as just about every doe is pregnant by the time winter settles in. 

Let’s swim over to the clownfish, the brightly colored star of “Finding Nemo.” Well, surprise, the movie got it all wrong. In much of the animal kingdom, gender is relatively straightforward; an organism is oftentimes born or hatched as male or female. Bucks are bucks; does remain does. Not so among clownfish.

Clownsfih have this marvelous adaptation of being immune to the stings of the sea anemones that live alongside them in coral reefs. The clownfish uses the anemone as  protection, making it harder for those hungry moray eels to get them. A small cluster of clownfish live in and around one anemone, a little community of clowns cloaked by anemone tentacles.

But two of the clownfish are larger, one male and one female, and these are the two that mate; the others are not only celibate, they are all male. Let’s say that moray eel gets lucky, or old age catches up to the female, and she either perishes or is someone’s dinner. What then?

Easy. Turns out clownfish, like a surprising number of fish, are sequential hermaphrodites, possessing the sexual organs of both sexes but suppressing one until needed. In the sudden absence of a female, the large male shifts his sex over and becomes the new female; the remaining smaller males then jockey for position, with usually the next-larger male winning the right to be the new dominant male, bulking up rapidly in size to take his position atop the sexual food chain. Situation solved. 

Or let’s see how bees do it, as the song notes. Most of the honeybees you have seen in your life are female workers. There are male bees, the drones, but these bees do not work: they gather no nectar, make no honey, clean no queen, raise no brood. They have only one, albeit important, reason for being, a singular task to accomplish: they are living sperm containers waiting for a virgin queen to fly. They are flying insurance policies.

And somehow the drones of neighboring hives all know where to congregate—they all get an unwritten memo and map in a secret code that scientists have yet to crack. And there they wait… 

So when a new queen emerges from her special queen cell in the hive, her first task is to scour the hive looking for other queen cells, as hives with an aging queen likely raise multiple new queens to make sure one works out. The first queen that hatches then kills the others immediately; sororicide, the killing of sisters, is her very first act.

Her next act is to tank up on sperm. To do that, she flies to those same drone congregation areas; she’s got the map as well. And the fastest, maybe the luckiest, male who catches her first mates in mid-flight. Unfortunately for him, copulation results in death; he immediately falls to the ground as the climax to her nuptial flight, and she has the sperm she needs for a lifetime of egg laying.

Those drones are also incapable of feeding themselves; they beg for food in the hive by tapping on the antennae of female workers who obligingly regurgitate food for them. Until the fall. As the hive slides towards winter’s lean season, no nuptial flights will be occurring and the hive needs its honey to survive the winter. Now, drones are expendable. So when the males tap females for food, the workers deny the request, and the drones starve. They die in the hive, and are carried out by female undertaker workers to be unceremoniously dumped outside the entrance. Ah, love.

So calling all bucks and does, or even stags: join me for a lively evening discussing the delightful and surprising sexual antics of the animal kingdom, just in time for Valentine’s Day. 

 

–By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

At-Home Nature Exploration: Animals in Winter

COVID-19 has forced the Schuylkill Center to pivot and reimagine many of our programs. At the beginning of September, we began to reinvent our popular Schuylkill Saturday program so that families could explore our trails through self-guided activities available in Nature Kits. Every Saturday, Nature Kits have been given out on a first-come, first-served basis from 10:00 am–12:00 pm. Nature kits focus on a different theme each week and are meant to be done along our trails. Since the start of our nature kit program, we have seen more than 800 people come out and have handed out over 450 kits.

Starting this week, we are going to be featuring at-home versions of our popular Nature Kit activities so if you can’t make it out to the Center to pick up a kit, make sure to check our blog each week for ways to still get in some weekly nature exploration right where you are.

 

Animals in Winter

In the winter, temperatures drop and it gets really cold. In order to survive, animals will do one of three things: hibernate, adapt, or migrate. Animals such as bears and chipmunks will hibernate. This means that they curl up in a warm place, such as a cave or tunnel, and stay there until winter ends. Other animals, such as fox and deer, will adapt. To adapt means to use a special feature, such as a thick fur coat or stored food, in order to survive the cold temperatures. Lastly, to migrate means to travel to a warmer spot. Animals such as birds and even some marine mammals will migrate. Follow the directions for the activities below to learn more about hibernation, adaptation, and migration.

 

ACTIVITY #1: Squirrels and Adaptation

Squirrels are examples of animals that adapt in the winter. To stay warm in the winter, they will spend more time in their nests and less time out foraging—similar to us staying inside when it gets cold. Before winter starts, they will also bury food such as acorns. It can be hard to find food in the winter so squirrels will return to these stashes of food for something to eat throughout the winter.

  • Draw a number of acorns on a piece of paper (Tip: Put a paperclip on them if it’s a windy day!)
    • Hide them in either your backyard or a nearby park.
    • Wait 5-10 minutes—and then see if you can find them all again.
      • If you have real acorns around, you could do this same activity with real acorns—just make sure to mark them in some way (ex. wrapping a piece of yarn around them) so that you can tell them apart from other acorns. 
  • Take a moment to look around your backyard or a nearby park to see if you see any squirrels out and about.
    • Are they digging up acorns that they buried before the winter?
    • Try looking up in the trees for squirrel nests. Squirrel nests look like large bundles of leaves balanced between tree branches. They are often easier to see in the winter when there are no leaves on the trees.
ACTIVITY #2: Birds and Migration

Birds are an example of an animal that migrates. Birds migrate to warmer areas to find food and lay their eggs. Birds, however, often face challenges as they migrate. They rely on areas such as wetlands for food, rest, and shelter—similar to how we stop at rest stops and hotels when we travel. These areas though are oftentimes developed to make way for houses or shopping centers. Grab a piece of chalk and make a hopscotch board on a nearby sidewalk.

  • Take a moment to look around for birds in your backyard or a nearby park.
    • Although many birds migrate, some do stick around in the winter and will often change their diet depending on what foods are around.
      • For example, birds that eat insects in the spring and summer may switch to eating more seeds, nuts, and berries in the winter when insects aren’t as readily available.
    • What type of food do you see that is still around for these birds?

 

ACTIVITY #3: Bears and Hibernation

Bears, chipmunks, skunks, groundhogs, and snakes are all examples of animals that either enter true hibernation or something similar to it. Animals that hibernate usually find warm areas such as tunnels, burrows, or caves.

  • Make a warm den outside for a stuffed animal that you have at home.
    • Try to find a small crevice and use natural materials such as sticks and leaves to make it nice and warm.
    • Besides warmth, try to think of some other features that would make for a good den (ex. shelter from rain or snow, hidden from potential predators, etc.).
  • Take a moment to look around in your backyard or a nearby park. Can you locate some areas that would make for good places for animals to seek shelter or cover?

 

If you do any of these activities, be sure to snap a picture and share it with us on social media (tag us @schuylkillcenter)—we’d love to see what you discover in your own backyard!

Biden: A Breath of Fresh Air on the Climate Front

Last Wednesday, after months of drama culminating in an insurrection, Joe Biden was peacefully inaugurated as our 46th president. For the environment, this was both a literal and figurative breath of fresh air, as on that same day he signed executive orders reversing key Trump administration actions on climate, including having the US rejoin the Paris climate accord.

And not a moment too soon.

The hottest years on record, with 2020 coming in second only to 2016. Graph courtesy of Climate Central.

As the above graph shows, 2020, now in the history books, was the second warmest year on record, coming very close to 2016’s record. More worrisome, the last eight years all cracked the top 10, a sure sign of a trend, and the hottest 10 years ever occurred in the 21st century.

“A cry for survival comes from the planet itself,” the new president noted very early in his swearing-in speech, “a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear.” He’s right. 2020 began with huge wildfires burning through Australia, and ended with western American wildfires racing through the fiercest fire season ever. One megafire, California’s worst ever, torched more than 1 million acres; five of the six largest wildfires in that state’s history happened only last fall.

Meanwhile, a record number of storms made landfall in America, our named storms running out of the alphabet. In late June, the temperature of the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk topped 100 degrees, yes, a very scary record. A quarter of Bangladesh was flooded by monsoons in 2020, impacting four million people, and the Arctic Ocean saw continued record melt, measuring the second smallest ice cover ever since measuring began in the 1970s.

For me, someone who has been teaching and writing about climate change since the 1980s, the last four years were extraordinarily hard. I’ve been saying for years– and so have many others—that we have a small window of opportunity to effectuate change on climate. But the Trump team took the nation in the exact opposite direction, erasing so many gains we were making on so many issues like climate change and habitat loss, on energy efficiency and renewable energy. There is still a window of opportunity—but that window has been closing, and we just lost four precious years that we will never get back.

Just like with COVID, the metaphoric breath of fresh air is a team of professionals who believe the government plays a role in climate change and will use science to inform smart policy. No more lies about climate change being a Chinese hoax. Data will matter again, so will truth. Science has a seat at the Biden table; Biden and his team will tell us how bad it is getting, not tell us that black is white, green is bad, and everything will be fine. And no more science policy delivered via Twitter.

That Biden can even say the phrase “climate change” aloud in public speeches, is also, sadly a huge, welcome, and a necessary breath of fresh air.

So imagine my delight when the president named former Secretary of State John Kerry—experienced, polished, with every world leader on his speed dial already—as his international presidential envoy on climate change. He will be at the Paris accord table, along with 194 other nations.

We, along with Libya and Iraq, are among the very few holdouts, the world’s climate pariahs. How’s that for company? Not many democracies have held out from the climate accord. Even India and China have signed on, so with us back in the game, the world’s top three carbon polluters are at the table. Hallelujah. Just in time.

Even better, Biden has assembled a diverse climate team around him. Former EPA chief Gina McCarthy heads the new White House Office of Climate Policy, and New York’s Ali Zaidi will serve as her lieutenant. North Carolina’s top environmental regulator, Michael Regan, an African-Amercan gentleman, will lead the Biden EPA, and Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico will lead the Department of the Interior, a landmark choice as she becomes the first Native American to do so. And former governor Michigan Jennifer Granholm will become Secretary of Energy.

His climate team looks like America: men and women of all ethnicities. This is key on the climate front as environmental justice is another pillar of the Biden green approach. As communities of color are disproportionately impacted by pollution and toxic emissions, and will be disproportionately impacted by a warming world, another of Biden’s executive orders signed that busy first day notes that “where the Federal Government has failed to meet that commitment in the past, it must advance environmental justice.” And the Green New Deal sneaks in here, as that same order says the government needs to “prioritize both environmental justice and the creation of the well-paying union jobs necessary to deliver on these goals.”

For decades, people like me have been arguing against the false dichotomy of jobs vs. the environment. To badly mix metaphors, we can have our environmental cake and afford to eat it too. Time to put that dichotomy behind us.

So the metaphoric breath of fresh air was the tone and content of last Wednesday’s speeches and actions, a refreshing change. But more important was the literal one, the cleaner air you and your children will be breathing if we—finally, at long last—take this greener path.

—Written by Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

A New Lens on Nature: Community photos in “Citizen’s Eye”

It almost could be another tree, except for the ears. Look a little closer and you realize it’s a deer, stock-still and staring at you through the morning mist. As autumn leaves rustle, its silent appraisal reminds you: you are not alone. These woods are a shared space.

This encounter is captured in a photo by Peter DeStefano, one he submitted to the upcoming community show, “Citizen’s Eye — A Kaleidoscope of Nature.” More than 400 photos taken by over 200 people—Schuylkill Center staff, members, volunteers, neighbors, friends—document surprising encounters with nature from the past 10 months. Every photo is included in the exhibition, making for a truly kaleidoscopic display.

Photo by Peter DeStefano, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

Director of Environmental Art Tina Plokarz and her team have been sorting through these images, arranging them in our gallery, while looking for patterns. Some photos show structures of bridges and buildings; many are close-ups of animals or plants. They all come from a heightened sense of awareness to our natural surroundings and a willingness to stop and focus on smaller things. Taking such a photograph of nature requires that you not just move through the world but slow down enough to notice it. That you become a reciprocal part of it and live in it.

While each image reflects its photographer’s interest, collectively they begin to tell a story, one that begins with people going out to find nature—whether for peace, solitude, or recreation—and discovering that it’s always right beside them. Nature with a capital ‘N’ may conjure up romantic notions of sublime landscapes in National Parks, grand mountains, and expansive deserts. But nature with a lowercase ‘n’ encompasses everything around us. It’s “the small things we’re experiencing every day,” Tina says. “It’s not only about blooming flowers, it is also about the little weed on the sidewalk.” 

A number of photos feature kids and adults outside—playing, building, exploring, living. Some are posed; some are candid; one is a silhouette. “When we really think about ‘nature’ and where this term comes from,” Tina says, “we quickly see that it’s not only the ‘natural world’—it’s also our world context, it’s also our body, it’s our human interaction with the environment. And I think that’s what I was really interested in seeing through other people’s eyes.”

Photo by Walther Vera, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

Nature is also around us, inevitably, in death. One particularly striking photo is of a funeral with masked mourners holding big red umbrellas and carrying a casket down the street. At first, it may seem like it doesn’t belong in a show of nature photography. But it made Tina consider how other nature photos capture death and decay. Several images, for instance, show mushrooms sprouting from dying trees. The rotting wood provides the nutrients necessary to grow a network of fungi that spreads throughout the forest—itself an offering to trees and a vital connection between them. “It’s this circle of life,” she says, “and death is part of our lives.” 

Photo by Peter Handler, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

That topic of death is “hard to grapple with as it relates to the pandemic,” Tina says. But that’s why offering a place for people to share their experiences with nature is so powerful. “I think it allows us a space for grief, and for thinking how, when a tree is dying, it is not dying, it is just transforming into something else.”

Ultimately everything in nature is interconnected, everything shared. “Citizen’s Eye” reflects this in its community display, ready to welcome you in and transform your own encounters with nature.

 

“Citizen’s Eye —A Kaleidoscope of Nature” will be available to view in person in our gallery and online from January 21– March 21, 2021. Join us for a virtual opening reception on Thursday, Jan. 21 at 7 pm for a conversation with mythologist and social practice artist Li Sumpter Ph.D., John Heinz National Wildlife refuge manager Lamar Gore, and designer CJ Walsh, moderated by Tina Plokarz. For more information and to register, visit: https://www.schuylkillcenter.org/blog/event/citizens-eye-a-kaleidoscope-of-nature/

 

—By Emily Sorensen

 

MLK Day of Service — Projects from Home

Martin Luther King, Jr. dedicated his life to the nonviolent struggle for racial equality. In his honor, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service is observed on the third Monday in January. On what is termed “a day on, not off,” we are encouraged to engage in volunteer service to our community. While we can’t meet in person this year, we know that you don’t have to go far to make a difference. You’re invited to join us at 10 am on Monday, January 18 over Zoom to connect with community and honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. before setting off on your own. More info and register here

At that meeting, we’ll answer any questions you might have and  encourage you to complete one of the following service projects to help your neighbors, your community, wildlife, and the environment.

Suggested Projects include:

Help the environment

  • Pick Up Litter: Grab a bag and a pair of gloves and set out to beautify your neighborhood or a nearby park, one piece of litter at a time. Try to fill at least one bag of trash.
    • While you’re doing this, reflect on the trash you create and how you might be able to minimize it. Find some suggestions here and here.
  • Write to a Representative: Let your representatives in the House and Senate know how important the health of the environment is to you by writing them a letter urging them to support climate change legislation, or—for younger children—drawing a picture of your favorite nature spot.

Help your community

  • Donate food to a community fridge: Community fridges have popped up across the city since the start of the pandemic. They provide fresh food for those in need.
    • Find a fridge in your area to donate food or donate money. Consider swinging by first to see what’s needed, and then come back with what you can supply.
    • Read more about community fridges here and find Philadelphia locations here.  

Help wildlife

  • Make Window Decals to Prevent Bird Strikes: Window collisions are a leading cause of death in bird populations. Birds fly into windows because the glass reflects the environment around it and therefore, birds do not see it as a barrier. Window decals can help to prevent this. Create some of your own window decals using the recipe below. Make sure to cover the entire window (no openings more than 4” vertically and 2” horizontally) when putting them up.
    • Ingredients: 2 tablespoons white glue, 2 drops of dish soap, paintbrush, plastic page protectors or wax paper, food coloring (optional), cookie cutters (optional)
    • Directions:
      • Mix glue, dish soap, and food coloring together in a bowl.
      • Use a paintbrush to paint designs on a plastic page protector or wax paper. If you have one, you can also lay down a cookie cutter and paint inside of that. The number of designs needed will depend on how many windows you have and the size of them.
      • The painted layer should be thick enough that there are no gaps or holes but not too thick or else it won’t dry.
      • Let sit overnight.
      • Peel the decals off and stick to windows in your house, making sure to cover the entire window so that there are no openings more than 4” vertically and 2” horizontally.
    • For more details and pictures, visit: https://teachingmama.org/diy-window-clings/
  • For more ideas, check out our article 20 Wonderful Ways to Help Nature.

 

Whatever you do, don’t forget to tag us @schuylkillcenter in a picture of the MLK project you completed using the #MLKDay!

News Flash: Beavers in Roxborough!

One of the feel-good stories on the environmental scene is the rewilding of large cities like Philadelphia, where suddenly peregrine falcons nest in church steeples and on Delaware River bridges, bald eagles pull large fish out of the Schuylkill River, and coyotes amble down Domino Lane.

In that vein, members of the Roxborough-Manayunk Conservancy were somewhat startled to discover that the restoration plantings they’ve doggedly placed along the Schuylkill River have been devoured by…beavers! Wait, beavers in Roxborough?

Once extirpated—a fancy word meaning locally extinct—across Pennsylvania, hunted because their fur was remarkably valuable and because we did not appreciate their ability to rearrange landscapes to their own ends. But beavers have been returning to our state over the last century, and have been seen along Tacony and Pennypack Creeks since about 2008. And now they have taken up residence in the Schuylkill River and Manayunk Canal around Flat Rock Dam.

“I first noticed beavers and their lodge in the winter of 2018,” observed Suzanne Hagner, Roxborough resident and member of the Roxborough-Manayunk Conservancy, “as I rode out the Schuylkill River Trail towards Shawmont. I could see where they had worn down a path into the woods on the far side of the trail and I guessed that was where they were going for food.” The lodge was near Flat Rock Dam, and they have been spotted—and photographed—as far down as Lock Street and as far up as past Shawmont Avenue, both in the canal and along the river.

“You can see their work from Lock to Cotton streets,” added Kay Sykora, another key Conservancy member, “particularly in the Cotton Street area; look for the damage on the banks and trees.” She offered that there was a “small dam in the wetlands near the upper locks” but that may have been damaged by heavy storms. Tom Landsmann, president of the Conservancy, offers that “the very best place to see the beaver or signs of the beaver’s visits is from the river. Take a kayak or paddle board and look for the damaged bark or the lodges. Look just above the flat rock dam on the Philly side, but on the Lower Merion side and up river as well. Can’t miss it.”

They famously cut down saplings and trees with their chisel-like teeth, building dams and lodges with the branches, chewing the inner bark of trees as their favored food source. That tree-cutting, of course, can sometimes interfere with our own good work.

“Beavers have good taste in trees,” Tom added, tongue in cheek. “They ate over 60 trees we planted along the canal last year. But we adjusted. Last spring, we painted the uneaten trees with latex paint mixed with a lot of sand,” the grit distasteful to the large rodents. “Many of the damaged trees grew out again this summer,” he continued. “We wrapped those trees in cages this fall. We installed 130 cages along the canal near both sides of Fountain Street.”

Bernard “Billy” Brown, author of Grid magazine’s Urban Naturalist column, told me that, in addition to the cages, Riverfront North, a group doing restoration work along Pennypack Creek, “has planted species that can rebound well after being cut down by beavers, like willow species in particular.”

The Conservancy recently hosted a walk-through of the area with a self-described “beaver believer” they brought in from central PA, and their takeaway was similar. “The other approach which I believe we will have to do,” continued Kay, “is to rethink our plantings. We need to put in more herbaceous plants on the impacted banks and see if we can add things like willows to the upper wetland areas to keep them in that area, which is better suited for them and for us.”

Suzanne Hagner agrees. “There are plants, several species of low growing willow that beavers eat that we can plant and hopefully, if we get them planted soon, we can entice the beavers to move further out the trail” and away from their restoration plantings.

Billy Brown has been writing about the beaver’s return to Philadelphia for a while now. “As a reaction, I’ll say that beavers and their return to Philadelphia show the importance of waterways in connecting urban habitat with the surrounding landscape. I think most people under-appreciate how severely our system of roads isolates habitat, an issue the Schuylkill Center contends with the Toad Detour project, for example. Waterways and the green corridors around them are exceptions to the fragmentation of habitat in urban landscapes. The ability of beavers to quickly disperse through the city shows that. It’s both tantalizing and frustrating to imagine how different our urban ecosystems would be if we could more broady connect to the surrounding landscape.”

Suzanne Hagner has been reading up on beaver, passing books along to Conservancy members. “They are amazingly skilled at creating waterways and irrigation systems that lead to ecological health,” she said. “Our consultant offered that the return of the beavers was a very good sign in our area, as the beaver is an ecological system in itself. I had lived in Washington state, and had heard that beavers were being reintroduced in eastern Washington to help curb the arid areas that are prone to wildfires.”

“The return of the beaver,” notes Kay Sykora, “along with a wide range of wildlife like herons and turtles underscores the health of our river area, once one of the most damaged and polluted rivers in the country. Beaver were virtually trapped out of existence for their fur, and there was no understanding of the role they played in the environmental balance of nature. They are key to the health of our wetland areas and the range of wildlife that needs those areas to survive.”

Go for a walk along the Schuylkill River Trail, and find for yourself the pointed chiseled ends of tree trunks along the canal and river. It’s evidence of Roxborough’s newest neighbor, the beaver.

 

—By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Photo/Video by Linda Lee McGinnis

White Christmas: Another Endangered Species

Last week’s snow was thankfully kind to us. Though 6.3 official inches fell at the airport, it was not the foot that might have been and was long predicted, nor the ice storm that was also possible, nor the gale force winds that were expected. My staff at the Schuylkill Center breathed easier on Thursday morning when they arrived to shovel us out, as snow, ice, and wind can conspire to cripple our work, toppling trees and branches while causing power outages. So frankly, we’ll take an easier storm.

But temperatures returned to New Abnormal levels this week, as predictions call for a balmy 61 degrees on Christmas Eve. No White Christmas this year. In fact, the last recorded white Christmas occurred in 2009, and even then it didn’t actually snow on the day, but earlier in the week. The last time we recorded an inch or more of snowfall on the holiday was 2002, with only an inch and a half. The record for snowfall on Christmas is a foot, which fell way back in 1966, more than 50 years ago.

And I’m sure you remember that famed Christmas Eve only five years ago when the mercury topped out in the mid-70s, breaking December records as carolers sang in Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts.
So last week’s snowfall may be an odd time to revisit climate change. But it is timely: remember, last week’s snowfall was the first major winter storm in almost 1,000 days, and is 21 times the total amount that fell all last winter. The Schuylkill Center’s facilities team did not have to plow our driveway once last year.

Remember, one weather event is neither proof nor disproof of climate change, so a snowfall in December does not mean all is fine and the climate isn’t broken. What one has to do is look at long-term trends. As the accompanying graph, created by temperature measurements collected by Climate Central in Princeton, shows, Philadelphia’s winter temperatures have warmed by almost five degrees since 1970. Five degrees may not seem like much at first glance, but the planet’s finely tuned climate instrument reacts strongly to even tenths of a degree changes in weather averages. In fact, winter has changed more markedly in Pennsylvania than the other three seasons.

Globally, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies calculates that 2020 has a more than 90 percent chance of becoming the hottest year on record, while NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, gives the year a 54 percent chance, possibly losing out by only a nose to 2016, as NOAA says the first 11 months of 2020 were a mere .02 degrees cooler than record-hot 2016.

Santa, gearing up for this week’s worldwide flight, is in trouble, as his North Pole is warming faster than the rest of the world. “One of 2020’s notable hotspots,” reported Scientific American last week, “has been Siberia… At one point the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk reported 100.4 degrees F. If this figure is verified by the World Meteorological Organization, it would be the first time recorded temperatures above the Arctic Circle have surpassed 100 degrees F.”

Imagine that: a measurement of 100 degrees in the Arctic Circle. Santa is quaking in his boots as the ice caps melt below his feet.

According to NASA, the Earth’s average temperature in November was 56.95 degrees Fahrenheit, 1.75 degrees above the 20th-century norm. Again, these small changes matter.

No matter where 2020 ends up in the standings, it will be warm enough to knock 1998 out of NOAA’s top 10. When that happens, all of the 10 warmest years in their records will have occurred in only the 15 years since 2005 — and the top seven will have occurred since 2014. The statistical odds that this is a random occurrence are slim to none, and each year is now as hot or hotter than the year before.

A 2017 analysis in Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society offered that between the late 19th century and 1980, new records for the hottest year would happen about every eight to 11 years, a reasonable rate that makes sense. Since 1981, however, they have been occurring about every three to four years. New records are now the norm.

“So if 2020 takes the top slot,” concluded the normally staid Scientific American, “it will not be entirely unexpected — and will be yet another stark example of how far the Earth’s climate has deviated from its natural course.” As a Goddard scientist told the magazine, “I work for NASA, but it’s not rocket science.”

May all your days be merry and bright nonetheless, though no, all your Christmases will not be white. Yet another casualty of climate change.

—By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director