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

Schuylkill Saturdays: Nature Art or Tracks kits

From the colorful autumn leaves to the fresh snow of winter to the budding flowers of spring and summer, discover the beauty and wonder along our trails in every season through this FREE weekly self-guided program. Pick up a nature exploration kit at our Visitor Center and then hit the trails with your family to complete the activities inside. For the months of January and February, past explorer kit themes will be repeated (with the exception of a new Valentine’s Day themed kit on February 13). Two different themed kits will be available each week. Explorer kits can be picked up anytime between 10:00 am–12:00 pm on a first-come, first-served basis. All ages welcome. No registration required. Masks are required when picking up your kit.

Roxborough’s River and Water: A History

For almost 100 years the Roxborough Pumping Station, just above the Flat Rock Dam, was a landmark on the Schuylkill River, pumping water into two reservoirs on high ground to serve the city’s northwestern section. In this illustrated talk, Adam Levine, historian for Philadelphia Water, reveals why the system was built, how it worked, why it was abandoned, and its ultimate dereliction and demolition in 2011. River pollution and flooding, drownings, water filtration, the revitalization of the reservoirs as parkland, and the planned restoration of the canal locks at Flat Rock will also be discussed. Adam Levine has been researching the history of the city’s water system since 1998, and this brand-new talk is not to be missed. His website is phillyh2o.org.

This event is cosponsored by the Philadelphia Water Department, the Upper Roxborough Civic Association, the Roxborough Manayunk Conservancy, the Friends of the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve, and Residents of the Shawmont Valley.

This event is part of #RiverDays a month-long recreational event series hosted by the Alliance for Watershed Education (AWE) of the Delaware River and supported by The William Penn Foundation.  AWE is comprised of 23 environmental education centers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Each of these centers is located along a Circuit Trail or major connecting trail, and on waterways throughout the Delaware River watershed.

Nature Trivia Night

It’s a cornucopia of questions about nature, wildlife, the environment and all things green– even frogs. Which nocturnal animal plays dead, emitting a putrid smell to escape its predators? What popular nocturnal creature’s droppings can actually be used as a fertilizer? Gather around the computer and vie for prizes in our live Zoom trivia event. First place will receive a pint glass and t-shirt from Twisted Gingers Brewing Company plus a prize from our gift shop. Prizes will also be awarded to second and third place teams. Teams can consist of 1-6 players.

Nature trivia is co-hosted by Twisted Gingers Brewing Company, available for beer and pizza orders prior to the event.

Thursday Night L!VE (online): Wildlife in our City

Coyotes, Falcons, and that Bear, Oh My! 

How can people and wildlife better coexist in the city? Peregrine falcons nest in St. John’s steeple; bald eagles soar over the Schuylkill. Coyotes run down our streets, turkey vultures roost on the radio towers, and an occasional black bear wades across the Wissahickon. But the needs of these animals and people often conflict, as witnessed by the thousands of creatures brought to our Wildlife Clinic annually. 

Join us for this FREE online event moderated by Executive Director Mike Weilbacher

Rebecca Michelin, Director of Wildlife Rehabilitation at the Schuylkill Center

Eduardo Duenas, naturalist-educator at the Schuylkill Center

Bernard “Billy” Brown, the Urban Naturalist columnist for Grid magazine

This program is co-sponsored with Grid magazine.

Register now_green

Trick-or-Treating Through the Years

By Ezra Tischler, Arts and PR Intern

Halloween hikers gather before heading out on a night walk (1977).

Halloween hikers gather before heading out on a night walk (1977).

The forest can be a scary place at night. Its unfamiliar sounds reach out from the darkness, telling a nocturnal tale we humans seldom hear. However, the nighttime forest is full of much more than fright. By the light of moon, the forest comes alive.  Owls screech and hoot; frogs croak; skunks, raccoons, and opossums forage through the forest floor; bats flap about in search of something to eat. A wondrously active forest is born each night.

At the Schuylkill Center we explore just how amazing, and un-scary, the nighttime forest is with one of our most popular programs ever, Halloween Hikes and Hayrides. Established nearly 30 years ago, Halloween Hikes and Hayrides is now our longest running program ever! Families walk through our candlelit forest in search of educators dressed as nocturnal animals. Each animal—a skunk, raccoon, bat, fox, opossum, frog, and owl—tells their wild night-life story to our guests.

Educators dressed as nocturnal animals (1988).

Educators dressed as nocturnal animals (1988).

I spent some time last week looking through the Schuylkill Center’s extensive photo archive searching for evidence of the first Halloween Hikes and Hayrides. Though it was difficult to pinpoint the very first Halloween Hike, I was able to find some photos and negatives from hikes dating as far back as 1977. Mike, our director, says he doesn’t remember Halloween Hikes and Hayrides under that name from his first stint at the Schuylkill Center, but it’s clear the tradition is a long one.  Halloween Hikes & Hayrides has grown a lot since its inception. One photo shows about a dozen-or-so hikers gathering before heading to the forest. Last year we took to the forest with around 300 hikers in attendance!

Carving pumpkins (1977).

Carving pumpkins (1977).

Another photo from 1977 shows children enjoying a pumpkin carving session; we won’t have pumpkin carving at this year’s event, but there will be pumpkins for painting–a favorite in recent years. One of the earliest photos of anyone in costume shows our educators dressed as friendly nocturnal animals, it’s dated 1988. I was only a newborn in 1988, but I’m excited to join this year’s Halloween Hike as a costumed educator. More than anything, I can’t wait to see our forest trails dappled in candle light. I hear that alone is worth the price of admission.

Join us on October 24th and 25th for the Halloween Hikes and Hayrides, from 6:00—10:00 pm. Aside from the magical walk through our woods, enjoy a hayride along a woodland road, a campfire and s’mores, and pumpkin painting too. For more information click here.

Ezra joins the Schuylkill Center as an intern in the Environmental Art and Public Relations Department. He is pursuing a Master of Environmental Studies degree at the University of Pennsylvania.  Ezra enjoys riding his bike along the Schuylkill River Trail, exploring his South Philly neighborhood, and playing with his Beagle, Homer.

Nature Preschool, Community-Building, and Responsibility Rocks!

By Shannon Dryden, Nature Preschool Manager and Sweet Gum Lead Teacher

childrenneednature-01The first few weeks of Nature Preschool have started off with a busy buzz and hum as the two classrooms, Sweet Gum and Sycamore, have filled with children, conversations, artwork, lunch boxes, water bottles, and more.  It may seem silly but every September I am reminded how the beginning of the year reinvigorates teachers and classrooms as new personalities come together to build a community. It is loud (as it should be), it is busy (many moving bodies), it is messy (children’s hands at work), it is full of questions, thoughts, and ideas as the pieces of the classroom puzzle are beginning to fit together. Continue reading

The Biggest Day in 50 Years

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

This piece was originally published in the Roxborough Review on Thursday, September 10 in the column Natural Selections

Saturday, September 27 might just be the biggest day in the Schuylkill Center’s storied 50-year history.  On that day, we’re offering the first bird seed sale of the year, the last native plant sale of the year, and launching the University of Nature, a full day of outdoor learning for adults.  We’re beginning the day by presenting the ninth annual Henry Meigs Award for environmental leadership to Ann Fowler Rhoads, and ending the day by unveiling a new show in our environmental art gallery.

One big day.

The University of Nature is the latest in a series of new programming thrusts the Schuylkill Center is rolling out.  We’re offering university-level expertise in a one-day outdoor setting.  Over the course of the day there are nine workshops and walks from which to choose, and you’ll leave at day’s end graduating to a higher level of environmental understanding. Continue reading

Talking with Jake Beckman about LandLab

 By Guest Contributor Angel R. Graham

I had the pleasure of speaking with LandLab artist Jake Beckman over the telephone recently.  Jake explained that he is enjoying being a LandLab artist.  His LandLab experience allows him to engage himself more with the outdoors, he says, conning him more deeply to the land.

Science and art are really similar in a lot of ways.  You have to imagine the unknown.

A.G: What inspires your indoor/outdoor art pieces?
J.B: I think the thread that ties most of them together is an interest in how things work.  What are the processes that cause things to come into existence – things that we use, or part of our built environment, or things that we depend and rely on in society?  A lot of [my art] looks at materials and industrial ingredients.

A.G: Who inspires you artistically?
J.B: That’s a tough question.  I read a lot.  I am really interested in a wide range of things, popular science to scientific journals to sociological studies…I like work that engages in kind of a dialogue that is accessible.  [I like] public work that is playful but also has some sort of critical sense to it.  I like work that reaches beyond art and engages with people.

A.G: How did you connect with LandLab?
Jake explained that he received a fellowship through the Center for Emerging and Visual Artists (CFEVA).  Since they were aware of his science background, CFEVA let him know about the opportunity to work with LandLab.

J.B: I had been to the Center a couple of times before I ever even heard about LandLab.  I just enjoyed the grounds.  My wife and I had a garden plot [at the Center].

A.G: What does it mean to you to be a LandLab artist?

J.B: It’s wonderful to be outside, to be thinking about making work in an outdoor environment.  You know, I’m really hoping to honor this kind of spirit of engagement with the outdoors that I think the Center is trying to foster by making art that feels like it’s part of that dialogue and part of a process.  It is part of this ecosystem, bringing it to life in a different way.  I think it’s really been a wonderful change of perspective for me in thinking about my work and I’m really grateful for that.  When you make work that lives in this white box of a gallery, things sometimes feel a little claustrophobic.  This has been a nice experience to help to balance that and be engaged a little bit more.

A.G: What inspired your LandLab piece?
J.B: The whole overview of the project that I am working on and that I proposed is really based on my investigation into research about soil formation: the way that soils are so important for the ecology of any natural system.  They are really unique in a lot of ways.  They are not like normal ecosystems that we think of … because everything is happening at such a different scale and a different time period.  So you think of geological processes.  The project encompasses a lot of those ideas.  Two or three pieces that I am thinking of installing over the course of the fall, the winter, and into next spring really look at soil formation through these lenses of time-periods, if you will.  One of them is really going to look at the way stone dissolves over time and that is obviously going to be on a different time scale than the one I am making out of wood which will happen over the course of decades or less than that.

A.G: What is your definition of art?  What is art to you?
J.B: In some way, it is sort of philosophy made material…and you know art is many things to many different people.  What it means to me?  [laughs]  I don’t know; I think it’s play, it’s serious play.  I think some of it is convention and some of it people understand when you call something art, you are giving them license to think beyond what is it, what does it do, how does it work.  I think when you call something art, even though it is this nebulous term, it allows for some loosening of boundaries.  …It’s kind of frustrating but also freeing, and really fun, how many different disciplines I can borrow from… and then incorporate into [my art].

A.G: What you want people to take away from your work?
J.B: I guess I’m interested in drawing connections between things that we don’t necessarily connect.  In my life, I’m not really connected to the land in a way that I feel like I want to be.  I live in a city, in a place that is humming with activity, but it is a lot of human activity and a lot of infrastructure and I feel somewhat disconnected [from the land].  I don’t know that my work actually reconnects people or anything like that but I am hoping at some one point it’ll get to that stage where it forms those connections for other people as well as me.

A.G: How does your artwork connect to science?
J.B: Not as much as I would like.  I think that science is the process of asking questions, posing questions, and imagining ways to answer to them.  It is dealing with … mystery or exploring unknowns.  I think frequently my work strives to some small degree, to pose interesting questions and elicit that sense mystery and wonder that I think science has.  But I don’t think I’ve gotten there [laughs].  But I think science and art are really similar in a lot of ways.  You have to imagine the unknown.  You have to be really creative and come up with possible ideas; in science you then go on and test and [in] art you go on and make.

 

Angel Graham headshotAbout Angel R. Graham
Angel is currently a student at Mitchell College in New London, CT majoring in Environmental Studies with a minor in Communications.  After completing her undergrad studies, she wants to continue on to grad school where she plans to complete a Master’s degree in Public Health.  Angel hopes to become a public policy writer for the EPA or FDA.

Beyond the Surface

On May 31, 2013 The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education presented Beyond the Surface: Environmental Art in Action – A conference of ideas and innovative thinking about the relationships between art and nature.

This unique, first time conference brought over 100 professionals from the region and beyond (as far as Maine and North Carolina) to hear from the Advisory Team about their own individual practices, and then to join them in conversations.  Below are each team members’ presentations, for those of you who wish to hear from them directly.

The afternoon sessions were  titled “Activate,” Integrate” and “Engage.” Undoubtedly, this one-day conference has sparked ideas and ways forward to attendees from the cultural and environmental communities. We look forward to continuing the conversations.

Below, are each advisory team member’s morning presentations. Each were asked to speak on the work they do, have done, and speak to the issues pertaining to ecological art.

Lillian Ball

on how she became an ecological artist, focusing on water.

http://www.lillianball.com/

Sam Bower

on things that changed his life: Andy Goldsworthy, Deborah Small, Art as part of a system.

Stacy Levy

on a new kind of art, her own work, and the importance of collaboration and approaches, how artists make nature more visible.

http://www.stacylevy.com/

Amy Lipton

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9lVQlC_14w

(we  are having technical issues here, but please click on link above to watch this video)

see more about Amy Lipton’s work with ecoartspace

Eve Mosher

on participation, interruption and interaction in her work. Watch her have the audience reflect on their first encounters with nature. See her nine concepts about her practice.

http://www.evemosher.com/

Frances Whitehead

on her work in sustainability, her practice: personal, pedagogical and professional.

 

This conference was made possible by the generous support of the Pew Center for Arts And Heritage Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative and The National Endowment for the Arts.