Lankenau Students Wins Meigs Youth Award

We established the Henry Meigs Youth Leadership Award in 2005 as a memorial tribute to one of our center’s founders. The award honors students who have demonstrated exceptional leadership, interest, curiosity, or accomplishment in the environmental arena. While nominations were solicited in prior years, the Center held an essay contest to determine this year’s recipient, a contest open to students at Roxborough’s three public high schools– Lankenau Environmental Science Magnet High School, Walter B. Saul High School, and Roxborough High School– with the winner receiving a $1,000 scholarship gift.

Candidates submitted essay responses to the prompt “What is the biggest environmental threat to our city and why? What can you do as an individual to make a difference? What can our community do collectively to solve this issue?”

The winning essay was written by Adrianna Lewis, a Roxborough resident and senior at Lankenau High School. Adrianna will graduate this year and is preparing to study environmental science at Delaware Valley University in the fall. She hopes to one day research solutions to help Philadelphia to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as reduce our contribution to it. We were excited to announce Adrianna as the recipient of the award at Naturepalooza, our annual Earth Day festival, last Saturday. Congratulations to Adrianna; her essay follows:

The biggest environmental threat to our city is air pollution. This factors into the health of the city as well. Philadelphia, like other major cities, generates tons of air pollution. The primary driver of this is vehicle emissions. The Covid-19 pandemic halted most social interactions, especially within the city. Center City Philadelphia, also known as downtown among locals, is home to many businesses. Looking at the skyline, there are plenty of skyscrapers, housing thousands of offices. Many employees of these businesses drive into the city for work. Daily commuters are the driving factor of air pollution in the city, pun intended. The city can not stop this commute as it generates most of Philadelphia’s revenue, other than tourism and college. 

Why is the air pollution in Philadelphia such a big deal? Air pollution in Philadelphia includes carbon and nitrogen emissions, specifically from motor vehicles. The use of fossil fuels causes the production of carbon dioxide and other carbon-containing pollutants, as well as nitrogen and nitrates. When exposed to sunlight, some nitrogen oxides can convert into volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene that can later meet with nitrous oxide and create ozone in the atmosphere. There are also carbon, chlorine, and fluorine-containing molecules (CFCs) typically used in aerosol containers and air conditioners. Although CFCs are banned worldwide, freon used in air conditioning systems can release CFCs into the atmosphere. 

What do these things do as air pollutants? What are the effects on Philadelphia as a city? Carbon and nitrogen emissions are harmful to the environment and humans. Carbon emissions are mostly found in the form of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is known for its climate-changing effect. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, which is known to form a cozy blanket around the earth and trap heat in the atmosphere. Methane, another greenhouse gas, is less prevalent in the atmosphere but is more harmful than carbon dioxide. Another producer of these air pollutants in Philadelphia are landfills/garbage processing plants. These like the other air pollutants are an issue in Philadelphia as they cause climate change and amplify the heat island effect. The heat island effect causes the temperature in the city to be greater than in the surrounding area.

What can change air pollution in the city of Philadelphia? As individuals, people should use public transportation whenever possible. Philadelphia has SEPTA and Amtrak if you are traveling outside of the city. Individuals could also help plant trees to combat the increase of CO2. As an individual, you can join an environmental group within Philadelphia or support local small businesses and farms to reduce your carbon footprint. Supporting these local businesses and farms would reduce the number of people traveling for resources. There are over 25 farmers’ markets in Philadelphia, a number of them accept SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). Access to these farmer’s markets may be harder for those in underserved areas such as North Philadelphia.

As a community, the people of Philadelphia can make a difference by petitioning the city to be more walkable. Better access for pedestrians on Philadelphia streets would reduce the number of cars used. We could improve accessibility for disabled people within the Philadelphia area, so they wouldn’t have to commute into the city. The downtown area could also become more affordable so people would not have to commute into the city every day. To reduce air pollution from landfills, we could begin to compost all of our non-meat and dairy items, then send this compost to the farming community in and around Philadelphia. Our glass, once cleaned, can be sent to a facility where it’s made into sand and poured onto beaches. This is a must as people have begun “sand gangs” where sand is stolen and sold on the market for concrete and other such uses. The alternative to using this glass for beach sand, the glass sand could be used for construction sand. Further ways Philadelphia as a community could aid in the reduction of air pollution is making farmers’ markets accessible to all or selling produce from local farms at corner stores.

Philadelphia has an air pollution issue and we the people can reduce it.

By Aaliyah Green Ross, Director of Education 

December’s Weather: Hot, Hot, Hot

Since 1970, temperatures in Philadelphia during The Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 to January 5) increased over 5 degrees.

It’s been a December to remember on the weather front. 

Two weeks ago, a series of high-intensity tornadoes tore a 200-mile path from Arkansas and Missouri into Illinois and Kentucky, killing more than 85 people (as of this writing), with many more still missing. But then last week another– very powerful and equally unusual– system swept through the Great Plains and Midwest under weirdly warmed skies, spawning hurricane-level winds in Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota, killing another handful of people. And hundreds of thousands have been without power after these two systems.

That tornado system blew through Roxborough over that weekend, one gust knocking over a dead ash tree that took out the our power lines, leading to us having to scramble on Monday to restore everything. Maybe you’ve noticed the weirdly warm winter as well.

Storms like this are fueled by a diet of energy, and high-heat storms should not exist in December. Welcome to winter in the New Abnormal, as we have been calling it here at the Center.

It was 70 degrees in Wisconsin that Wednesday evening. In its reporting on the event, the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted Weather Company historian Chris Burt, who wrote on Facebook comparing that day’s temperatures to a “warm July evening. I can say with some confidence that this event (the heat and tornadoes) is among the most (if not THE most) anomalous weather event ever on record for the Upper Midwest.” 

Across the lower 48 states, it has already been a far warmer December than normal, with 3,069 daily record high temperatures set across the country, and only 14 record lows. Climate Central says last week’s “extreme heat could push December toward the warmest on record, following the warmest summer, 3rd warmest autumn, and 7th warmest November on record for the U.S.”

Thus far, 2021 is only the fifth warmest on record, but the five warmest years are ALL from 2015 or later– statistically, if the climate was not changing, the top five would be a random assortment of years from a variety of decades. That five of the last six years are the warmest ever recorded tells you a whole lot. But we’ll see where this hot hot hot December places the year within this regrettable pantheon.

And as we noted two weeks ago, a white Christmas is becoming increasingly rare. As the graphic nearby illustrates, the 12 days of Christmas have warmed by more than five degrees since 1970, says Climate Central, making the chances for snowfall increasingly less. (I’m writing this before Christmas, and you’re reading it afterwards, so we’ll see if the weather gods make me eat these words!)

We’re also entering a world where high-intensity storm events are increasingly common, so climate change makes the news on a weekly basis, with tornadoes here, hurricanes and typhoons there, flooding here like we saw with Ida, droughts there, heat waves here, wildfires there.

In 2021, we learned that the climate can kill us. As we leave 2021 behind us, the Earth is offering a very loud, very palpable message.

In 2022, I hope we listen better. That’s my sole New Year’s wish for us all.

The Winters of Our Discontent

Wissahickon Valley Park under a recent winter’s thin coating of snow. What will this winter bring?

Last winter, Philadelphia received over 22 inches of snow at the airport, just a hair above the long-term 20.5 inch average. But that’s 73 times the amount that dropped during the snowless winter before; if anything, our weather has become erratic and prone to extreme mood swings like this.

So I was intrigued by the Old Farmer’s Almanac prediction that this winter would be a “Season of Shivers.” The new season, they wrote, “will be punctuated by positively bone-chilling, below-average temperatures across most of the United States.” As of early December, they have been right: it has been chilly. 

But wait, you might say, what about climate change? Doesn’t a warming climate mean warmer winters with less snow? Well, yes and no. 

First, Philadelphia’s winter temperatures have increased 4.8℉ in the 50 years from 1970 through 2020, from an average temperature of 33℉ to almost 38℉. The coldest day of the winter between 1950 and 1980 was always below 5 degrees, usually around 3 or 4 degrees; but for the last 30 years, it has never been below 5 degrees. 

The first frost, not too long ago, came around Halloween; in the last 50 years, the first frost has arrived, on average, 17 days– more than two weeks– later, deep into November. “When the frost is on the pumpkin,” goes the very old poem I learned in high school. Not any longer.

But the city’s temperatures for a whole year have increased by 3.5℉, less than the rise in average winter temps. That’s the strange thing about climate change: across most of the United States including all of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states, winters are the fastest warming season. (In fact, in far northern climes– think Alaska, Minnesota, Vermont– the average winter temperature is already fully 5 degrees warmer.

A warmer world means there is more evaporation over the ocean, which means our city’s annual precipitation is climbing too– our city is not just getting warmer, it’s getting wetter. On top of this, extreme precipitation events are on the rise, especially here in Philadelphia, where large-scale downpours have increased by a whopping 360% in recent years, the third largest climb of any American city. While we famously didn’t beat the Giants two Sundays ago (dang it!), we finally beat New York here, who came in number 4 at 350%– not something we want to beat NYC in, frankly.

As any kid learns, what goes up must come down, and more evaporation means more water coming down– and in winter, that just may come down as snow. “It may seem counterintuitive, but more snowfall during winter storms is an expected outcome of climate change,” reminds the Environmental Defense Fund. 

Which is why in 2009-10, we had the snowiest winter on record, with almost 79 inches of snow, a winter that included two storms– one in December, another in February– each with more than 20 inches, each storm packing more than a whole winter’s average snowfall.

Another consequence of climate change is that the jet stream– the phenomenon high in the atmosphere that is mentioned in almost every Action News weather report– is changing, with significant consequences.

“A growing body of research,” explains the Climate Reality Project’s website, “indicates that as average global temperatures rise and the Arctic continues to warm, the jet stream is both slowing down and growing increasingly wavy. In the winter months,” they continue, “this is allowing bone-chilling cold Arctic air– typically held in fairly stable places by the once-stronger jet stream– to both spill much farther south than usual and linger over areas unaccustomed to it for longer. So even as winters on average have been getting shorter and warmer, many places should still expect to see bouts of very cold weather from time to time. At least for now…”

So if the Old Farmer’s Almanac is correct, this could be a colder, snowier winter. But this is NOT proof there is no climate change. But here’s something I can say with 100% accuracy: the legions of climate deniers who have an outrageously outsized impact on public policy will scream with every coming snowstorm that that latest snow “proves” that climate change is a “hoax.” 

No. They are wrong. It does not. Surprisingly, it fits snugly into our growing understanding of the science of climate change. What goes up must come down, and in winter, it just might come down as snow. 

Will it be a White Christmas? Who knows: anything goes in the New Abnormal.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Mindy Maslin and Philadelphia’s Forest

The PHS’s Mindy Maslin, founder of Tree Tenders, is being honored for helping plant 20,000 trees across the region.

Philadelphia has a bold plan for reforesting the city, making sure 30% of our city is blanketed under a canopy of trees, which will go a long way to mitigating heat waves and cooling our city’s rapidly changing climate. It’s also an environmental justice plan, as– no surprise– economically challenged portions of the city have fewer trees than more advantaged neighborhoods. 

Mindy Maslin supports this ambitious goal. As the founder and director of Tree Tenders, an important program of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), Mindy has been responsible for planting some 20,000 trees across the region while training 5,600 tree care volunteers since forming the program in 1991. Can you imagine that: 20,000 trees? 

To honor this extraordinary work, we are thrilled to present our 16th annual Henry Meigs Environmental Leadership Award to Mindy, as she not only believes planting trees is “a powerful way to enhance the health, resilience, and quality of our neighborhoods,” but has inspired thousands of citizens to make a difference in their community.

The Germantown resident is being given the award, our highest honor, in a virtual ceremony set for Thursday, November 18 at 7:00 p.m. Joining Mindy for a conversation on “The Urban Forest” are Tree Tenders and community leaders Sharrieff Ali and Gabriella Paez, along with Jack Braunstein, manager of the Tree Philly program, the group charged with implementing this important goal. The event is free; one can register on our website.

Tree Tenders is one of the oldest volunteer urban tree stewardship programs in the country, and has inspired similar programs throughout Pennsylvania and across the U.S. Locally, Tree Tenders graduates come from at least 100 active volunteer groups in the city and surrounding counties. Since this work is done by volunteers, the city has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by not having to hire professional arborists to do the planting or the initial care.

Mindy sees the social benefits of trees and is committed to addressing the inequities in tree canopies. Her PHS tree team has identified an uneven distribution of tree canopy that corresponds with high-density, low-income, and even high-crime neighborhoods. This latter point is important: there is less crime and, this is extraordinary, a lower murder rate in neighborhoods shaded by trees.

Mindy agrees that “all neighborhoods deserve to benefit from trees, for heat island abatement, air quality improvement, stormwater sequestering, and the softer gifts of mood enhancement and community building.” In response, Tree Tenders has a tool for prioritizing planting in low-canopy neighborhoods. In fact, studies show that people view urban residential spaces with trees as more attractive, safer and more appealing. “If you plant trees,” Mindy says, “it encourages people to go outside, meet their neighbors and build relationships; in turn, it fosters community pride which ultimately makes neighborhoods safer.”

In her efforts to diversify the program, she has connected with local institutions to bring the training directly to underserved neighborhoods. “Working within the community with local institutions and local tree champions is a critical part of the Tree Tenders model. They provide education and tools. But the onus is on the neighborhood Tree Tenders group to activate their neighbors to plant trees—it’s neighborhood-based citizen stewardship.” 

“You need to convince people who might be reluctant to plant a tree on their property why taking this action will improve their lives,” she says. And that happens at the neighborhood level where locals become advocates in their own community. Once you plant a tree, it still needs care to grow—a critical part to a tree’s survival. That’s where the stewardship piece comes in. The Tree Tenders program provides a framework to check on the trees and neighbors to make sure that the proper care is given.  

PHS’s Chief of Healthy Neighborhoods Julianne Schrader-Ortega notes, “Mindy is an integral part of the vitality of PHS’s mission to use horticulture in advancing the health and well-being of citizens in our local region and we’re pleased that Mindy is receiving the Meigs award as public recognition of the large impact she has had on the environment and on people’s lives.” 

Mindy is honored to be receiving this from “an institution of the Schuylkill Center’s caliber. It is a huge professional accomplishment. For decades, Tree Tenders and the Center have created joint programs that have served thousands of people in the region; our collaborations continue to be a highlight in my career. This award from such a valued partner is truly extraordinary.”

In turn, I’m so happy my Center is honoring her, as few people have planted more trees in the region than she has, and tree planting is such a powerful act, for all the reasons noted above.

The award celebrates area leaders who symbolize the spirit of integrity and vision of Henry Meigs, one of our founders, who served on our board for 40 years until passing away in 2005. His family established the award shortly thereafter, and past honorees include former governor Ed Rendell for his work on Growing Greener, environmental artist Stacy Levy, whose extraordinary art graces locations across the region, and Jerome Shabazz, founder of the Overbrook Environmental Education Center in West Philadelphia. 

Hope you’ll Zoom in with us.

By: Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director 

Another Fall in Philadelphia

 The changing leaves on our trails.

I drive into work one Monday morning in October, enjoying the intense green of the trees here at the Schuylkill Center, and am greeted by a shock of yellow leaves covering the sweet birches looming over the driveway. Further down, I notice that the poison ivy winding up the cherries, too, has turned to gold since the previous Friday. A week later, the maples and sumacs turn to impossibly intense shades of scarlet and amber. Firewood reappears at the grocery store, pumpkins materialize in every shop, and I suddenly develop intense cravings for hot chocolate. Fall has finally, finally arrived.

The change of color every autumn in the deciduous forests of eastern North America is, truly, one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. Entire tourism industries are founded on the dependability of leaf peepers driving north to enjoy this finely-tuned seasonal shift. The colors of the leaves here are so bright and ephemeral that early botanists in England thought the paintings of American artists portraying the autumnal landscape in places like Pennsylvania and New England were fanciful exaggerations. American botanists had to send physical autumn leaf samples to prove to their colleagues in Europe that yes, it is all true: the forests here are quite literally unbelievably beautiful this time of year.

It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that there is not yet a scientific consensus on exactly why plants change color in the autumn. Theories abound: it is believed that trees turn more vibrant colors when they are growing in poor soil. Some think of the colors as a signal warning insect predators to stay away, or that anthocyanins (the chemicals creating red and purple in leaves) are useful as a kind of sunblock allowing the trees to break down and reabsorb leaf nutrients without getting burned by frosty winter sun. More nefarious hypotheses exist, too, about how trees change color to undermine the camouflage of herbivores whose coloration is meant to hide them from predators in the summer. Could those scarlet hillsides be a way for trees to help birds and foxes catch plant-eating prey a little more easily?

Whatever the reason for fall color, the Schuylkill Center enjoys a true showstopper every year. Our cool microclimate and unusual diversity of species provide even more beautiful shades of yellow, red, orange, and purple than other forests in the area. Lately, however, we have noticed strange things afoot. Interspersed with the glowing hues are trees still fully green in November, almost like summer never ended. Others drop everything in a rainstorm before they change and give nothing away of their autumn beauty. Some trees turn lazily from their summer to fall colors, giving less a show and more of a plodding progression toward winter dullness. This is not the sudden fireworks show of color that New England is famous for, but then again friends in Vermont and Maine have reported a less vibrant showing than usual in their neck of the woods as well. The glory of fall is undoubtedly here, but it makes its way in with a sluggish spottiness that has become increasingly normal of late. What gives?

The truth is that this process has been changing for some time now. Cold temperatures help trigger the onset of autumn foliage, and the Northeast has experienced fall temperatures above the historic average every year since 1998. Fall color has come later, and arrived with less definition, as a result.

Whereas the Philadelphia area frequently had more stunning leaf displays in the past, recent history has made our autumns a more muddled affair.

Beautiful to be sure, but when we continue having summer temperatures even into November, the trees get befuddled and turn in a slower and more varied way. Higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere can also delay autumnal colors, even without changes in temperature. This leads to forests staying green for longer, making them burn the midnight oil for weeks after they would have normally gone to bed for the winter. Strange times, indeed.

It is common to think of climate change as a series of catastrophes: apocalyptic visions of possible futures-to-come in places like Australia and California that seem to never leave the news cycle, but only appear here with the occasional hurricane. The truth, however, is far more complex. Beyond the headline-grabbing disasters, climate change also affects the natural world in a variety of more subtle ways. The lessening beauty of fall foliage in the Northeast may seem like a minor outcome, but it is an ominous portent of things to come. The reality is that we simply don’t know what will happen to our forests or wildlife when their seasonal cycles shift dramatically. Every species in our region has finely-tuned requirements to thrive, and these changes that seem so small could have enormous consequences for a variety of plants and animals that we share this special landscape with. 

While we have been lucky to avoid the wildfires that plague the West Coast for now, a multitude of more elusive changes are already underway here that could one day grow to be just as disastrous. The only way to stop this terrifying future from becoming a reality is to make the changes that are necessary now to ensure that our communities can live with this land in a spirit of true respect and reciprocity. Change of this scale is, of course, scary in its own way. But I curiously always have a greater sense of hope looking out at these trees here, watching as they celebrate the inevitable shift in season with a riot of beauty. 

May we learn to embrace change as they do.

By Max Paschall, Land Stewardship Coordinator

The Amazing Monarch Migration: A Status Report

How are this year’s monarch’s doing? Join us and National Monarch expert Dr. Chip Taylor for our free, virtual event to find out.

The monarch butterfly, that large insect perfectly decked out for Halloween– or a Flyers game– in its orange and black cloak, undergoes one of the most extraordinary migrations in the animal kingdom. Butterflies across America and even Canada.

The monarch butterfly defies logic, for embedded in a small collection of nerve cells generously called a brain is a GPS directing the insect to fly from Roxborough all the way to a mountain valley near Mexico City, where it joins every other monarch from east of the Rockies (western monarchs head to the Pacific coast). As you read this, monarchs across the eastern US and even Canada are flying south, many along the eastern seaboard; most are near or even in Mexico already.  

Once in Mexico, they gather in large groups to coat fir trees with millions of their bodies, a remarkable sight visited by thousands of eco-tourists annually. The butterflies wait out the long winter, living five months—Methuselah territory for an insect.

In early spring, they begin heading north, make it into Texas, lay their eggs—and die. It takes another generation or two for monarchs to make it back to Pennsylvania, not until early summer. So the butterflies hatching in my garden will start flying more than a thousand miles to a place they have never been. How’s that for Mother Nature’s planning?

If you’d like a treat, drive to Cape May point soon and watch clusters of them funneling down New Jersey hop across the Delaware Bay to get to the mainland and continue their journey south. 

While it’s remarkable that an insect can make this migration, I’m saddened to report that this phenomenon is endangered as monarch numbers have plummeted in recent years, compromised by climate, pesticides, Midwestern “milkweed deserts,” and over-logging in Mexico. 

So how are this year’s monarch’s doing? How is the insect holding up? Should it be declared an endangered species?

We hope to answer this question on Thursday, October 21 at 7:00 p.m. with our Thursday Night L!VE presentation, “The Monarch’s Amazing Migration: a Status Report.” National monarch expert Dr. Chip Taylor, founder and director of Monarch Watch, the organization that has helped place 35,000 monarch waystations across the country, joins us from his Kansas base to share the creature’s story and its status. Monarch Watch started in 1992 as an outreach program dedicated to engaging the public in studies of monarchs, and is now concentrating its efforts on monarch conservation. 

“In real estate,” Dr. Taylor says, “it’s location, location, location. And for monarchs and other wildlife it’s habitat, habitat, habitat. We have a lot of habitat in this country, but we are losing it at a rapid pace. Development is consuming 6,000 acres a day, a loss of 2.2 million acres per year. Further, the overuse of herbicides along roadsides and elsewhere is turning diverse areas that support monarchs, pollinators, and other wildlife into grass-filled landscapes that support few species. The adoption of genetically modified soybeans and corn have further reduced monarch habitat. If these trends continue, monarchs are certain to decline, threatening the very existence of their magnificent migration.” 

Female monarchs are exceptional botanists, laying their eggs only on one family of plants, the milkweeds. She tastes plants with her feet, laying eggs on the undersides of milkweed leaves. Caterpillars hatch from eggs, and immediately begin munching on milkweed—the only food they are adapted to eat. The creatures have evolved to take the noxious chemicals found in milkweed sap and use it to make themselves—both caterpillar and adult—bad-tasting for any bird that may try to eat it.

A very clever “Got Milkweed?” campaign was started years ago, and more and more home gardeners like me began planting milkweed– and the Schuylkill Center has been selling milkweeds for years.

To address these changes and restore habitats for monarchs, pollinators, and other wildlife, Monarch Watch is initiating a nationwide landscape restoration program called “Bring Back the Monarchs.” The goals of this program are to restore 20 milkweed species, used by monarch caterpillars as food, to their native ranges throughout the United States and to encourage the planting of nectar-producing native flowers that support adult monarchs and other pollinators.

This program is an outgrowth of the Monarch Waystation Program started by Monarch Watch in 2005. “While these sites, mostly habitats created in home gardens, schoolyards, parks, and commercial landscapes, contribute to monarch conservation, it is clear that to save the monarch migration we need to do more,” Taylor said. “ We need to think on a bigger scale and we need to think ahead, to anticipate how things are going to change as a result of population growth, development, changes in agriculture, and most of all, changes in the climate.”

According to Taylor, we need a comprehensive plan on how to manage the fragmented edges and marginal areas created by development and agriculture, since it is these edges that support monarchs, many of our pollinators, and the many forms of wildlife that are sustained by the seeds, fruits, nuts, berries, and foliage that result from pollination. “In effect,” Taylor argues, “we need a new conservation ethic, one dealing with edges and marginal areas that addresses the changes of the recent past and anticipates those of the future.” 

Dr. Chip Taylor has been pioneering in butterfly conservation for decades. Meet him by joining me in a Thursday Night L!VE virtual lecture this week. Register for the free event.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director 

Something wicked this way comes

Severe Storms Bring Damaging Winds, Hail and Power Outages to Region

Last Wednesday, I was standing in the parking lot of a nature preserve in Blue Bell, wondering what to do– should I stay and gut it out, or get the heck out of the way? 

I was looking up and west, and the sky above me was dark and getting darker, the angry sky of a powerful storm quickly moving in. I thought of a witch’s line from Hamlet that became a Ray Bradbury novel that morphed into a Jason Robards movie: something wicked this way comes.

Given I was on the edge of a forest, I decided to move the car to a nearby location where a tree was less likely to fall on me, which I did. 

And then the storm slammed, winds fiercely whipping trees, branches falling everywhere, leaves blowing by, hail pounding the car. It was too much like the scene from “Wizard of Oz,” with me as Dorothy staring out the window– I would not have been surprised to see Miss Gulch fly by, knitting in her rocking chair. Except this wasn’t funny.

On top of the wind and trees, water was pouring down the shoulders of streets like rivers, flooding into blocked storm drains and across roads. It was nightmarish.  

And right at the beginning of rush hour, just about the worst time this could happen.

When it passed only 10-15 minutes later, if even that, my GPS routed me home, but the storm had outwitted the device: every road home was blocked by a large branch– or an entire tree–  that had mostly or completely fallen across the street. I turned onto side roads to find alternate routes (one bus driver waving me away from one route), or I turned completely around, at least five or six times. It was scary. Lucky for me, I got behind a landscaping truck with four big guys in it, who dutifully and doggedly cleared the way, stopping every few hundred yards to pull another branch aside. I might still be in Blue Bell if it wasn’t for them.

Thirty minutes of only driving maybe two miles, I reached Germantown Pike– where there was almost no sign of a storm. No leaves or branches down on the street, no stormwater streaming down the shoulder of the road. The sun was shining, birds were singing, traffic was fine. Huh?

Back in Blue Bell, I happened to be directly underneath a microburst, yet another new word that climate change is forcing us to learn. The National Weather Service says straight-line winds of at least 50 mph but only 2.5 miles wide plowed into the area that day. A Blue Bell dentist told one newspaper it was “the worst storm damage I’ve seen in my 24 years living here.” I believe it.

Here’s the scarier part of the story. The night before, my wife had pointed out the blood-red moon, which she thought was cool (it was) but I knew was wrong– turns out that particles in the sky from the massive wildfires out West changed the moon’s color– but also cooled the atmosphere here in Philly. Last week’s storm WOULD HAVE BEEN WORSE without that smoke.

The Bootleg Fire in Oregon, the largest of the 80 large fires in 13 states being wrestled with last week, has already burned an area larger than Los Angeles, is still on the move, and is so large and burning so hot it’s creating its own weather underneath it. There is so much soot in the air that it forms dense clouds that begin to rain, but the air is so dry the rain never hits the ground. Fueled by historic droughts out West, wildfire season is annually longer and worse than it had been historically, the fires burning hotter.

Dozens dead and missing as storms swamp western Germany

Last week’s intense storm also forced me think of Germany, where two months of rain fell in only 24 hours; in some places 5-7 inches fell in 12 hours. As of the end of last week, there were 160 confirmed dead and 37,000 buildings impacted. It will easily be Germany’s costliest storm ever, as the flooding tore down ancient bridges while upending roads and train tracks; some of these ruined towns were only 1,000 years old, which says something about current weather conditions.

As if all of this weren’t bad enough, the Henan province of China received its own burst of flooding, with at least 25 dead there, including a dozen people trapped in a subway car in the regional capital of Zhengzhou.

Across the planet, climate-fueled weather is killing people in unprecedented numbers. And it is costing us a fortune. Even that microburst in Blue Bell was costly, knocking out power for 125,000 people while delaying every Regional Rail line, damaging homes and cars as trees fell on them. 

Which brings us to a few questions: why are we still debating climate change? And why are we still debating solutions? When the earth speaks this loudly, we better answer, and as to which solutions work, we are now at a place where we simply try everything– throw everything at the wall and pray some of it sticks.

Will this be costly? Of course. But the alternative? Every minute we delay meaningful action now means we pay a steeper price later, as each delay only compounds the issues. The Bootleg Fire and Germany’s flooding– even that Blue Bell burst– tell us this. 

“Something wicked this way comes” is actually not correct. As the world has learned this summer, something wicked is already here. We ignore it at our peril. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The New Abnormal

With the mercury rising into the 90s most of last week, it felt like August already, the air heavy and humid. The bad news, of course, is it’s not only not August, it’s not even summer. The solstice is still a few days off… 

Welcome to life in the New Abnormal, the climate changing before our very eyes. 

It’s not only getting hotter, it’s getting wetter. The skies opened up last Tuesday evening, flooding the region– again– with a dumping, a good downpour here in Roxborough, but a startling 7 inches of rain near Coatesville. For perspective, that was two months’ of rain in just one evening in parts of Chester County.

The number of large downpours in our region has spiked even higher than temperatures. In the 1950s, the largest amount of rainfall on the worst day used to be 2, maybe 2.5 inches in one day. Nowadays, the amount of rainfall on the largest rainfall day has jumped a full 50%, and we get about 3.75 inches of rain on the wettest day, a significant increase. 

Worse, the number of large downpours in Pennsylvania has grown by 360% since 1950. Translated, we now receive almost five times as many heavy downpours today as we did back then. And if you line up the 50 American cities with the largest increases, we rank number 3 in the entire country. We finally beat New York, which came in at #4 with “only” a 350% increase. (Numbers 1 and 2? McAllen, Texas and, oddly, Portland, Maine.)

But back to heat. Climate Central, a science-based organization out of Princeton that offers factual data on our climate, noted in 2018 that Philadelphia was experiencing 16.8 days of hotter-than-normal temperatures. If climate was not changing, we would expect warmer days and cooler days to essentially seesaw around the norm– cooler days this week balanced by warmer ones the next. 

In 1970, about 40 summertime days were hotter than normal. Today, 57 days– almost a full two months– of summer are higher than average temperature-wise. 

Also in 1970, the first Philadelphia day that measured 85 degrees arrived in mid-May; today, it comes in late April, on average almost two weeks earlier than it once did.

In that same vein, in 1970 we only suffered from four days of heat above 95 degrees. Today, we have added five more days of these sweltering temperatures, up to nine of them annually. (This year, it feels like we have hit that number already).

We currently should not have any days above 100 degrees in Philadelphia– they were rare and unexpected, But by 2050, says Climate Matters, depending on what happens in the years ahead, we may hit that mark 10-11 times annually. Ugh.

But Philadelphia is part of the larger world, where a number of unsettling trends are occurring. While the hurricane season doesn’t officially start until June 1, this year’s first named storm– Ana– arrived in late May, the SEVENTH consecutive year a named storm formed before the June 1 opening, a rarity that has now become a trend. That June date was not picked randomly: that was when the ocean’s surface temperatures were finally warm enough to generate the energy needed for a hurricane. Today, the ocean surface is warm enough in May.

California, the Pacific Northwest, the Northern Plains, and much of the Southwest is in the grips of a fierce drought. For California, this is business as usual, sadly, as this has happened in 13 of the last 22 years. The breadbasket of so much of the country and world, California is drying out, Last year’s record wildfires burned four million acres, and this year’s dry conditions have started a month earlier than expected. A

Lake Mead, the massive reservoir behind the Hoover Dam, is at record lows. “It has fallen 140 feet since 2000,” reported Reuters last week, “nearly the height of the Statue of Liberty from torch to base, exposing a bathtub ring of bleached-white embankments.” 

Farmers are giving up and abandoning their fields, Nevada is restricting lawn watering over much of Las Vegas, and the governor of Utah literally asked his state’s residents to pray for rain. Not sure “thoughts and prayers” will cure our climate ills.

A 2020 study published in the journal Science soberly reported that 2000 through 2018 was the second-driest 19-year period in the Southwest in at least the past 1,200 years.

Finally, the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere reached 419 parts per million in May, its highest level in more than four million years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week. After dipping last year because of pandemic-fueled lockdowns, greenhouse gas emissions have begun to rise again as economies open and people resume work and travel. “The newly released data about May carbon dioxide levels show that the global community so far has failed to slow the accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere,” NOAA said in its announcement.

For context, the last time CO2 levels exceeded 400 parts per million was during the Pliocene era, when global temperatures were more than five degrees warmer and sea levels were between 30 and 80 higher than they are now.

But back to Philadelphia. Early June heat waves should not be a thing, and storms dumping 7 inches of rain should not either. This is not normal. Or expected. Or average. 

It is, however, the New Abnormal, which, if we ignore it, will only worsen. Chew on this as we tiptoe warily into, hopefully, a pandemic-free summer. 

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

Fate of the World Hinges on a Pickup Truck

Two news stories appearing on the same day last week were remarkably well timed. 

In one, Ford unveiled the all-electric Lightning, the latest in its bestselling F-150 truck series, the world’s most popular vehicle for the last, unbelievably, 43 years, selling more than 900,000 of these monsters. And that truck alone rakes in $42 billion in revenues, twice the revenue of McDonalds, three times that of Starbucks. 

And it’s well named. Its twin electric motors take the heavy duty vehicle from zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds. “This sucker’s fast,” noted President Biden in a test spin the day before, of course decked out in his trademark aviators.

But on the exact same day as the launch party, researchers determined that a significant portion of Hurricane Sandy’s $62.7 billion in damages, as much as 13%, were caused by climate change, allowing a higher sea level to inundate far more homes. Our contribution to climate change from the burning of fossil fuels has raised the ocean by four inches in the New York area in the last century, offering Sandy more targets to slam.

Here’s the beauty of this. While climate change has irreparably fallen in the chasm between the two political parties, paralyzing the possibility of our government playing an important role in solutions, the private sector is stepping forward in a huge way. Ford, the iconic automaker named after the founding father of the modern auto industry, sees the writing on the wall—thank God!—and wants to beat the competition to the punch. A little competition never hurts, right? 

Because frankly, the future is electric. Ford understands that, and they don’t want to be eating Tesla’s dust.

One of the most anticipated introductions of a new car in a very long time, many auto experts compared Lightning to the Model T, the game-changing vehicle that brought cars to the masses. “Ford has a lot at stake in the new vehicle’s success,” wrote the New York Times, but truthfully, the entire world has a lot riding in the back of this pickup. If Ford can sell electric trucks to Philadelphia carpenters, Pennsylvania dairy farmers, Texas oilmen, and, heck, suburban homeowners would love trucks, it will greatly accelerate the move toward electric vehicles, central to any solution to climate change.

Carbon dioxide emitted from the tailpipes of our cars and trucks represents the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and one of the largest in the world. You and I can turn off all the light switches we want to conserve power, but that just won’t move the needle on carbon emissions. We need to transition as quickly as we can away from fossil fuels across transportation, building, agriculture, and industry, and the Lightning will help immensely. 

Through April, automakers sold about 108,000 fully electric vehicles in America, twice the number from the same period last year. While that’s only 2% of vehicle sales, it’s a start; there are 18 electric vehicles offered for sale in this country now; by year’s end, the number will almost double to 30. 

Not only is the Lightning fast, but its battery is finally transcending the weakest link in the electric car story: its battery. This truck can happily travel 300 miles on one charge: you can finally drive from Philly to visit your cousin in Pittsburgh without stopping to recharge. Plus it is powerful, as exhibited by Ford’s wonderful commercial of the truck towing a long train weighing like a million pounds, the train loaded with other F-150s. The truck will be loaded with options, including a generator that allows you to plug in your power saw to the truck itself, and the price starts at $40,000. It will also be made in America, preserving union jobs. 

Oh, Ford won’t stop building gas-powered cars and trucks for years. But if the Lightning does well, it will hasten the long-awaited, much-needed, and very overdue transition to electric vehicles.

“It’s a watershed moment to me,” Ford CEO Jim Farley said at the Lightning’s unveiling. “It’s a very important transition for our industry.”

It’s a watershed moment for the world, too, hopefully an inflection point in the race to slide through the narrow window of time we have in front of us to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.

Speaking of timing, the mercury hit the 90s this week not only here but across a broad swath of the Southeast, and it’s still only May. And the hurricane season’s first named tropical storm—Ana—formed Friday in the Atlantic near Bermuda. While the hurricane season doesn’t start until June 1, this marks the seventh year in a row that a named storm formed before the start of the season. The subtext: the ocean is warming earlier, giving us named storm systems sooner than historically expected.

Welcome to the New Abnormal. Since we need a lightning-fast transition to a post-fossil fuel world, let’s hope the Lightning delivers on its promise. Because there’s a lot riding in the back of this pickup truck.

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

A Tale of Two Birds

While planting trees over the last two weeks at the Schuylkill Center, a familiar sound echoed through our Roxborough woods, something like an ethereal organ being played in the forest. I smiled: the wood thrush is back.

The wood thrush—a cousin of the robin and about the same size, but with a cinnamon coat and dramatic black spots on a bright white chest—is widely considered the best singer of all songbirds. No less an observer than Henry David Thoreau agreed. “The thrush alone declares the immortal wealth and vigor that is in the forest,” he wrote. “Whenever a man hears it, he is young, and Nature is in her spring. It is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him.”

Doesn’t that alone make you want to go hear one? The “ethereal” piece is because, almost uniquely, the bird uncannily can whistle two notes simultaneously, harmonizing with itself to produce the ringing that is so entrancing. Even better, it often sings at both sunrise and sunset, making it one of the first as well as one of the last birds you might hear during the day.

A creature of the interior forest and an important indicator of forest health, the thrush has become a symbol of the vanishing American songbird; one study estimated that its population has declined 62% since 1966 in eastern North America. Forest fragmentation is often cited as a chief reason for its decline, as it requires more than small suburban woodlots, and fragmented forests offer fewer places to escape predators. The brown-headed cowbird, a social parasite that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, will stay out of deep interiors, but can easily find thrushes in smaller forests—and lay its eggs in the nest, its nestling outcompeting baby thrushes for parental attention.

It’s also a victim of being migratory. While North American forests are fragmenting, Central and South American forests—its winter home—are disappearing too, so, like many birds, the wood thrush is being hit at both ends of its migration.

But the first time I hear one every April at the Schuylkill Center, I stop and savor the sound: the gates of heaven have just opened. Please come and hear, maybe even see, it yourself.

And there’s a second bird I’d love for you to hear, this one the most common bird you’ve never heard of. If you have ever walked through a summertime forest anywhere in the Philadelphia region, you have heard this bird—and heard it, and heard it, and heard it.

Red-eyed vireo

Because the red-eyed vireo may just be the most abundant forest bird across Pennsylvania. Warbler-small and usually gleaning insects high up in the treetops, the bird sings incessantly, holding an ongoing monologue of usually three-noted sounds, some rising, some falling, as if it were asking and answering its own questions: “How are you? I am fine. Doing well. Pretty good. Are you sure?”

And it does have a red eye, but while I have heard thousands of vireos sing, I can count on only one hand the number of times I have actually seen the red eye—and the first time made me scream with delight. If you can see the red eye, you’ll also catch the two black stripes sandwiching a white one, slicing right through the red eye.

The name vireo is Latin for “I am green,” which its body feathers are—sort of. Its species name olivaceus only drives home that point in case you missed it the first time.

It builds one of the smallest non-hummingbird nests, a petite cup that dangles from the crotch of a high tree branch, held together with a number of fibers—and spider silk. These nests are even harder to find than the vireo’s eye.

The red-eye may be the most prominent member of a clan of songbirds, others of which drive even expert birders batty. There’s currently a solitary vireo hanging out behind the Schuylkill Center’s preschool classrooms that one of our teachers—an ace bidder herself—has been hearing. So consider the red-eye your gateway into the vireo kingdom. If you’ve heard one, challenge yourself to see the eye; if you’ve never heard of this bird, here’s a wonderful assignment for you.

Go for a walk this week, and listen for both the organ pipes of the thrush and the chatty monologist, the red-eyed vireo. The gates of heaven will open for you too.

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director