Nature Related Web Activities

 

(This 1253rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on March 29, 2015.)

 

It should be clear to everyone that access and delivery of information has undergone a greater change in the past two decades than in all of previous human history. You need only consider the effect on such things as maps and charts, dictionaries and thesauruses, encyclopedias and atlases as evidence of this amazing change. Today all of those information sources and many more are accessible not only through iPads and computers but even from little quarter-pound cell phones.

 

Education too is being changed and an aspect of those changes that is available to everyone at no cost is specialized coursework in MOOCs, that acronym representing Massive Open Online Courses; and webinars, which are usually only single sessions. Webinars is a portmanteau word for web-based seminars: they may seem more threatening (will they call on me?) but are not; you can, however, ask questions of the session leaders.

 

Major universities like Yale and Stanford offer MOOCs, often carrying college credit. Listings appear at www.coursera.org/courses. Many relate to natural history; there are, for example, 113 biology and life sciences courses.

 

A series of monthly webinars that I have found very interesting are those of ForestConnect. Run by Peter Smallidge, extension forester at Cornell University, they address a variety of silviculture problems of special interest to woodland owners. These are available through www2.dnr.cornell.edu/ext/forestconnect, and past sessions are collected on YouTube.

 

Some interesting recent webinars in this series include "Why do trees grow where they do?", "Your woodlot as a wildlife habitat and source for biodiversity", "Ecology and management of American beech", and "Ecology and Management of Asian Long-Horned Beetle in Rural Woodlands".

 

Of special interest in this region is a MOOC in which I have been participating titled "Changing Weather and Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region." The course instructors are Steve Ackerman, Professor of Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences at the University of Wisconsin where the course is based, and Margaret Mooney, Director of Education and Public Outreach for the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies at the university.

 

The course lectures are in four units associated with the seasons. The first, "Winter", called attention, as you might expect, to our recent western New York snow events. I have, however, found "Spring" even more interesting and applicable to our situation. Unfortunately, I also find some of its forecasts threatening.

 

But first the good news. Our average annual temperature after 1980 is between 1.0 and 1.5 degrees greater than the 30 year period before 1980. As a result, our growing season, the time difference between the average last frost date in the spring and the first frost date in the fall, has increased for our region a remarkable ten days over that same time period.

 

Those changes have, however, a downside as well. As Ackerman says, "If you are a home gardener, you probably like the idea of a longer growing season but with the warmer temperatures and with an associated dry spell the plants are more stressed. Also the longer growing season is not only for our crops but also for invasive species, the weeds we fight and many of the plants we are allergic to such as ragweed."

 

What Ackerman does not mention is the possibility that we will lose some plants that thrive only in northern climate. One species so threatened is the maple tree that provides us that wonderful syrup and those lovely fall colors.

Precipitation represents another concern. We have seen very little change in total springtime rainfall, our Southern Tier actually experiencing a slight decrease. When we consider the change in annual rainfall, however, the picture is quite different. Together with the rest of the New England States, we are now receiving 3-7 inches more precipitation.

 

Add to this Ackerman's concern about the unequal distribution of our springtime rainfall by considering thunderstorms, brief periods characterized not only by lightning but also heavy rain. These are the storms that sometimes lead to flooding from overstressed storm sewers. They are also the times when most of our rain falls between very dry periods. Here we average about six thunderstorms each spring and these storms appear to be increasing in the Great Lakes region. Perhaps most threatening about the most serious of these events (the heaviest 1%) is the fact that, since 1958 they have increased by 71% in the northeast.-- Gerry Rising