Climate, Weather and Personal Resilience

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While it is undoubtedly true that the industrial revolution provided great economic, commercial and social benefits to millions of people, some of that progress is now threatened by the unintended consequences of industrial activities.  From plastics in our oceans, to toxic chemicals in our drinking water, to logging tropical rain forests, none are of greater consequence to our long term well-being than the burning of fossil fuels and related industrial activities that increase the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and oceans.

Although scientists have recorded a doubling of atmospheric CO2 (carbon dioxide) since the mid-nineteenth century, and now have overwhelming evidence on its impact to the climate system, a causal connection between increased greenhouse gases and daily weather (e.g. rain, snow, temperature, humidity, etc.) is only just emerging.  Recent studies demonstrate how a changing climate contributes to the variability and intensity of discrete weather events like droughts, rain, extended heat waves, warm winters, hot or cool summers and stronger storms.  And though not scientifically definitive, the news is filled with stories of regular extreme weather across the globe; multi-year droughts that result in massive wildfires and crop failures, intensifying hurricanes, thunderstorms and rain events that cause epic flooding, and extreme fluctuations between cold (polar vortex) and warm temperatures in winter that play havoc with travel and work.  Professor Michael Mann, Climate Scientist and Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University says of recent extreme weather, “This is the face of climate change, we literally would not have seen these extremes in the absence of climate change.”

And the effects go well beyond simple inconvenience.  In a recently published edition of The Guardian newspaper Dr. Daniel Swain of the UCLA Center for Climate Science and his colleagues described how a changing climate can impact weather patterns, and how these changes promote an increase in the intensity and scale of wildfires in California.

“While record-breaking heatwaves grab headlines, some of the most consequential warming in California is more subtle. Nights have warmed nearly three times as fast as days during fire season – lowering night-time humidity and supporting unprecedented nocturnal fire behavior.  Declining spring snowpack and increased evaporation have reduced the moisture available to plants later in summer and autumn.  The fire season itself is lengthening: not only have autumn and spring temperatures risen, but there are signs that California’s already short rainy season is becoming further compressed into the winter months.  Despite this confluence of factors, the total number of fires in California has not increased in recent decades. Instead, climate change appears to be manifesting itself primarily through changes in the character (rather than frequency) of wildfire. Flames are spreading more rapidly and with greater intensity. Around half of the increase in area burned during western forest fires in recent decades can be attributed to the long-term warming trend.”

Of course none of this addresses the difficult issue of policy response, priority setting and the level of resources chosen to allocate to the problem.  The questions of long term impact to our economy and to the natural world, and how we address the effects of climate change have yet to be fully answered.  These are challenges that will confront our children as they move into adulthood and become the next generation of leaders and decision makers.

Because the Nature Museum’s teaching approach focuses on the natural world, environmental science and outdoor play, both climate and weather are important areas of learning and practical understanding for our students.  But rather than giving them a specific policy perspective, our educators focus on the fundamental principles of science and nature, and how they apply to everyday life.  For example, our Young Naturalist Director Kerrilee Hunter says to students and parents, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”  This simple idea encapsulates a practical approach to understanding and solving problems, and fostering personal resiliency in our students.  We know it will serve them well as they make their way in the world and tackle the inevitable challenges of adulthood, come rain or shine.

See you on the trail (and don’t forget your raincoat)!!!

                       By Tom Bregman

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It's Complicated...

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Last week the Nature Museum completed a major lighting upgrade which will reduce our electricity bills and lower our carbon footprint significantly in the years to come. The project was spearheaded and primarily funded by a board member (with additional financial support from two of her colleagues) with a passion for clean energy projects. The Nature Museum’s operating expenses will be reduced and our planet will be better off with the upgrade, so big thanks to the three board members who made it happen. You rock!

But as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. And in the case of our lighting upgrade our punishment came in the form of increased sky glow (a fancy way of saying light pollution) from the two outdoor lamps illuminating our parking area at the Outdoor Discovery Center.  A major reason homeowners, companies and municipalities are rapidly switching to LEDs is because they are highly energy efficient. LEDs produce more light (lumens) with less electricity (watts) than incandescent or sodium vapor lights.

And that’s good … mostly. But as with many things in life, it’s complicated.

The spectrum of visible light spans a range of wavelengths that, when separated into a single wavelength are seen by the human eye as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet (think rainbows). Different types of lighting systems and bulbs emit light at different wavelengths. Some light bulbs are described as cold or cool, meaning they emit more blue-indigo-violet wavelengths, others are described as warm, meaning they emit more red-orange-yellow wavelengths. Additionally, light bulbs are rated for brightness or intensity which is reported as lumens. The combination of these features determines how we experience electrically generated light.

For these reasons changing out exterior incandescent or sodium vapor bulbs with LEDs can be problematic when the color (wavelengths) and brightness (lumens) cause substantially more sky glow.  Because white LEDs emit more short wavelength light than conventional bulbs, increased blue and green wavelengths cause substantially more light pollution when the wattage is not adequately stepped down and the lamps are not properly designed or positioned.  Nighttime light pollution can negatively impact insect and animal behavior, and may affect human health by disrupting circadian rhythms, messing with melatonin levels and creating other sleep disorders.

So, are we giving up on our lighting upgrade because of these problems? Not at all.

But we have begun an assessment and will quickly implement one or more of the following steps to address the light pollution issue head on; 1) install motion detectors to greatly reduce the amount of time the lights are illuminated, 2) swap out the new bulbs with lower wattage LEDs to reduce the intensity when they are on, and 3) install hoods on the lamps to direct the light downward and reduce omnidirectional light. These modest adjustments will allow us to save energy, lower our electrical costs, reduce our carbon footprint and preserve our dark skies too.

See you in the dark!!!

                              By Tom Bregman

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If a Tree Falls....

A week before I started as the new Executive Director of the Hudson Highlands Nature Museum our region was hit by a powerful and destructive wind storm.  Thousands of large trees were splintered, snapped or uprooted across the mid-Hudson Valley.  Homes, schools and businesses lost power for days.  The Outdoor Discovery Center took a big hit too.  I learned this hours after the storm blew through when a friend who walks the property most evenings called and left me an ominous message, “There are some very big trees down at the Nature Museum, I thought you should know.” 

He was right.  Next to Stillman Barn a towering ninety-foot pine had completely uprooted and toppled across the entrance to the lower parking lot.  Lucky for us the large pine did only minor damage to a small informational kiosk adjacent to a short path connecting to the upper lot.  On several forest trails we had large scale blowdowns which will require many weeks or months to clear.  And in Grasshopper Grove two majestic shagbark hickory trees, perhaps a century or more in age, uprooted, nearly bisecting the play area.  It was as if a skilled logger had precisely dropped both trees to avoid the benches and other constructed objects in the grove.

The trees had provided shade for children and parents enjoying Grasshopper Grove on scorching summer days, and on certain special evenings their highest branches would become illuminated by the light of a setting sun beaming through broken clouds from the western horizon.

This is nature.  Wild.  Frequently unpredictable.  Seemingly capricious.  Often staggeringly beautiful.  But forever challenging.  Try as we might to tame and control it, we are always humbled by its power and presence.  Taking that perspective as a guide and tapping into the creativity and resourcefulness of a highly motivated staff, we decided to turn these two giant lemons into a cool pitcher of lemonade.

First, we needed to understand if the trees were stable where they fell, or if they required major bracing or relocation.  At the edge of the grove between the exterior fence and a stone wall, the giant root systems were splayed into the air.  Near the heart of the play area their massive crowns pointed out in all directions with soaring limbs, broken branches and a mass of bright green leaves.  The tangled mess made it difficult to fully assess the situation, so in a series of improvised on-site meetings the ad hoc Grasshopper Grove Action Team (a small group of relevant Nature Museum staff) developed a rapid response plan.

Beckley Tree Service arrived the following day and chipped the branches, limbs and tangled leaves down to eye height.  The action team reassembled in the grove that evening and in a short meeting agreed on a final design and configuration.  Amazingly the trees did not have to be dragged, shifted, braced or re-positioned in any way.  They had fallen so as to be perfectly supported by several large boulders and the mixed grass and wood chip surface of Grasshopper Grove.   We positioned a few large diameter wheels (3 to 4 foot sections cut from other trees) to stiffen the bounciest limbs, and in several Zen-like sessions yours truly and four community volunteers stripped away the beautiful gray scaly bark.  Removing the bark helps to preserve the hardwood trunk and limbs while providing a more usable and safer climbing surface.  Days later Nannini & Callahan Excavating removed the massive stumps and roots, filled in the large holes created by the upended root systems, and shifted several sharp-edged boulders away from the fallen trunks.

In just three weeks, and with the indispensable help of super volunteers and local contractors, the Nature Museum has re-purposed the two fallen trees into a super cool climbing element that will open on Saturday (June 16).  We hope you will come and experience what we’ve done in partnership with mother nature.   See you in Grasshopper Grove!!!

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                               Tom Bregman