Trinity Christian College faculty attending the March for Science Chicago: myself, Dr. VanderWoude (Chemistry), and Dr. Carlson (Biology)
On April 22, Earth Day, my family and I took the train into downtown Chicago, got off at the VanBuren stop, and headed the to March for Science in Chicago. According to estimates, we were joined by about 40,000 or so other people in the Chicago march. Later in the march, we met up with two other faculty members from my college as well.
The march, of course, brought people from many walks of life. Many who are scientists themselves, but also many others who recognize the importance of science and the thoughtful use of scientific information. I especially wanted to to be there to stand up for the importance of science as a Christian. I see science as a gift from God that allows us to understand and care for His creation. While the media may often portray science and faith as being at odds with one another, that's not really a fair portrayal. God created the world and everything in it, and he also gave humans the minds and abilities to investigate that creation. When we make discoveries in science, we are discovering God's work in the world. I see that as especially important in the context of earthkeeping; God calls us to be stewards of the earth and its biodiversity. We need good science to be good stewards and to protect the planet and all that it provides for people across the world.
Some people had voiced concerns that the march might be too politicized. However, I was pleased to see a number of signs speaking to the fact that people of different political persuasions could all stand together to support science. If you look at the mission of the March for Science, you will see that indeed there is a political aspect in that part of the mission is that policy will be informed by scientific information. However, this should be the case for all political leaders and political parties. As a Christian, I recognize that we need more than science. For example, climate science can tell us about changing weather patterns and rising seas, but ethics and faith speak to the need to act on these problems to minimize their negative impacts on those who are most vulnerable.
If you'd like to read more about what some other Christian are saying about their faith and the March for Science, check out what was written by the president of Biologos, Deborah Haarsma, and by biblical scholar Chris Smith whom I had the privilege to get to know when he volunteered with Graduate Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.
Standing up for science with the whole family
source: USA National Phenology Network, www.usanpn.org
Spring is rapidly approaching the Chicago area, and that's based on more than just the fact that it's almost March 20, the spring equinox. The Spring Leaf Index you can see above shows the arrival of spring in the southern half of Illinois already, based on temperature data. How was this index determined? Well, it all comes back to plants. Historical data on seasonal changes in plants, in particular lilacs and honeysuckles, were related to changes in temperature, which are then predictive of a broader array of spring activity in other species, such as leaf emergence and spring flowering.
The National Phenology Network's data indicates that spring is arriving 2-3 weeks early in many parts of the country. Check out their animated map showing the spring index anomaly, which basically shows how much this year differs from the average.
As much as I enjoy a warm sunny day, the trend of warm winter weather is troubling given all that we know about the damaging effects of climate change. Looking back over my own posts, it was just January last year that I wrote about "A Dose of Mild Winter Weather." Below is a temperature anomaly map for January of this year (February's data hasn't been released in this format yet). You can see that the Eastern US had higher than average temperatures, and NOAA reports that globally it was the third warmest January during the recorded period since 1880.
In February, I started adding to my own observations to submit to the National Phenology Network, though their Nature's Notebook citizen science effort. My pussy willow tree is already beginning to flower, and the buds on my red maple tree are swelling and looking like they may be opening soon. I'll be able to see how the seasonal changes in my own yard compare between this year and previous years when I've recorded data, but my data will also be part of a much larger database that scientists can use to continue to evaluate how species and ecosystems are being and will be affected by climate change.
Climate change is a major global issue, and it's easy to feel overwhelmed. However, rather than getting stuck in the mode of feeling we can't make a difference, we can take more proactive steps. Continued data collection and scientific analysis are critical, and anyone can contribute through programs such as Nature's Notebook, Project Budburst, or some of the citizen science efforts that are a part of Zooniverse. From a standpoint of speaking towards policy, consider looking into and supporting the Paris Agreement on climate change, which is a worldwide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Read the letter to Congress put together by the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA), and see if you might add your voice with Christians calling for governmental response to the issue. Pray that we all may have wisdom as individuals, organizations, nations, and a global community as we approach the problem of climate change.
This past week I had the opportunity to visit the Garfield Park Conservatory with students in my Survey of Plants and Animals course. Although driving a 12 passenger van there is not my most beloved of tasks, this is a field trip I look forward to each year. Wandering through the different rooms of the conservatory, you get a sense of the incredible diversity of species on our planet, as well as the diversity of habitats that plants inhabit.
Flowering plants often steal the show, so to speak, and dominate the Spring Flower Show. However, don't miss the beauty of the plants that don't "advertise" with showy reproductive parts. In the Fern House you will find a plethora of seedless plants, such as mosses, liverworts, and ferns of all kinds. These species reproduce and disperse using spores. This year seemed to be a particularly good year for fern reproductive activities in the Conservatory, as sori (the structures that contain fern spores) could be found on the undersides of many a fern's leaf. The Fern House also houses an extensive collection of cycads, which are a type of gymnosperm. These plants do produce seeds, but the seeds are "naked" in the sense that they lack the exterior coating of a fruit. Among these plants, one might imagine strolling along the path and encountering a dinosaur or other prehistoric creature.
The angiosperms, or flowering plants, should receive their due as well. In the Sugar from the Sun garden, many edible plants are on display--bananas, oranges, grapefruit, vanilla orchids, and the chocolate tree. Angiosperms have given us the great benefit of their many types of fruits. All angiosperms produce fruits in the botanical sense, as fruits are the mature ovary of the plant's flower (sound delicious, doesn't it?). Not all of the them are edible, but I am certainly grateful for all the delicious foods that we do get from fruits.
And just think...not only does God's creation sustain all this amazing diversity in the plant world, but these plants then provide for all kinds of other creatures--ourselves included.
Do you stop to inspect the small details of nature? Do you ever pause, perhaps stoop down low to the ground, and soak in all the amazing and interlocking parts of God’s creation? In my Ecology class this semester, I was inspired to take more time to observe the small details of the natural world.
This inspiration began earlier this year with my trip to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in March. One of the plenary speakers was David George Haskell, author of the book The Forest Unseen. He spoke about this book project, which involved his journey into the woods of Tennessee on a regular basis to observe the activity and intricacies of nature in a one square meter area of the forest. His vibrant way of describing this endeavor heightened my excitement over teaching Ecology the following semester. His insights ranged from using our sense of smell to gain insight into the microbial world that our naked eyes cannot detect to the idea of trees using Wi-Fi (volatile chemical signals) and wired connections (mycorrhizae) to give and receive information.
During my first week of class in the fall semester, my ecology students and I went out to the natural areas around campus to similarly study the small, often unobserved, or simply overlooked aspects of nature. Although not a time course study like Haskell’s, this gave us a chance to brainstorm about all the things we could see upon taking the time to simply sit still and be observers. We also took time to consider the things for which we could see evidence if not all the actual processes or players involved and how our small area of observation might be representative of the larger ecosystem.
Each person was stationed in a different location along the forested creek corridor or by the native plant basin. We observed pollinators, evidence of herbivory (including the trail of a leaf miner in the leaf of a white snakeroot plant), the complexity of the detritus on the forest floor, and the diversity of plants that can be found in a small area. Coming back together as a group to discuss our observations, we particularly noted how this activity prompted us to think more about the processes that are unseen, such as decomposition and nutrient cycling, that are so critical to the maintenance of ecosystem health.
Consider going out there and making your own observations of God’s wonderful creation (Haskell in particular was undaunted by the chill of winter to do so!), or perhaps for the winter consider curling up to read The Forest Unseen to gear you up for the spring.
Here's another guest post on this semester's stewardship efforts.
On September 22, our lab time was spent in the Lake Katherine Nature Center along the Cal Sag River bike path. The topography of the land we were working at was a rising, man-made hill covered in prairie grasses and small trees. When constructing the Cal Sag channel, the developers brought the dirt, top soil, and other parts of the natural habitat up out of the riverbed and onto where it is today, creating a bluff. The prairie land, therefore, is not natural. However, the Lake Katherine environmentalists have worked to create a natural habitat using organisms native to the area.
We were tasked with removing all invasive species from the area. These species are not Illinois native plants, but do extremely well in these conditions. Because of this, they take off and intrude on the native species, crowding them out of the ecosystem. Plants like honeysuckle and buckthorn were among the invasive species we were trying to get rid of. By using our hands and clippers, we cleared out the prairie land for a couple hours.
It was an important task for us to partake in because it showed the community the service that we as Christians should look to practice daily. It displays that environmental stewardship is important as worshippers of the Creator, and that we are willing to donate our time and effort to help manage the environment.
I'm pleased to share a guest post from one of the students in my Environmental Science class.this semester.
Lake Katherine is one of the beauties of God’s creation set just outside of Chicago. Our class worked near the Cal-Sag trail and channel where lovers of nature and boaters come to embrace the fall scenery. Much of its landscape consists of milkweed, New-England aster, compass plant, and other native prairie species. However, many invasive species were also found such as buckthorn and honeysuckle. An invasive species is a plant or animal that is not native to an ecosystem that could cause harm to both humans and native species. Invasive species take up sun and space (growing room) for the native species, essentially killing them.
Ecological restoration involves restoring damaged ecosystems with the help of humans. We aided in the ecological restoration of Lake Katherine by pulling the invasive species. As I learned, burning sometimes takes place at Lake Katherine to kill invasive species and allow for only native plants to grow back. In addition, we found many plastic bottles and cans, and properly disposed of them so chemicals from the plastic and aluminum do not affect any animals, plants, or water ways. We were trying to fix what was damaged (invasive species taking over the land and litter) and restore what was originally there (native species). By participating in ecological restoration, we are being stewards to God’s creation and taking care of what He has given us.
I've finally had a chance to put together some photos and videos from my Conservation Biology class last fall. We had a great time learning about God's creation together and exploring local conservation issues.
It's the most wonderful time of the year! Wait, not Christmas, but that time of year when the spring wildflowers are blooming! The trees are only just beginning to show signs of spring when you can start to see industrious little plants in the forest understory bolting up out of the ground and starting to bloom. For many of these plants, their strategy is to grow quickly and soak up the spring sunshine before the trees above them leaf out and monopolize the sun. They grow, flower, produce seeds, and wilt all in short period of time. Take, for example, the Virginia bluebells (shown in the picture above intermixed with Mayapple). I've been tracking their phenology (seasonal changes) based on plants growing in my wildflower garden. Here's what I saw in 2014:
The colored bars indicate an observation date when a particular stage (called a phenophase) was occurring, and the gray bars indicate an observation when that stage was not occurring. My bluebells started growing in early April, flowered shortly thereafter, and had wilted before July rolled around. Observing these seasonal changes can be a fun way to get to know your plants. What does it look like when it's first emerging from the ground, before the leaves have even started to open? What do fruits and seeds look like, and how can you tell if they are ripe? The graph above was generated by Nature's Notebook, a citizen science project where you can enter data on the phenology of plants and animals that you observe. This project not only allows you to document your observations to reflect upon later, but the information you collect also contributes to a growing data set that can be used for scientific research. Check it out, and see what species you might be able to observe near you!
Another interesting citizen science project that I heard about recently involves the American trout lily. This species varies in the color of its pollen, and although this has long been known, apparently no one has really looked into it before. If you have this species near you, you can make observations about whether the pollen is brick red, lemon yellow, or somewhere in between and submit your findings online as part of the Trout Lily Project.
What a blessing to be able to take a walk through the woods and enjoy these little wonders of God's creation!
What does it take to get ten student presenters to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Asheville, North Carolina? First it starts with professors and dedicated students working on research projects, applying to be a part of the conference, being accepted, and then figuring out how to get there. In this case, we loaded up ten students (from biology, art, and psychology) and two profs into a twelve passenger van and spent many hours on the road.
The conference was held at the University of North Carolina Asheville, which was the perfect place to be this time of year with beautiful flowering trees everywhere. We were able to explore talks and posters from a variety of fields, get new research ideas, take in a few sights, and support the work of Trinity students.
On the drive home, we made a short stop into the far eastern section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and enjoyed the beauty of God's creation together.
Here in Chicago we've had ten days of above average temperatures, reaching up to 10°C this Sunday (that’s 50°F for those of us still in need of fully adopting the metric system). A great way to get a perspective on global climate and temperature trends is to look at the maps available from NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Here's a map comparing December 2015 to average December temperatures.
Notice how the Midwest is looking decidedly red? We'll have to wait to see the map for this January. We've had some colder weather as well in January, so it will be interesting to see how it compares. This warmer weather has me thinking about the ways that our local ecology is affected by unseasonal warmth. Species that are normally hunkered down or dormant may be receiving cues that don't line up with an average January.
On a weekend trip to the Morton arboretum, the sled dogs there for a special event had to "sled" without snow (they pulled wheeled carts instead). Other signs, as well, suggested something other than a January afternoon. A honeybee decided to land on our windshield while the car was parked. Worker bees are usually huddled together in their hive during the coldest months.
Need a flower fix in January? Witch hazel is a good bet, at least this winter. These flowers look to be just starting to open, and although they are small, a little splash of color in winter is still a treat. This is Hamamelis 'Brevipetala,' which is a cross between an Asian and a North American species of witch hazel. Although considered a winter-flowering species, I'm not sure if you can regularly find it flowering in January or not (perhaps I will have to compare in future years). Even so, what creature might be out and about in winter to pollinate such a flower? Apparently owlet moths, which can be active at night if the temperature is above freezing. Although these moths often eat sap from damaged trees, they have also been observed visiting witch hazel flowers. These industrious moths have the ability to raise their body temperature through shivering, allowing flight when other insects are grounded.
Although there's much to enjoy about a mild winter day, it's not without its concerns. Check out this article from the New York Times about the mild winter in 2012. Early warming can often be followed by freezing temperatures, leaving plants or insects exposed and vulnerable.
Have you seen anything that you might normally consider to be a "sign of spring" this winter?
I'm a biology professor at Trinity Christian College. I'll be using this page to share interesting stories related to ecology and conservation at Trinity and in the Chicago area (although I might be tempted to expand my geographic focus upon occasion).