Category Archives: Climate Change

Wetlands as Classrooms

My 16-year old brother is President of his high school class.  He thinks it’s fairly common when his science class goes on a field trip or takes place outside. His high school has a Water Quality Monitoring Team, a Climate Action Club and an environmental outing club.

Middle and high schools around the country have similar clubs and others have adopted a local wetland for class projects.  This time of year, there’s a surge of news stories about school programs that make use of local wetlands for class projects with students K-12 throughout the U.S. Even while facing budgetary constraints, schools are showing an interest in teaching kids about the environment. The National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-School program offers ways for schools to “green” their curriculum. But what does a “wetland classroom” look like? It would make sense that they would vary because wetlands are diverse.  For example, here’s a “school wetland” in North Carolina, not far from the Great Dismal Swamp: http://library.thinkquest.org/J003192F/our.htm

Wetlands and streams are valuable teaching tools for teachers in elementary, middle and high schools. The concept of “wetlands as classrooms” has broadened to include student-led wetland restoration projects, which have received some press coverage over the past few years.  For example, the Hardy Middle School in Washington, D.C. is creating a wetlands classroom, and a new environmental outdoor classroom has been created in New York. At the Maumelle Middle School in Arkansas, 7th graders are learning about how wetlands “saved the school” during floods and how to test the water chemistry.

In addition to school-based programs, there are a number of wetland organizations that provide a “wetland classroom” experience to school children. For example the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary, operated by the Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks in Maryland, offers activities led by staff naturalists for kids (K-12) as well as college students. Students learn about species diversity, classification, impacts of wetlands on water quality, plant and animal adaptations, ecology, stream morphology and climate change.

In other communities, a wetlands reserve such as the Heckrodt Wetland Reserve in Wisconsin has programs geared for educating kids. See also Exploration, education by the estuary: http://theworldlink.com/sports/outdoors/article_24975834-e621-11e0-a951-001cc4c002e0.html

In addition, science teachers at some schools have incorporated the ‘wetlands as classrooms’ concept into their curriculum.  In particular, one organization created a program called Project WET (Water Education for Teachers). Right now, teachers are excited because Project WET 2.0 curriculum software has recently been released.

Project WET is a nonprofit water education program and publisher. It “promotes awareness, appreciation, knowledge and stewardship of water resources through the dissemination of classroom-ready teaching aids and the establishment of internationally sponsored Project WET programs.” The program has an international reach and has been applied in schools throughout the U.S. Watch a video about Project WET here. Learn about what teachers are doing for Project WET in Arizona or Project WET in Georgia.  If you’re on Facebook, check out Maine Project WET’s page. The program is active inWisconsinMichigan, —well, all 50 states and the District of Columbia. For more about Project WET in the U.S., visit: http://projectwet.org/where-we-are/usa-project-wet/

There has also been some recent press about the 7th grade class in Illinois for their wetland-based class project. Mrs. Fran Wachter’s seventh grade class at Creal Springs School won the national middle school grand prize in Disney’s Planet Challenge, an environmental and science competition for 3rd-8th grade classrooms. The competition expanded this year to include middle school grades 6-8.  To read full article, click here. To view their winning video, Wetland Warriors: Restoring Health to Our Wetlands, click here.

Throughout the year, I get updates from Tom Biebighauser, U.S. Forest Service, who maintains a photo album of wetland restoration projects and some of these projects have involved students from schools in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia. Tom also works with the Center for Wetlands and Stream Restoration in Kentucky; the Center provides training for educators. They have a list of wetland classrooms and school-created wetlands along with other training resources on their website.

In other instances, students have opportunities to help with a larger wetland restoration project run by a state park or other organization, like the one in California last May:Pitching in: Students part of wetlands restoration project.

Environment Concern also maintains a list of school-based wetland projects, mostly in the Mid-Atlantic region, with brief “success stories” for each school:http://www.wetland.org/education_success0708.htm

Mid-Atlantic Environmental Education – Schools in the News

Need ideas for an environmental project to get students interested in ecology, energy conservation and saving the Earth? The EPA Region 3 Environmental Education Program‘s ‘Schools in the News’ website offers press articles of successful environmental projects undertaken by students in mid-Atlantic region schools that are making news. Visit http://www.epa.gov/region03/ee/school_news.htm to learn more.

If you have news or links to information  about “wetlands as classrooms,” please let us know so we can feature other schools and similar programs on our I am an Educatorwebpage.

Rare Weasels of Winter

As a child I was wary of weasels. My grandparents taught me to listen for the distinctive murderous cry of a fisher along the creeks in their woods—and to be wary of them because they killed cats. When my cat wandered curiously into the culvert near the house, it sent me into a panic over what might lurk inside waiting to gobble my tabby, Triscuit. We lived near a saltmarsh. Fishers and other weasels, more formally known as the Mustelidae family, were more common 20 years ago; nowadays if I see one, I think of it as a rare treat. In particular, there are three weasels that are rarely seen but still inhabit woods and wetlands of North America: the fisher, the wolverine and the ermine.

In the last ten years, there has been some attention on the successful reintroduction of wolverines (Gulo gulo) and fishers (Martes pennant) into areas of North America where the populations had declined significantly due to habitat loss. Both are members of the weasel family with some differences.  The fisher, found only in North America, is a medium-sized weasel with a long body, short legs and long bushy tail. Its population had been on the decline—especially in the Northwest due to logging and habitat loss, until the early 2000s, when biologists with Conservation Northwest (partnered with FWS) began the process of reintroducing native fishers in the Pacific Northwest http://www.conservationnw.org/wildlife-habitat/fisher To watch a video of the 2009 release of fishers, go to:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBageyLQk3k On the west coast, especially in Oregon, the fisher has been threatened by fragmented habitat, wildfires and incidental mortality (getting hit by a car, getting caught accidentally in a trap). Currently the west coast fishers are being considered for Endangered Species Protection and they are listed as a “sensitive species” by the U.S. Forest Service. http://www.fws.gov/oregonfwo/Species/Data/Fisher/ There are a lot of misconceptions about the fisher. Some that I have read or heard can be dispelled easily: 1) they do not fish, despite their name. 2) They are not part-cat, even though a nickname is the “fisher-cat.”  3) Domestic cats are not high on their list of dietary preferences. Cool fact: the fisher is one of the only specific predators of the porcupine! For a slide-show of a fisher reintroduction/release project, go to:http://www.defenders.org/wildlife_and_habitat/wildlife/fisher.php

The wolverine is the largest member of the weasel family. Known for its voracious appetite, a “glutton” (thus its Latin name), it’s a surprisingly strong and fearless competitor for food. A 30 pound wolverine might even try to steal from a 500-pound black bear. A film by NATURE depicted the wolverine as a rare and wonderful creature (Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom):http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/
episodes/wolverine-chasing-the-phantom/photo-gallery/6064/

The wolverine’s oversized paws act like snowshoes for this predator, which depends on an abundance of snow in winter for hunting. Although once driven to near extinction from over-hunting by man for its fur, wolverines are now threatened by climate change. Recently the FWS released its decision (December 13, 2010) that the wolverine warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act but was precluded from protection. Wolverine biologist Jeff Copeland’s study demonstrated that wolverines depend on deep spring snow cover, a condition threatened by a warming climate.http://www.crownofthecontinent.net/content/wolverines-in-glacier-national-park/cot298F435364A472CBE and http://www.hcn.org/blogs/range/climate-changes-threat-to-the-wolverine For more about wolverine conservation in the Northwest, visit:http://www.conservationnw.org/wildlife-habitat/wolverine For an outstanding blog about wolverines describing an ecologist’s work in Wyoming, visit:http://egulo.wordpress.com/ For more facts about the wolverine, visit the Wolverine Foundation at: http://www.wolverinefoundation.org/

Like the wolverine, the ermine, or short-tailed weasel, (Mustela ermine) also depends on snow for hunting, but for a slightly different reason: camouflage. Ermines’ coats turn white in winter to blend in and allow them to hunt their prey unseen. In the spring, their coats molt and they turn mottled, a blend of white and black and brown, until their dark sleek summer coats grow out completely. Many arctic mammals have the ability to change their winter coat to be camouflaged in the snow: http://www.ehow.com/list_6759427_list-mammals-winter-camouflage.htmlUnlike the wolverine and fisher, the ermine is much more common, perhaps because it is smaller and has adapted to live wherever it can find prey. Ermines like to live in marshes, woodlands with bogs and even tundra. It adapts well to a harsh living environment. For my poem titled, “Ermine,” go here.

Those who like to go out on snowshoes may come across tracks of animals that they never see. A weasel’s tracks have five toes on front and back feet. For other tips on identifying animal tracks in the snow, go to:  How to Identify Animal Tracks in Snow | Trails.com http://www.trails.com/how_
2941_identify-animal-tracks-snow.html#ixzz1BJV
HtW7X
 and check out this blog about one woman’s quest to follow a set of fisher tracks through the woods and wetlands last winter:http://www.tamiasoutside.com/2010/01/04/track/ For an excellent guide to identifying wolverine and fisher-marten tracks, as well as other carnivores (coyote, wolf, lynx), refer to this Forest Carnivore Identification Guide: http://home.mcn.net/~wtu/tracking.html

Fringe Corals – Wetlands at the Outer Edge

Fringe. It’s the outer edge. Peripheral. Fringe, or fringing, reefs are connected to land and point toward sea; they occur in shallow water along coasts all over the world. Some wetlands are the boundary between land and deep water habitat; fringing corals fall into this group. Corals form in shallow, warm salt water habitats, usually tropical waters. Thousands of hard coral polyps grow together in masses and create a reef, whereas soft corals, like sea fans, do not form reefs. Fringe corals are similar to fringe mangrove ecosystems in that they grow at the edges of the land; sometimes the fringe coral and mangroves are neighbors in a closely-entwined habitat that provides a nursery for many marine animals. What lives in a fringe coral reef? Brittle stars, horseshoe crabs, sea anemone, sea urchins, snails and mollusks inhabit this strange ecosystem.

Darwin asserted that fringe reefs were the first kind of coral reef to form around a landmass in a long-term reef growth process. Until 1753, people did not know that corals were living organisms. Darwin’s Subsidence Theory, which focused on fringing reefs as an explanation for atolls and barrier reefs in the deep ocean, (aka the“coral reef theory”) is still the basis for the understanding of coral reefs today.http://www.darwin-literature.com/Coral_Reefs/1.html

Fringe coral communities are unusual. For instance, finger coral (Porites furcata) and coralline algae grow interspersed with sea grasses in less than one foot of water. The two types of coral reefs that are most commonly known—atolls and barrier reefs—live in deep ocean water. Sponges, echinoderms, crustaceans and mollusks may also be found living in the fragile habitat of fringe corals, which are easily damaged by boats that drop anchor or people who walk on them.

Right now marine scientists are calling a “code blue” on coral reefs worldwide. Fringe reefs are threatened by coastal development, dredging and run-off, while all types of corals are stressed by warming sea temperatures as a result of climate change, a phenomenon called “coral bleaching.” The warming sea temperatures kill the algae that give the corals their color. http://coralreefwatch.noaa.gov/satellite/index.html Another problem is acidification of sea water, caused by run-off, certain algae and pollution from dredging or other human activities. Sediment discharge from coastal development can have a very negative impact on coastal wetlands including fringe reefs and mangroves.

In southwest Florida, the Department of Environmental Protection is currently dealing with enforcement issues on a boat lift in a canal, which city developers dredged to build Cape Coral the 1970s. The city developers dredged the canal through fringe mangroves. The original design of the canal allowed the fresh waters to be trapped and prevented that water from flowing into the saltwater estuaries of Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve. The preserve is home to four species of sea grasses, three species of mangroves, over 100 species of invertebrates, 200 species of fish and 150 species of shore and wading birds.http://www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/sites/matlacha/ The barrier lift protected the saltwater mangrove habitat and preserve. In the 2000s, the city developers removed the lift, initially with the intention of replacing it—but several years after-the-fact, there is still no barrier lift protecting the estuary. http://www.pineisland-eagle.com/page/content.detail/id/511072/Stakeholders–votes-being-tallied-on-Cape-spreader-barrier.html?nav=5048

Hawaii’s Conservation Resource Enhancement Program’s strategy involves converting marginal pastureland into native grasses and wetlands. The state seeks to improve water quality and near-shore coral reef (fringe coral) communities by filtering agricultural run-off. http://hawaii.gov/dlnr/
dofaw/forestry/crep/crep/?searchterm
=coral%20reef
 Additionally the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources has identified a way to use sea urchins to manage invasive algae in coral reefs. State aquatic biologists vacuumed the invasive seaweed off the coral with a “Super Sucker,” and have planted sea urchins to take on the job of eating the seaweed. http://hawaii.gov/dlnr/chair/pio/nr/2010/NR10-105.pdf/view?searchterm=coral%20reef For pictures, go here: http://hear.smugmug.com/Press-releases/DLNR-20100817/13368297_NJS3z#972086826_sRNE7 Besides invasive algae, two other threats to coral reefs are hurricanes and overfishing, which have an impact on all types of reefs.

Other interesting links on coral reefs can be found below:

EPA Office of Wetlands & Oceans:http://water.epa.gov/type/oceb/habitat/coral_links.cfm
http://www.usgcrp.gov/usgcrp/Library/nationalassessment/overviewcoastal.htm

A Return to the Reefs: Smithsonian article by Gordon Chaplin (2006) on the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/specialsections/ecocenter/oceans/reefs.html

Coastal Living Habitats:http://www.heinzctr.org/ecosystems/2002report/coastal/habitats.shtml

Wetlands International – Coastal Wetlands (Coral reefs, mangroves, sand dunes, beaches)http://www.wetlands.org/Whatwedo/Adaptingtoclimatechange/Workonadaptationto
climatechange/Coastalmanagement/Aboutcoastalwetlandsandreefs/tabid/1204/Default.aspx

Florida DEP coral reefs http://www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/habitats/coral.htm

Florida’s Coupon Bright Aquatic Preservehttp://www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/sites/coupon/

Reef Check (a nonprofit organization)
http://www.reefcheck.org/

Code Blue: A possible new coral reef in the Sargasso Sea? – Sylvia Earle’s research (2010)http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2020806_2020805_2020
796,00.html

NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program http://coralreef.noaa.gov/

Coral reefs in a climate change context – Climate Change Impacts on the United States
The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change (2000)http://www.usgcrp.gov/usgcrp/Library/nationalassessment/overviewcoastal.htm

Endangered Vacations

Summer vacation weather is finally upon us here in the Northeast. I recently spent a couple of days in Acadia National Park, where I swam in the ocean and attended a wedding on Sand Beach. I like to think that I can visit the beautiful park anytime I wish. But some vacation spots in the U.S. might be endangered. It’s frightening to think that some of our favorite places—coastal estuaries, green space around a beloved lake, underfunded national parks and enchanting wetlands—may be diminished or lost in the years to come, so that the next generation won’t be able to enjoy them except in pictures or videos. A couple of months ago, the New York Times ran a story on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2009/06/03/03climatewire-arranging-a-slow-farewell-to-a-coastal-wildl-84276.html?scp=1&sq=Alligator%20River%20National%20Wildlife&st=cse The USGS has begun to update wetland maps to show the losses along Louisiana’s eroding coasthttp://www.houmatoday.com/article/20090810/ARTICLES/908109945?Title=Updated-maps-help-document-wetland-loss.

ASWM asked its members for suggestions for a “top ten” list of particularly threatened wetlands and wildlife refuges which allow public access. This list could actually be much longer. Here are the wetlands that made the list of “endangered vacations.”

10.  Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in MD’s Chesapeake Bay area.  Subsidence and sea level rise in particular are leading to open-water conversion. Visit:http://www.fws.gov/blackwater/

9. Ruby Valley Wildlife Refuge in Ruby Valley, Nevada –If climate experts are right in their predictions, the western U.S. will become even more arid than it is.  There is a lot of groundwater-fed irrigation in this valley to grow hay for cattle and horses, which puts even more pressure on this resource. Visit:http://www.stateparks.
com/ruby_lake.html

8. Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas is at risk due to water withdrawals and diversions.  The nearby Quivira NWR has oil rigs that caused some spills during the last round of flooding there in 2007.  For info on Cheyenne Bottoms, visit: http://www.cheyennebottoms.net/and http://www.kdwp.state.ks.us/news/KDWP-Info/Locations/Wildlife-Areas/Region-3/Cheyenne-Bottoms/Area-News and for Quivira NWR, go to:http://www.fws.gov/quivira/

7. Cape Cod National Seashore is under pressure from sea level rise and more mysteriously–sudden wetland dieback for the past few decades.http://www.nps.gov/caco/naturescience/salt-marsh-dieback.htm andhttp://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/fs095-02/fs095-02.pdf

6. Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in NC is threatened by sea level rise (or threatened to turn into a brackish marsh from a wooded freshwater system) Visit:http://www.fws.gov/alligatorriver/ Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge in FL is another “poster child” for wildlife refuges under siege from climate change impacts. Visit:http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=41580
http://www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer/

5. Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge in Southeast Louisiana is threatened by sea level rise and salt water intrusion. Visit: http://www.fws.gov/bigbranchmarsh/

4. Florida Everglades is dependent on nutrients (if it gets the slightest amounts of phosphorus, the vegetation turns to cattails.) Threat factors include population increases and development, sugarcane agriculture. Visit: http://www.nps.gov/ever/ and go to:http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/SouthFlorida/everglades/endangeredglades.html

3. Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, HI The last natural wetlands on Hawaiian islands are under pressure from invasive species, e.g. mangroves.http://www.fws.gov/kealiapond/  Also see information on sea level rise and Hawai’i at:http://www.soest.hawaii.edu/coasts/sealevel/

2. Prairie Potholes – Isolated wetlands are under threat since their exclusion from federal protections post-SWANCC and Carabell/Rapanos decisions. Visit:http://www.epa.gov/owow/wetlands/types/pothole.html andhttp://www.ducks.org/conservation/initiative45.aspx

1. Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge in AK. These wetlands are drying up as a result of climate change. Visit: http://alaska.fws.gov/nwr/yukonflats/wildland.htm

Finally, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) recently published a report (June 2009) on the country’s most imperiled refuges “Ten of the Most Vulnerable National Wildlife Refuges.” While these aren’t necessarily vacation spots, their top ten list is a relevant comparison.http://www.peer.org/docs/nwr/09_18_6_most_imperiled_refuges_2009.pdf