Posts filed under ‘climate change’


Anyone who lives in or has traveled through the Driftless Area (where Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa meet) can see at a glance that this is dramatically different from the land encircling it.  Because this region was untouched by the last three glaciers, it is defined by rugged ridges and deep valleys that preserve the world here must have all looked like before mile-thick ice sheets flattened the surrounding terrain.winter-river

Eric Carson, geologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey does geologic mapping in the Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin, and his work in the past year is going to rewrite the natural history of the Wisconsin River.  According to Carson, at one time, the Wisconsin River flowed from west to east – the opposite direction of the current current.

A geologic feature, the Military Ridge, runs high and proud, just south of the Wisconsin River bisecting the Driftless region.   These days most people know it as a rails-to-trails bike path but it has a long history as a pre-settlement passageway.

In geologic terms, the Ridge is a cuesta, created from cracked and tilted substrata that shoved  up a barrier that today creates a regional watershed divide–  from which streams north to the Wisconsin and south to the Pecatonica, the Sugar and the Rock.8x3ybske-copy

Up to about a million years ago, the Ridge was enough to turn the flow of the upper Mississippi River to the east at what is now Prairie du Chien along the present-day Wisconsin River bed – it’s waters mixing with Lake Michigan along Door County and eventually disgorging into the Atlantic through the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

Today the Wisconsin River bed gradually drops from east to west.  But buried by 50 meters of silt lies the bedrock of the original river that Carson has named the Wyalusing River, and that ancient bed slopes the opposite direction.  It’s a case of what is known as “river piracy,”and  it’s geology protocol to rename a river whose bed has been stolen.

This information has all been discovered in just the last 8 months!

Carson’s excitement filled the room as he shared his data in a presentation last week at Wednesday Nite at the Lab, “When the Ancient Wisconsin River Flowed East.”2bktb5st-copy

What turned the Wyalusing River around?

A glacier advancing from the northeast blocked the river’s flow, backing up its headwaters and creating a great lake (and that 50 meters of silt).  Eventually all that water pouring in burst through, forming a gap in the Military Ridge near Wyalusing State Park.  Picture the homes washed away when Lake Delton overflowed in the 2008 flooding see video  then multiply it on an inconceivably massive scale.

I am awe struck when I try to visualize geologic events of these proportions!

How Do We Know?

This glimpse of our present world being sculpted by ice and water has been revealed thanks to two new technologies that Carson has been using.

One is a new coring method using Geoprobe coring technology.  It’s cheap and fast, compared to previous coring methods.  A two-inch barrel is pounded into the ground to establish the top of the bedrock.  “It allows multiple holes to be drilled per day, rather than many days per hole,” Carson said.  Combining the data from his own boring and the public records from deep-well drilling done for commercial purposes in the state, he was able to clearly chart that the ancient river bed drops to the East.


Roll on, Wisconsin river!

The second new technology is improvements in LiDAR imagery.  LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging.  It’s an airborne sensing method that uses a pulsed laser to measure the distance to the earth from a plane.   It allows scientists to study the surface of the earth, with a resolution that recently improved from about 1.5 meters to about 5 centimeters. It is giving scientists an amazingly detailed look at the contours of the earth, and allowed Carson to see places where the ancient river bed cut terraces into bedrock near Prairie du Chien, Wauzeka and Muscoda.

Research has also established that the Ohio and other rivers out East had their flows pirated away from Saint Lawrence to toward the Mississippi as well in ancient times.  Altogether, Carson estimated these piracies cut the flow of the St. Lawrence into the Atlantic by about a third.

Carson undertook this study as part of a multi-county mapping project that will be used in county planning, but it also may help geologists and climatologists identify the causes of shifts in the prehistoric climate that will help us understand our ongoing global warming in greater detail.

February 4, 2014 at 10:42 pm Leave a comment


3zrzxlnkThink globally – act locally!

I got a chance to do just that recently when I read in the local newspaper, The Dodgeville Chronicle, about an upcoming  4-part series of evening presentations called “Floods, Droughts, Land and Energy: What Is Wisconsin’s Future.”

avdn0zqgWe now live about 11 miles from Dodgeville, our county seat, with a population of about 5,000.  We subscribe to The Chronicle, but I never thought to write for it before – having spent many years working for big city papers  and lately writing mostly for magazines and working on books and my blog.

Doug and I were both excited to see global warming becoming an official  topic of conversation in Dodgeville, and he suggested I ask The Chronicle if I could cover the series for them.

So now I’m also a  correspondent for The Dodgeville Chronicle!

What is Wisconsin’s Future?

by Denise ThorntonIowa County needs to be better prepared for natural disasters, cautioned Iowa County Emergency Government Coordinator Keith Hurlbert last Thursday at the first of a four-part educational series, Floods, Droughts, Land and Energy – What is Wisconsin’s Future?
“Think about the storms you’ve seen in the media in the past two years: the tornadoes that hit Joplin Missouri and Alabama, the perfect storm that hit the East Coast and the record-setting storm in Oklahoma City,” Hurlbert said. “These storms are increasing in frequency and growing in size. That’s why climate change is important to me and to all of us. We emergency managers get concerned about how well people in our area are prepared for disaster.”
Hulbert advised that checking the website is a great way to learn how to be prepared.
In the event of a disaster, help may take days to reach you, or you might have to evacuate at a moment’s notice. The website offers suggestions of how to create a basic survival kit as well as an evacuation kit of essential belongings and provides a step-by-step Online Family Emergency Planner.
“Climate change is raising the odds of disasters,” Hurlbert said. “How would you handle closed roads and downed power lines? It’s my job to help people think about how to be prepared for disaster.”
“There are both risks and opportunities in climate change,” said David S. Liebl, University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Statewide Outreach Educator Specialist. Liebl’s part of the presentation focused on how climate change is going to affect our county.

Read more

January 31, 2014 at 12:26 pm 2 comments


I wanted to share a press release I got from UW-Madison this week.  It may be to contemplate snow just as spring is finally bursting out all around us, but this piece puts the data behind a subject I have been worrying about a lot lately — the way our snow cover melts away multiple times each winter these days.

MADISON – For plants and animals forced to tough out harsh winter weather, the coverlet of snow that blankets the north country is a refuge, a stable beneath-the-snow habitat that gives essential respite from biting winds and subzero temperatures.

But in a warming world, winter and spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere is in decline, putting at risk many plants and animals that depend on the space beneath the snow to survive the blustery chill of winter.

DSCN2290In a report published May 2 in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, a team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison describes the gradual decay of the Northern Hemisphere’s “subnivium,” the term scientists use to describe the seasonal microenvironment beneath the snow, a habitat where life from microbes to bears take full advantage of warmer temperatures, near constant humidity and the absence of wind.

“Underneath that homogenous blanket of snow is an incredibly stable refuge where the vast majority of organisms persist through the winter,” explains Jonathan Pauli, a UW-Madison professor of forest and wildlife ecology and a co-author of the new report. “The snow holds in heat radiating from the ground, plants photosynthesize, and it’s a haven for insects, reptiles, amphibians and many other organisms.”

  • barn-from-westfallia-ridgeSince 1970, snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere – the part of the world that contains the largest land masses affected by snow – has diminished by as much as 3.2 million square kilometers during the critical spring months of March and April.
  • Maximum snow cover has shifted from February to January and spring melt has accelerated by almost two weeks, according to Pauli and his colleagues, Benjamin Zuckerberg and Warren Porter, also of UW-Madison, and John P. Whiteman of the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

DSCN4236“The winter ecology of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest is changing,” says Zuckerberg, a UW-Madison professor of forest and wildlife ecology. “There is concern these winter ecosystems could change dramatically over the next several years.”

As is true for ecosystem changes anywhere, a decaying subnivium would have far-reaching consequences.

Reptiles and amphibians

which can survive being frozen solid, are put at risk when temperatures fluctuate, bringing them prematurely out of their winter torpor only to be lashed by late spring storms or big drops in temperature. Insects also undergo phases of freeze tolerance and the migrating birds that depend on invertebrates as a food staple may find the cupboard bare when the protective snow cover goes missing.

“There are thresholds beyond which some organisms just won’t be able to make a living,” says Pauli. “The subnivium provides a stable environment, but it is also extremely delicate. Once that snow melts, things can change radically.”


when exposed directly to cold temperatures and more frequent freeze-thaw cycles can suffer tissue damage both below and above ground, resulting in higher plant mortality, delayed flowering and reduced biomass. Voles and shrews, two animals that thrive in networks of tunnels in the subnivium, would experience not only a loss of their snowy refuge, but also greater metabolic demands to cope with more frequent and severe exposure to the elements.

The greatest effects on the subnivium, according to Zuckerberg, will occur on the margins of the Earth’s terrestrial cryosphere, the parts of the world that get cold enough to support snow and ice, whether seasonally or year-round. “The effects will be especially profound along the trailing edge of the cryosphere in regions that experience significant, but seasonal snow cover,” the Wisconsin scientists assert in their report. “Decay of the subnivium will affect species differently, but be especially consequential for those that lack the plasticity to cope with the loss of the subnivium or that possess insufficient dispersal power to track the retreating range boundary of the subnivium.”

"Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone?"  Joni Mitchell

“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” Joni Mitchell

As an ecological niche, the subnivium has been little studied. However, as snow cover retreats in a warming world, land managers, the Wisconsin researchers argue, need to begin to pay attention to the changes and the resulting loss of habitat for a big range of plants and animals.

“Snow cover is becoming shorter, thinner and less predictable,” says Pauli. “We’re seeing a trend. The subnivium is in retreat.”

May 10, 2013 at 10:01 am Leave a comment


Sometimes it makes sense to step back and look at the big picture.  At a Wednesday Nite at the Lab lecture on the UW-Madison campus recently Todd LaMarskin of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural Survey detailed how paleoclimatology studies earth’s climate before we started keeping measurements with instruments.  That means everything before about 150 years ago.

Monument to a geologist (photo credit

LaMaskin began by noting that most geologists are employed by the oil, gas and mining industries, and have a different perspective than academic geologists.

For example, the consensus of academic geologists is that things are happening to the temperature, sea level, distribution and length of the seasons that are not natural, and are best explained by the atmospheric abundance of greenhouse gases – while  the American Association of Petroleum Geologists on April 6 came out with a statement supporting recent Congressional action to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gasses.  Humm.

We may think waiting for a red light to change takes a long time.  Geologists look at time a little differently.  LaMaskin compared geologic time to a 24 hour clock.

The first 21 hours of life on earth are very difficult for us to know much about.  The final 3 hours is when multicellular life forms developed and when things start to get interesting to us mammals.

The single largest extinction event, in which 96% of all marine life disappeared form the planet, occurred a mere 76 minutes ago on the geologic clock (or 250 million years ago).

The famous extinction event that killed the dinosaurs was occurred with 20 minutes left to the present or only 65 million years ago.

We have an excellent fossil record during the mammal dominant period.  We can learn from the l fossil record how animals have responded to climate change in the past.  We know these temperature swings cause dramatic variations in the biota in the earth.  Major migrations of species.  Major changes in forest and amount of forest fires.  What we don’t have is any record of what happened to human civilization because there was no human culture.

When you like your ice 400,000 years old! (photo credit )

Our oldest ice records only go back 14 seconds.  The Industrial Revolution (which started our current deadly spiral) occurred just .004 seconds ago.

Scientists use many methods to study ancient climate including the rate that minerals decay, and they have synchronized rock clocks around the world to understand earth history.  They also use precipitated calcium in cave deposits, tree rings and sediment cores from the ocean floor.

Zoom in on last 20,000 years and see that in general we have experienced a long-term warming.  13,000 years ago there was a big increase in snow accumulation.  The leading theory about why this cool period was disruption of Thermohaline Circulation.  Warm water from equator makes its way to northern Atlantic to heat and moderate the climate of Europe.  If the Thermohaline Circulation is cut off in the north, warm water will not make it’s way to Europe, plunging it back into a very cold state.  We think that happened before because of a disruption of the Thermohaline because of a sudden influx of fresh water during deglaciation of North America.  Some people see that occurring again now.

As glaciers melted from 18000 years ago, we have seen sea level rise by hundreds of meters.  It was about 120 meters lower during glaciation.

The sea level then became steady.  Now it’s rising again over the past 150 years.

And as for temperature and CO2 levels, if we look back to the year 1000, 2000 and today, the graph looks like a hockey stick with a large and abrupt increase in temperature.

We are creating a climate for ourselves that humans have never experienced before.

Here is a quote from Climate  about what is going on in Oklahoma at the moment:

  • Today marks the 29th consecutive day over 90. That is a record.
  • Today is forecast to be the 10th day above 100 in June. That is a record.
  • Today marks the 34th consecutive day above normal.
  • June 2011 set or tied single-day record high temperatures on the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 27th. Those record temperatures were 103, 104, 101, and 103 degrees, respectively.

These statistics beat those of the dust bowl.  Texas is hoping for a hurricane that might bring rain to their parched earth.  Arizona and New Mexico have both had their biggest forest fires ever this summer.

Not cool

July 1, 2011 at 11:45 pm 11 comments


Do you see all the signs that climate change is coming at us like a freight train while society dawdles and denies?

If you fear for the future, and sometimes feel almost paralyzed by the magnitude of the menace, then The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding is the book for you.

Gilding has served as head of Greenpeace, has build companies and been consultant to big corporations and is now based in Cambridge University’s Programme for Sustainability Leadership, and his experience has given him hope for the future.

The subtitle of his book is Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.  That sounds positively upbeat, doesn’t it?

Gilding believes we are rapidly coming to the tipping point where growth will not be possible any longer.  The resources are running out.  He also believes it will not be too much longer before the majority of people in the world grasp that we need to mobilize our efforts to get carbon emissions down to a less damaging level in the environment.

He feels the beginnings of that new infrastructure are already starting to emerge.  It’s bigger than we think because the media is largely ignoring it.  A new non-growth way of doing things is beginning to form, and when the time comes, will go rapidly to scale.  There are many movements already gaining momentum.  And as more and more people join, the balance will tip.  (Hopefully in time) (more…)

June 21, 2011 at 1:20 pm 7 comments


Last week at the UW-Madison Weston Lecture Series, I listened to Julie Lundquist, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at University of Colorado-Boulder, explain how meteorologists are going to help usher in the age of wind.  (More precisely, 20% Wind – there are some serious people seriously shooting at getting 20% of our energy in the U.S. from wind power by 2030. )

We all think we know what wind is.  We’ve all had it fly our kites, and perhaps experienced some of its more dramatic and destructive ramifications.  But when we set out to harness the wind, we are working with a very complex force. (more…)

May 10, 2011 at 12:07 am 7 comments


Have you ever heard of Dengue fever?  If not, you will soon.

I was reminded of it as I listened to science writer Dan Ferber talk about a book he has written with Paul R. Epstein, Associate Director of the Center for Health and Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.  He was speaking at the Authors @ HSLC (UW-Madison Health and Science Learning Center).

Their book is Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do About It.

One of the MANY health issues that are arising out of climate change is what warming weather does to the cold-blooded insects that transfer  a number of our most feared diseases.  What difference does a couple of degrees make?  It can make all the difference if suddenly your part of the world – which was too cold for something like Anophebes gambiae (a tiny mosquito that transmits malaria) – is now open season. (more…)

May 6, 2011 at 12:02 am 3 comments


Where can you get the low down on climate change these days?  The media seem to drop the ball right and left.  TV coverage or your favorite newspaper can seem willfully blind.  What can we do?

Glad you asked. (more…)

May 3, 2011 at 12:09 am 1 comment


Paul Murtaughis a professor of statistics at Oregon State University, and he has brought his number skills to bear on environmental issues with papers like, “The Statistical Evaluation of Ecological Indicators,” and “Performance of Several Variable-Selection Methods Applied to Real Ecological Data.”

..The big bulge in our carbon footprint. (photo credit )

When he and M.G. Schlax published “Reproduction and the Carbon Legacies of Individuals” in 2009, he found out what a hot button reproductive issues can be in this culture.  He was labeled anti-birth and skewered in rabid blog after rabid blog. (more…)

April 29, 2011 at 12:01 am 6 comments


Do you love the first sight of snow drops or crocus or scilla?  Are you watching the grass green up and watching willow branches turn yellow green?  Have you got geese nesting on a pond near you?  Senior citizens in Miami and Phoenix aren’t the only ones who venture north as the weather warms.

There are many waves of migration heading our way right now – whooping cranes, robins, humming birds, bald eagles, common loons, barn swallows, orioles and those might little monarchs.  You can follow them on Journey North.  Journey North is a nonprofit organization aimed at helping people tune into the global study of migration and seasonal change.

I was turned on to this map by Eric, a citizen scientist in Madison who has been submitting data for more than 10 years to the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.  He knows from experience that his yard full of various milkweed plants is going to be a Monarch Motel, and the perfect place to take a break and lay some eggs.   He likes to know that those stout-hearted little butterflies that are winging up from Mexico.

It’s a harrowing trip.  The Monarchs that make it to the Midwest have spent the winter in the mountains of Mexico.  It’s touch and go for them down there.  If the winter is too hot, they move around too much, deplete their lipid reserves and burn out before spring, or perhaps worse, they may be triggered to start north too soon only to  freeze to death once they get here.    To avoid that they flap up hill some 3,000 meters in altitude where they can more or less count on survival conditions in the high mountain forests.  It will come as no surprise that these mountain forests where they gather together in colonies are currently being logged.

In March, they start to break diapause (a kind of dormancy to survive hard conditions) and get down to the business of heading north, mating and laying eggs as they go.  A few of those eggs survive to hatch and go through larval stages.  A few of those larvae form a chrysalis, and a few hatch out as freshly colored butterflies and head further north.  They reach the northern edge of their range about June.

Eric said he can tell when he sees the few who have made the trip all the way from Mexico.  They arrive at his milkweed patch ragged and faded.  They lay their eggs and then move farther north.

It’s an amazing saga, but it’s just one chapter in the big fat book of animal migration.  Journey North is one way to get a grasp on all these incredible journeys.  I used to marvel at the Monarchs.  I would see them and think, oh look!  The Monarchs are here.  I had no idea where they had come from.  What a complex interwoven environment it takes to keep them coming.  Now that I know more, I am in awe.

..Time to migrate! photo credit

Eric is worried.   “Of course I hear the news,” he says.  “There is usually some event happening in Mexico that isn’t good for the monarchs, and you wonder if they are going to make it.”

Whether it is the logging or the creeping climate change that may make the wintering sites unsuitable within 50 years or all the perils that lay in their path, the monarchs and other migrating species surf the air currents and search the ground for shelter, experiencing the world in ways I cannot even begin to imagine.

The lucky ones will be blowing into Wisconsin in  June.  If you want to help them on their way, a good way to start is to check out Journey North.

April 19, 2011 at 12:02 am 7 comments

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