Try My Trees of Vermont Field Guide!

It’s been a long winter. The January-March period in Montpelier was the second coldest since records began being recorded in the 1940s, and March was the coldest March on record. Many other places in Vermont with records that go back further also had record or near-record cold, especially in March.

The winter was so long that I’ve run out of things to say about winter. It’s cold. We’ve been boiling maple sap… a fun, time consuming, but very straightforward process that results in delicious maple syrup. Mostly, over the last few weeks, I’ve been anticipating spring. Spring is finally here.

The trees won’t leaf out for another month or so, but the snow in the forests is thinning, the air is getting warmer, and it’s becoming easier to roam the woods. For those reasons, I wanted to announce one of my projects from last Fall and Winter – a field guide to all tree species known to occur in Vermont’s natural areas.

The tree guide, which was created using the Guides feature on iNaturalist, includes all native tree species that are known or believed to occur in the state, as well as non-native species that are able to survive and reproduce on their own in forests. Each tree has several associations tagged to it, including its temperature and moisture preference and the types of leaves it has (for the latter you will need to wait for May except for conifers). By using these tags to filter the tree types, you can easily get photos of a few trees to choose from. It should be a pretty effective guide.

The online version is here. You can also put the guide on your smartphone. Just download the iNaturalist iPhone app (I think it works on the iNaturalist android app also but I’m not sure) and go to ‘guides’. You can download the guide to your phone so it still works when you are out of cell phone service. If you want to add observations to iNaturalist you can do so directly from the guide!

I wrote Vermont-specific descriptions for some of the species, but others have generic descriptions from Wikipedia. If people decide they like this guide and would like me to write more Vermont-specific descriptions, I could possibly be convinced to do so. Maybe some day I will make guides for other groups of plants too. The guides template on iNaturalist makes it very easy to do so.

Check it out, and let me know what you think! It should work anywhere in New England, really, but won’t have some of the oaks or hickories that occur down in Connecticut. Michigan and upstate New York, southern Quebec, and the Maritimes have mostly the same trees as well. If you live in a different region, or are interested in other species, check the Guides on iNaturalist to see if someone made one relevant to your interests.

Second Winter

It had been a rather cold Vermont winter, at least by normal standards. Temperatures dropped below zero again and again, especially in January. February was slightly warmer, but came with two big snowstorms. With a foot of snow on the ground and everyone’s wood pile looking meager, it was welcome when temperatures started moderating a bit in late February.

But then they stopped. They turned around and went the other direction. This March we have been experiencing what some jokingly have called Second Winter (of course a reference to ‘second breakfast’ of Hobbit fame).

First, temperatures plunged well below zero at the beginning of March. Then they moderated a bit… followed by the biggest snowstorm of the year, dropping a foot and a half or more in much of Vermont, along with very heavy winds. After that temperatures plunged below zero again. Two mornings ago it was -14, and two records were set that night – one just before midnight and the other just as the sun rose (two different days…). It was the coldest Saint Patrick’s Day on record for much of Vermont.

This is to be expected in January or February, but at this point we are in the second half of March. The sun angle is high, and at this moment it eked above freezing and water is dripping off of the roof. It will be back in the single digits tonight, though. After that we can expect a few storms with a mix of rain, sleet, and snow to move through… but probably mostly snow. At this point there is two feet of snow on the ground and it’s not likely to melt much in the next 10 days, at least when you consider what will fall in that time as well.

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The cold is remarkable, and we will almost certainly experience one of the coldest Marches on record if not the coldest. But what is even more remarkable is that two years ago at this time it was literally pushing 80 degrees. Many plants were leafing out and flowering! The MAPLES were flowering, which meant the end of the maple tapping season. This year there has been barely any sap flow at all. Last year’s March was relatively normal, but it is bracketed between two truly strange springs… one that skipped to summer and the other that failed to arrive – or at least was quite late.

CLimatewise, the warm spring was more odd than the cold spring, but both are probably related to the same factor. If any so called ‘global warming denialists’ find this post, they may be tempted to post that ‘second winter’ is evidence that the climate is not warming. But.. California, Alaska, and many other areas are in fact experiencing record warmth. While it’s hard to say for sure, it may all be related to the same jet stream pattern I’ve been blabbering on about for years.

I love winter, don’t get me wrong. but being late March and all, I am ready to see some crocuses and spring beauty blooming. At this point… well for all I know they ARE blooming, because I can’t see them. I can’t see the ground under the two foot deep, heavy icy snowpack. If we move straight to summer, ice jam and snowmelt floods are likely. All we can do is hope that April stays a bit cooler than usual, and relatively dry.

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California Flows, Vermont Freezes

This weekend, for the first time in a long time, the canyons of southern California roared with high water. At the same time, the shores of lakes and most rivers and streams in Vermont were oddly still.

The creeks in California were fed by a miracle of sorts. Not of the magnitude of the Miracle March of 1991, which marked the end of a seven year drought, but a miracle nonetheless. The deluge dropped several inches on LA and over 10 inches in the wetter parts of the Transverse Range above Ventura and Santa Barbara. These rains were similar in magnitude to the rains associated with Tropical Storm Irene in Vermont, but instead of a disaster they brought relief. (In addition to VERY dry preceding conditions, extreme rains of 10+ inches are more common in California’s mountains than in Vermont).

At least four feet of snow fell in parts of the Sierras. There has been nearly no snow before this point, and those mountains often have 10, 15, or even 20 feet of snow in early March… so the drought is not over. But four feet of snow is a heck of a lot better than four inches, which is about what we were working with before. Meanwhile, the sometimes incredible Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve picked up almost four inches of rain. Desert flowers like those that occur on this edge of the Mojave Desert are experts at taking advantage of sporadic extreme rainfall events, so there may be a poppy display this year after all. (It probably won’t be a banner year, but may be worth seeing. A full poppy bloom is one of the most vibrant plant displays I have ever seen, its only rival I know of is Vermont’s maple forest in a good fall foliage year).

Of course, in the long run, one storm doesn’t end a drought. Especially one storm with torrential rains – much of the water probably rushed down creeks into the ocean, or worse, into gutters and thus into the ocean along with oil anyod garbage. If you have a rainwater collection system set up, even a massive cistern would now be full, but otherwise much of the water has returned to the sea. It’s still not a small thing. Despite the drought, for at least a few days the canyons will sing with the roar of creeks and seasonal arroyos filled to the brim. Life moves on, with what it is given to work with.

So why are the rivers of Vermont mostly silent? Has the drought spread across the continent? Nope… but the cold of winter has settled in to March with no sign of leaving. A bit over a week ago there was a brief thaw, and it rained on our copious snowpack. This did not melt all the snow, but mashed it down to a crusty foot or so. Then the weather got cold. The forecast is for around -15 here tonight. The March sun has been working on evaporating way some of the snow on steep south-facing slopes, but most of the snow is hanging tight or even deepening with a few quick snow showers. (Most of the big storms on the news are missing us to the south, since we are firmly on the cold side of the jet stream). Lake Champlain is frozen across from shore to shore, which means any other lake in Vermont is frozen also. Nearly all of the rivers are frozen over or close to it. The North Branch in Montpelier at the little mill dam is about as frozen as it can get.

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Of course, areas of fast-moving water are still open… or at least some of them. I saw one river in Barre where one of the thaws had lifted up the ice on a fast flowing section of river, and the lower water is now hidden completely under the ice. It sure wouldn’t be safe to walk on, but it’s frozen over.

During the brief thaw last week, I got the chance to visit an ‘ice cave’ in an old quarry.
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Despite the thaw that had melted soe of the snow and ice outside the quarry, this sheltered east-facing cave showed no signs of melting of any sort. Icicle stalactites hung from the roof and walls.
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I’m always very reluctant to walk or skate on ice unless I am certain it is safe. After all, despite the cold winter, there had been a thaw at least outside of the quarry. But it turned out there was no cause for concern here, and it didn’t take an ice auger to test the thickness of the ice. Because no snow and very little wind affects the little pool in the ice cave, the ice that forms here is perfectly clear. It was possible to see the thickness of the ice because it was filled with surreal bubbles trapped within.

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The ice was well over a foot thick… probably much thicker… throughout the entire pool. In theory the ice would be able to support a large truck, though thankfully there was no way to get one in there.

Despite knowing the ice was thick, there was something a bit scary about skating on clear ice speckled with bubbles. It felt a bit like levitating over an ocean full of jellyfish.

The ice on the rivers and ponds is not going anywhere any time soon. There may be brief dips above freezing this Friday and Saturday, but no significant thaws look likely for the first half of the month. As for California, unfortunately no other storms are on the horizon. It may end up being a year of just one miracle.

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Peak Snowdrift

Late February is a beautiful time in Vermont. Snow cover is usually the highest of the year, give or take a few weeks one way or the other, and while prone to brief thaws it usually isn’t too muddy or wet yet. Despite this, the sun is creeping higher in the sky each day. The slightly longer days and small edge taken off of the coldest of the cold make for little after-work skis or explores, and reduce the burden of waking up or commuting in the dark.

Last Sunday we went on a small snowshoe explore in the Champlain Valley, and then yesterday I snowshoe-commuted to work. The heavy snow of late last week was followed by wind, and the trails were covered in drifts.

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So was everything else, for that matter. I’ve remarked before that winter in Vermont reminds me of the desert at times. Never is this more true than on a wander in drifting snow.

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In my last post I wondered whether Lake Champlain would ‘close’, or freeze all the way across. Not surprisingly, it did, and for that matter so have most of the Great Lakes. All of these lakes usually help to moderate cold temperatures, but with ice on them, they do not, adding an extra edge to the late winter’s cold, and shutting down most lake effect snowfall.

Snow can make even the most mundane places seem like a wilderness. I found this little block of untouched snow in a parking lot median near the Williston Old Navy. The persistent wind had even ‘shoveled’ snow away from the poles.

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I didn’t see any reason not to indulge my urge to stomp through this snow, which wasn’t as deep as it is back in Montpelier (we have around two feet in Montpelier now, so stomping without snowshoes just gets you soaked).

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In the center of the little block of snow I found this little maple seed – probably a box elder.

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In nature it would blow about on the snow until spring, where it would melt down to the warming earth and perhaps grow into a maple. Here in this parking lot, I’m sure someone will mow it before it gets to that point.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one wandering the parking lot, as these rabbit tracks were also in the area. The rabbit opted to walk through the plowed area rather than stomp through snow over its head.

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Here’s my favorite view of Montpelier, from a hill with a cemetery on it. I could make some kind of heavy handed comparison between death and winter, but really, it’s just a nice place. The snow drifts deep here among the tombstones.

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Today brought about four inches of snow. Tomorrow may bring a few more inches. Then, Thursday night and Friday may bring an ice storm, or rain, or both. It may be that tomorrow and Thursday will hold the deepest snow of the season. Or, perhaps the thaw will be mild, and more storms will come later this month and pile it higher. Either way, dripping maple taps, rushing meltwater-fed streams, and awakening amphibians are just around the corner. In the mean time, I’ll just enjoy the ice while it lasts.

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Will Lake Champlain Close?

Last Sunday we walked into what seemed an otherworldly scene.

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Long ago, a railroad line was put in across Lake Champlain. Apparently the lake was rather shallow here, because instead of a bridge, a long causeway was installed, with huge chunks of marble. The railway has since been discontinued and the rails ripped out, but the causeway is maintained as a biking and walking path.

Normally the causeway crosses a lot of open water. It is a popular place to look for birds or get away from the summer heat. At the moment though the scene is very different. The lake was frozen as far as we could see – what appeared at first to be wind-blown open water was jagged sheets of ice.

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The wind whipped at a predictably steady and cold clip. A warm ‘storm’ had come through, bringing a bit of rain and wet snow and a brief thaw, but the thaw had ended. Temperatures were quickly dropping below freezing with light sleety snow. The wind seemed strong because it was cold, but really it was nothing unusual for this place… the trees in their twisted shapes show that much stronger winds are not uncommon here.

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From what I could tell, the lake was frozen all the way across.

I later learned that there was still some open water around the Charlotte ferry. I asked the National Weather Service Burlington office’s facebook page about this, and they told me that some of the lake was still open and the Charlotte ferry still operating… but that they had gotten a satellite photo today that showed that most of the open water had a thin layer of ice (you can see it if you look closely).


(photo from NOAA)

The forecast calls for a snowstorm tomorrow, and then more cold weather, with another snowstorm possible on Sunday. While wind from these storms may break up the ice some, it seems likely that with more cold weather in the forecast, the lake will freeze over completely. When this happens, they say the lake has ‘closed’.

Looking here you can see records of when the lake has closed that go back a long ways. You’ll quickly notice that it used to be quite unusual for the lake NOT to close. Only the mildest of winters saw open water on the lake. Lately, the lake has closed only rarely, with the most recent being 2007 with a relatively late closing of March 2. The ice cover must not have lasted long.

People like to attribute a lot of things to the warming climate. Weird thaws, blizzards, Hurricane Irene, thunderstorms, heat waves, arctic vortexes, you name it. While human-caused climate change has certainly had effects on those weather events, it’s extremely difficult to say how much, and in what way. But a lake as big as Lake Champlain has a memory. Water stores a tremendous amount of memory. Whether the lake closes does not just depend on how cold one winter is – and this one has been a pretty cold one, at least by recent standards. The lake’s temperature is influenced by the previous summer, and the winter before that, and probably even the summer before that. Maybe it goes back a decade. The more the average temperature rises, even if it is just a couple of degrees, the harder it is for the lake to freeze in winter.

So there you have it. The fact that this is the first chance I had since I came to Vermont to walk out on that causeway and see only ice… (it came close a few years ago, but apparently did not close completely)… the fact that it’s even worthy of note… is some of the strongest evidence of a warming climate I’ve ever seen.

And, scaling this upward, the Arctic sea ice also acts in a similar way. Taking that a step further, the amount of sea ice versus open water has effects on the jet stream, including, possibly, making the weather more severe, and contributing to that big list of weather issues above. The system is massively entangled, and confusing, but this time the slow wisdom of the lake shows us all we need to know.

Who knows when the lake will close again after this year. Perhaps changes in the jet stream will make it more common again for a while. Perhaps, ironically enough, the lack of sea ice in the Arctic will drive the jet stream further south and give us a bunch of harsh winters. But maybe, just maybe, I won’t ever see it again in my lifetime. Either of the two is pretty scary if you think about it.

California Drought a Big Deal, but Misconceptions Abound

Imagine a hurricane that only moved a few miles a day. Unlike most hurricanes, which slowly weaken when they sit over the same water and leach the energy from it, this slow hurricane only grows stronger as it continues its crawl towards populated areas. Imagine the media hype, the terror, the rush to prepare and evacuate.

In terms of impact on human lives, the drought that is currently strengthening in California is likely to be much like that hypothetical hurricane. Sure, it might ‘miss’ at the last minute and deliver only a glancing blow, but at this point it appears devastation is likely. It won’t bring the same direct loss of life as a hurricane could, but its effects on the economy and ecology of the area may be felt for decades, if not centuries. It’s too early to say for sure, but this could be the Big Drought the people in the know have been talking about for years. I hope I am wrong, but I suspect I am not.

There are, however, a lot of misconceptions bouncing around. Unfortunately, most of them don’t make the situation look much better when resolved… (warning… this is long)

“This is the worst drought California has ever had”

If only that were true. We don’t know how this will end, but in terms of amount of available water, this is unlikely to get close to other events of the past. This scary little 2005 article describes how tree rings reveal numerous droughts striking both the Sierras and the Colorado River watershed at once. The 1800s were a time of extreme weather fluctuations, and in addition to at least one massive flood, the area was hit by several droughts. One of them, along with overgrazing from introduced cattle, may have dealt an essentially fatal blow to the native grasses and wildflowers that previously occurred over much of the state. I have read an account, though I can’t find it now, of a year around that time where Santa Barbara went an entire rainy season without a drop of rain aside from drizzle from fog. There are also accounts from when the Spanish first came to California of a much drier climate. And all of these pale in comparison with the dark secret hidden in some of the granitic lakes of the Sierras… submerged forests. These and other evidence point to droughts that lasted decades, where the forests crept into the basins of drying lakes – and probably died back most other places. If a drought like that were to return (which it will, some day)… well, what would happen to California would make what happened to the Rust Belt look like a minor population blip.
You see… this isn’t a ‘big deal’ in terms of rainfall over the grand scheme of things. But, there are now 38 million people in California. All of them depend on water that falls in the Sierras, in the coast ranges, and what is left of the Colorado River after Phoenix and Las Vegas is done with it. In terms of number of people affected, it may be the worst water shortage in California’s history.

“The governor needed to suspend CEQA/environmental regulations, because people are more important than fish”

Regardless of the importance of human life versus fish life, this is the mother of all false dichotomies. There are not, for instance, bans on watering your lawn in California right now. LANDSCAPING MAKES UP HALF OF ALL RESIDENTIAL WATER USE IN CALIFORNIA.
What the governor is actually saying is that having a freakin sterile postcard of green surrounding your mini-mall is worth obliverating fisheries and destroying whole wetlands, rivers, lakes, and communities. It’s how water has been managed since Mulholland’s day and it is not changing. If everyone got rid of their lawn, except for parks and sports fields, and if people gave up washing their cars and filling up backyard swimming pools they use twice a year, we might get through this drought without any irreversible impacts to the agricultural economy or to wetland and riparian ecosystems that help regulate and clean water flow.
It’s not going to happen though. The band is gonna keep on playing as the ship sinks into an abyss of suburbian dystopic green sod. And if you don’t live in California, don’t think you are immune to this selfish train wreck. Food prices will skyrocket due to failed crop yields before most people get rid of their lawns.

“This is definitely going to be the worst fire season ever in southern California”
Well… fire ecology is complicated. In the Sierras, if a lot of trees die, there may be some nasty fires. But these are a long time coming due to a combination of inappropriate forest management (clearcutting followed by fire suppression), introduced invasive plants, bark beetles, and to some extent climate change. But in the chaparral-covered mountains of LA, the brush may not be any more ‘tinder dry’ come next fall than it was last fall. Chaparral is always pretty flammable after the long dry summer. And assuming it stays very dry, there won’t be as many grasses and weedy plants as most years, so there will actually be less fine fuels. On the other hand, the fire season may be much longer which increases the chance of a bad fire. so it could go either way.

“It’s OK to keep watering my lawn”
No. Please don’t. You are taking water out of the reservoirs and aquifers, and water isn’t coming in to replace it. Do the math.

“Well, LA IS a desert.”
No, it’s not.

There’s more ranting where this came from, but this blog entry is already long enough, so I’m going to leave it at this: the rains and snows could come and turn this into a minor drought rather than a major disaster. Or they may not. We may be entering one of those multi-decade droughts. We just don’t know. All we can do is to try not to be dumb and wasteful with our water. Sadly, for California, even that may be too much to ask.

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A Year of Ice and Salt

The sound of pattering rain is seeping through the windows, rain from a several-day January thaw. The snow has shrank to a thin layer, though it still covers more places than not. The weather brings back memories of two winters ago, when the cold almost completely failed to come, and instead rainstorm after rainstorm moved through, culminating in the sickly feverish heat of a freakish March heat wave the likes of which had not been seen in recorded memory.

The warm winter is, of course, nothing but a memory. This thaw notwithstanding, this winter has featured brutal cold. Twice the temperature at our home has dropped below -20f, and on many days it has dropped below zero. On at least one day, the temperature never ROSE above zero. These coldest days tend to be clear, and for those not accustomed to the weather of cold places, glancing out the window would lead one to believe it is warm out. It is not. The eerie milky crisp clear skies mean deep cold.

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The cold has not failed, but the snow in part has. The weather pattern has been so volatile that despite the cold, most storms have brought warm air with them, often enough to convert their precipitation to rain, or even ice storms. When the ‘Arctic Vortex’ descended on much of the country, a quick-moving storm brought a bubble of warm air shooting north over Vermont. Temperatures shot up, and unexpectedly enough, the sun popped out during a lull in the storm. Between the cold air to the east, and the cold air to the west, a tiny window of warm opened up. A rainbow cast across the sky, the sound of babbling water echoed everywhere, and an unmistakable smell filled the air… wet soil. It’s impossible to realize how ubiquitous this smell is to the outdoors until it vanishes under snow and frozen ground. Green became visible on the ground near our rain garden.

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The cold front was not far behind, however.

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Like most of the storms this winter so far, the first rains fell on cold soils and cold air and froze to everything. More rain followed, but as it ended temperatures plummeted again. On both ends of the storm, ice formed. In some places, after several of these storms, the snow looks like weird cake frosting. The crust is easily thick enough to hold someone walking on it, until they slip and their butt smashes through the thick ice.

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Ice isn’t melted by rain like snow is. In 39 degree rain, ice doesn’t melt much at all. Ice builds up where the snow gets disturbed or moved around… as in driveways.

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Our driveway is an ice slick, and I’ve been throwing everything I can at it to try to melt it. In some cases literally – I tossed a large rock at the ice at one point, and a heavy log, hoping to shatter it. This, not surprisingly, was not successful. I hacked at the ice with different yard tools, because sometimes once it starts flaking off it can all be chipped away. Not this time – it’s frozen intermingled with the gravel of the driveway. I tossed road salt on it… the individual grains melted the ice sure enough – so effectively that they each sunk into little holes and vanished. I tried mixing the salt with water and tossing out the slurry, but it didn’t make much difference. I tried dirt, which does melt into the ice when the sun comes out, if it is warm enough. Wood ash can help with this too – just make sure there aren’t any nails in the ash! Perhaps the most effective is a mix of sand and salt, but it is hard to get in large quantities. After a several day long period of above-freezing days, some of the ice has finally melted, but much of it is still over an inch thick. Cold weather is forecast to return in the next few days. This ice will probably remain well into spring.

The deer don’t do well with deep snow, so they probably are glad to see the thaws. This is near the north end of their range, so those twenty-below nights can’t be easy for them…

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Well… this sort of winter IS good for one thing… building up thick ice on the lakes. The frigid nights lead to thick ice formation, and the occasional rains smash down the snow and create puddles that refreeze into new ice. Once this thaw winds down, if the skiing is still no good, perhaps it will be time to get out the ice skates.

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(and yes, the blog title is referencing a Kim Stanley Robinson book.