Water-Liquid Life

Spring Runnoff in Cottonwood Creek near Sandbagged Home From "Spring Run-off Dangers Ahead," Unified Fire Department Chief Mike Watson Courtesy Cottonwood Heights City
Spring Runnoff in Cottonwood Creek near Sandbagged Home
From “Spring Run-off Dangers Ahead,” by Unified Fire Department Chief Mike Watson
Courtesy Cottonwood Heights City
It’s springtime in the Rockies, and Utah’s northern rivers are engorged with liquid life- and have been for what seems like months now. After a winter of record snowfall, the spring heat and a miniature monsoon season have raised our local waters to levels not seen in decades. During this exceptional seasonal runoff, it’s easy to forget that we still live in the second-most arid state in the Union. Nonetheless, this seasonal plethora of the wet stuff is an ardent reminder that, even here, it is water we Utahns have to thank for our most prestigious landscapes and the diversity of flora and fauna that call these places home.

It has, in most cases, taken quite a lot of time, though. Consider the Great Salt Lake: Utah’s most iconic landmark. It’s a remnant of prehistoric Lake Bonneville-itself the pluvial product of slow glaciation and rainwater collection. Thousands upon thousands of years of evaporative sun exposure, though, shrank Lake Bonneville and changed the local climate and ecosystem into what we have today, a salty inland sea implanted within an arid, Mediterranean climate. Though deprived of its acreage- and being immensely saltier than its predecessor- The Great Salt Lake supports an incredibly diverse and highly complex ecosystem. Concocted by the mixture of ancient salts and fresh water provided by the Jordan, Weber, and Bear Rivers, the wetland ecosystems on the fringes of the Great Salt Lake play host to millions of migratory birds each year that are travelling along the Pacific Flyway. Without these oases, the diversity of Utah’s waterfowl-and wildlife at large- would dwindle drastically.

One cannot speak of water’s effect upon Utah’s landscapes without singing the praises of the wondrous redrock canyons that dissect our state’s southern reaches. The force of water upon the high desert of Utah’s allocation of Colorado Plateau is intermillenial, hydrological poetry. Ancient Jurassic and Cretaceous seas deposited layer upon colorful layer of various sediments before heat, pressure, and the recession of shorelines turned them to stone. Water then went back to work within a new climate upon an old geography with rare but violent torrents of flashing floods that sliced ever deeper and more intricate cleavages into the sandstone. I remember visiting one particularly beautiful slot canyon with my wife. The fossilized wave action we spotted above the rim was preserved below as well with streaks of sediment mismatched and displaced into a beautiful kaleidoscope of reds, oranges, and purples. Water’s work was not finished here, though. Dispersed along the distant trail into the best parts of this remote canyon, there were desert riparian jungles of small cottonwoods, mosses, and ferns that harbored ephemeral pools dotted with water striders and even the occasional canyon tree frog.

Street Flooding Box Elder County 2017 Courtesy https://dem.utah.gov/2017/03/31/news-release-gov-herbert-declares-state-of-emergency-for-february-flooding/
Street Flooding Box Elder County 2017
Courtesy https://dem.utah.gov/2017/03/31/news-release-gov-herbert-declares-state-of-emergency-for-february-flooding/
Water is a fickle beast, though- crucial to maintaining life but behaving without regard for its endeavors. The same forces of hydrology that created the Great Salt Lake, our richly diverse wetland ecosystems, and the stunning desert landscapes we love to explore can likewise wreak havoc upon our daily lives. Consider the recent deluge in Cache Valley. Several weeks ago, our northern valley was inundated with precipitation, leaving some families stranded in their low-lying homes with no access to the nearest road. A friend of mine who runs a canoe rental business told tale of making deliveries to homes so that people could commute from the end of their driveway to their front door. Perhaps no other force of nature can be so frustrating yet so gratifying; so plentiful yet so fleeting. It’s a wild thing, water. It is a miraculous ubiquity that, even in the driest places, leaves an indelible mark upon the landscape and the lives that inhabit it.

For Wild About Utah this is Josh Boling

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy & Copyright Cottonwood Heights City
Text: Josh Boling

Sources & Additional Reading

Water Week, Eli Robinson, USU Water Quality Extension program, May 8, 2017, http://wildaboututah.org/utah-water-week/

Water Properties, Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center, Nov 17,2014, http://wildaboututah.org/water-properties/

Tree Talk

Quaking Aspen Sleek stands of quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) grow in Zion's higher elevations Courtesy National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior
Quaking Aspen
Sleek stands of quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) grow in Zion’s higher elevations
Zions National Park
Courtesy National Park Service
U.S. Department of the Interior
The next time you take a walk in the deep woods or even a stroll through a local park, listen closely. You may hear the trees ‘whispering in the wind.’ We use this familiar phrase to describe the soothing sounds of a gentle breeze through the forest canopy; but it may delight and surprise many to know that this figure of speech is now a proven scientific fact. The trees are talking.

They don’t talk like you and I talk, of course. The spoken word is foregone by the plant kingdom, for now. Theirs is a much subtler form of communication. ‘The Wood Wide Web’, as the scientific journal Nature once dubbed it, is the woodland social network. Within it, trees send electric signals coursing through their roots in order to relay important messages to their neighbors.

Travelling at the speed of about a third of an inch every minute, these timber telegrams take quite a while to accomplish such a task; but what this system lacks in speed, it makes up for with complexity. A tree’s roots will often expand through the soil to an area twice the width of its crown, resulting in the ability of a single tree to grasp the roots of and pass messages to multiple far-away friends at once.

In undisturbed soils, these messages can be expedited symbiotically. Subsoil fungal networks, which intertwine with the roots of trees for nourishment sake, can relay messages much more quickly by connecting otherwise distant, unconnected trees to one another. This becomes quite important when the message pertains to danger: an invasion of damaging pests, for instance.

Usually, though, if a tree needs to get a warning out to its neighbors more quickly, it will do so by other means. When trees are attacked, they emit scent compounds through their leaves. These arboreal aromas can be registered by distant parts of the same tree, far-flung trees in the same grove, or, amazingly, even members of the animal kingdom, which trees will summon to their defense. Even more astonishing is that each scent is custom-catered. Trees will identify their attacker by its saliva and emit a corresponding pheromone meant to attract that attacker’s natural predators. Once they are warned of an invading pest, other trees in the grove may respond similarly.

The usefulness of a tree’s ability to communicate with its neighbors goes beyond emergency warnings or the spreading of other important information. Trees have developed a sophisticated redistribution system in which the strongest trees compensate for weaker ones by sharing their surpluses of sugar. In fact, this system is so efficient that, in the end, each individual tree is nourished at the same rate of photosynthesis. This means that every tree in a grove receives the same amount of sugar per leaf in its crown as every other tree, regardless of its own ability to photosynthesize. As it turns out, trees are highly sociable beings. They take responsibility for friends and family members and see to it that their loved ones are well cared for.

Not all groves are created equal, though. These natural behaviors can be inhibited by intensive thinning of wild groves or absent altogether in planted, monocultural forests. However, when granted enough space and time to be itself, even the most artificial forest can ‘return to its roots.’

So, whenever you find yourself following that wooded path into the forest, think of what secret messages might be coursing through the soil or floating invisibly upon the airwaves? Consider these possibilities, and your walks may now be a little more mysterious.

For Wild About Utah this is Josh Boling

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy & Copyright
Text: Josh Boling

Sources & Additional Reading