I Love the Four Seasons

Red Admiral Butterfly, Thomas G. Barnes, US FWS Digital Library
Red Admiral Butterfly
Thomas G. Barnes
US FWS Digital Library

Glacier Lilies
Erythronium grandiflorum
Copyright © 2010 Andrea Liberatore


I love the four seasons. Having spent my 72 years residing in the mid latitudes, I’ve learned to celebrate each of our seasons, but especially spring!

This is the rebirth flush with abundant water, new greenery, and air filled with bird song and sweet aromas as new flowers perfume the air hoping to lure in a pollinator.

With mid-April upon us and our 42 degree latitude, spring is in full swing here in northern Utah! Winter departs grudgingly slapping us with snow squalls intermingled with glorious, early summer days, a wild roller coaster ride which I truly enjoy!
I’m an avid phenology follower. Phenology is the study of how life adapts to seasonal changes. I revel in the first floral bloom, the first neotropical birds returning from Latin America with a heart full of song, and newly emerged, gaudy butterflies.

With a relatively stable climate, until recently, the timing of these events has evolved to near perfection
Let’s take a closer look at some of these phenomena. I’ll begin with our neotropical birds such as lazuli buntings, yellow warblers, and Western tanagers to mention a few. These species spend over half of their year in Mexico, Central and South America flying thousands of miles to for the breeding and nesting season in the Intermountain West. This may seem a bit extreme for these tiny flurries of life.

On closer inspection, you will find they have good reason for this daunting and dangerous task. The tropics have a relatively stable climate without the dramatic seasonal change that we experience. This results in relatively stable populations of flowers and insects, the primary food sources for most species. Further, the ratio of daylight to darkness is nearly constant with 12 hours of each. Our days lengthen as we journey toward summer solstice with nearly 16 hours of daylight! This allows a burst of energy to flow through ecosystems resulting in eruptive populations of insects and floral bloom. It also offers long hours of daylight for parents to gather food for their young which grow rapidly toward fledglings, thus reducing the possibility of predation and also preparing them for the arduous flight south as fall approaches.

Let’s examine flowers and insects. With our very warm winter and spring, I was expecting a much earlier arrival of both and was not disappointed. I counted 17 species of flowers by the second week of April! And butterflies were on a similar schedule with 9 different species during the last week of March- remarkably early! Although delighted, it occurred to me that returning birds may not be so pleased. If the flowers begin to fade, and insects begin their downward slide at the peak of birds rearing their young, trouble is afoot! A five year Audubon study revealed that 1/3 of our birds are predicted to be severely impacted by these rapid climate shifts.

On a more positive note, spring will continue as will bird song, vernal waterfalls, eruptions of wildflowers and butterflies. And spring repeats itself as we move to higher elevations. As cornices on our mountain ridges recede, up pops flowers for yet another spring bloom, and with them butterflies, bees, and birds!

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, US FWS
Pictures Lilies: Copyright © 2010 Andrea Liberatore
Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

https://wildaboututah.org/usa-national-phenology-network/

Best Snow

Skier at Brian Head
Photo Courtesy USDA Forest Service

As the mountains begin to take on hues of scarlet, gold and russet, many Utahns might be looking eagerly toward the coming months when those slopes will be blanketed in white. The Utah ski industry nurtures a whopping annual income of about $800 million dollars. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the state claims to have the “greatest snow on earth.” In fact, the state of Utah managed to make their slogan a federal trademark in 1995 after winning a lawsuit brought by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus group, who felt the catchy marketing phrase might be confused with their slogan, the Greatest Show on Earth.

The trademark must have worked, because Utah draws so many visitors to its slopes, it racks up about 4 million skier days annually. But disregard plenty of evidence that we do indeed draw a crowd, and the statement is pretty subjective. So what’s the science behind our legendary powder?

The ideal condition skiers hope for is a deep, fluffy snow that creates the illusion of bottomless powder. And finding it is a bit like the Goldilocks story. Too wet, and you bog down. Too dry, and there’s not enough body to create a floating sensation beneath the ski. If the terrain is too steep, the powder won’t stick. And if it’s not steep enough, you can’t build sufficient momentum to glide over the top.

To get to the bottom of why Utah’s snow is just right, we actually have to look even further westward, toward the slow warm waters of the North Pacific current. As water laden clouds move inland, snow first falls over the Cascades in the north and the Sierra Nevadas further south, with an average moisture content of 12%. Even in areas like Washington’s Mt. Baker, where annual snowfall comes in greater quantities than Utah, the moister maritime snow creates a heavy base that bogs down skis. By the time these winter storms cross the Great Basin and reach the skiers’ Mecca of Alta and the Wasatch Range, the moisture content will have decreased to about 8.5%. And that seems to be the sweet spot. The moisture content of Utah’s intermountain snow is just enough that powder from our first storms settles into a soft but voluminous base. As winter progresses, fresh snow falls in a cold and mostly arid environment, forming very fine, symmetrical crystals called dendrites. The microscopic structure of dendrites allows them to accumulate in well ventilated, incompact drifts, much like the puffy down in your favorite pillow or ski jacket.

And perfect powder isn’t the only advantage Utah’s ski resorts have over their neighbors. Our mountainous topography, with its wealth of winding canyons, means we have an abundance of slopes well protected from strong winds which could compact or carry away fresh snowfall. And while so many cold and overcast days might get you down, it also protects our top powder from radiation and air mass effect, which can create a crust along the surface. And that means our freshly fallen powder sticks around for longer.

So consider that Utah offers 26,000 acres of mountain, blanketed in more than 500 annual inches of perfect intermountain snow, and it’s no wonder we enjoy 5 times the number of “powder days” as our neighbors. “The Greatest Snow on Earth” starts sounding a lot less subjective, and more like truth. In fact, you just might be tempted to make like Goldilocks and make yourself at home.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Ru Mahoney.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy USDA Forest Service, fs.usda.gov
Text:     Ru Mahoney, Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.


Additional Reading:

Autumn Leaf Color Change

Click for a closer view of Fall color in Logan Canyon, Courtesy and Copyright Linda Kervin
Fall color in Logan Canyon
Courtesy & Copyright 2007 Linda Kervin

In autumn, the days shorten noticeably and chilly dawns become the norm across most of Utah. Leafy plants now prepare for winter. Their summer of intense metabolic activities gradually give way to winter’s dormancy. Photosynthesis and respiration shut down as nutrients and sugars are withdrawn from leaves, to be shunted to the stem and roots for storage. But how do they anticipate the change in seasons so that they are ready for the rigors of winter?

Photosynthetic plants have a diverse array of pigments that they use to capture energy from most of the spectrum of visible sunlight. Chlorophyll is the most abundant, but its light gathering effectiveness is limited to a narrow band of the light spectrum. Plants employ many additional pigments to capture the energy available from other wavelengths of sunlight. These accessory pigments are brilliantly colored but masked by the sheer abundance of green chlorophyll.

Click for a closer view of Fall color in Logan Canyon, Courtesy and Copyright Linda Kervin
Fall color in Logan Canyon
Courtesy & Copyright 2007 Linda Kervin

One of these pigments, phytochrome, serves as a timekeeper for the plant. When phytochrome absorbs energy in the red band of sunlight, it helps to activate a number of developmental processes in the plant. As the nights lengthen in the fall, there are fewer hours of sunlight to activate the phytochrome and so it transforms to inhibit those same developmental processes.

One result is that chlorophyll is broken down and its components are moved to storage for use in the following spring. Essential nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are likewise withdrawn from foliage for later use. With chlorophyll gone, the other colorful leaf pigments are revealed. Now maples, aspens, sumacs and more blaze for a few weeks of riotous glory.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Linda Kervin

Text: Linda Kervin and Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Chemistry of Autumn Leaf Color, How Fall Colors Work, About.com: Chemistry, http://chemistry.about.com/library/weekly/aa082602a.htm

Why Do Leaves Change Color in the Fall?, Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D., About.com: Chemistry, http://chemistry.about.com/od/howthingsworkfaqs/f/fallleafcolor.htm

“Autumn: a season of change” (2000) by Peter J. Marchand, http://www.amazon.com/Autumn-Season-Peter-J-Marchand/dp/0874518709

Where to see autumn leaves in Utah:

  • U.S. 89, Logan Canyon, Brigham City to Logan, Logan to Bear Lake
  • State Route 39, Monte Christo Summit, east of Huntsville
  • State Route 190, Big Cottonwood Canyon, east of Salt Lake City, including Guardsman Pass
  • State Route 210, Little Cottonwood Canyon, east of Salt Lake City
  • State Route 92, the Mount Timpanogos loop a.k.a. the Alpine loop, north, east of Provo
  • State Route 150, the Mirror Lake road, east of Kamas
  • U.S. 40, Daniels Summit, east of Heber City
  • Vernal, Red Cloud Loop (See Dinoland.com)
  • Flaming Gorge – Unitas, State Route 191 and State Route 44
  • State Route 132 Payson to Nephi, the Nebo Loop
  • State Route 31, the Wasatch Plateau, east of Fairview
  • State Route 12, over Boulder Mountain, between Torrey and Boulder (likely the most spectacular of all)
  • The La Sal Mountain loop, east of Moab
  • The Abajo Mountain loop, west of Monticello
  • The canyons of the Escalante River, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, southeast of Escalante

List sources:
Aspens and Fall Foliage in Utah, Jeffrey Otis Schmerker, 2001, http://www.utah.com/schmerker/2001/fall_foilage.htm

Ogden Valley Business Association, http://www.utahfallcolors.com

Fall Colors Tour, Utah in the Fall is a blast of color!, http://www.utah.com/byways/fallcolorstour.htm

National Forest Fall Color Hotline, 1-800-354-4595,http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r4/recreation/?cid=fsbdev3_016189

USA National Phenology Network

Audio:  mp3 Listen to WildAboutUtah

Courtesy USA National Phenology Network

The study of recurring plant and animal life cycle events is phenology. It is the calendar of nature. This includes when plants flower, when birds migrate and when crops mature. Phenology is relevant to interactions between organisms, seasonal timing and large-scale cycles of water and carbon. Phenology is important to us for many reasons. Farmers need to know when to plant and harvest crops and when to expect pests to emerge. Resource managers use it to monitor and predict drought and assess fire risk. Vacationers want to know when the best fall colors will be or when the wildflower blooms will peak. Timing varies but we can discern patterns.

The USA National Phenology Network monitors the influence of climate on the phenology of plants, animals and landscapes. They encourage people to observe phenological events such as flowering, migrations and egg laying. The Phenology Network provides a place to enter, store and share these observations, which are then compiled and analyzed nationwide. Participants range from individual observers in their own backyards to professional scientists monitoring long-term plots. My husband and I monitor leafing and flowering of lilacs, a key species in the program.

These observations support a wide range of decisions made routinely by citizens, managers, scientists and others. This includes decisions related to allergies, wildfires, pest control, and water management.

I urge you to participate. The National Phenology Network has many public, private and citizen partners. It is a great way to become involved in a nation-wide effort to better understand our environment. All this information and much more is available at the National Phenology website, to which there is a link from our Wild About Utah website.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Text: Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Additional Reading:

USA National Phenology Network, http://www.usanpn.org/

North American Bird Phenology Program, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bpp/BecomeAParticipant.cfm