Aqua + Terra=Wetlands

Fortuitously, I spotted on my calendar that May is American Wetlands Month (by the decree of somebody).  This is also a time of year, when in the northern climes at least, there are more wetlands present than later in the year.

Snow melt and spring rains create a soggy landscape for us.

Some areas tend to be wetter than others, some permanently so.  In fact, for a bit of land to be considered a wetland it must have standing water for at least seven consecutive days.  That means that that low spot on your driveway that holds water for three days after a rainstorm doesn’t count.

However, the “pond” down the street that is dry and cracked by July does.

 

In the Midwest, wetlands contain the most biodiversity over any other type of ecosystem.  Mammals like beavers, muskrats, and water shrews tend to be year-round residents.  Birds of all feathers rest, feed, nest, and breed in wetlands.  Amphibians and reptiles spend their time slithering, sunning, swimming, and jumping in the water, on logs and rocks, and nearby land.  Fish are…well, fish are where fish should be.  Countless invertebrates dwell below the water’s surface and on the plants and land and in the sky above.  Lastly, many specialized plant species can only be found in wetlands.

Lake Huron pitcher plants

Wetlands serve a purpose beyond their beauty.  They provide what is known as ecosystem services.  In a crass so-called economic age, we sometimes have to assign a dollar value on the things that nature provides for free.

Wetlands purify and filter water.  They can trap and neutralize something as disgusting as sewage waste and can decompose toxic substances, too.

As was seen with Hurricane Katrina (and others) in the American South, wetlands provide a buffer against flooding and erosion.  They hold water during drier times as well.

Wetland plants cycle nutrients through the ecosystem and provide food and shelter to all kinds of creatures.  Additionally, they add oxygen and are part of the flood control built in to wetlands.

Lastly, wetlands provide numerous recreational activities from hunting and fishing to photography, canoeing and kayaking, hiking, and simply enjoying the space.

According to a late 2013 AP article,

The eight-state Great Lakes region — extending from western New York to eastern Minnesota– was the only section of the U.S. where coastal wetland acreage increased during a five-year period when scientists took extensive measurements with satellites and field photography.

The gain was modest — 13,610 acres, an area not quite as large as the New York City borough of Manhattan. Yet it happened as the rest of the nation’s coastal wetlands shrank by 360,720 acres. The loss amounted to less than 1 percent of the U.S. total, but continued a longtime negative trend.

Historically, 75% of wetland loss in Michigan can be attributed to agriculture.  Though nationwide, industry, commercial and residential development have contributed to their drainage and disappearance.

Michigan had an estimated 11 million acres of wetlands prior to European/American settlement.  Now we’re down to about 3 million.  That’s not a few dead frogs.

Wetlands can be classified into five kinds (these are freshwater only–you salties have some different kinds particular to you).

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Not a Michigan wetland.

Marshes are essentially flooded grasslands with perhaps a few trees per acre.  They contain standing water anywhere from an inch to several feet.  So, find out the depth before you go trudging out there.

Swamps are the woodier cousins of marshes as they are flooded woodlands with many more trees per acre.  Up until the last ten years I didn’t know the difference between swamps and marshes and used the terms interchangeably.  You can no longer use ignorance as your excuse.

Bogs are closed systems where rainfall is the only “new” water that enters.  Bogs are highly acidic (unlike fens, which are alkaline).  Sometimes they have open water and others are covered with saturated peaty soil topped with a lovely layer of sphagnum moss.  If you want to find carnivorous plants, bogs are the place to be.

Don't try this without a net

Don’t try this without a net

Vernal ponds, most likely there’s one in your neighborhood if you have some green space are temporary and almost always dry by high summer.  If you look carefully you might find fairy shrimp flitting around in the water or salamanders lurking nearby.

Grand Ledge, MI

Vernal pond, Grand Ledge, MI

The Great Lake states also have coastal wetlands, too.

Given the copious, emergent vegetation, wetlands can be difficult to explore at times.  But if you can find a clearing you should be able to observe fish, crustaceans, amphibians and reptiles, birds, mammals, and terrestrial and aquatic insects.  It’s worth the effort.  Next to Atlantic tidal pools, Great Lakes wetlands are my favorite ecosystems.

Obviously, get outside, explore your wetlands.  They might not be there come July.

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“…Snow on snow…”

Yesterday was the winter solstice, so that means here in the northern hemisphere daylight will eke out a tiny bit more time everyday. Perhaps paradoxically, that also means that the temperatures will stay lower and snow will begin to accumulate in the northern climes if it hasn’t already.
Southeast Michigan has had some cold days and nights and about four inches of snow in my neighborhood, though it’s down to about one on the ground due to the rain from the last two days.
This month’s challenge is about solid water aka snow. If you live far enough north (or south) you should see some falling during the winter months.
Water in itself is a fascinating substance. When H2o molecules bond, they form 105 degree bonds which allows for quite a bit of molecular space. What does that mean? Simply put, solid water is less dense than liquid water–hence ice floats. Check it out the next time you put ice in your beverage.
Turkey(s) in the snowFor snow to form you need two things: atmospheric moisture and temperatures close to freezing. I guess some people have said that it can be too cold to snow, but that’s nonsense. As long as there’s enough moisture in the air, snow can form.
Most snowflakes are less than a 1/2″ across but some can be as large as two inches (I always called the larger, fluffier flakes “goose feathers”).
Snow is white because the way that the ice crystals form there is a relatively large amount of surface area to reflect sunlight and visible sunlight is white. However, in glaciers, blue is a prominent color, and in deep snow too.
When you go outside to explore the snow this month pay attention to your voice and other sounds. Snow absorbs sound, so your backyard and neighborhood will have a different aural quality if enough snow falls.
As I’m reading The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my eleven-year-old daughter currently, I learned that a blizzard, which engulfed the town the Ingalls lived in, by definition is a heavy, blowing snowfall that lasts for at least three hours. The Ingalls and neighbors endured three days of blizzard  sometime in the late 19th century.

White pine seedling in snow

White pine seedling in snow

If, in your travels in the winter, you happen to get stranded or lost, dig yourself a hole in the snow. Snow happens to be a good insulator and the layer closest to the ground is usually around 32 degrees, which is still cold, but it could be warmer than the 25, 18, or 3 degrees above the snow pack.
Another wonderful thing about winter is the ease in tracking animals. The nature of snow allows for evidence of birds and mammals to be left behind for you to follow or attempt to investigate what kinds have been around.4302872146_ee4d9cc484
So, ignore the cold (safely), play in the snow. Track animals, build a snow cave, pack a snowball. Go outside.