30 Aug 2011

Harvest Time in the Forest

posted by Claire Eamer

It's harvest time here in the Yukon, at the northern edge of the boreal forest. The leaves on the aspen trees are beginning to turn sunshine-yellow, the fireweed is crimson, and the high alpine bushes are showing red. People are out in the bush every weekend, picking berries and gathering mushrooms.

So, I might add, are the bears, so the wise human berry-picker makes plenty of noise!

The forest here can look pretty sparse -- spindly trees and a forest floor covered with tiny plants, mosses, and lichens. You'd think that by the time the big two-footers and four-footers were done harvesting, there wouldn't be much left for anyone else.

But you'd be wrong. A lot of little creatures depend on the foods provided by the boreal forest to make it through the long winter, and they're out harvesting too. If you look closely at the tiny plants that flourish beneath the trees and along the forest's edge, you'll find plenty of goodies to gather.

In the alpine, where forest gradually gives way to alpine tundra, pikas are building up their haystacks. A small cousin of rabbits, a pika can stash away 20 kilograms of grasses, leaves, seeds, and flowers over the summer, much of it in large piles just outside the entrance to its burrow. When the winter wind whips across the bare mountainside, driving snow before it, a pika doesn't have to go far for a snack.

Down on the forest floor, the voles are also tucking away winter groceries. They're less ambitious than pikas, and a lot smaller -- like tiny, delicate mice. Still, a single northern red-backed vole might store up to 3 kilograms of seeds, berries, and fungi near its winter burrow.

But voles and many other creatures of the forest floor don't just depend on food hoards all winter. When snow covers all that autumn bounty and the forest looks barren, many of the forest's smallest creatures are still out there, awake and busy.

They scurry around all winter under the snow, in an area called the subnivean zone where the warmth of the ground partially melts the snow above it. There, tiny animals search the buried vegetation or scoot through tunnels in the snow above, still harvesting frozen blueberries, bearberries, cranberries, rosehips, seeds, kinnikinnick berries, fungi, and all the other tiny jewels of the boreal forest's treasure chest.

If you'd like to know more about what people and animals are harvesting in the Yukon forest, Jozien has a blog called Yukon Wild Berries.

To find out more about the physics of the subnivean world, the Cable Natural History Museum of Wisconsin has a nice online article about Subnivean Temperatures.

And here's a nice article in the St. Albert Gazette (Alberta) about subnivean life a little farther south in the boreal forest.

Or you can check out the chapter about life in the cold -- "Ice is Nice" -- in my book Lizards in the Sky: Animals Where You Least Expect Them.

Best of all, go for a walk in the autumn woods, with your local guidebook and a berry bucket. Happy harvest!


23 Aug 2011

Very, Very Fishy

Posted by Vivien Bowers

In late September, I’m off to the salmon spawning creeks along the west coast of Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). For the third year in a row, I get to tag along with a fish biologist who is walking the streams to count the returning fish.

Fishy. Fecund. Fetid. The first time I walked these salmon spawning creeks I dredged up vocabulary I’d never used before. The moist air stinks of rotting fish, bear musk, bird droppings and compost. Hundreds of eviscerated salmon carcasses (which must also be counted) litter the banks. The bears sometimes just tear out the rich fish brains, leaving the rest to scavengers. Crows peck out the eyes, before the eagles chase them off. I’ve seen seagulls so glutted on fish they can hardly take off.

One little, two little, three little salmon...
I scramble after my biologist friend as he makes his way up the creek, eyes alert to shifting underwater shapes and shadows. He tosses a leaf onto the surface of a deep pool, and fish boil to the surface. In amongst the bigger chum there are fleeting dark silhouettes of coho. He uses his little hand-held clicker to record the count.

The rocks in the creek are slippery and scummy. Some of these watersheds have never been logged and we clamber over an obstacle course of moss-covered giant spruce deadfalls. Wading from one bank to another through tannin-brown water, I feel salmon bumping up against my legs.

Do-si-do with Bear
Bears and salmon go together. A researcher on Haida Gwaii found that a single bear will take about 1600 kilograms of salmon from a creek in one season. It will eat only about one half of what it catches; much of the rest decomposes on the forest floor. That’s how bears transfer massive amounts of nutrients from the ocean to the land. They are handy that way.

I appreciate the bears’ important niche in this ecosystem, but it’s a bit unnerving how many of them we meet. Haida Gwaii bears are particularly big. Last year I was on my own, counting fish in a tributary stream, when I came across a large bear scooping fish out of the water. I stomped on a dead branch, hoping to sound like a REALLY BIG bear and scare him off. Instead, the bear was curious and headed towards my noise. Quickly changing strategies, I stood up with a loud, “Hey bear!” He looked startled and fled. I continued upstream, following the salmon's journey deep into the primeval forest.

Vivien Bowers is the author of Wow Canada!, Crime Scene and other books for children. The cartoon panels are from "Swimming Upstream," an episode of the 'WebVoyagers' co
mic strip, written by Bowers and illustrated by Mike Cope, that appears in each issue of The Canadian Reader, published by LesPlan Educational Services Ltd. Vivien Bowers lives in Nelson, BC.

16 Aug 2011

Solar Powered Building at Concordia University

Text and photo by Marie Powell

Buildings use a lot of energy. We only have to see a city at night to realize that. Harnessing the sun to power a skyscraper sounds like the stuff of science fiction - but in Montreal, it's becoming science fact.

Concordia University has been a leading researcher into renewable energy sources for at least 25 years. In December, 2008, it became the site of a unique 17-story building that gets its light and heat from solar power. It's called the John Molson School of Business (left), and it's the first of its kind. I saw this building first-hand in June, at a conference on the Concordia campus in downtown Montreal.

At the very top you can see the dark solar panels across the width of the building, called the solar facade. This facade provides provides both heat and electricity, and is known as a Photovoltaic/Thermal (PV/T) application.

On the Concordia website, there's a useful document explaining how the energy system works, complete with flow charts and close-up pictures of the panels (SBRN Demonstration Solar Project). According to this report, the solar panels take fresh air from outside and heat it as much as 20 degrees on sunny winter days, maximizing energy efficiency even in cold weather. That's important because, overall, buildings use about 30 percent of the secondary energy produced in Canada, such as natural gas and oil, and about half of its electricity. I wonder how much energy could be saved, if all of Canada's buildings got light and heat from solar power.

Many partners collaborated on this project, including Concordia's Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), and Conserval Engineering, a company that won a major Renewable Energy award for the PV/Thermal Solar Wall (this link shows an online video of the award.)

Here are some resources to check for more information:

"Concordia to head research into cold-climate solar power technologies" (Montreal Gazette, June 8 2006)

"Innovative Solar Technology Showcased in State-of-the-art Building," by Laura Nichol (NRCan website, March 2009)

"Le Quartier Concordia - John Molson School of Business," by Christopher Henry (Architecture Daily, July 2011)

SBRN Demonstration Solar Project (pdf document), Concordia website (www.bcee.concordia.ca)

Marie Powell is the author of Dragonflies are Amazing! (Scholastic Canada).

14 Aug 2011

Book Review: Jurassic Poop by Jacob Berkowitz

Title: Jurassic Poop
Author: Jacob Berkowitz
Publisher: Kids Can Press
ISBN: 9781553378600

Book Source: library

That's right.  It's an entire book about fossil feces - more formally known as coprolites.  And what a book it is.   As the jacket blurb says, "Funny and informative, Jurassic Poop is flush with amazing facts, stories, and activities."

The puns, they write themselves - and I'm pretty sure Berkowitz uses most of them.  His tone throughout is light and funny - I'd call it tongue-in-cheek but under the circumstances that's a pretty disgusting thought - and perfectly suited to his middle-grade target audience.

There's a lot more to this book than scat jokes, however; it's full of wide-ranging and totally fascinating information.  Berkowitz covers everything you never knew about fossil doo - its formation, its discovery, and the identification of its sources.  He then goes on to discuss some of the wealth of information that can be gained by studying it.  The book also contains profiles of scat scientists and several activities - including a recipe for scent-free coprolite crafts.

Still not quite convinced?  Jurassic Poop won the 2007 American Institute of Physics Children's Book Award.  And when I hear giggling in the 9-12 nonfiction section at the bookstore, it's usually a sign this book's getting browsed.

For more information on Jacob Berkowitz and his books, you can visit his website, or watch for his posts right here on Sci/Why!


Posted by Lindsey Carmichael.  For more of her children's book reviews, check out her blog, Ten Stories Up.

10 Aug 2011

Henry Ford and the Green Car Revolution

By Judy Wearing

What does the history of invention have to do with modern technology issues?
The name Henry Ford is often associated with inventing the car. He did no such thing, though he did invent several models of car – the Model T being the best known. What Henry Ford did do was turn the car from a rich person’s toy into the main means of family transportation. This was a massive feat. To succeed, Ford had to overcome a long list of obstacles, which bear remarkable similarity to the obstacles facing the popularization of green car technology today.

Ford and his Model T had it rough…
Ford had a mission – at least one car owned by every family in America. To achieve this, he needed to invent a car that was strong enough to travel over rough roads. There were no garages and few mechanics around, so Ford also had to build a car that did not break down. He envisioned a car that was “so strong and so well made that no one ought ever to have to buy another one.”

The problem of price
And, so that every family in America could afford to buy this car, he worked for years and years to perfect the manufacturing process to bring the price down. The Model T in 1909 cost $950; in 1927 it cost $290. His investors did not like this strategy; they wanted to maximize profits. In response, Ford paid off all loans and went it alone.

The list goes on
The technology was expensive – Ford searched far and wide for materials to meet his standards cost-effectively.  Not only were garages and good roads scarce, but so were gas stations, car dealerships, and sales people. Ford had to create businesses to support the sale and maintenance of his cars.

Transporting the materials to build the cars – and getting them to his customers – relied on ships and railroad lines. These industries relied on income from passengers who would no longer need their services if they all had cars to get around. They were reluctant to help him; Ford had to develop his own rail and shipping companies to get around that one!

There was also some public resistance to the changes. Imagine the chaos on the roads, as horse-drawn buggies and generations of people used to travelling by horse were suddenly mixed with loud, fast machines.

The outcome
With ingenuity, Henry Ford overcame all these challenges. In 18 years, 15 million Model Ts were sold; transportation was changed forever.

What would Ford do now?
With the challenges facing society today, it sometimes seems impossible that green transportation can become commonplace enough to bring about the needed reduction in the pollution causing climate change.

The story of Henry Ford suggests that it is not impossible at all, though it will require determination and creativity. As Ford said, “If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, either way you’re right.”

Source: Wearing, J. (2009) Edison’s Concrete Piano: Flying tanks, Six-Nippled Sheep, Walk-on-Water Shoes and 12 other Flops from Great Inventors, ECW Press, Toronto.

7 Aug 2011

Clam Gardens

The practical skills to handle small boats have real-life applications for modern work in the sciences. One field that puts canoes and kayaks to serious use is... intertidal biology! This summer, as a volunteer assistant, I joined a biology project. A friend in Straitwatch passed on an appeal from a biologist for volunteers to stay at an isolated campsite on Quadra Island, and take samples from beaches. Paddling skills were needed, so I brought my little kayak. I joined three other volunteers and Amy Groesbach for five days on the shores of Waiatt Bay, a sheltered inlet with several small islands that make up Octopus Islands Marine Park. Amy Groesbach took these photos. To see lots of pictures of how she and her mentors investigate traditional First Nations clam gardens, go to her Flickr page and check out her photo galleries for those labelled "Clam Garden 2011 - Trip 1" through Trip 4. And here's Amy holding one of the squares she made out of 1-inch PVC tubing, so we could dig holes exactly 25 cm across. We had to dig them 30 cm deep, which is exactly the length from my elbow to my knuckles. In a few beaches, there were experiments placed where Amy buried hand-made mesh bags holding living clams, and retreived them later. I learned how to make a sampling device. A kitchen scrubber called a Tuffy was attached to a ten-inch piece of rebar with a cable tie. Easy as pie. After the rebar was pounded into a clam garden, the Tuffy would collect clam spat. Intertidal biologists have been inventing devices to collect clam spat. Someone tried using kitchen scrubbers, and found the Tuffy brand was particularly effective. The fun part is pounding the rebar into the garden, when the pounding has to be done underwater. Smack! Smack! into the water. "Science! Doing it all for science!" Spit out muddy sea water. "I'm still having fun!" The first time we catalogued clams, both living clams and the shells of dead clams, our group gathered under the tarp over our kitchen area. Seated on five-gallon pails, we hunched over our shells. A rain squall fell around us, and we got chilled and stiff before we were done and dinner could be made. The second time was a sunny afternoon, so after lunch on a rocky slope below a midden across the bay from camp, we set up the calipers and notebooks. Each of us moved into the shade or sunshine at will. Our postures were not hunched this time, but varied from leaning on one elbow like a diner at a Roman feast to laying back against rocky slopes perfectly designed to support our backs and heads. Looking out across the bay was wonderful. I'd always thought that doing science involved wearing lab coats, not bathing suits or my shortie wetsuit. This place was much nicer than a basement lab somewhere. If you look over a clam garden at high tide, from a boat or from the shore, you probably wouldn't see anything to tell you that this is a place shaped by human gardeners. When the tide is a little lower than full, you might guess at the shallows near shore, usually in a small bay or between two rocky points. But when the tide is low, approaching a zero tide, the clam garden is revealed.

From shore it looks like a flat beach, mostly free of rocks bigger than your head. Most of the beach is sediments mixed with small stones and bits of broken clam shell. The shell hash was added deliberately, to send chemical messages to floating clam spat that here was some good clam habitat to settle down and grow! At the edge of the garden is a rocky ledge. Most of these ledges are maybe ankle-high. But if you look past the edge of the ledge, you can see that the sea bottom drops down suddenly. You're standing at the top of a wall made of rocks piled on rocks, four or five thousand years ago or more.

To learn more about traditional clam gardens, check out the book Clam Garden by Judith Williams. You can read more about it at the publisher's website.