Peak Foliage

Peak Foliage
October on Preston Pond

Brief History of Preston Pond

Born from glaciers about 13,500 years ago, the original pond was only what is now the wider north end. Probably about 10,000 years ago, as the modern forest started to take root, beavers colonized the pond and expanded it (old dams are under the water surface).

With the arrival of Europeans in New York and coastal New England, a vigorous fur trade grew in the 17th Century. Beavers are particularly vulnerable to trapping since they are easy to find and they were wiped out by the 18th Century. With no beavers to maintain the dams, Preston Pond drained and appears on 18th and 19th Century maps as only the smaller original glacial north end.

Reintroduction in the 1920's and 1930's led to beavers recolonizing Preston Pond. By chance, they arrived the same year my grandfather bought the property in 1946. Ever since then, beavers have lived unmolested (by humans) on Preston Pond - until February 2016. They have never caused flooding problems or over-eaten the surrounding forest stand to the point that they abandoned the pond. Their population has doubtlessly had its ups and downs, but they have managed their affairs here for the last 70 years as beavers did for millions of years: on their own, despite some of their top predators having been exterminated by humans.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

“UnWater” and “UnWinter”

There was a remarkable sight on Preston Pond a few days ago. It was an odd day to start with for late February; 50 degrees and raining lightly. Nainette and Shiloh needed to be aired out before breakfast, so as is our wont, we wandered over to the pond. It is a generally peaceful start to the day and we occasionally see wildlife or stirring effects of light and water.  What we found was befittingly odd for the weirdly warm morning: the ice had sunk.

Ice shouldn’t sink. That is a basic tenet of physics upon which all life depends; even the dogs took interested note of it. Lacking higher educations, they soon resumed sniffing and peeing on things, but I stood in the pleasant (though slightly disturbing) warmth and gentle rain, looking out over the beaver dam musing about the ice.

At Mt. Mansfield Union High School in 1973, Mr. Smith ("Uncle Bob") assigned a creative writing project to us in Advanced Science. We were to write a paper premised on a key physical trait of one of several molecules not being true. I chose to write about water not being a bipolar molecule. I titled it “UnWater” and argued that if water were not bipolar, life, and the entire Earth as we know it, could not exist (it’s an easy argument). The bipolarity of water (slight negative charge to the oxygen atom and slight positive to the hydrogen atoms) is why water is a universal solvent and critical for almost every aspect of all known life. It is also why ice floats. As water cools, like most matter, its molecules slow and crowd together so that the liquid becomes more dense – until the temperature reaches 32 F (0 C). Then the attraction that the slight positive and negative charges on different molecules have for each other overcomes the declining energy of motion in the cooling liquid and forces the molecules to expand into a crystal matrix – ice – like a mob of students crowded around a scuffle having to take their seats when the vice principal shows up. This makes ice an odd solid in that it is less dense than its liquid form and voila; it floats. So the pond ice should have been floating too. Something was up.

And that something was the water. The rain had been heavy at times over night. I could see silt covering much of the submerged ice, especially on the east shore where a couple of streams come in. Another interesting symptom of what was going on was that the ice in the middle of the pond was obeying the rules and floating. As the dogs finished up and started bugging for breakfast, the puzzle came into focus. The shore ice must have frozen to the bank and been unable to move as the water rose. As for the middle, the ice is very thin this year and so had enough flex to float up as the streams swelled in and flooded the edges. Well, that explained the sunken ice, but underscored two other disquieting phenomena: thin ice on the pond and rain in February.

These two February oddities have been accompanied by little or no snow, and they follow on a surreally warm, record shattering Twilight Zone of a Christmas Eve (more on that in a bit). Having just been recalling UnWater, I found myself thinking of it as our UnWinter (though March has yet to weigh in). Such a warm winter inevitably brings to mind the hot-button topic of human generated global climate change and, at least at first flush, would seem to support it. However, are all of these oddities really harbingers of humans firing up the biosphere? The severity of winter and weather in general has varied famously in Vermont ever since records have been kept, and Vermont is one small part of the globe. So that it is raining in February and the ice on Preston Pond is thin does not necessarily mean anything relative to climate, let alone global climate. On the other hand, this “UnWinter” would be consistent with a warming Earth. The logical thin ice here is confusing weather for climate. A particularly well publicized example was Senator James Inhofe’s melodramatic presentation of a snowball in the U.S. Senate last February, putatively disproving the idea of global climate change, which it no more did than someone bingeing on Ben & Jerry’s disproves world hunger. More generally a University of New Hampshire study of political independents showed that, as a group, their views on global climate literally change with the local weather.
As for the liberal and conservative ends of the political spectrum, while Democrats and Republicans each may use examples of weather to make dubious assertions about climate, it is often in service of positions they have already formed, seemingly at least in part due to their respective political philosophies more than objective science. UNH studied this phenomenon too (, as did a wider ranging paper summarizing many such studies in the February 22, 2016 online version of “Nature Climate Change.”
To a degree, you can hardly blame some for being skeptical; finding patterns and making predictions of complex systems can be absurdly difficult, and people in general hate change. However, there are smaller scale analogues that are instructive. As a freelance advertising artist in Manhattan in the late ‘70’s to early ‘90’s, many of my colleagues and I were in a constant search for reassuring patterns in our wildly fluctuating incomes every time the phone didn’t ring for a day. But by stepping back from the day to day and weekly gyrations, we found meaningful (and reassuring) patterns in months and years. This is the basic difference between weather and climate too: time. However, the constant “noise” of short term change still makes it difficult to tell when long term changes are in the works.

Back in my midtown studio, I kept rationalizing reassuring patterns even after what were, especially in hindsight, loud alarms. My yearly income dropped for the first time in ’88, but it was still good and even though it stayed down in ’89, I rationalized that maybe it was just part of an even longer term variation. Then, at the end of ‘89 the handwriting on the wall appeared (ironically disguised as the highlight of my career): a client called with the 1990 SuperBowl logo. Normally this meant I would work with the agency to design it. However, my dreams of football glory deflated when the job arrived. Instead of some rough initial sketches from the art director, I was presented with a completed layout done on one of the new fangled computer programs. The only thing they needed from me was to render the final camera-ready art because computer images at the time were too pixilated. At that moment I became a trained monkey, and was about to become a dinosaur. And I kind of knew it. Change is very hard though, so I kept rationalizing patterns and hoping against the evidence for another couple of years - I became a "denier" – until my income was barely more than my mortgage. The refusal to act on what I knew was coming cost my family enormous trauma (we’re all good now) and arguably, my marriage. Climate, driven by processes ranging from the atomic to cosmic and composed of myriad interwoven negative and positive feedback loops, is astronomically more complex than the economic vagaries of advertising art; and the fate of the biosphere is at stake rather than that of a few artists and their families. Of course, like my family, the biosphere will come through OK – eventually. The question is whether our comfortable civilization will – if that is, there really is a climate change problem which we are causing and can do anything about.
So, are there significant patterns to our winters? Three inches of ice in the dead of winter is not normal here and it is not just this season. For many years now, it has often been a dicey proposition to go out on Preston Pond in certain areas. At the risk of proving myself a curmudgeon, when I was a kid, the ice on Preston Pond would get 18 inches thick or more. We had a game we called “golf,” where we would shovel a clear patch on the pond, chop one foot deep pits into the ice at various points and take turns shooting pucks into the pits. We scored it like golf. Lake Champlain ice would be two feet as I knew all too well from hand augering the holes when we went ice fishing. As of this moment (March 1), the main lake is open – it is unfrozen. That has happened in 65% of the winters since 2000: 27% of the winters in the 1900’s and 3.5% of the winters in the1800’s according to National Weather Service data at Burlington. In the 1880’s, the lumber yards in Burlington would put down hay, lay track and run a locomotive over the ice to Plattsburgh. On an April 15th in the 1980’s, VT Fish and Wildlife drove a truck out on Preston Pond to stock lake trout fingerlings. The ice was thick and no one worried about going through; not in January, February, or March; and not in much of December or April. A long lasting decline from 18+ inches to 3 inches (>83%) on Preston Pond (and two feet to nothing on Champlain at Burlington) is a pattern, and local as it is, it is almost certainly no longer weather, but climate.

Whether (sorry) it is climate change or not does not seem to be much of a question to most of the scientific community, though the battle rages on in the public/political sphere. That battle is understandable given the economic and political stakes and our species’ general aversion to change; and even if a broad consensus is reached that human-fired climate change is real, there almost certainly will remain legitimate questions about what its effects will be, how long they will take to occur, and what policies are best to deal with them. However, if the bulk of climate researchers are correct, and we are heating the biosphere, my worry is that many people, politicians and policy makers among them, are likely going to wait like I did in New York. The trauma my family and I went through, repeated on a world-wide scale, could trigger social and economic upheaval that could break civilization. 

Gazing out on Preston Pond in the warm February rain, something clicked into place. I recognized that I’d had, for lack of a better term, a “SuperBowl Logo Moment” back on Christmas Eve. It was disguised within a lovely treat of a day, but ominous when thrown into the midst of years of on again off again winters, unreliable ice, and the warmest fall on record. 67 F (and partly sunny) was indeed a bizarre and record shattering temperature for Christmas Eve in Vermont, but that was not what created the Twilight Zone sensation referred to earlier. It wasn’t even the salamanders in the pond or the frogs singing – though I did feel the opening scenes were rolling. It was my wife Bonnie’s voice, like Rod Serling’s intoning our arrival at the eerie station stop: “Oh, Rob - Look!” I turned back – and then glanced down. My only excuse for not seeing it is a rather weak “who would expect to?” I had just stepped over a gorgeous young garter snake sunning in the leaves - on Christmas Eve.  
Garter snake near Preston Pond Christmas Eve 2015. Photo: Rob Mullen

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