Minna Ernestine Jewell (1892-1985) was an early 20th century aquatic ecologist and zoologist who studied Midwestern aquatic habitats extensively. Although she has gained some recognition for her contributions in ecology, a fact that has gone unreported is her brief affiliation with the Illinois State Water Survey.
Jewell was born Feb. 9, 1892 in Irving, Kansas, the fourth of seven children of Lyman Leander and Mary Jane Moores Jewell. Her parents had been neighbors and schoolteachers in Blue Rapids Township prior to marrying. The family owned a farm in Irving, Kansas where Minna lived until she graduated from Irving High School in 1910. Jewell enrolled at Colorado College in 1910, where she studied biology and graduated with honors in 1914. Yearbooks show she participated in the social life of the campus, engaged in extracurriculars such as the Dramatic Club, and had a wry sense of humor. Parasitologist William Walter Cort was a biology instructor at Colorado College during Jewell’s junior year, in between his MA and PhD work in zoology at the University of Illinois. Cort may have influenced Jewell’s interest in zoology and in pursuing graduate work, as well as her choice of graduate schools.
Despite serving a single term, Jimmy Carter ranks as one of the most consequential U.S. presidents when it comes to environmentalism, according to historians, conservationists and several former federal officials.
History professor Robert Morrissey wrote in his new book, People of the Ecotone, about how the ecology of the tallgrass prairie shaped the culture and created unique opportunities for the Indigenous people who lived there.
Read the full story from MARUM – Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen.
How is the weather changing as a consequence of global warming? Climate archives provide valuable glimpses into past climate changes, especially into the processes that drive our planet from one climate setting to the next. For humans and ecosystems, however, time spans of just weeks to years, which are the scope of weather events, are often most important. Using a newly developed and tested analytical method, these two aspects have now been merged and the impacts of the most recent global warming on seasonal temperature fluctuations have been described.
Devastating megafires are becoming more common, in part, because the planet is warming. But a new study suggests bringing ‘good fire’ back to the U.S. and other wildfire fire-prone areas, as Native Americans once did, could potentially blunt the role of climate in triggering today’s wildfires.
Climate-change-induced loss of the state’s cultural heritage is a social justice issue that will be felt most acutely by low-income Illinois citizens and Tribal descendant communities who have traditionally been the most marginalized. Many live in the most vulnerable areas. Doing nothing in the face of this crisis is not only inaction. It is a conscious choice to let the tangible links to history disappear forever. Given the scale of this challenge, what is the best way forward?
Then a year like 2022 comes along, with no major hurricane landfalls until FionaandIan struck in late September. The Atlantic hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30, has had eight hurricanes and 14 named storms. It’s a reminder that small sample sizes can be misleading when assessing trends in hurricane behavior. There is so much natural variability in hurricane behavior year to year and even decade to decade that we need to look much further back in time for the real trends to come clear.
Fortunately, hurricanes leave behind telltale evidence that goes back millennia.
Two thousand years of this evidence indicates that the Atlantic has experienced even stormier periods in the past than we’ve seen in recent years. That’s not good news. It tells coastal oceanographers like me that we may be significantly underestimating the threat hurricanes pose to Caribbean islands and the North American coast in the future.
The natural records hurricanes leave behind
When a hurricane nears land, its winds whip up powerful waves and currents that can sweep coarse sands and gravel into marshes and deep coastal ponds, sinkholes and lagoons.
Under normal conditions, fine sand and organic matter like leaves and seeds fall into these areas and settle to the bottom. So when coarse sand and gravel wash in, a distinct layer is left behind.
Imagine cutting through a layer cake – you can see each layer of frosting. Scientists can see the same effect by plunging a long tube into the bottom of these coastal marshes and ponds and pulling up several meters of sediment in what’s known as a sediment core. By studying the layers in sediment, we can see when coarse sand appeared, suggesting an extreme coastal flood from a hurricane.
With these sediment cores, we have been able to document evidence of Atlantic hurricane activity over thousands of years.
Others, including from AtlanticCanada, North Carolina, northwestern Florida, Mississippi and Puerto Rico, are lower-resolution, meaning it is nearly impossible to discern individual hurricane layers deposited within decades of one another. But they can be highly informative for determining the timing of the most intense hurricanes, which can have significant impacts on coastal ecosystems.
It’s the records from the Bahamas, however, with nearly annual resolution, that are crucial for seeing the long-term picture for the Atlantic Basin.
Why The Bahamas are so important
The Bahamas are exceptionally vulnerable to the impacts of major hurricanes because of their geographic location.
In the North Atlantic, 85% of all major hurricanes form in what is known as the Main Development Region, off western Africa. Looking just at observed hurricane tracks from the past 170 years, my analysis shows that about 86% of major hurricanes that affect the Bahamas also form in that region, suggesting the frequency variability in the Bahamas may be representative of the basin.
A substantial percentage of North Atlantic storms also pass over or near these islands, so these records appear to reflect changes in overall North Atlantic hurricane frequency through time.
By coupling coastal sediment records from the Bahamas with records from sites farther north, we can explore how changes in ocean surface temperatures, ocean currents, global-scale wind patterns and atmospheric pressure gradients affect regional hurricane frequency.
As sea surface temperatures rise, warmer water provides more energy that can fuel more powerful and destructive hurricanes. However, the frequency of hurricanes – how often they form – isn’t necessarily affected in the same way.
The secrets hidden in blue holes
Some of the best locations for studying past hurricane activity are large, near-shore sinkholes known as blue holes.
Blue holes get their name from their deep blue color. They formed when carbonate rock dissolved to form underwater caves. Eventually, the ceilings collapsed, leaving behind sinkholes. The Bahamas has thousands of blue holes, some as wide as a third of a mile and as deep as a 60-story building.
They tend to have deep vertical walls that can trap sediments – including sand transported by strong hurricanes. Fortuitously, deep blue holes often have little oxygen at the bottom, which slows decay, helping to preserve organic matter in the sediment through time.
Cracking open a sediment core
When we bring up a sediment core, the coarse sand layers are often evident to the naked eye. But closer examination can tell us much more about these hurricanes of the past.
I use X-rays to measure changes in the density of sediment, X-ray fluorescence to examine elemental changes that can reveal if sediment came from land or sea, and sediment textural analysis that examines the grain size.
To figure out the age of each layer, we typically use radiocarbon dating. By measuring the amount of carbon-14, a radioactive isotope, in shells or other organic material found at various points in the core, I can create a statistical model that predicts the age of sediments throughout the core.
So far, my colleagues and I have published five paleohurricane records with nearly annual detail from blue holes on islands across the Bahamas.
Each record shows periods of significant increase in storm frequency lasting decades and sometimes centuries.
The records vary, showing that a single location might not reflect broader regional trends.
For example, Thatchpoint Blue Hole on Great Abaco Island in the northern Bahamas includes evidence of at least 13 hurricanes per century that were Category 2 or above between the years 1500 and 1670. That significantly exceeds the rate of nine per century documented since 1850. During the same period, 1500 to 1670, blue holes at Andros Island, just 186 miles (300 kilometers) south of Abaco, documented the lowest levels of local hurricane activity observed in this region during the past 1,500 years.
Spotting patterns across the Atlantic Basin
Together, however, these records offer a glimpse of broad regional patterns. They’re also giving us new insight into the ways ocean and atmospheric changes can influence hurricane frequency.
While rising sea surface temperatures provide more energy that can fuel more powerful and destructive hurricanes, their frequency – how often they form – isn’t necessarily affected in the same way. Some studies have predicted the total number of hurricanes will actually decrease in the future.
The compiled Bahamian records document substantially higher hurricane frequency in the northern Caribbean during the Little Ice Age, around 1300 to 1850, than in the past 100 years.
Records from sites farther north tell us more about the climate. That’s because changes in ocean temperature and climate conditions are likely far more important to controlling regional impacts in such areas as the Northeastern U.S. and Atlantic Canada, where cooler climate conditions are often unfavorable for storms.
A warning for the islands
I am currently developing records of coastal storminess in locations including Newfoundland and Mexico. With those records, we can better anticipate the impacts of future climate change on storm activity and coastal flooding.
In the Bahamas, meanwhile, sea level rise is putting the islands at increasing risk, so even weaker hurricanes can produce damaging flooding. Given that storms are expected to be more intense, any increase in storm frequency could have devastating impacts.
“October is the month of painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, so the year near its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight.”
But how do scientists know that this historical data is appropriate to use? How can they tell good data from bad? And how can you know whether records you may have, such as an ancestor’s journals or seashell collection, might be useful for science?
We recently published an article in the journal Bioscience that lays out a three-step approach for assessing the quality of historical observations. Using this approach, we believe that scientists can confidently use historical resources to inform studies reaching back to times and places where formal scientific data is not available.
A three-part test
Not long after Thoreau died, critics questioned the accuracy of his natural history observations. Writing in 1919, John Burroughs, a leading nature essayist of the time, offered perhaps the strongest criticisms.
Burroughs asserted that Thoreau’s “observations are frequently at fault, or wholly wide of the mark.” He questioned whether Thoreau knew basic facts, such as that hickory trees grew in Concord, Massachusetts, and that pine trees had seeds.
To determine whether Burroughs and other critics were right, we propose a straightforward three-step process.
– Is the information collected using rigorous methods that are well documented and clearly described? Modern researchers should be able to repeat them – for example, locating sites where past naturalists worked, making observations over the same number of days per week and following other key parts of their methods.
– How accurate are the observations, such as species identifications? Were they subject to any biases? Can researchers or naturalists replicate aspects of the observations that would be expected to remain consistent over time?
– Does the data have the precision, frequency and rigor that scholars need now? No data is right for all purposes. Modern researchers must decide whether the information can answer the question they are investigating.
Was Thoreau a good naturalist?
When we assessed the rigor, accuracy and utility of Thoreau’s natural history observations, we found that he was indeed a good naturalist.
Thoreau thoroughly documented the dates, locations and descriptions of observations that he made as he walked around Walden Pond and greater Concord. We can read in his journals how often and for how long he made these notes.
We compared Thoreau’s notes to modern observations and found that his observations of seasonal events such as leaf out, flowering, fruiting and bird arrivals were highly correlated with modern findings. This told us that Thoreau captured similar patterns.
For example, we can see that the order in which flowers bloom in spring around Concord is nearly the same in Thoreau’s journals as in modern observations. In both data sets, certain species flower early, while other species bloom late in the season.
Thoreau’s historical observations have tremendous utility in research. We and other researchers have used them to learn about the effects of climate change on plants and birds in Concord. Using Thoreau’s findings as a baseline, we have found that spring leaf out and flowering are occurring earlier, but the timing of bird arrivals is not changing much.
Beyond Thoreau and Walden
Researchers can use this approach to evaluate other historical observations. For example, between 1904 and 1969, American field biologist Joseph Grinnell and his colleagues recorded observations of species in California. Their team carefully described most of their methods and collected specimens and photographs to document their work.
However, their sampling methods were sometimes inconsistent, and researchers cannot locate some of their sampling routes. These uncertainties make the Grinnell team’s observations inappropriate to answer questions about changes in the abundance of some species. But their observations are excellent for answering questions about how climate change is altering the ranges of many species, including birds and small mammals like mice, voles and chipmunks that Grinnell’s team observed there in the past and that still occur there.
Museum specimens such as dried plants, bird nests and animal skins are another source of historical information. The specimens themselves remove uncertainty around species identification and preserve many physical characteristics that interest researchers.
However, the people who collected the specimens sometimes fail to record precise location information. And some collectors target particular species, locations or seasons, which can bias what they find.
It’s not uncommon to find historical data sets with little, if any, documentation about when, where and how the data was collected – for example, observations from someone’s daily walks, collections of photographs or a birder’s reports to an ornithological club. Even in these cases, it may be possible to determine how rigorous and accurate the data is.
For example, the frequency of photographs or observations may hint at how often someone made observations. And even poorly documented data can be useful to address some ecological questions, or could suggest new hypotheses that deserve further study.
Scientists are searching for more historical data. Following careful evaluation, we may be able to use this information to learn about the effects of climate change, land use practices and other environmental issues. People who have records that might be scientifically valuable should consider contacting ecologists, research stations, natural history clubs and the USA National Phenology Network, which collects, stores and shares data on the timing of seasonal events such as bird migration across the U.S.
In 1962, environmental scientist Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring,” a bestselling book that asserted that overuse of pesticides was harming the environment and threatening human health. Carson did not call for banning DDT, the most widely used pesticide at that time, but she argued for using it and similar products much more selectively and paying attention to their effects on nontargeted species.
This approach put Carson at odds with the fledgling organic movement, which totally rejected synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Early organic advocates claimed Carson as a supporter nonetheless, but Carson kept them at arm’s length. “The organic farming movement was suspect in Carson’s eyes because most of its early leaders were not scientists,” Paarlberg observes.
This divergence has echoes today in debates about whether organic production or steady improvements in conventional farming have more potential to feed a growing world population.
2. Concerned cropdusters
Well before “Silent Spring” was published, a crop-dusting industry developed on the Great Plains in the years after World War II to apply newly commercialized pesticides. “Chemical companies made broad promises about these ‘miracle’ products, with little discussion of risks. But pilots and scientists took a much more cautious approach,” recounts University of Nebraska-Kearney historian David Vail.
As Vail’s research shows, many crop-dusting pilots and university agricultural scientists were well aware of how little they knew about how these new tools actually worked. They attended conferences, debated practices for applying pesticides and organized flight schools that taught agricultural science along with spraying techniques. When “Silent Spring” was published, many of these practitioners pushed back, arguing that they had developed strategies for managing pesticide risks. https://www.youtube.com/embed/7XG77LU8Y-E?wmode=transparent&start=0 Archival footage of crop-dusters spraying in California in the 1950s.
Today aerial spraying is still practiced on the Great Plains, but it’s also clear that insects and weeds rapidly evolve resistance to every new generation of pesticides, trapping farmers on what Vail calls “a chemical-pest treadmill.” Carson anticipated this effect in “Silent Spring,” and called for more research into alternative pest control methods – an approach that has become mainstream today.
3. The osprey’s crash and recovery
In “Silent Spring,” Carson described in detail how chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides persisted in the environment long after they were sprayed, rising through the food chain and building up in the bodies of predators. Populations of fish-eating raptors, such as bald eagles and ospreys, were ravaged by these chemicals, which thinned the shells of the birds’ eggs so that they broke in the nest before they could hatch.
“Up to 1950, ospreys were one of the most widespread and abundant hawks in North America,” writes Cornell University research associate Alan Poole. “By the mid-1960s, the number of ospreys breeding along the Atlantic coast between New York City and Boston had fallen by 90%.”
Bans on DDT and other highly persistent pesticides opened the door to recovery. But by the 1970s, many former osprey nesting sites had been developed. To compensate, concerned naturalists built nesting poles along shorelines. Ospreys also learned to colonize light posts, cell towers and other human-made structures. https://www.youtube.com/embed/Cy3Tq6Y_Yxk?wmode=transparent&start=0 Wildlife monitors band young ospreys in New York City’s Jamaica Bay to monitor their lives and movements.
Today, “Along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, nearly 20,000 ospreys now arrive to nest each spring – the largest concentration of breeding pairs in the world. Two-thirds of them nest on buoys and channel markers maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard, who have become de facto osprey guardians,” writes Poole. “To have robust numbers of this species back again is a reward for all who value wild animals, and a reminder of how nature can rebound if we address the key threats.”
4. New concerns
Pesticide application techniques have become much more targeted in the 60 years since “Silent Spring” was published. One prominent example: crop seeds coated with neonicotinoids, the world’s most widely used class of insecticides. Coating the seeds makes it possible to introduce pesticides into the environment at the point where they are needed, without spraying a drop.
But a growing body of research indicates that even though coated seeds are highly targeted, much of their pesticide load washes off into nearby streams and lakes. “Studies show that neonicotinoids are poisoning and killing aquatic invertebrates that are vital food sources for fish, birds and other wildlife,” writes Penn State entomologist John Tooker.
In multiple studies, Tooker and colleagues have found that using coated seeds reduces populations of beneficial insects that prey on crop-destroying pests like slugs.
“As I see it, neonicotinoids can provide good value in controlling critical pest species, particularly in vegetable and fruit production, and managing invasive species like the spotted lanternfly. However, I believe the time has come to rein in their use as seed coatings in field crops like corn and soybeans, where they are providing little benefit and where the scale of their use is causing the most critical environmental problems,” Tooker writes.
Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archive.
It wasn’t long after Henry David Inglis arrived on the island of Jersey, just northwest of France, that he heard the old story. Locals eagerly told the 19th-century Scottish travel writer how, in a bygone age, their island was much more substantial, and that folks used to walk to the French coast. The only hurdle to their journey was a river—one easily crossed using a short bridge.
“Pah!” Inglis presumably scoffed as he looked out across 22 kilometers of shimmering blue sea—because he went on to write in his 1832 book about the region that this was “an assertion too ridiculous to merit examination.” Another writer, Jean Poingdestre, around 150 years earlier, had been similarly unmoved by the tale. No one could have trod from Jersey to Normandy, he withered, “vnlesse it were before the Flood,” referring to the Old Testament cataclysm.
Rather than being a ridiculous claim not worthy of examination, perhaps the old story was true—a whisper from ancestors who really did walk through now-vanished lands. A whisper that has echoed across millennia.
That’s exactly what geologist Patrick Nunn and historian Margaret Cook at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia have proposed in a recent paper.
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