The Outside World, In and Around Duluth


Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve

A few weeks ago, I met with other U of MN Sustainability folks at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.

What a cool place! I love seeing all of the science that’s going on in the world. It sometimes makes me wish my career path would have gone toward field research.

On the other hand, field research also occasionally means that you have to deal with bugs:


A few of us went for an early morning nature walk on Tuesday and were just hammered by deer flies. Our own fault – we did not prepare for them (bug spray, etc.). Oh well.

The primary purpose of the meeting was to connect with all of the other Sustainability people throughout the University of MN system (Twin Cities, Morris, Rochester, Crookston and Duluth). That was interesting and inspirational. Much work ahead.

However, we also took a field trip to get a look at what the scientists at Cedar Creek are working on.

Here, the director of Cedar Creek (in blue, with his arm up) is showing us one of the 3 meter x 3 meter plots where they are conducting research:


They’re looking at a lot of different things, including how to efficiently grow biofuels, trying to figure out how much biodiversity is required to keep a healthy ecosystem, the difference in levels of prairie fire suppression, and many more.

“Operationalize ecosystems.”

In this picture, they are growing switchgrass. Look closely, and you’ll see toothpicks and paper clips in the soil – some of the experiments are that finely-grained:


In this experiment, they are changing the soil chemistry at each site and looking at how minute changes in chemistry affect growth and plant hardiness.

Here’s an overview of the research site. Each square is 3 meters by 3 meters. Note the size of the car I circled to get a sense of how large this place is:

1-Image 1

They are doing other experiments at other sites (they have over 5,000 acres!).

In this experiment, they are blowing CO2 onto plants:


Some people have theorized that as we have additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it will actually improve how well plants grow. This experiment is meant to figure out whether that’s’ really true. The preliminary results show that there’s a small degree of additional growth, but other things start happening at the same time. Plant biology evolved to grow in the environment that we have, and if change happens too quickly, organisms don’t have time for adaptation.

Here’s a picture of Cedar Creek’s, that shows a passel of grad students out working in the plots:


Image from Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve

Cedar Creek is a unique and interesting place. Nice to see all of the work they’re doing down there.

White-Throated Sparrow

This one was intent on picking caterpillars, so my proximity didn’t seem to mean much to it at all.

White Throated Sparrow

Boreal Owl Along Lester River

There have been a lot of reports of an owl irruption in Duluth lately.

For quite a while, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled, and finally, I was rewarded with this Boreal Owl that was hunting along the Lester River:

Boreal Owl 1

It flew right over me and was obviously listening for something:

Boreal Owl 2

I managed to take a lot of bad pictures (the camera can’t tell the difference between a tree branch and an owl), but at least these two came out all right.

Finally, the owl decided that whatever it was hearing had hunkered down, and it flew off.

I haven’t seen many owls, so this was a special treat.

Tornadoes in Duluth?

No, probably not.

But not impossible, either.

I don’t actually think much about the possibility. But when NOAA put out a cool new graphic mapping the frequency and intensity of tornadoes in the US, I thought about the axiom I’ve heard – that Lake Superior protects Duluth from tornadoes, and I wondered if it held water, historically speaking.

NOAA reviewed the previous 56 years of tornadoes touching down, it looks as if the North Shore has in fact, been spared of too many touch downs:

Click to enlarge. Image via Data courtesy National Weather Service.

Isn’t that a cool graphic? Makes you wonder what’s happening, meteorologically speaking, that splits the country in half. Mountains, sure. Same thing over along the Appalachians. But what do the mountains do exactly? How do they affect the air? Hmm, a question for another day.

But what about us? Of course, NOAA isn’t particularly concerned about Duluth. But we are, so let’s zoom in a little closer:

Interesting. As I look at this, I see maybe a couple close to Duluth, and neither of those particularly large (heavier line indicates stronger tornado).

A little more searching shows that, since 1950, Duluth has had 9 tornadoes at level F2 or higher:

Data from

And of course, who remembers the details of the F-Scale? Not me – here was the original:

  • F0 (Gale)
  • F1 (Weak)
  • F2 (Strong)
  • F3 (Severe)
  • F4 (Devastating)
  • F5 (Incredible)

I love the adjectives.

Slightly less exciting, and perhaps more understandable:

And to really geek out on the metrics of a tornado, you can visit the Enhanced Fujita scale site:

So do we get tornadoes? I suppose we could. But in the same way that really good winter storms seem to have a tendency to miss us with depressing regularity, so too do tornadoes.

Kind of fun to do a quick little research on something that strikes your fancy, isn’t it?

Springtime in Lester Park

Took a stroll through Lester Park in the morning, instead of my normal afternoon/evening. Cool to see things in different light.

Here’s a nice big white cedar down in the main playground area:

Lester Park is great, because there are some really big old trees that seem to have escaped the logging that was happening all around this area early in the 20th century. Common wisdom says that this lower section of Lester Park is old growth, although I wonder about that. I suppose it’s possible that these are actually second growth trees that are 100 – 150 years old, and that have been growing after first being logged when the Duluth area was initially settled. It’s just hard for me to imagine that so much lumber, so close to the lake would have been left. Doesn’t seem like forbearance was  part of the culture of that time. On the other hand, everyone seems to agree that this is an ‘old growth’ forest, from the city of Duluth to NRRI to local historians.

Maybe my definition of ‘old growth’ is too exclusive?

White pine seed dispersion, via the foamy Lester River:

Over on the other side of the park, the Amity Creek wasn’t as foamy:

Old growth, second growth, or just good growth, I can certainly say that I am lucky to be so close to a treasure like Lester Park.

Deer Leg

I’m guessing wolves or the coyotes got this one.

What’s interesting is how they pulled off the easiest meat, and then were done. Okay, I guess no surprise, really.

I was surprised with how soft were parts of the hooves. I was also surprised at how disinterested the dog was in this leg. I would have guessed she’d have wanted to gnaw on it for a while, but she sniffed it and moved right along. It was also interesting how, when I came back a few days later, someone had hung the leg up on a tree branch. I’ve seen a lot of deer legs on tree branches. Something in our collective psyche about that. I’ve gotta say… our collective psyche is a little weird.

Witch’s Broom

Witch’s Broom is a weird growth in a tree.

They show up as a ball of branches or a mangled cluster that comes out from a single point. I’ve seen lots of witch’s brooms, but this is the first time I’ve seen one that actually looks more or less like the end of a broom:

I wonder if certain types of trees are more prone to witch’s brooms than others. This one is on a balsam fir in Lester Park.

You can see how this could be a perfectly serviceable broom. Whether a witch would want it or not, that’s a question for another day.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: