Monday, January 12, 2015

Ecology of Kitchel-Lindquist Sand Dunes

The high wooded dunes rise above the Grand River, as they have for several thousand years, a part of the landscape both residents and tourists in the Tri-Cities area enjoy.   For a closer look, people can follow a self-guided nature trail through the dunes.  On Earth Day, the community  pitches in and picks up debris blown into the dunes by the winter winds.  It's a favorite place for people whether they simply look at it as a familiar part of the landscape, or use it for walking or cross country skiing in the winter for it abounds in wildlife, grasses, flowers, and trees. It's a good place to study the lessons of ecology. 

     Kitchel-Lindquist Dunes, near the shore of Lake Michigan and on the north bank of the Grand River is a gift from the river and the west wind; water and wind currents carried sand deposited by Ice Age Glaciers 4,000 years ago.  It is a perfect place to study how a duneland changes over decades, centuries, millenia.  It is a good place to observe dynamic changes from season to season, and even from hour to hour.

     Ecologists say dunes are dynamic because they change rapidly. First to develop the discipline of ecology, Henry Chandler Cowles published his work in l899.  His scientific studies of the sand dunes along Lake Michigan in Indiana and Michigan pointed out the relationships between the shifting sands of the dunes and the changing plant communities that survive under harsh conditions. The scientific observations Cowles made in the Indiana and  Michigan sand dunes made him the father of ecology.  He saw that plants and animals change more rapidly in the dunes than in other places, therefore the dunes  made a perfect outdoor laboratory.

    Cowles' observations on one group of plants replacing another is called succession.  Each stage in dune succession depends upon an earlier stage.  The first plants to grow were perhaps nourished by a dead fish that washed ashore. Insects such as the springtail and bacteria and molds broke the fish down into nutrients the plants could use. After their root systems stabilized the sand, and helped build the dune, other plants were able to establish themselves nourished by nutrients in a layer of topsoil formed by decaying matter. Here is how the dune ecosystem changes with time: 0-20 years Beach grasses 20-50 years Cottonwood, beach grasses, cherry, willow, herbs 50-l00 years increasing variety of shrubs, trees, and herbs.  Jack pine may dominate l00 years Black oak may be among the first forest dominants.   Oak and hickory l00-l,000 years  Beech and maple climax forest (extension bulletin E-l529 Sea Grant).

    Marram grass and sand reed grass are not discouraged by the harsh environment of a sand dune: hot, desert like conditions in the summer, strong winds, and cold arctic conditions in the winter.  Dune plants are adapted to extreme heat, cold, and a lack of moisture. The marram grass and the sand reed grass hold the fort on the foredune by binding the sand with their huge, hair like root systems that may extend down to the water table for a hundred feet. Their stems grow upward even when covered by sand repeatedly.

   On Kitchel-Lindquist Dune"s 52 acres, there is a surprising diversity of life which makes its dunescape an ever changing panorama: plants especially adapted to the dune bloom, each in their season: A self-guided nature trail with l5 numbered stations shows the succession of plants in Kitchel Dunes: along the footpath are: horsetails, interdunal ponds or pannes with rushes, sedges and various insects and amphibians. A delicate looking yet hardy plant bearberry or kinnikinick was used by the Native Americans as tobacco, and there are junipers of two types, an endangered species: Pitcher's thistle, pines, dune grasses, poison ivy, sand cherry, and various types of hardwoods such as red oak.  On top of the highest dune are beech and maple. There are also witchhazel trees that bloom in October and sassafras that turns brilliant colors of red and orange in autumn. Some trees are entwined with bittersweet with orange fruit that birds feed_ upon.   

    Dune forests can grow up on dunes that have been pioneered by grasses and shrubs which stabilize the sand and over the years  help to build a layer of topsoil that can support tall trees.  In the spring, wildflowers such as trillium grow in profusion on south slopes of forested dunes where they can absorb more sunlight. In the open sunny areas of the dune, the yellow hairy puccoon flourishes: its gray green color and fuzzy leaves help it to reflect light and retain water.  Migrating birds rest in the high tree branches while permanent residents such as the pileated woodpecker and the horned owl go about earning their livings in their particular niches.  Whitetail deer browse on vegetation and red fox feeds upon everything from berries and insects to frogs and small mammals such as the white-footed mouse.

    With the climax forest, the dunes have produced a diverse community of plants and animals that are an important part of the Great Lakes' ecosystem. It may have taken a thousand years between the time the first grasses colonized the sand and the tall trees found enough nutrients for their seeds to grow.  These dunes are not replaceable. They are of more value to the whole ecosystem as dunes rather than as industrial sand or real estate. They protect inland areas from wind damage since wind blowing off the lake will glance off of a tall dune and rise up into the air.  They also protect inland areas from flooding, but perhaps their most appreciated value is their beauty.  Dune plants may be able to live through harsh summer and winter weather but, they cannot stand up to off the road vehicles or heavy foot traffic.  Building houses on dunes may also cause wind erosion when the plants stabilizing the dunes are removed. This is called a blowout and it forms a saddle shaped or U shaped depression in a stable sand dune.  In the past, many Lake Michigan dunes were trucked away load by load since their fine sand has industrial uses.   In order to protect Michigan's coastal sand dunes, the state government passed a law in l989 that will prevent harmful development and protect the dunes we still have left. Governor Blanchard signed the bill into law at Kitchel Dunes. Henry Chandler Cowles would have been proud.                         

  Nature Preserve photos and map  click the link.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Ship Stuck in the Harbor: Grand Haven, MI

Today the St. Marys Challenger got stuck in the Grand River and a tug and an ice breaker are trying to get it through.  It may take all day because the ship has not gotten very far after several hours.  The photo shows ice ridges that have formed along the Lake Michigan beach in Grand Haven, MI due to the strong winds and cold weather.  Ice in  the Grand River is blocking the passage of the ship.
video from a drone  click here for a youtube picture of the freighter and ice breaker.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Ice Forms in Lake Michigan

My Amazon Page with books and more    Click the link for more information

Ice ridges are forming on the Great Lakes.  Read how this happens in my non-fiction book, The Dynamic Great Lakes.

 I took this photo on the sandy beach in Grand Haven, Michigan.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Cook Nuclear Plant Leaking oil into Lake Michigan

Cook Nuclear Plant in Bridgman has been leaking oil into Lake Michigan

Julie Mack | jmack1@mlive.comBy Julie Mack | 
on January 04, 2015 at 12:38 PM, updated January 04, 2015 at 1:13 PM
BRIDGMAN, MI -- Donald C. Cook Nuclear Plant in Bridgman has leaked an estimated 2,000 gallons of oil into Lake Michigan since Oct. 25, according to an event notification posted on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission website.
Cook nuclear plant
Plant officials notified the NRC, plus state and local officials, on Dec. 20 about the leak, which is from the Unit 2 main turbine lube oil cooler.
The notification said that "no visible oil or oil sheen is present on Lake Michigan or the shore line."
The leak was isolated as of 10:30 a.m. Dec. 20, the notice said. "Leak repairs will be made to the cooler prior to placing back in service."
Bill Schalk, the spokesman for Cook, could not be immediately reached by the Kalamazoo Gazette for comment Sunday.
However, he told the Detroit Free Press that the leak involved an oil cooling system on the two-turbine plant's Unit 2 main turbine. The series of tubes runs in a heat exchanger where hot oil is cooled by water from Lake Michigan. It's believed the oil leaked into a tube or tubes and was mixed into the cooling water, Schalk told the Free Press.
The turbine system is separate from the plant's radioactive facilities, so the leaked oil is not contaminated with radiation, the Free Press reported.
Schalk told the Free Press that it took awhile for plant officials to realize that a leak was occurring because it was a small leak and the plant discharges 1.5 million gallons of water a minute.
In August, plant officials issued a report that 8,700 gallons of diesel fuel were suspected to have been released from a buried fuel oil tank, but later said there was no leak and the report resulted from "instrumentation error."
Both Unit 1 and Unit 2 were shut down for two days in early November after excessive debris from large waves from Lake Michigan damaged several water screens.
The plant is located near Bridgman, 11 miles south of St. Joseph in Southwest Michigan's Berrien County along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Unit 2 went into operation in 1978.
The plant is owned by American Electric Power and operated by Indiana Michigan Power, an AEP subsidiary.
Julie Mack covers K-12 education and writes a column for Kalamazoo Gazette. Email her at, call her at 269-350-0277 or follow her on Twitter at @kzjuliemack.