Exploring El Niño Locally and Globally

Exploring El Niño Locally and Globally

Though western Massachusetts has finally seen its first true snowfall of the season, allowing the landscape to look like one of mid-winter in New England, this winter’s unseasonably warm and snow-less days have been a bit unsettling. While discussions of the effects of climate change on our region are not misguided, it is the effects of El Niño that we can say with certainty we are experiencing. This weather event, which causes a global impact, is the result of a complicated switching of winds and currents in the Pacific – and its effects have brought us the balmy winter we’d expect if we lived in a more southerly clime. Using diagrams, online resources, books, and even music, families can explore climate science and the effects of El Niño so as to gain insight into this year’s unusual winter weather.

Named after the Christian holidays that take place during the time of its occurrence, El Niño means “the child” in English, though its true meaning is intended to reflect the importance of one specific child. Named in the 17th century by Spanish-speaking Christians exploring the Pacific Ocean, El Niño refers to the unusual weather patterns and ocean currents that sometimes take place in December – right around Christmas, making El Niño’s namesake the baby Jesus.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: The Magic of Spring Peepers. The Science of Vernal Pools

How do spring peepers know when to start singing?

Vernal pools contain creatures (amphibians and bugs) that can only breed where there are no hungry fish. Citizen scientists are needed to find and report vernal pools in the Hilltowns. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

How do spring peepers know when to start singing?

They don’t have weather reports, or the ability to see the buds forming on trees, the snow melting, or teens walking around in shorts and T’s when it’s 40 degrees and climbing.

Certainly, there are scientific reasons that explain how peepers know when to announce the return of the sun and the warmth; but there’s a simpler reason that is worth considering and appreciating. The peepers feel the right moment to sing.

Peepers are a special family of frogs, and frogs have a unique physiology—a evapotranspirative skin that makes them especially sensitive to the slightest changes in temperature, humidity, chemistry and other things we don’t have words for including that feeling that we also get when spring arrives. There is, for example, a new kind of sunlight that appears out of the grey, slush and slog of the late winter months that Emily Dickinson noticed, and maybe you and the peepers notice too.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: River Otters in Western MA

Winter Otters

When winter is most wintery, the otter is most active. It is hungry, of course, and it is also very smart. The ice that forms in and above the streams shrinks the size of the stream, making it harder for fish and crayfish to hide. Not only that, the otter—of the weasel family (i.e., a mountain lion crossed with a squirrel)—is in summer a nocturnal feeder, but changes that habit in the winter, and feeds during the day. In the harshest and barrenest of late winter, the otter finds a feast. (Photo credit: Kurt Heidinger)

It’s the end of winter (almost), when months of frigid winds have whipped the bare hills and leafless trees into a freeze-dried state. The best loggers cut trees for firewood now, just before the March thaws, because the ground is frozen and the green wood is at its driest, all the sap stored underground (Think maple syrup!). How wonderful and wise and tough are the trees, an example for us all of character and of presence (A friend of mine, a Chilean ethnobotanist, once said, “Always live in the trees. Humans go crazy without them.” I still wonder if she’s correct—and I tend to agree.).

The creatures who live in our forests are likewise in their stiffest winter state, hungry and cold, their food supply growing ever more meager. The deep hard snow will soon be gone, but while it lasts, life gets dearer for all us living beings. Dessicated, shrunken, and gnarled, the bios—the shared life expressed by biodiversity —is ready to spring.

Before it does, get out of the house! As harsh as late winter is, it is an ephemeral world of austere beauty. Everybody wants summer right now, all my friends off last week in Florida, posting Facebook photos and saying nananabooboo—but what is summer anyway, if it is not earned by gritting through the iciest and bluest and shiveriest months of cold? Living four seasons deeply is what chisels the Yankee character. For each season, we have a way of living and that—our environmentally-determined multifaceted  character—makes us culturally unique and vibrant. Spring is not so incredible and sweet and exuberant unless it follows the kind of winter we’re having, and that makes the winter we’re having a perfect one.

SO: Grab some snowshoes and ski poles and take risk (I guess I should place a disclaimer here: what I will now suggest is somewhat dangerous, so be very careful and don’t over do it.)… put on those snowshoes and, preferably with a friend or two also on snowshoes, walk a stream bed…while you still can!  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Rivers in the Sky

Clouds are Rivers

The next time the western wind blows strongly, hurtling great grey masses of clouds over our towns—long cirrus strips with ribbons of blue between them—imagine you are a fish looking up at the river’s surface. Because, in the wider scheme, you are!

Rains become rivers, so—if we think of the whole instead of the parts—clouds are rivers.

How very unscientific is such a thought! If everybody thought clouds are rivers, how would we distinguish between them? Wouldn’t reality become an un-focus-able blur?

Maybe! That could be a very healthy development, if it allowed us to reboot our way of categorizing, and comprehending, the parts that make up the whole of our biosphere.

All too often we are forced by training and circumstances to have a tunnel-vision view of things; we are so driven to achieve personal goals, for example, that we block out anything that is beside-the-point. All we see or care about is that carrot dangling in front of us, and so we lose the wider perspective, which (also) provides the place for our performance, the stage where we display our role not as a soliloquy-er, but as a high-kicking member of a chorus line. Even when we have the spotlight upon us, we perform in a wider scheme. I have nothing against achieving personal goals or ignoring extraneous information, as long as I have, from time to time, the space—a wider scheme—within which to place my activities.

We live and act not as isolated island universes, but in a biotic mandala (that is itself part of other mandalas), and to the extent that we join things together and perceive reality holistically, the more we assume in thought and deed the design of our mandala: and there is soft power and beauty aplenty in such magnification.

So, clouds are rivers.

You saw it a few weeks ago when dense fog exhaled out of the snow and blanketed both our white hills and heavy dark waters. Science explains that, because the air was listless and warmer than the frozen ground, water molecules condensed (like tears on the side of an ice-water glass) in the atmosphere—giving us fog: an un-focus-able blur. Science explains, too, that the water molecules are essentially the same, whether they float in the sky or flow over the earth. What science doesn’t explain is how fog feels.

We feel fog. It’s clammy on our skin. It occludes our vision, and because sight is our primary sense, it frustrates us. Drivers—and downhill skiers—don’t like fog, and people walking on the side of the road worry more when they walk in it. It makes us turn our lights on in the middle of the day. In some psychosomatic way, the day never begins when it starts in the fog, and—yawn some more coffee please—the night never ends. When you walk in the woods in a dense fog, a subtle rain falls—each crooked finger of branch-tip collecting H2O atoms until the drip is formed and drops on your head. If you aren’t prepared, and walk long enough, you get soaked.

When the sun breaks through again, blue and gold and making us squint, we feel relief, as if a burden and gloom has lifted off our thoughts and shoulders. Our eyes resume command over things, feeding our brains the information of parts, distinguishing between this and that, and giving us the power and freedom to choose what we will focus on. We like that; it is the realm we have been trained to operate in, where everything has its place and is in position where it is supposed to be.  Read the rest of this entry »

14 Community Highlights: Winter Trail Days to Chasing Ice. Preschool Fair to Teen Social Justice.

This week there are a few events to inspire and education on ways individuals and communities have in the past and can in the future bring about positive change. 

Winter Trail Days to Chasing Ice. Preschool Fair to Teen Social Justice. Worksongs to Work of 1000… These are just a few of the learning highlights we’re featuring this week! Get out into your community and learn while you play! And be sure to check our list of supporting book titles to supplement the learning on the different topics highlighted each week. Purchase them for your family library, or check them out from the public library!


Teens interested in exploring the history of social justice movements (and/or Jewish history) can learn about the Kosher Meat Boycott and its place in the American Labor Movement on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 6th in Greenfield at Temple Israel. Participants will focus on learning about the key ideas of the movement (related to work and time), Jewish ethics, and relevant Jewish cultural history. This free workshop is designed for Jewish teens, but is open to those of any religious or cultural background interested in supplement their learning.

The Trustees of Reservations will host a free screening of “The Work of 1000” at the Wistariahurst Museum on Thursday evening, Jan. 10th in Holyoke. The film is about environmental pioneer Marion Stoddart’s work to restore the Nashua River after years of pollution from industrial manufacturing. Stoddart, along with communities along the river and the Trustees of Reservations, helped to lobby successfully for the Massachusetts Clean Water Act, and helped to set a standard for treatment and respect of bodies of water. Stoddart will be in attendance to share her experiences firsthand and answer questions. Great for older students (grades 4+) learning about conservation and community organizing. Pair with a family reading of Lynne Cherry’s book, A River Ran Wild, which tells the natural and human-impacted history of the river alongside beautiful illustrations.


The Berkshire Museum Little Cinema will screen “Chasing Ice,” Sat.-Mon. evenings and Mon. afternoon in Pittsfield. This award-winning film is National Geographic photographer James Balog’s documentary of the Arctic with breathtaking imagery that tells of the Earth’s changing climate. Balog’s videos compress years into seconds and capture ancient mountains of ice in motion as they disappear at a breathtaking rate. A beautiful film to supplement environmental science studies.


Sing along to traditional southern worksongs with Max Godfrey and Friends at Williams College on Wednesday evening, Jan. 9th in Williamstown. The collection of songs included were originally created by prisoners, but have been rediscovered by agricultural workers and are sung to make hard labor more bearable. Most follow a simple call-and-repeat format, and are, as a result, quite easy to participate in and learn quickly. Godfrey works to search through recordings in order to share them with people in order to keep up the musical tradition. The free event will include dinner, and lots of music! Students of any age will love singing along, and the event can be tied in with studies of the history of rural America and American agriculture.

The MIFA Theater screens the documentary, “After the Factory,” in the Great Banking Hall at the South Hadley Falls Bank and Trust Building in Holyoke on Friday evening, Jan. 11th. The documentary examines how the cities of Detroit, Michigan and Lodz, Poland have dealt with sustaining their populations and re-strengthening their post-industrial economies. Both cities have rich and interesting histories, and the film fits well with studies of American and European history. The film is also relevant for studies of local history, as the city of Holyoke is facing similar issues.


Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy in Longmeadow is hosting Cooking With Parents and Grandparents on Monday afternoon, Jan. 7th – a free workshop where kids and their grown-ups can learn traditional shabbat recipes. Families can learn to make challah, potato knishes, and other treats. All are welcome to come learn how to make these traditional recipes in kid-friendly ways.


Winter Trails Day happens at Northfield Mountain on Saturday afternoon, Jan. 5th. Families with older children can learn to snowshoe and/or cross country ski during free workshops hosted throughout the afternoon. Gear provided.

On Sunday afternoon, Jan. 6th, celebrate the opening of Community Field in Holyoke with Winter Fun! Skate for free on the refrigerated ice patch (skate rentals available), go for a snowshoeing adventure, and warm up with some hot cocoa!


The Jones Library in Amherst hosts a free Chess Club for youth ages 7yo and older with Andy Morris-Friedman on Saturday afternoon in the Amherst Room.

The Westfield Athenaeum is offering a special Nook petting zoo on Wednesday evening, Jan. 9th. Families can try out the devices for free and learn about some of their features – trying out a Nook can be helpful if you’re thinking about investing in on.


On Tuesday evening, Jan. 8th, Frank Grindrod of Earthwork Programs will share strategies for preparing your family for an emergency at River Valley Market Co-op during a free workshop in Northampton. Participants will learn what things are best to have on hand, and what strategies to have prepared for a variety of emergencies, including a power outage, extreme weather, being lost in the wilderness, etc.

Learn more about the Brain Gym program with Childcare of the Berkshires on Wednesday evening, Jan. 9th at Abbott Memorial School in Florida. This free program focuses on utilizing movement to promote brain stimulation, and parents will learn about the basic principles that the program focuses on.

On Thursday morning, Jan. 10th, the Northampton Parents Center is hosting its annual free Preschool Fair at the Parents Center in the lower level of Edwards Church. Representatives from local Northampton based preschools (and a few from neighboring towns) will be on hand to answer questions.

In the evening on Thursday in Florence, the Valley CDC is hosting a free four-part workshop series for first-time homebuyers at Florence Savings Bank. There are a lot of benefits to participating if you’re about to buy your family’s first home – the certified class will help families get access to special loan programs, will teach participants how to access money for down payments and closing costs, and will share information about many other parts of home shopping and the legal processes that come with home-buying.

List of Weekly Suggested EventsFind out about these events and over 100 other events & activities happening all next week in our List of Weekly Suggested Events. All of our listed events are “suggested.” Please take a moment to confirm that these events are happening as scheduled, along with time, place, age appropriateness and costs before heading out.


The Ripple: Winter Wetlands

When Our Wetlands Become Icelands

“Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.” – Thoreau

Perhaps you love to walk in the woods in winter because, when the leaves are down, the shape (or “geomorphic character”) of our biome is exposed. I do, too!

Winter is possibly the most perfect time to get to know where you are. When you look up at the hills from down in the valley, or from hills to other hills, there is more to see of the “body” of the “superorganism” we are, like lichen, affixed to and dependent on. What appear in summer to be solid monolithic mountains are seen, in winter, to be made of monticellos, stacked in front of each other, leapfrogging up to the highest point.

Summer leaves keep sunlight from touching the forest floors, and cover the giant wrinkles—the cracks, rifts and ravines—that separate the monticellos. In those wrinkles are cascading streams that, when it gets really cold, freeze and form ice-falls. Icefalls are always magical places, and by that I mean they are places that “recreate” you: make you feel different, by awakening your imagination and sense-of-beauty, by catalyzing surges of joy and delight. May an icefall appear before you this holiday season (If you can’t find one nearby, try Chapel Falls in Ashfield.)!

And, may we get some seriously cold weather between now and March to wipe out the ticks in the fields and the adelgids in the hemlocks—and so we can roam one particular kind of micro-biome that is off-limits when it is warm. I speak here of the murky soggy mucky source of rivers and streams: wetlands!

Wetlands have been considered the “worse” kind of real estate because you can’t build foundations or septic systems in them, and were typically used in the past as garbage cans. From a biotic perspective, however, wetlands are extremely vital (i.e., a lot of creatures live there) and from a public health perspective, they store lots water and prevent floods. Thoreau’s description of the existential value of wetlands always makes me smile: “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.”

Of all the microbiomes we neighbor, wetlands are the most mysterious. It is hard to know what they are because they are so difficult to access. Thoreau liked to sink to his waist in swampmud, or at least he wrote he did; but in real life, for most folks, swampmud is not enjoyable. Often it reeks with the bubbling bodies of things once green, and unlike other muds it is capable of staining clothes. Add to this the unpleasant feeling of stepping into tannin-dark gruel populated by exuberant worms and bugs and snakes and leeches—that feels like it has no bottom, yet is too shallow to swim in. Like me, you might wait until those waters freeze, and skate atop them.

Winter is the best time to explore these upland sources of all streams & rivers, these mysterious wetlands. What a joy it is to skirt the prickers and brambles and ivies that grow rife in the summer, and to avoid the spiderwebs, mosquitoes and deerfly, and also the creepy decaying Edgar Allen Poe vibe even the sprightliest wetlands exude. Read the rest of this entry »

Citizen Scientist Wanted: Cloud Watch for NASA

Cloud Rover Observers Wanted
As Citizen Scientists

Tracking clouds is an excellent way for kids to learn about meteorology!  Watch the skies from home and anywhere else you adventure, and compare changes in conditions based on your location!  (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

What shapes do you see in the clouds?  There may be rabbits, eggs, vines, airplanes, and shoes… and no matter what you see in the sky, NASA wants to hear about it!  The organization’s S’COOL program uses data provided by Citizen Scientists, as well as official weather reports, to track cloud cover across the country.

By collecting data on the type of clouds, the height they are at, the thickness of the cover, and related weather conditions, NASA is able to work to create a more comprehensive understanding of the earth as a system.

Scientists use submitted data to track patterns in weather and atmospheric conditions, which then contributes to their understanding of the atmosphere as a whole.

Kids can contribute their observations on the project’s website,  scool.larc.nasa.gov/rover.html. Participants, called Rover Observers, can set up a schedule of times to submit comments or send information periodically as it is gathered – students can use the site as a tool to help them track weather patterns in their community over a long period of time, or just spend a few days monitoring clouds and share what they noticed.

Before heading out, show your kids/students this video from NASA to learn how clouds are formed.  In this video, watch an experiment to make a cloud using liquid nitrogen, and find out how scientists classify clouds according to their altitude and how clouds reflect and absorb light, giving them different colors:


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