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Cynthia Barnett, award winning water journalist and author, to speak at UNC Charlotte

Cynthia Barnett

Cynthia Barnett (photo supplied by Ms. Barnett)

I’m excited to announce that Cynthia Barnett will be speaking on campus next week. She’s an outstanding thinker and writer about water conservation, particularly as it pertains to the eastern United States, where our sense of water-richness has lulled us into complacency.

From the press release:

Award-winning journalist and author Cynthia Barnett will visit UNC Charlotte to discuss water ethic for America at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 21, in the College of Health and Human Services, Room 128.

Barnett’s talk is the first stop for a tour about the book “Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis,” scheduled for national release Sept. 20. “Blue Revolution” is said to be the first book to call for a national water ethic. Barnett uses the Catawba River as an example to illustrate the important role that water plays in America’s energy supply. The book combines investigative reporting with solutions from across the country and the globe to show how communities and nations have come together in a shared ethic to reduce consumption and live within their water means.

Barnett also is the author of “Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S.” A veteran journalist, she won the national Sigma Delta Chi prize for investigative magazine reporting and a gold medal for best nonfiction in Florida book awards.  A book signing follows this free, public presentation, which is cosponsored by the UNC Charlotte Ethics Center, IDEAS Center and the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences.

BlueRevolutionCoverCynthia will also be available to meet with students and faculty in CHHS 128 from 4 to 5 pm. Please stop by, say hi, and ask your water questions.

I’m currently devouring a copy of Cynthia’s new book, so look for a review of the book here or elsewhere in the coming weeks.

When a tree falls in a stream, there's always something around to make use of it.

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous (for obvious reasons) Allochthonous may have some obscure usage related to rocks, but in ecology, allochthonous material is a major concept that underpins thinking about nutrient cycling and food web dynamics. In its most general definition, allochthonous material is something imported into an ecosystem from outside of it. Usually, ecologists are thinking about organic matter and the nutrients (C, N, and P) that come with it.

Allochthonous material in the form of coarse particulate organic matter in a mountain stream in Oregon.

Allochthonous material in the form of coarse particulate organic matter in a mountain stream in Oregon.

In streams, allochthonous material includes leaves that fall or are washed into the water and branches and trees that topple into the stream. These would both be called “coarse particulate organic matter” or “CPOM” in the lingo of stream ecologists. In headwater streams, especially in forested areas, there is a lot of CPOM, and the community of aquatic organisms has a high proportion of “shredders” – the critters that that feed on CPOM and break it up into tinier bits called “fine particulate organic matter” or FPOM. In turn, organisms called “collectors” make use of the FPOM by filtering it from the water or accessing it in the sediments. [Allochthonous material can also include dissolved organic matter (DOM) carried into the stream by overland or subsurface flow.]

Schematic illustration of the River Continuum Concept, as modified from Vannote et al. (1980)

Schematic illustration of the River Continuum Concept, as modified from Vannote et al. (1980)

As you move downstream from the headwaters toward medium-sized rivers, the stream channel becomes wider and allochthonous input from overhanging forest and riparian vegetation decreases in abundance and importance relative to primary production (or autochthonous organic mattter) driven by available sunlight. In other words, algae and aquatic plants become the most important food producers. Organisms called “grazers” who scrape algae from surfaces become an important component of the aquatic food web, and grazers become less abundant.

Farther downstream, the ecosystem shifts again, as there is so much FPOM moving with the water and sediment, that collecters far outnumber either shredders or grazers. There’s still allochthonous input from the banks and being carried in by tributaries, and there’s still primary production occurring in the stream, but upstream “system inefficiency” or “leakage” in the processing of nutrients and organic material lets large river aquatic communities be based on material washing in from upstream.

The adjustment of river ecosystems in a downstream fashion that I’ve described above is part of the “river continuum concept”, described by Vannote and colleagues in 1980 in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science, and it is one of the unifying principles of modern stream ecology. At its root, the river continuum concept is driven by the relative proportion of allochthonous to autochthonous organic matter inputs to the stream.

While I’m not an ecologist, I was raised by one and I work with them, so when I hear the word allochthonous, I pictures leaves and logs in streams, rather than anything to do with rocks. So, I’ll end this post with some nice pictures of allochthonous material.

An overwhelming amount of allochthonous material in a headwater stream, Gaston County, North Carolina

An overwhelming amount of allochthonous material in a headwater stream, Gaston County, North Carolina. One of my MS students showed that debris jams like this were the biggest driver of groundwater-stream interactions, variations in sediment size, and changes in water chemistry in these tiny streams.

Allochthonous organic material in Clark Creek, Charlotte. High water has washed branches and leaves into the creek, where they got hung up on the riffle (or riprap).

Allochthonous organic material in Clark Creek, Charlotte. High water has washed branches and leaves into the creek, where they got hung up on the riffle (or riprap). What role do natural and artificial geomorphic structures (with their FPOM trapping abilities) play in promoting ecosystem health in urban streams? My colleagues and I are trying to find out.

Large wood jam on Mallard Creek, near Harrisburg, NC

Large wood jam on Mallard Creek, near Harrisburg, NC. For several years, I've taken my Fluvial Processes class to this spot, in part so that they can observe the geomorphic effects of wood in streams.

Wood in streams is utilitarian. During my PhD, I used stable large logs to cross streams and attach equipment.

I use large logs to cross streams and attach equipment. Here, in a spring-fed stream in Oregon, with extremely stable water levels and no floods, allochthonous material that falls into the stream stays where it falls and forms a substrate for a fabulous community of mosses and ferns.

Not a stream. Allochthonous input onto the surface of a lava flow, from the edge of a forest.

Not a stream. Here we are looking at allochthonous input onto the edge of a lava flow, from the forest beyond. On this young lava flow (in the Oregon Cascades), I found substantially greater soil depth near the edge of the flow, where organic acids from decaying allochthonous organic matter had probably sped up the weathering process, as well as contributing directly to the soil. In my PhD dissertation, one subsection had "allochthonous inputs" for a title.

Vannote, R., Minshall, G., Cummins, K., Sedell, J., & Cushing, C. (1980). The River Continuum Concept Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 37 (1), 130-137 DOI: 10.1139/f80-017

Tenure-track faculty position for a Regional Climate Modeler in our department

Assistant Professor, Dept. of Geography and Earth Sciences, Univ. of North Carolina at Charlotte
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Department of Geography and Earth Sciences is recruiting a tenure-track, assistant professor specializing in regional atmospheric climate modeling for appointment in July 2011. Required qualifications include: 1) a doctoral degree in atmospheric science, meteorology, climatology, geography, or a related field at the time of appointment; 2) the ability to develop and maintain an externally funded research program; 3) the ability to teach atmospheric science courses at the graduate and undergraduate level; and 4) the ability to contribute to the department’s interdisciplinary teaching and research mission.

The successful candidate will play a major role in expanding the atmospheric component of our graduate and undergraduate programs while contributing to the department’s interdisciplinary teaching and research missions in geographic, earth and environmental sciences. Successful candidates are expected to maintain an active, scholarly research agenda while advising students in the department’s graduate programs, including the Ph.D. in Geography and the Ph.D. in Infrastructure and Environmental Systems. Candidates with research interests in climate dynamics, regional climate change, multi-scale numerical modeling, and human-environment interactions are especially encouraged to apply. Preference will be given to candidates who strengthen bridges across the atmospheric, earth, and geographical sciences curricula and research collaborations. The successful candidate is expected to develop new courses in their area of expertise and teach a core undergraduate course in dynamic, synoptic, or physical meteorology.

The Department is an interdisciplinary community of physical and social scientists with over 30 faculty members representing meteorology, climatology, hydrology, geology, geography, GIS, community planning, and the environmental sciences. UNC Charlotte is a rapidly growing doctoral-intensive urban university located in the state’s largest metropolitan area. Over 25,000 students are currently enrolled at the university. The Department, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the University are strongly committed to creating and maintaining a diverse community in which all students, staff and faculty can work, learn and live in an environment of respect and support. We welcome applications from candidates who will foster these goals. We encourage applications from women, minorities, and individuals from underrepresented groups.

Review of applications will begin December 1, 2010 and continue until the position is filled. Applications must be made electronically at and must include: 1) letter of application describing research interests, teaching interests, and teaching philosophy, 2) a full curriculum vita, and 3) the names of three referees.
We encourage prospective candidates to review our departmental web site ( prior to applying. For additional information, contact Dr. Matthew Eastin at 704-687-5914 or mdeastin at uncc dot edu.

Graduate Assistantships: Biogeochemistry, Stream Ecology, and Hydrology at UNC Charlotte, NC

Come work with me!

Research assistantships are available at the MS or Ph.D. level at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to participate in a recently funded NSF project investigating the effects of stormwater management on ecosystem function in urban watersheds.  The overall goal is to better understand and predict the impacts of stormwater BMPs on receiving streams over a range of spatial and temporal scales through a combination of field based research and watershed scale ecological modeling.  This interdisciplinary project will link (1) mass-balance based monitoring of individual BMPs, (2) ecosystem processes (nutrient uptake, metabolism, temperature and biological indices) in the receiving stream and (3) monitored and modeled watershed outputs of flow, nitrogen, and carbon.

Applicants interested in aquatic biogeochemistry, hydrology, stream ecology and/or watershed modeling are encouraged to apply.  Students will have flexibility to develop independent research questions within the context of this project that broadly address the interactions among hydrology, biogeochemistry and ecology in aquatic ecosystems.

Qualifications:  degree in biology, ecology, environmental engineering, hydrology or related field is required.  Successful applicants should have a strong interest in working in an interdisciplinary research environment, be creative, motivated and capable of working well both independently and cooperatively and possess strong communication and quantitative skills. Competitive stipends and tuition waivers are available for highly motivated students.  For more information on admission requirements and deadlines, visit  Additional information about the McMillan Lab can be found at  Opportunities exist for collaboration with the labs of Sandra Clinton and Anne Jefferson at UNC Charlotte who are collaborators on the project.

Interested students with strong motivation to succeed in research should contact Sara McMillan via email (  Please submit a statement of career goals and research interests, full CV, unofficial transcripts and GRE scores, and contact information for three potential references.  Review of applications will begin immediately and continue until suitable candidates are found. The anticipated start date is flexible, but should be sometime between January and August 2011.

Heat in the Southeast

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous
Here in Charlotte we had a hot summer. We barely escaped the dubious distinction of hottest summer on record, with an average temperature of 81.1° F (27.3 ° C) between 1 June and 31 August. The record had been set in 1993, when Charlotte recorded an average temperature of 81.5° F (27.5 ° C). In terms of record breaking heat, we actually fared better than many parts of the east coast, where temperature records from New York City to Greenville-Spartanburg, South Carolina were broken. Below there’s a nice map from NOAA of how far average temperatures deviated from the 30-year climate normal period (here, 1966-1996).

U.S. surface temperature departure from average (°C), June 1 to August 31, 2010, from NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division, Boulder Colorado

U.S. surface temperature departure from average (°C), June 1 to August 31, 2010, from NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division, Boulder Colorado

Of course those average temperature records belie the minima and maxima experienced by each place over the course of those three summer months, so there’s another statistic that I’m finding even more interesting: the number of days where maximum temperatures exceeded 90° F (32.2 ° C). I think of it as Anne’s index of intolerable heat, especially when combined with the Southeast’s oppressive humidity. In Charlotte, between 1 June and 31 August, we had 67 days that exceeded 90° F. That means that 73% of days this summer were intolerably hot (at least for me). Also, that’s only counting the days in the climatological summer. We had 90+° F degree heat in early April, some in May, and we’ve already had some in September, with more in the forecast this week. I suspect that by the time the year is out, our total days above 90° F will be something around 80, if not more.

The long-term predictions for the index of intolerable heat look grim for Charlotte and the rest of the southeast. The image below shows historical and modeled days with peak temperatures exceeding 90° F. By the end of the century, at least under a high emissions scenario, 80+ days of intolerable heat will be considered a cool summer in North Carolina. We’re heading towards 120 days or more of hot, hot weather, a doubling of our historical average. In parts of Florida and Texas, more than half the year will be hotter than 90° F. Yuck. Glad I won’t be around here then.

Historical and predicted days with peak temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit

These temperature trends are not just bad news for people who like to play (or do field work) outside in the summer, but are too wimpy to drop bucketloads of sweat. Hotter average temperatures and more days with ridiculous heat have real health consequences. On hot days, the chances go up that people playing outside end up with heat exhaustion or life-threatening heat stroke. People without air conditioned homes or workplaces, people too poor to pay tremendous energy bills for air conditioning, or people who just happen to have their AC break do not even need to play outside to be at risk of heat related illness or death. About 700 people already die each year from heat-related causes, and the elderly are a disproportionate share of the victims. Those with cardiovascular disease are also at substantially increased risk of heat-related mortality.

And it’s not the heat alone that spells bad news for the Southeast. With hotter temperatures come increasing rates of photochemical reactions…such as the production of ground-level ozone from nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds released by car exhaust, power plants, and natural sources. The chemistryof photochemical ozone production is pretty complex and we don’t have a fantastic handle on how coming climate changes will impact the percent of hot days with sun versus clouds, but if the number of hot sunny days increases, it is likely that ozone production will increase too. Ozone brings its own host of adverse health effects, particularly respiratory problems, so even if you don’t mind the heat, running around outside on hot, sunny days can be a bad idea. Once again, children, the elderly, and those with asthma and other respiratory problems are most at risk on high ozone days. Such days, labeled as orange alerts, occur sporadically thoughout the summer already. In Charlotte, we’ve had 13 days with air quality in the orange category since May 1 this year. On those days, people at risk are encouraged to avoid outdoor exercise, and daycare centers limit the time kids spent playing outside. Some days, the air quality is bad enough (red alert) that even healthy adults are encouraged to avoid to outdoor exercise. That’s happened once this year in Charlotte.

As Charlotte and other parts of the southeast move towards one-third of their days in the intolerably hot range, with the probable added bonus of worse air pollution, it will be interesting to watch the societal shifts in attitudes toward the climate. Will Southerners get serious about reducing emissions from cars? Will Charlotteans end their love affair with sprawl in order to improve air quality? Will the Southeast be depopulated of Yankee transplants like me, who finally decide that they can’t take the heat? Or will we just stay inside and crank up the air conditioning units and complain about the weather?

Research assistantship available on stream restoration, nitrogen dynamics, urban streams

An opportunity to do graduate work at UNC Charlotte with excellent and enthusiastic aquatic biogeochemist Sara McMillan:

We are seeking qualified applicants for a graduate assistantship at the MS or Ph.D. level, starting in the summer or fall of 2010 (summer preferred) in Dr. Sara McMillan’s laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Our work broadly addresses the interactions between ecology and biogeochemistry in aquatic ecosystems. This position is funded through a collaborative project with Dr. McMillan and Dr. Greg Jennings at North Carolina State University investigating the impacts of stream restoration on nitrogen dynamics in urban streams. Field and laboratory experiments will focus on reach-scale nutrient retention, microbial biogeochemistry (i.e. denitrification and nitrification) and microbial diversity. Opportunities exist to develop research aims that align with the project for the individual research. Preferred qualifications include a strong background in biology and hydrology, experience with field and laboratory research, and good teamwork and communication skills. The position is funded for 1 year at $18,000 with possibilities for future funding.

If interested contact: Dr. Sara McMillan ( for more information.

Chris Rowan speaking today in the department

I’m delighted to be hosting Dr. Chris Rowan of the University of Edinburgh. Chris’s specialty is paleomagnetic applied to both neotectonic and paleoclimatic problems, and he’s worked in some fabulously exotic locations. Chris is also the lead blogger at Highly Allochthonous, where I occasionally contribute posts as well.

Dr. Rowan will be giving a 2 pm seminar in McEniry 401 with the title: “In search of good palaeomagnetic data: a romp through New Zealand, South Africa and Oman” This talk is aimed firmly at the non-expert.

Dr. Rowan and I will also be convening an informal discussion called “Beyond LOLcats: Earth Science in the Internet Age” at 11 am in McEniry 401. We’ll be discussing how tools like RSS feeds, Google Wave/Docs and Twitter can enhance facilitate collaboration and enhance research productivity.

If you can, please join us for one or both of these interesting seminars.

What does 2010 hold for water in the Charlotte region?

The Catawba Riverkeepers provide their take on the water and environment issues facing the Catawba River watershed and surrounding areas.


Since I’m posting this on January 1st, I suppose I should offer some prognostications for Charlotte area water resources  in the coming year. I’m not much at predictions, but I can offer up some of the things that I know will happen over the next year.

  • We will hear from the Supreme Court about whether Duke Energy and others will be allowed to join in the South Carolina versus North Carolina suit over water allocations in the Catawba River watershed.
  • Sprawl will continue to impact streams around the region, though development will be a bit slower than at its peak.
  • Water conservation will, unfortunately, continue to be at the back of most people’s minds, unless there happens to be a major flood or drought in the news. Lawns will be watered even on rainy days and with upward-directed droplets at noon. People will wash cars on their driveways and run their dishwashers after every meal. They may even leave the water running while they brush their teeth.
  • Global climate will continue to warm, affecting the water cycle in a multitude of ways.
  • My graduate students and I will learn a lot more about the headwater streams, larger rivers, and groundwater of our research sites in the South Fork of the Catawba River watershed and beyond.

Snowfall map from 1-2 March 2009

The National Weather Service has produced a pretty map of snowfall totals from the storm a few weeks ago.  Mecklenburg County (Charlotte) got around 4″, which is a hair more than I measured at home on Monday morning (~3.5″ plus an ice layer). At our field site in Gaston County, the land owner told me he got ~5″ of snow, and that’s what the map shows as well.