Dunes, Dust, Drought, & Downpours: Evolution of Great Plains Landscapes; Cascading Effects of Open Oak Woodland Restoration in the Baraboo Hills; Fire, Shipwreck & Cheese

Late Breaking News:   as part of UW Science Expeditions campus open house April 14-16, Amy Rosebrough of the Wisconsin Historical Society will speak on Friday April 14 at 7pm (venue on campus is yet to be confirmed) on “Fire, Shipwreck, and Cheese—Wisconsin’s Lost Coastal Communities”

“Wednesday Nite @ The Lab” Public Science Talks

Wednesdays at 7pm CT

Room 1111 Genetics Biotech Center, 425 Henry Mall, Madison WI, 


Zoom at https://go.wisc.edu/240r59


Stream at https://www.youtube.com/@wednesdaynitethelab8948


For Wednesday,  March 29, 2023

Hi WN@TL Fans,

My family returned this week to Dauphin Island just west of the entrance of Mobile Bay for Spring Break.  The island was made and shaped and is constantly re-shaped by wind and water, by sediments flowing out of the bay, by Gulf currents streaming west carrying sand, and by breezes that blow the beach inland.  The east end of Dauphin is wooded hills and swamps, while the western 2/3 are wind-swept low-slung dunes and rills free of trees.  Storms blowing north wash seawater over the low ridge and inundate the low-lying Bienville Boulevard that runs east-west like the midrib of a willow leaf.  Sometimes, it’s more than a flood:  in 2005 Hurricane Katrina cleaved the island in two, cutting a channel that had to be sutured with clamshell shovels.

Wind and water are fluids that dynamically pile up and carve out the face of the Earth, sand grain by sand grain, dust particle by dust particle. Literally bit by bit, they transform the lay of the land.  This is true for the barrier islands of the Gulf, the prairies of the Midwest, and the steppes & plateaus of Asia.   Aerial photography, satellite imagery and lidar remote sensing now make it easier for even the novice eye like mine to make out the shape-shifting pictures of fingerprints that wind and water develop, and that vegetation then often fixes in place, on the landscape.

This week with Joe Mason of Geography we get to see these forces in action, and look ahead to the possible ways climate change might in turn shape these shifters.

(And for great images and storylines, check out his Twitter feed @MoreorLoess


On March 29 we finish our five-presentation-March with a flourish as Joe Mason of Geography speaks on “Dunes, Dust, Drought, and Downpours: Evolution of Great Plains Landscapes in Changing Past and Future Climates.”

Description: The strong winds of the central Great Plains have built the largest dune field in North America—now stabilized by grass—and thick deposits of dust, or loess. This talk will begin with an overview of 25 years of research on past intervals of dune activity and rapid dust deposition linked to more frequent severe drought or other climatic conditions in the central Plains over the past 25,000 years, using methods including luminescence dating, stable isotope analysis, and studies of buried soils that record past environmental conditions. 

I will then describe our current research on understanding how intense rainfall—also typical of the Great Plains—erodes both the tablelands built by loess deposition and the stable sand dunes, using studies of soil hydrology and landscape evolution models. 

Finally, I will consider what this research tells us about how these landscapes of sand and loess may change in response to present and future climate change, with implications for grassland ecosystems, prime agricultural land and rangeland, and the High Plains (Ogallala) Aquifer.

Bio: Joe Mason is a professor and former chair of the Department of Geography at UW Madison. His Ph.D. is from UW Madison, and he worked as a Research Geologist in Nebraska’s state geological survey for six years before returning to Madison in 2003. His research has focused on wind-blown sand and dust and the soils and landscapes formed in those sediments, including extensive research on the Great Plains and in northern China, with more local projects in Wisconsin and Minnesota.


Explore More:  https://joseph-a-mason.github.io/

Possibly of interest given results I will show in the talk:  http://landlab.github.io/#/


For April 5 we get insights from the Baraboo Hills as Maia Persche of Forest & Wildlife Ecology will speak on “Cascading Effects of Open Oak Woodland Restoration on Forest Arthropods and Songbirds.”

Description: Woodland restoration offers an important opportunity for ensuring the persistence of native Wisconsin biodiversity. However, understanding how open woodland management treatments, such as prescribed fire and tree thinning, effect forest species can be challenging. In this talk, I will describe a muti-trophic field study in the Baraboo Hills (Sauk Co., WI) aimed at understanding the effects of oak woodland management on understory microclimates, plant communities, forest arthropods, and insectivorous birds.

Results from the first two field seasons indicate that a wide variety of songbirds may be benefitting from increases in forest arthropod biomass due to woodland management. I am looking forward to discussing this unique habitat type and the rich biodiversity it supports, as well as highlighting how woodland restoration can play a part in bird conservation in southern Wisconsin.

Bio: Maia Persche is a PhD student in the SILVIS Lab, Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology. She has been studying bird ecology and conservation for the last ten years, as is also involved in land restoration work. Two years ago, she started five bird banding stations in Sauk County, which are the basis of a long-term ecological monitoring project focusing on the effects of climate change and land management on forest and woodland species.





As noted above, yesterday I received the happy news that Amy Rosebrough, staff archeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society, will give a Special Friday Night Edition of Wednesday Nite @ The Lab on April 14.

Note:  We’re hoping to have the talk in the Auditorium of the Wisconsin Historical Society on Library Mall, if we can shuffle some reservations.  But if the Auditorium is not available, for Plan B we’ll be at the Biotech Center.  I’ll let you know.

“Fire, Shipwreck, and Cheese—Wisconsin’s Lost Coastal Communities” 

In the mid to late 19th centuries, dozens of small communities sprang up along the eastern shores of Wisconsin, each with its own lake pier and general store. The owners of the piers shipped forest and farm products to Chicago, and supplied incoming settlers with the income and goods they needed to survive. A Wisconsin Historical Society initiative is exploring the submerged and onshore remains of these lost ports, and tracing the histories of the people and ships that called them home. In the process, a forgotten chapter of Great Lakes history is coming to light. The lost ports tell stories of catastrophic fires, dangerous shoals, runaway horses, gossip columnists, eavesdropping clerks, and lots and lots of cheese. Most importantly, the story of Wisconsin’s lost coastal communities is the story of how Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan’s shoreline was transformed from timberland to today’s farms and cities.

Bio: Dr. Amy Rosebrough is a Staff Archaeologist with the Office of the State Archaeologist at the Wisconsin Historical Society. A native of the Missouri Ozarks, she has long had an interest in burial monuments and archaeology. She is an alum of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she received her doctorate for region-wide re-analysis of Wisconsin’s effigy mounds and mound builders. She has worked as an archaeologist in the academic, private, and public sectors. In her current position at the Wisconsin Historical Society, she manages archaeological and burial sites data, assists Wisconsin’s citizens with archaeological questions, and serves as a subject matter expert.


Hope to see you soon—in person, by YouTube livestream or by Zoom —at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab.

Tom ZinnenBiotechnology Center & Division of Extension, Wisconsin 4-H

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