Huge Prairie Fire, Then Snow
Ecological restoration, weather, highlight first week of spring at Green Oaks Term
April 12, 2018
So far this spring at Knox College's Green Oaks Biological Field Station, team snow flakes is leading team smoky flames by a score of three to one.
It's snowed three times since the annual spring Prairie Burn in late March, during what the National Weather Service has called a "frigid and snowy start" to the season.
But it was perfect weather for the burn on March 22—56.7 degrees F and sunny with 36.4% relative humidity and wind at 1.2 mph—when biology professor Stuart Allison, a dozen students and two of Allison's faculty colleagues set a series of controlled fires. Knox has been conducting burns since the 1950s to restore several prairies at Green Oaks.
"It's a little dry, not too much wind," Allison told the burn crew as he recorded data in his notebook.
The 2018 burn consumed South Prairie, comprising 12 acres, give or take. This year there was some extra give, as the wind picked up by late morning, and the burn crew had to tamp down several spots where the flames exceeded the planned boundaries.
For the students, this year's burn, plus the bonus snowfalls, were highlights of the first week of class in Green Oaks Term.
The students and a faculty member are living and studying at Green Oaks for the duration of the 10-week-long interdisciplinary immersion program. In addition to classes on prairie ecology, history of land use, and related topics, students will undertake research and creative projects based on their own interests, ranging from plant and animal biology to art and creative writing.
The first day of class is an unsupervised walk-about through Green Oaks. Students are assigned to find their own ways around the 700-acre field station and its various biological communities.
"The best way to learn something is to explore it," said Tony Gant, associate professor of art. He and James Mountjoy, associate professor of biology, are sharing on-site faculty responsibilities for the program. Other Knox faculty in anthropology, creative writing, environmental studies, economics, and physics will present guest lectures.
"Since there are three ecological systems here—the restored prairie, the old growth forest, and the strip mined areas—students can see how the land has changed. Along with the diverse animal life—possums, raccoons, deer," Gant said.
"Even though it's very early in the spring, it can surprise you to see all that's happening out here."
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During the two weeks after the prairie burn, snow and sun alternated at Green Oaks, located about 20 miles east of Galesburg in central Knox County. 2018 has been a stark contrast with 2012, when warm spring weather came so early that Allison, who oversees the annual prairie restoration project, had to cancel the burn because it would have disrupted that year's growth cycle already underway.
This is not the first time that the Green Oaks Term has experienced an early spring snow.
"Several years ago," Gant said, "a student followed some small tracks in the snow until they got to a spot where it looked like the snow had been brushed away, there was a smattering of red and the tracks disappeared," presumably where a hawk had captured a vole—a prairie rodent widespread at Green Oaks.
Still, the long term trend—climate, not weather—is in the direction of earlier, warmer spring seasons, according to a research paper by Allison, who holds the Watson Bartlett Professorship in Biology; and one of his students, Kelsey Martinez, who's currently completing a Ph.D. in biology. They looked at more than 50 years of data on when plants at Green Oaks began flowering each spring. Allison and Martinez concluded: "Our research revealed significant changes in first flowering date, with shifts to earlier first flowering dates clearly related to increasing spring temperatures."
Green Oaks comprises some 700 acres in all, including native and restored prairie, a lake and old growth forests. Farming and strip mining impacted much of Green Oaks and the surrounding area during the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Prairie restoration began at Green Oaks in 1955, making it one of the oldest projects of its type anywhere.