The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

March 7, 2014

Waning winter weather

By Amy Kent Herald Staff Writer
The Clinton Herald

---- — CLINTON — Spring is on its way and while most Clinton residents are ready to see the flowers bloom, it could mean some major changes to the region’s ecosystem.

Temperatures are expected to rise in the next few months and with that rise the Mighty Mississippi will begin to thaw and the heavy doses of snow will begin to melt, meaning a heightened potential for flooding.

To prepare for the inevitable rise in water levels, Lock and Dam 13 Lockmaster John Mueller said he and his team will be ready for the thaw well before the river is.

“It depends how fast everything melts but, the lock will be ready to go before the river is ready to go,” Mueller said.

In order to ensure they are ready, the US Army Corps of Engineers at Lock and Dam 13 must begin the thaw process for the lock as well. Currently the lock is frozen but by using a large air compressor to break up the ice and get water flowing through again, Mueller and his crew are able to defrost the lock much faster than Mother Nature.

But, the river itself is an unpredictable force.

Typically by this time of year the river has already begun to thaw but because of unseasonably cold temperatures throughout the winter and into March, that process has been delayed.

“You would hope to see it start thawing by now but this year is an extreme case,” Mueller said. “So, we’ll just have to see how this year all plays out.”

Because the river’s thaw has been delayed the region’s wildlife is also being affected.

Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge biological science technician Eric Tomasovic said he has seen significant changes to the natural schedule of the region’s wildlife in response to that late thaw.

He added that bald eagles and many mammals are especially feeling the affects.

“Eagles or anything else that survive on fish are having a tough time because the water is still very frozen,” Tomasovic said.

“(And) anything that’s an herbivore that would normally enjoy nice fresh greens around this time of year is still having to dig to find those, so that makes things a little more difficult for them.”

When those animals are unable to find food, it limits their source of energy and slows down phenology, the sequence in which things happen during a year for animals.

That sequence consists of migration, hibernation and reproductive times that are typically on a relatively normal schedule. However, with this winter continuing to alter the environment that schedule is slightly delayed.

But Tomasovic doesn’t anticipate that delay will make any drastic changes to the area’s wildlife population.

“Nature is pretty resilient and it doesn’t have a calendar so the shift won’t be too major,” he said.

One area of wildlife that will be disturbed because of the long, winter freeze of the Mississippi is that of the fish population -- nothing new to Tomasovic or the fish and wildlife refuge.

A “fish kill” is a common occurrence with the river’s freezing but because the area is strongly populated by fish there is little concern that it will significantly affect the river inhabitants.

“There are plenty of fish out there in plenty of locations so they always bounce back very well,” Tomasovic said. “Plus, the first thing the fish do when it starts to thaw is reproduce and fish have a lot of eggs.”