Three Mile Island and Agnes: Fifty Years Later

Fifty years ago this week, the remnants of Hurricane Agnes drifted north through the Susquehanna River basin as a tropical storm and saturated the entire watershed with wave after wave of torrential rains.  The storm caused catastrophic flooding along the river’s main stem and along many major tributaries.  The nuclear power station at Three Mile Island, then under construction, received its first major flood.  Here are some photos taken during the climax of that flood on June 24, 1972.  The river stage as measured just upstream of Three Mile Island at the Harrisburg gauge crested at 33.27 feet, more than 10 feet above flood stage and almost 30 feet higher than the stage at present.  At Three Mile Island and Conewago Falls, the river was receiving additional flow from the raging Swatara Creek, which drains much of the anthracite coal region of eastern Schuylkill County—where rainfall from Agnes may have been the heaviest.

Three Mile Island flooding from Agnes 1972.
1972-  From the river’s east shore at the mouth of Conewago Creek, Three Mile Island’s “south bridge” crosses the Susquehanna along the upstream edge of Conewago Falls.  The flood crested just after covering the roadway on the span.  Floating debris including trees, sections of buildings, steel drums, and rubbish began accumulating against the railings on the bridge’s upstream side, leading observers to speculate that the span would fail.  When a very large fuel tank, thousands of gallons in capacity, was seen approaching, many thought it would be the straw that would break the camel’s back.  It wasn’t, but the crashing sounds it made as it struck the bridge then turned and began rolling against the rails was unforgettable.  (Larry L. Coble, Sr. image)
Three Mile Island flooding from Agnes 1972.
1972-  In this close-up of the preceding photo, the aforementioned piles of junk can be seen along the upstream side of the bridge (behind the sign on the right).  The fuel tank struck and was rolling on the far side of this pile.  (Larry L. Coble, Sr. image)
2022-  Three Mile Island’s “south bridge” as it appeared this morning, June 24,2022.
Three Mile Island flooding from Agnes 1972.
1972-  The railroad along the east shore at Three Mile Island’s “south bridge” was inundated by rising water.  This flooded automobile was one of many found in the vicinity.  Some of these vehicles were overtaken by rising water while parked, others were stranded while being driven, and still others floated in from points unknown.  (Larry L. Coble, Sr. image)
2022-  A modern view of the same location.
Three Mile Island flooding from Agnes 1972.
1972-  At the north end of Three Mile Island, construction on Unit 1 was halted.  The completed cooling towers can be seen to the right and the round reactor building can be seen behind the generator building to the left.  The railroad grade along the river’s eastern shore opposite the north end of the island was elevated enough for this train to stop and shelter there for the duration of the flood.  (Larry L. Coble, Sr. image)
2022-  Three Mile Island Unit 1 as it appears today: shut down, defueled, and in the process of deconstruction.
Three Mile Island flooding from Agnes 1972.
1972-  In March of 1979, the world would come to know of Three Mile Island Unit 2.  During Agnes in June of 1972, flood waters surrounding the plant resulted in a delay of its construction.  In the foreground, note the boxcar from the now defunct Penn Central Railroad.  (Larry L. Coble, Sr. image)
2022-  A current look at T.M.I. Unit 2, shut down since the accident and partial meltdown in 1979.

Pictures capture just a portion of the experience of witnessing a massive flood.  Sometimes the sounds and smells of the muddy torrents tell us more than photographs can show.

Aside from the booming noise of the fuel tank banging along the rails of the south bridge, there was the persistent roar of floodwaters, at the rate of hundreds of thousands of cubic feet per second, tumbling through Conewago Falls on the downstream side of the island.   The sound of the rapids during a flood can at times carry for more than two miles.  It’s a sound that has accompanied the thousands of floods that have shaped the falls and its unique diabase “pothole rocks” using abrasives that are suspended in silty waters after being eroded from rock formations in the hundreds of square miles of drainage basin upstream.  This natural process, the weathering of rock and the deposition of the material closer to the coast, has been the prevailing geologic cycle in what we now call the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed since the end of the Triassic Period, more than two hundred million years ago.

More than the sights and sounds, it was the smell of the Agnes flood that warned witnesses of the dangers of the non-natural, man-made contamination—the pollution—in the waters then flowing down the Susquehanna.

Because they float, gasoline and other fuels leaked from flooded vehicles, storage tanks, and containers were most apparent.  The odor of their vapors was widespread along not only along the main stem of the river, but along most of the tributaries that at any point along their course passed through human habitations.

Blended with the strong smell of petroleum was the stink of untreated excrement.  Flooded treatment plants, collection systems overwhelmed by stormwater, and inundated septic systems all discharged raw sewage into the river and many of its tributaries.  This untreated wastewater, combined with ammoniated manure and other farm runoff, gave a damaging nutrient shock to the river and Chesapeake Bay.

Adding to the repugnant aroma of the flood was a mix of chemicals, some percolated from storage sites along watercourses, and yet others leaking from steel drums seen floating in the river.  During the decades following World War II, stacks and stacks of drums, some empty, some containing material that is very dangerous, were routinely stored in floodplains at businesses and industrial sites throughout the Susquehanna basin.  Many were lifted up and washed away during the record-breaking Agnes flood.  Still others were “allowed” to be carried away by the malicious pigs who see a flooding stream as an opportunity to “get rid of stuff”.  Few of these drums were ever recovered, and hundreds were stranded along the shoreline and in the woods and wetlands of the floodplain below Conewago Falls.  There, they rusted away during the next three decades, some leaking their contents into the surrounding soils and waters.  Today, there is little visible trace of any.

During the summer of ’72, the waters surrounding Three Mile Island were probably viler and more polluted than at any other time during the existence of the nuclear generating station there.  And little, if any of that pollution originated at the facility itself.

The Susquehanna’s floodplain and water quality issues that had been stashed in the corner, hidden out back, and swept under the rug for years were flushed out by Agnes, and she left them stuck in the stinking mud.

Photo of the Day

Right now, a very rare double sun halo is visible in the sky above the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters located east of Conewago Falls.  Sunlight refracted as it passes through ice crystals in high-altitude cirrus clouds appears as two rings around its source, one at 22 degrees and a second at 46 degrees.  It may be below freezing up there at the moment, but the current temperature down here at ground level is a comfortable 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pick Up and Get Out of the Floodplain

The remnants of Hurricane Ida are on their way to the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  After making landfall in Louisiana as a category 4 storm, Ida is on track to bring heavy rain to the Mid-Atlantic States beginning tonight.

Tropical Depression Ida moving slowly toward the northeast.   (NOAA/GOES image)

Rainfall totals are anticipated to be sufficient to cause flooding in the lower Susquehanna basin.  As much as six to ten inches of precipitation could fall in parts of the area on Wednesday.

Rainfall forecasts from the National Hurricane Center.  (NOAA/National Hurricane Center image)

Now would be a good time to get all your valuables and junk out of the floodways and floodplains.  Move your cars, trucks, S.U.V.s, trailers, and boats to higher ground.  Clear out the trash cans, playground equipment, picnic tables, and lawn furniture too.  Get it all to higher ground.  Don’t be the slob who uses a flood as a chance to get rid of tires and other rubbish by letting it just wash away.

Vehicles parked atop fill that has been dumped into a stream’s floodplain are in double trouble.  Fill displaces water and exasperates flooding instead of providing refuge from it.  Better move these cars, trucks, and trailers to higher ground, posthaste.

Flooding not only has economic and public safety impacts, it is a source of enormous amounts of pollution.  Chemical spills from inundated homes, businesses, and vehicles combine with nutrient and sediment runoff from eroding fields to create a filthy brown torrent that rushes down stream courses and into the Susquehanna.  Failed and flooded sewage facilities, both municipal and private, not only pollute the water, but give it that foul odor familiar to those who visit the shores of the river after a major storm.  And of course there is the garbage.  The tons and tons of waste that people discard carelessly that, during a flood event, finds its way ever closer to the Susquehanna, then the Chesapeake, and finally the Atlantic.  It’s a disgraceful legacy.

Now is your chance to do something about it.  Go out right now and pick up the trash along the curb, in the street, and on the sidewalk and lawn—before it gets swept into your nearby stormwater inlet or stream.  It’s easy to do, just bend and stoop.  While you’re at it, clean up the driveway and parking lot too.

Secure your trash and pick up litter before it finds its way into the storm sewer system and eventually your local stream.  It’ll take just a minute.
This is how straws and other plastics find their way to the ocean and the marine animals living there, so pick that stuff up!  Did you know that keeping stormwater inlets clean can prevent street flooding and its destructive extension into the cellars of nearby homes and businesses?
There’s another straw.  Pick it and the rest of that junk up now, before the storm.  Don’t wait for your local municipality or the Boy Scouts to do it.  You do it, even if it’s not your trash.

We’ll be checking to see how you did.

And remember, flood plains are for flooding, so get out of the floodplain and stay out.

Smoke from a Distant Fire

Have a look at these images of the smoke plume being generated by fires in forests and other wildlands in the western United States.

Smoke from enormous wildfires located primarily in California and Oregon obscures ground features across the Mid-Atlantic States this morning.  Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes of New York are the most readily identifiable landmarks in the center of the image.  The Lower Susquehanna River Watershed is indiscernible beneath the dense blanket of haze.  (CIRA/NOAA image)
This morning’s satellite image of the United States and the North Atlantic looks like an illustration one might find in a meteorology textbook showing examples of a variety of extreme atmospheric phenomena.  There’s something going on everywhere.  (CIRA/NOAA image)
Here we’ve labeled the major stuff.  There are two hurricanes (Sally and Teddy), a tropical storm (Vicky), and three tropical depressions, each labeled “T.D.”.  A strong cold front in central Canada is making its way toward the eastern United States.  Dust from the Sahara continues to stream into the Americas and the gray-brown plume of smoke from wildfires in the Pacific Coast States stretches thousands of miles east into the North Atlantic.  (CIRA/NOAA base image)

While viewing these amazing images, consider for a moment the plight of migrating birds.  Each one struggles to survive the energy-depleting effects of wind, distance, storm, cold, drought, dust, and sometimes even smoke as it strives to reach its breeding grounds each spring and its wintering grounds each fall.  Natural and man-made effects can cause migrating birds to become disoriented.  Songbirds are known to become lost at sea.  Others strike objects including buildings and radio towers, particularly when visibility is impaired.  The dangers seem endless.

Neotropical migrants must somehow navigate the maze of perils that lie between their breeding grounds in the north and their wintering habitats in tropical climates (designated here using blue stars).  (CIRA/NOAA base image)

For migrating birds, places of refuge where they can stop to feed and rest during their long journeys are essential to their survival.  For species attempting flights through conditions as extreme as those seen in these images, there is the potential for significant loss of life, particularly among the birds with less than optimal stores of energy.

During their southbound autumn migration to tropical wintering grounds in Central America, some Ruby-throated Hummngbirds will attempt a non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico, a route requiring maximum stores of energy.  Keep those feeders clean and full of fresh provisions!

Get Out of the Floodplain…And Get Your Stuff Out Too!

After threading its way through waves of Saharan dust plumes, Tropical Storm Isaias, or the remnants thereof, is making a run up the eastern seaboard toward the lower Susquehanna watershed.

Isaias formed just off the northernmost tip of the South American continent.  It drifted north in a narrow pocket between two waves of the Saharan dust plume and, on July 30, strengthened to tropical storm status while in the vicinity of Puerto Rico.  (CIRA/NOAA image)
In this image taken on Friday, note the position of the fast-moving dust plume that was to the southeast of Isaias just a day earlier.  With the storm now clear of the dry Saharan air, it strengthens to become Hurricane Isaias.  (CIRA/NOAA image)
On Friday, the National Hurricane Center issues advisors expecting the strengthening Isaias to sweep the Atlantic coasts of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina as a hurricane with winds of 74 miles per hour or greater.  (NOAA/National Hurricane Center image)
Then on Saturday, Isaias appears to be back in the dirt.  Did the counterclockwise rotation of the atmosphere around Isaias draw in Saharan dust and dry air to weaken the storm?  Whatever the cause, Isaias is downgraded to a strong tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 70 miles per hour.  (CIRA/NOAA image)
The latest image of Tropical Storm Isaias.  (CIRA/NOAA image)
The latest forecast projects Isaias will briefly reach hurricane status later today before making landfall in South Carolina and again weakening.  (NOAA/National Hurricane Center image)
Tropical Storm Isaias is expected to bring heavy rain to the lower Susquehanna valley and the Cheapeake Bay region tomorrow (Tuesday).  (NOAA/National Hurricane Center image)

Heavy rain and flooding appears likely, particularly east of the Susquehanna.  Now might be a good time to clean up the trash and garbage that could clog nearby storm drains or otherwise find its way into your local waterway.  NOW is the time to get all your stuff out of the floodplain!  The car, the camper, the picnic table, the lawn furniture, the kid’s toys, the soda bottles, the gas cans, the lawn chemicals, the Styrofoam, and all that other junk you’ve piled up.  Get that stuff cleaned up and out of the floodway.  And of course, get you and your pets out of the there too!

Saharan Dust Cloud: A Tale of Two Tropical Storms

Have a look at the effect of the Saharan dust event of 2020 on tropical storm and hurricane development…

Wednesday-  Earlier in the week, Tropical Storm Gonzalo developed in the Atlantic Ocean along the south edge of a gap between two waves of Saharan dust.  Forecast models predicted Gonzalo would strengthen to a hurricane as it moved west into the Caribbean Sea in the coming days.  A tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico was also being monitored.  Should it intensify, it would be named Tropical Storm Hanna.  (CIRA/NOAA image)
Thursday-  Tropical Storm Gonzalo continues its westward track.  Note the pinching of the two waves of Saharan dust around its north side.  In the gulf, soon-to-be Tropical Storm Hanna gathers strength over the warm water, free of the convective restrictions imposed by Saharan dust.  (CIRA/NOAA image)
Friday-  Tropical Storm Gonzalo is caught in the pinch of Saharan dust, diminishing its potential for growth.  The system’s feeder bands are nearly gone.  The forecast is downgraded; Gonzalo is expected to remain a tropical storm during its passage through the Caribbean.  Looking more robust, Tropical Storm Hanna approaches the coasts of Texas and Louisiana.  (CIRA/NOAA image)
Saturday-  With upper-level convection subdued by an overcast of Saharan particulates and dry desert air, Tropical Storm Gonzalo is becoming less organized and is forecast to be downgraded to a tropical depression within 24 hours.  (CIRA/NOAA image)
Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Hanna has strengthen to Hurricane Hanna.  A humid atmosphere free of a dense plume of Saharan dust has allowed this storm to develop towering cloud convection, visible here just off the coast of Texas.  (CIRA/NOAA image)

Tropical Storm Fay

Tropical Storm Fay bringing rain and the possibility of flooding to the lower Susquehanna watershed.  As of 3:30 P.M. E.D.T., the northbound center of circulation was just off Atlantic City, New Jersey.  (CIRA/NOAA image)

Saharan Dust Cloud: Out of the Loop

Dust continues to be carried aloft on dry updrafts over the Sahara Desert.  The plume is presently stretching for thousands of miles due west across the tropical Atlantic into the Pacific, leaving the United States out of the loop—at least for now.

(CIRA/NOAA image)

With no dry air to spoil the fun, the warm waters of the Gulf Stream off the coast of North Carolina are spawning some convective clouds in a low pressure system that could become tropical within the next day or so.

Tropical or not, it looks like a rainy weekend along the Mid-Atlantic coast.  (CIRA/NOAA image)

Now that the heat and humidity is upon us, why not get out and take a look at the damselflies and dragonflies that inhabit the ponds, wetlands, and waterways of the lower Susquehanna watershed?  These flying insects thrive in sultry weather and some species will breed in a body of water as small as a garden pond—as long as it is free of large fish.  Check out some of the species found locally by clicking on the “Damselflies and Dragonflies” tab at the top of this page.  We’ll be adding more photos and species soon.

A Halloween Pennant.  Ooh, scary.

Saharan Dust: Atlantic to Pacific

The overcast of Saharan dust that was as close to the Susquehanna valley as the Appalachians of Virginia and West Virginia has, for now, dissipated.  This week, the plume of particulates followed a hairpin route originating with the Saharan updrafts, then flowing across the Atlantic and Caribbean only to make a 180-degree turn along the coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico to return to the Atlantic via Florida, where it then drifted northeast—loosely following the path of the Gulf Stream.

The hairpin route of the Saharan dust cloud in the Atlantic.  (CIRA/NOAA image)
A 180-degree turn as the plume passes over the Yucatan Peninsula and shorelines along the Gulf of Mexico to cross Florida and reenter the Atlantic. (CIRA/NOAA image)

During the last several days, portions of the dust layer have been carried due west across Mexico into the Pacific.

Portions of the Saharan dust plume entering the Pacific Ocean off Mexico.  (CIRA/NOAA image)

For the Susquehanna region, a low pressure system is in place for Independence Day.  In the image below, the cloud of hazy humid air seen blanketing the northeast coast  consists of air pollution, pollen, mold spores,  “domestic particulates”, condensing water vapor—and little if any red-brown Saharan dust.  For the gasoline and gunpowder gang, it’ll be a sticky-hot summer weekend for the celebration of their favorite holiday.  Kaboom!

An opaque film of humid air over the Mid-Atlantic States and a diluted plume of Saharan dust drifting northeast after crossing Florida.  (CIRA/NOAA image)

Saharan Dust Plume Approaching the Mid-Atlantic States

The latest satellite image shows the Saharan dust cloud now covering much of the southern United States including most of West Virginia and the Appalachians of North Carolina and Virginia.  Due to the density of the particulate matter, air quality warnings have been issued by the National Weather Service for South Carolina, western North Carolina, and the Atlanta metro area.

As the plume of dust drifts east from the southern United States into the Atlantic…

(CIRA/NOAA image)

…yet more can be seen coming west from the African Sahara into the Caribbean Sea.  It ain’t over til’ it’s over.

(CIRA/NOAA image)

Saharan Dust Cloud Arrives on Gulf Coast

The Saharan dust cloud made its way across the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico to reach the skies above the shores of the United States by mid-day yesterday.  There, as seen in the image below, the dusty air mass encountered a storm that caused heavy rains and flooding in Louisiana.

(CIRA/NOAA image)

By this morning, the leading edge of the dust cloud encircled the gulf coastline and had spread east across northern Florida into the Atlantic.  The latest satellite image (below) shows a dense dry core of the system covering the western Caribbean, the central gulf, and the Yucatan Peninsula.

(CIRA/NOAA image)

For the eastern Caribbean, there is a break in the action.  But a second wave is on the way.

(CIRA/NOAA image)

Start watching the skies.  Look for any increase in haze during the coming days.  Then too, it might be interesting to compare the sunsets for one evening to the next.  Over successive nights, take note of the stars and planets in the night sky.  If the Saharan dust reaches the lower Susquehanna region with sufficient density, you may find that only the brightest celestial objects are discernible.

Saharan Dust Cloud Update

(CIRA/NOAA image)

Dust carried aloft by hot dry air over the Sahara Desert continues to stream west into the Caribbean Sea.  In this image, a dense band of the airborne particles can be seen passing over the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Leeward Islands.  North of these islands, note the development of puffy white clouds outside the border of the dust storm.  The Saharan air mass appears to be effectively limiting convective cloud development within much of its course.  No hurricanes for now.

What is the impact of the Saharan dust cloud on the affected islands?  In Puerto Rico, the National Weather Service is forecasting visibility of four to eight miles in widespread haze through at least the next twenty-four hours.  For the coming several days, the forecast daily high temperatures are expected to be in the low eighties—several degrees cooler than the normal high eighties and low nineties.

Stay tuned, we’ll keep an eye on the plume as it moves into the Gulf of Mexico.

Dirty Summer 2020?

Summer is nigh upon us.  With the solstice just hours away, it might be fun to have a look at a satellite view of the earth while the south pole lies plunged into days of endless night, and the north pole suffers none.

(CIRA/NOAA image)

In the image above, darkness can be seen engulfing the southern Atlantic Ocean and southernmost Chile.  The latter is the longitudinal equivalent of the lower Susquehanna valley.  Today, it experiences nightfall more than five hours earlier than we, heralding the first day of our summer, and of their winter.

Just to the north of the South American continent, note the enormous tan-colored cloud over the Atlantic.  What is that?  From whence doth that cloud come?

(CIRA/NOAA image)

Closer inspection reveals an enormous plume of dust rising from the Sahara Desert in Africa and drifting west approaching the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean.  (In the image above, Africa can be seen outlined in the darkness along the east horizon)  Look closely and you’ll notice that the dust is obscuring the white clouds below it, indicating that it has reached altitudes high in the atmosphere.  Particle fallout from Saharan dust clouds is known to fertilize tropical forests—including the Amazon (bottom center of image).  Because they are composed of wind blown particles and not water vapor, Saharan dust clouds carry aloft not only minerals and nutrients, but microscopic and macroscopic life too.

Is this particular Saharan dust cloud going to impact the Amazon?  What might the meteorological and biological effects of this cloud be if it continues into the Caribbean and even into the United States?  Might we be showered by little pieces of the Sahara this summer?  Will we see spectacular sunrises and sunsets?  Time will tell.

The Colorful Birds Are Here

You need to get outside and go for a walk.  You’ll be sorry if you don’t.  It’s prime time to see wildlife in all its glory.  The songs and colors of spring are upon us!

Flooding that resulted from mid-week rains is subsiding.  The muddy torrents of Conewago Falls are seen here racing by the powerhouse at the York Haven Dam.
Receding waters will soon leave the parking area at Falmouth and other access points along the river high and dry.
Migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers are currently very common in the riparian woodlands near Conewago Falls.  They and all the Neotropical warblers, thrushes, vireos, flycatchers are moving through the Susquehanna watershed right now.
A Baltimore Oriole feeds in a riverside maple tree.
Ruby-crowned Kinglets are migrating through the Susquehanna valley.  These tiny birds may be encountered among the foliage of trees and shrubs as they feed upon insects .
Gray Catbirds are arriving.  Many will stay to nest in shrubby thickets and in suburban gardens.
American Robins and other birds take advantage of rising flood waters to feed upon earthworms and other invertebrates that are forced to the soil’s surface along the inundated river shoreline.
Spotted Sandpipers are a familiar sight as they feed along water’s edge.
The Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is a Neotropical migrant that nests locally in wet shrubby thickets.  Let your streamside vegetation grow and in a few years you just might have these “wild canaries” singing their chorus of “sweet-sweet-sweet-I’m-so-sweet” on your property.

If you’re not up to a walk and you just want to go for a slow drive, why not take a trip to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area and visit the managed grasslands on the north side of the refuge.  To those of us over fifty, it’s a reminder of how Susquehanna valley farmlands were before the advent of high-intensity agriculture.  Take a look at the birds found there right now.

Red-winged Blackbirds commonly nest in cattail marshes, but are very fond of untreated hayfields, lightly-grazed pastures, and fallow ground too.  These habitats are becoming increasingly rare in the lower Susquehanna region.  Farmers have little choice, they either engage in intensive agriculture or go broke.
Nest boxes are provided for Tree Swallows at the refuge.
Numbers of American Kestrels have tumbled with the loss of grassy agricultural habitats that provide large insects and small rodents for them to feed upon.
White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) are a migrant and winter resident species that favors small clumps of shrubby cover in pastures and fallow land.
When was the last time you saw an Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) singing “spring-of-the-year” in a pasture near your home?
And yes, the grasslands at Middle Creek do support nesting Ring-necked Pheasants (Phasianus colcichus).  If you stop for a while and listen, you’ll hear the calls of “kowk-kuk” and a whir of wings.  Go check it out.

And remember, if you happen to own land and aren’t growing crops on it, put it to good use.  Mow less, live more.  Mow less, more lives.

Tornado: Close Call

Severe thunderstorms with hail, torrential rain, and flooding passed through the lower Susquehanna valley this evening.  The National Weather Service in State College issued a warning for a radar-indicated tornado shown crossing the Susquehanna River downstream of Conewago Falls at 6:55 P.M. E.D.T.  The rascal revealed itself about ten minutes later.

At 7:05 P.M. E.D.T., this tornado descended to within 500 to 1000 feet of ground level six miles east of Conewago Falls above Elizabethtown in Lancaster County.  There was strong rotation in the warm updraft (seen above the red house) and a short-lived cool downdraft descending toward the ground (dark cloud mass above the tan-colored house).  Fortunately, prior to getting wrapped up tight, the consolidating vortex dissipated and the clouds retreated skyward while the storm continued to the east.

The staff at a retirement community west of Elizabethtown was on the alert and had the fortitude to quickly sound a warning siren.  It was howling away as this image was taken.  What could have been a disaster was instead a spectacular close call.

2018 Migration Count Summary: Rainout

If you were a regular visitor to this website during the autumn of 2017, you will recall the proliferation of posts detailing the bird migration at Conewago Falls during the season.  The lookout site among the Pothole Rocks remained high and dry for most of the count’s duration. 

In the fall of 2018, those lookout rocks were never to be seen. There was to be no safe perch for a would-be observer. There was no attempt to conduct a tally of passing migrants. If you live in the lower Susquehanna River drainage basin, you know why—rain—record setting rain.

Annual precipitation during 2018 as indicated by radar.  Note the extensive areas in pink.  They received in excess of 70 inches of precipitation during 2018, much of it during the second half of the year.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
Average annual rainfall.  Most of the lower Susquehanna drainage basin receives an average of just over 40 inches of rain each year.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
Departure from normal annual precipitation totals.  Note the extensive areas of greater than 20 inches of precipitation above normal (pink).  Severe flooding occurred on many streams during numerous events throughout the second half of 2018.  Note the closer to normal totals in central New York in the upper Susquehanna watershed.  The lesser amounts of rain there and the localized pattern of the flooding events in Pennsylvania prevented the main stem of the lower Susquehanna from experiencing catastrophic high water in 2018.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)   
Though there has been no severe flooding, frequent rain events in the Susquehanna watershed have maintained persistently high river levels in Conewago Falls.  Pothole Rocks seen here on December 9 during an ebb in the flow were soon inundated again as rains fell in the Susquehanna basin upstream. 
Of course, each time the river receded it left behind a fresh pile of plastic garbage.  What didn’t end up on the shoreline found its way to Chesapeake Bay…then on to the Atlantic.  Is that your cooler? 

Put Up the White Flag

It was a routine occurrence in many communities along tributaries of the lower Susquehanna River during the most recent two months.  The rain falls like it’s never going to stop—inches an hour.  Soon there is flash flooding along creeks and streams.  Roads are quickly inundated.  Inevitably, there are motorists caught in the rising waters and emergency crews are summoned to retrieve the victims.  When the action settles, sets of saw horses are brought to the scene to barricade the road until waters recede.  At certain flood-prone locations, these events are repeated time and again.  The police, fire, and Emergency Medical Services crews seem to visit them during every torrential storm—rain, rescue, rinse, and repeat.

We treat our local streams and creeks like open sewers.  Think about it.  We don’t want rainwater accumulating on our properties.  We pipe it away and grade the field, lawn, and pavement to roll it into the neighbor’s lot or into the street—or directly into the waterway.  It drops upon us as pure water and we instantly pollute it.  It’s a method of diluting all the junk we’ve spread out in its path since the last time it rained.  A thunderstorm is the big flush.  We don’t seem too concerned about the litter, fertilizer, pesticides, motor fluids, and other consumer waste it takes along with it.  Out of sight, out of mind.

Failure to retain and infiltrate stormwater to recharge aquifers can later result in well failures and reduced base flow in streams.  (Conoy Creek’s dry streambed in June, 2007)

Perhaps our lack of respect for streams and creeks is the source of our complete ignorance of the function of floodplains.

Floodplains are formed over time as hydraulic forces erode bedrock and soils surrounding a stream to create adequate space to pass flood waters.  As floodplains mature they become large enough to reduce flood water velocity and erosion energy.  They then function to retain, infiltrate, and evaporate the surplus water from flood events.  Microorganisms, plants, and other life forms found in floodplain wetlands, forests, and grasslands purify the water and break down naturally-occurring organic matter.  Floodplains are the shock-absorber between us and our waterways.  And they’re our largest water treatment facilities.

Why is it then, that whenever a floodplain floods, we seem motivated to do something to fix this error of nature?  Man can’t help himself.  He has a compulsion to fill the floodplain with any contrivance he can come up with.  We dump, pile, fill, pave, pour, form, and build, then build some more.  At some point, someone notices a stream in the midst of our new creation.  Now it’s polluted and whenever it storms, the darn thing floods into our stuff—worse than ever before.  So the project is crowned by another round of dumping, forming, pouring, and building to channelize the stream.  Done!  Now let’s move all our stuff into our new habitable space.

Natural Floodplain- Over a period of hundreds or thousands of years, the stream (dark blue) has established a natural floodplain including wetlands and forest.  In this example, buildings and infrastructure are located outside the zone inundated by high water (light blue) allowing the floodplain to function as an effective water-absorbing buffer.

Impaired Floodplain- Here the natural floodplain has been filled for building (left) and paved for recreation area parking (right).  The stream has been channelized.  Flood water (light blue) displaced by these alterations is likely to inundate areas not previously impacted by similar events.  Additionally, the interference with natural flow will create new erosion points that could seriously damage older infrastructure and properties.

The majority of the towns in the lower Susquehanna valley with streams passing through them have impaired floodplains.  In many, the older sections of the town are built on filled floodplain.  Some new subdivisions highlight streamside lawns as a sales feature—plenty of room for stockpiling your accoutrements of suburban life.  And yes, some new homes are still being built in floodplains.

When high water comes, it drags tons of debris with it.  The limbs, leaves, twigs, and trees are broken down by natural processes over time.  Nature has mechanisms to quickly cope with these organics.  Man’s consumer rubbish is another matter.  As the plant material decays, the embedded man-made items, particularly metals, treated lumber, plastics, Styrofoam, and glass, become more evident as an ever-accumulating “garbage soil” in the natural floodplains downstream of these impaired areas.  With each storm, some of this mess floats away again to move ever closer to Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic.  Are you following me?  That’s our junk from the curb, lawn, highway, or parking lot bobbing around in the world’s oceans.

A shed, mobile home, or house can be inundated or swept away during a flood.  Everything inside (household chemicals, gasoline, fuel oil, pesticides, insulation, all those plastics, etc.) instantly pollutes the water.  Many communities that rely on the Susquehanna River for drinking water are immediately impacted, including Lancaster, PA and Baltimore, MD.  This dumpster was swept away from a parking lot in a floodplain.  It rolled in the current, chipping away at the bridge before spilling the rubbish into the muddy water.  After the flood receded, the dumpster was found a mile downstream.  Its contents are still out there somewhere.

Floodplains along the lower Susquehanna River are blanketed with a layer of flotsam that settles in place as high water recedes.  These fresh piles can be several feet deep and stretch for miles.  Nature decomposes the organic twigs and driftwood to build soil-enriching humus.  However, the plastics and other man-made materials that do not readily decay or do not float away toward the sea during the next flood are incorporated into the alluvium and humus creating a “garbage soil”.  Over time, the action of abrasives in the soil will grind small particles of plastics from the larger pieces.  These tiny plastics can become suspended in the water column each time the river floods.  What will be the long-term impact of this type of pollution?

Anything can be swept away by the powerful hydraulic forces of flowing water.  Large objects like this utility trailer can block passages through bridges and escalate flooding problems.

The cost of removing debris often falls upon local government and is shared by taxpayers.

Here, a junked boat dock is snagged on the crest of the York Haven Dam at Conewago Falls.  Rising water eventually carried it over the dam and into the falls where it broke up.  This and tons of other junk are often removed downstream at the Safe Harbor Dam to prevent damage to turbine equipment.  During periods of high water, the utility hauls debris by the truck-load to the local waste authority for disposal.  For the owners of garbage like this dock, it’s gone and it’s somebody else’s problem now.

Motor vehicles found after floating away from parking areas in floodplains can create a dangerous dilemma for police, fire, and E.M.S. personnel, particularly when no one witnesses the event.  Was someone driving this car or was it vacant when it was swept downstream?  Should crews be put at risk to locate possible victims?

Beginning in 1968, participating municipalities, in exchange for having coverage provided to their qualified residents under the National Flood Insurance Program, were required to adopt and enforce a floodplain management ordinance.  The program was intended to reduce flood damage and provide flood assistance funded with premiums paid by potential victims.  The program now operates with a debt incurred during severe hurricanes.  Occurrences of repetitive damage claims and accusations that the program provides an incentive for rebuilding in floodplains have made the National Flood Insurance Program controversial.

In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed there are municipalities that still permit new construction in floodplains.  Others are quite proactive at eliminating new construction in flood-prone zones, and some are working to have buildings removed that are subjected to repeated flooding.

Another Wall— Here’s an example of greed by the owner, engineer, and municipality… placing their financial interests first.  The entire floodplain on the north side of this stream was filled, then the wall was erected to contain the material.  A financial institution’s office and parking lot was constructed atop the mound.  This project has channelized the stream and completely displaced half of the floodplain to a height of 15 to 20 feet.  Constructed less than five years ago, the wall failed already and has just been totally reconstructed.  The photo reveals how recent flooding has begun a new erosion regime where energy is focused along the base of the wall.  Impairment of a floodplain to this degree can lead to flooding upstream of the site and erosion damage to neighboring infrastructure including roads and bridges.

The floodplain along this segment of the lower Swatara Creek in Londonderry Township, Dauphin County is free to flood.  Ordinances prohibit new construction here and 14 older houses that repeatedly flooded were purchased, dismantled, and removed using funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (F.E.M.A).  A riparian buffer was planted and some wetland restorations were incorporated into stormwater management installations along the local highways.  When the waters of the Swatara rise, the local municipality closes the roads into the floodplain.  Nobody lives or works there anymore, so no one has any reason to enter.  There’s no need to rescue stubborn residents who refused advice to evacuate.  Sightseers can park and stand on the hill behind the barricades and take all the photographs they like.

A new Pennsylvania Turnpike bridge across Swatara Creek features wide passage for the stream below.  Water flowing in the floodplain can pass under the bridge without being channelized toward the path where the stream normally flows in the center.  The black asterisk-shaped floats spin on the poles to help deflect debris away from the bridge piers.  (flood crest on July 26, 2018)

People are curious when a waterway floods and they want to see it for themselves.  Wouldn’t it be wise to anticipate this demand for access by being ready to accommodate these citizens safely?  Isn’t a parking lot, picnic area, or manicured park safer and more usable when overlooking the floodplain as opposed to being located in it?  Wouldn’t it be a more prudent long-term investment, both financially and ecologically, to develop these improvements on higher ground outside of flood zones?

Now would be a good time to stop the new construction and the rebuilding in floodplains.  Aren’t the risks posed to human life, water quality, essential infrastructure, private property, and ecosystems too great to continue?

Isn’t it time to put up the white flag and surrender the floodplains to the floods?  That’s why they’re there.  Floodplains are for flooding.

They Call Me the Wanderer

It’s been an atypical summer.  The lower Susquehanna River valley has been in a cycle of heavy rains for over a month and stream flooding has been a recurring event.  At Conewago Falls, the Pothole Rocks have been inundated for weeks.  The location used as a lookout for the Autumn Migration Count last fall is at the moment submerged in ten feet of roaring water.  Any attempt to tally the migrants which are passing thru in 2018 will thus be delayed indefinitely.  Of greater import, the flooding at Conewago Falls is impacting many of the animals and plants there at a critical time in their annual life cycle.  Having been displaced from its usual breeding sites on the river, one insect species in particular seems to be omnipresent in upland areas right now, and few people have ever heard of it.

So, you take a cruise in the motorcar to your favorite store and arrive at the sprawling parking lot.  Not wishing to have your doors dented or paint chipped because you settled for a space tightly packed among other shopper’s conveyances, you park out there in the “boondocks”.  You know the place, the lightly-used portion of the lot where sometimes brush grows from cracks in the asphalt and you must be on alert for impatient consumers who throttle-up to high speeds and dash diagonally across the carefully painted grids on the pavement to reach their favorite parking destination in the front row.  Coming to a stop, you take the car out of gear, set the brake, disengage the safety belt, and gather your shopping list.  You grasp the door handle and, not wanting to be flattened  by one of the aforementioned motorists, you have a look around before exiting.

It was then that you saw the thing, hovering above your shiny bright hood.  For a brief moment, it seemed to be peering right through the windshield at you with big reddish-brown eyes.  In just a second or two, it turned its whole bronze body ninety degrees to the left and darted away on its cellophane wings.  Maybe you didn’t really get a good look at it.  It was so fast.  But it certainly was odd.  Oh well, time to walk inside a grab a few provisions.  Away you go.

Upon completion of your shopping, you’re taking the long stroll back to your car and you notice more of these peculiar creatures.  Two are coupled together and are hovering above someone’s automobile hood, then they drop down, and the lower of the two taps its abdomen on the paint.  You ask yourself, “What are these bizarre things?”

Meet the Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens), also known as the Globe Wanderer or Globe Skimmer, a wide-ranging dragonfly known to occur on every continent with the exception of Antarctica.

Wandering Gliders sometimes arrive in the lower Susquehanna River valley in large numbers after catching a ride on sustained winds from southerly directions and will often fly and migrate in storm systems.  Conditions for such movements have been optimal in our region since mid-July.  These dragonflies will often hover above motor vehicle hoods and, after mating, females will deposit eggs upon them, apparently mistaking their glossy surface for small pools of water.

Wandering Gliders travel the globe, and as such are accomplished fliers.  Adults spend most of the day on the wing, feeding upon a variety of flying insects.  Days ago, I watched several intercepting a swarm of flying ants.  As fast as ants left the ground they were grabbed and devoured by the gliders.  Wandering Gliders are adept at taking day-flying mosquitos, often zipping stealthily past a person’s head or shoulders to grab one of the little pests—the would-be skeeter victim usually unaware of the whole affair.

Due to their nomadic life history, Wandering Gliders are opportunists when breeding and will lay eggs in most any body of freshwater.  Their larvae do not overwinter prior to maturity; adults can be expected in a little more than one to two months.  Repetitive flooding in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed this summer may be reducing the availability of the best local breeding sites for this species—riverine, stream, and floodplain pools of standing water with prey.  This may explain why thousands of Wandering Gliders are patrolling parking lots, farmlands, and urban areas this summer.  And it’s the likely reason for their use of puddles on asphalt pavement, on rubber roofs, and in fields as places to try to deposit eggs.  Unfortunately, they may be as likely to succeed there as they are on your motor vehicle hood.

At this time a year ago, the airspace above the Diabase Pothole Rocks at Conewago Falls was jammed with territorial male Wandering Gliders.  Each male hovered at various locations around his breeding territory consisting of pools and water-filled potholes.  Intruders would quickly be dispatched from the area, then the male would resume his patrols from a set of repetitively-used hovering positions about six feet above the rocks.  Mating and egg-laying continued into late September.  The larvae, also called nymphs or naiads, were readily observed in many pools and potholes in early October and the emergence of juveniles was noted in mid-October.  The absence of flooding, the mild autumn weather, and the moderation of water temperatures in the pools and potholes courtesy of the sun-drenched diabase boulders helped to extend the 2017 breeding season for Wandering Gliders in Conewago Falls.  They aren’t likely to experience the same favor this year, but their great ability to travel and adapt should overcome this momentary misfortune.

A male Wandering Glider aggressively patrols his territory in the Diabase Pothole Rocks Microhabitat at Conewago Falls.  August 20, 2017.

A mating pair of Wandering Gliders continue flying non-stop above one of thousands of suitable breeding pools among the Diabase Pothole Rocks at Conewago Falls.  September 23, 2017.

A female (bottom)Wandering Glider has deposited eggs in a pool while flying in tandem with a male (top).  They’ll do the same thing on your automobile hood!  Conewago Falls Diabase Pothole Rocks Microhabitat.  September 23, 2017.

Wandering Glider larvae are at the top of the food chain in flooded potholes.  As they grew, these dragonfly larvae decimated the mosquito larvae which were abundant there earlier in the summer.  October 7, 2017.

A juvenile male Wandering Glider emerges from the pool where it fed and grew as a larva.  It remained at water’s edge on the surface of a sun-warmed diabase rock for several hours to dry its wings.  It soon flew away to parts unknown, possibly traveling hundreds or thousands of miles.  Look carefully at the wings for the beige dash marks on the forward edge near the terminal end.  Females lack this marking.  Conewago Falls Diabase Pothole Rocks Microhabitat.  October 14, 2017.

A Wandering Glider exuviae, the shed exoskeleton of a creature gone, but not forgotten.  October 14, 2017.

 

Shocking Fish Photos!

There are two Conewago Creek systems in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  One drains the Gettysburg Basin west of the river, mostly in Adams and York Counties, then flows into the Susquehanna at the base of Conewago Falls.  The other drains the Gettysburg Basin east of the river, flowing through Triassic redbeds of the Gettysburg Formation and York Haven Diabase before entering Conewago Falls near the south tip of Three Mile Island.  Both Conewago Creeks flow through suburbia, farm, and forest.  Both have their capacity to support aquatic life impaired and diminished by nutrient and sediment pollution.

This week, some of the many partners engaged in a long-term collaboration to restore the east shore’s Conewago Creek met to have a look at one of the prime indicators of overall stream habitat health—the fishes.  Kristen Kyler of the Lower Susquehanna Initiative organized the effort.  Portable backpack-mounted electrofishing units and nets were used by crews to capture, identify, and count the native and non-native fishes at sampling locations which have remained constant since prior to the numerous stream improvement projects which began more than ten years ago.  Some of the present-day sample sites were first used following Hurricane Agnes in 1972 by Stambaugh and Denoncourt and pre-date any implementation of sediment and nutrient mitigation practices like cover crops, no-till farming, field terracing, stormwater control, nutrient management, wetland restoration, streambank fencing, renewed forested stream buffers, or modernized wastewater treatment plants.  By comparing more recent surveys with this baseline data, it may be possible to discern trends in fish populations resulting not only from conservation practices, but from many other variables which may impact the Conewago Creek Warmwater Stream ecosystem in Dauphin, Lancaster, and Lebanon Counties.

So here they are.  Enjoy these shocking fish photos.

Matt Kofroth, Watershed Specialist with the Lancaster County Conservation District, operates the electrofishing wand in Conewago Creek while his team members prepare to net and collect momentarily-stunned fish.  Three other electrofishing units operated by staff from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission and aided by teams of netters were in action at other sample locations along the Conewago on this day.

Really big fish, such as this Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio), were identified, counted, and immediately returned to the water downstream of the advancing electrofishing team.  Koi of the garden pond are a familiar variety of Common Carp, a native of Asia.

Other fish, such as the Swallowtail Shiner, Redbreast Sunfish (Lepomis auritus), Fallfish, and suckers seen here,  were placed in a sorting tank.

Fallfish (Semotilus corporalis) are very active and require plenty of dissolved oxygen in the water to survive.  Fallfish, Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), and Smallmouth Bass (Micropterus dolomieu) were quickly identified and removed from the sorting tank for release back into the stream.  Other larger, but less active fish, including suckers, quickly followed.

Small fish like minnows were removed from the sorting tank for a closer look in a hand-held viewing tank.  This Fathead Minnow (Pimephales promelas) was identified, added to the tally sheet, and released back into the Conewago.  The Fathead Minnow is not native to the Susquehanna drainage.  It is the minnow most frequently sold as bait by vendors.

A breeding condition male Bluntnose Minnow (Pimephales notatus).

The Cutlips Minnow (Exoglossum maxillingua) is a resident of clear rocky streams.  Of the more than 30 species collected during the day, two native species which are classified as intolerant of persisting stream impairment were found: Cutlips Minnow and Swallowtail Shiner.

This young River Chub (Nocomis micropogon) is losing its side stripe.  It will be at least twice as large at adulthood.

The Eastern Blacknose Dace (Rhinichthys atratulus) is found in clear water over pebble and stone substrate..

The Longnose Dace (Rhinichthys cataractae) is another species of pebbly rocky streams.

A juvenile Golden Shiner (Notemigonus crysoleucas).  Adults lack the side stripe and grow to the size of a sunfish.

A Swallowtail Shiner (Notropis procne) and a very young White Sucker (Catostomus commersonii) in the upper left of the tank.

A Spotfin Shiner (Cyprinella spiloptera).

A breeding male Spotfin Shiner.  Show-off!

The Margined Madtom (Noturus insignis) is a small native catfish of pebbly streams.

The Banded Killifish (Fundulus diaphanus) is adept at feeding upon insects, including mosquitos.

A young Rock Bass (Ambloplites rupestris).  This species was introduced to the Susquehanna and its tributaries.

The Greenside Darter (Etheostoma blennioides) is not native to the Susquehanna basin.  The species colonized the Conewago Creek (east) from introduced local populations within the last five years.

The Tessellated Darter (Etheostoma olmstedi) is a native inhabitant of the Susquehanna and its tributaries.

The stars of the day were the American Eels (Anguilla rostrata).

After collection, each eel was measured and weighed using a scale and dry bucket.  This specimen checked in at 20 inches and one pound before being released.

Prior to the construction of large dams, American Eels were plentiful in the Susquehanna and its tributaries, including the Conewago.  They’ve since been rarities for more than half a century.  Now they’re getting a lift.

American Eels serve as an intermediate host for the microscopic parasitic glochidia (larvae) of the Eastern Elliptio (Elliptio complanata), a declining native freshwater mussel of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  While feeding on their host (usually in its gills), the glochidia cause little injury and soon drop off to continue growth, often having assured distribution of their species by accepting the free ride.  Freshwater mussels are filter feeders and improve water quality.  They grow slowly and can live for decades.

American Eels are a catadromous species, starting life as tiny glass eels in the saltwater of the Atlantic Ocean, then migrating to tidal brackish marshes and streams (males) or freshwater streams (females) to mature.  This 20-incher probably attempted to ascend the Susquehanna as an elver in 2016 or 2017.  After hitching a ride with some friendly folks, she bypassed the three largest dams on the lower Susquehanna (Conowingo, Holtwood, and Safe Harbor) and arrived in the Conewago where she may remain and grow for ten years or more.  To spawn, a perilous and terminally fatal journey to the Sargasso Sea awaits her.  (You may better know the area of the Sargasso Sea as The Bermuda Triangle…a perilous place to travel indeed!)

SOURCES

Normandeau Associates,  Inc. and Gomez and Sullivan.  2018.  Muddy Run Pumped Storage Project Conowingo Eel Collection Facility FERC Project 2355.  Prepared for Exelon.

Stambaugh, Jr., John W., and Robert P. Denoncourt.  1974.  A Preliminary Report on the Conewago Creek Faunal Survey, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  Proceedings of the Pennsylvania Academy of Sciences.  48: 55-60.

Essential Ice

Two days ago, widespread rain fell intermittently through the day and steadily into the night in the Susquehanna drainage basin.  The temperature was sixty degrees, climbing out of a three-week-long spell of sub-freezing cold in a dramatic way.  Above the ice-covered river, a very localized fog swirled in the southerly breezes.

By yesterday, the rain had ended as light snow and a stiff wind from the northwest brought sub-freezing air back to the region.  Though less than an inch of rain fell during this event, much of it drained to waterways from frozen or saturated ground.  Streams throughout the watershed are being pushed clear of ice as minor flooding lifts and breaks the solid sheets into floating chunks.

Today, as their high flows recede, the smaller creeks and runs are beginning to freeze once again.  On larger streams, ice is still exiting with the cresting flows and entering the rising river.

Ice chunks on Swatara Creek merge into a dense flow of ice on the river in the distance.  Swatara Creek is the largest tributary to enter the Susquehanna in the Gettysburg Basin.  The risk of an ice jam impounding the Swatara here at its mouth is lessened because rising water on the river has lifted and broken the ice pack to keep it moving without serious impingement by submerged obstacles.  Immovable ice jams on the river can easily block the outflow from tributaries, resulting in catastrophic flooding along these streams.

Fast-moving flows of jagged ice race toward Three Mile Island and Conewago Falls.  The rising water began relieving the compression of ice along the shoreline during the mid-morning.  Here on the river just downstream of the mouth of Swatara Creek, ice-free openings allowed near-shore piles to separate and begin floating away after 10:30 A.M. E.S.T.  Moving masses of ice created loud rumbles, sounding like a distant thunderstorm.

Ice being pushed and heaved over the crest of the York Haven Dam at Conewago Falls due to compression and rising water levels.

Enormous chunks of ice being forced up and over the York Haven Dam into Conewago Falls and the Pothole Rocks below.

Ice scours Conewago Falls, as it has for thousands of years.

The action of ice and suspended abrasives has carved the York Haven Diabase boulders and bedrock of Conewago Falls into the amazing Pothole Rocks.

The roaring torrents of ice-choked water will clear some of the woody growth from the Riverine Grasslands of Conewago Falls.

To the right of center in this image, a motorcar-sized chunk of ice tumbles over the dam and crashes into the Pothole Rocks.  It was one of thousands of similar tree-and-shrub-clearing projectiles to go through the falls today.

The events of today provide a superb snapshot of how Conewago Falls, particularly the Diabase Pothole Rocks, became such a unique place, thousands of years in the making.  Ice and flood events of varying intensity, duration, and composition have sculpted these geomorphologic features and contributed to the creation of the specialized plant and animal communities we find there.  Their periodic occurrence is essential to maintaining the uncommon habitats in which these communities thrive.

Fish Crows (Corvus ossifragus) gather along the flooding river shoreline.  Soon there’ll be plenty of rubbish to pick through, some carrion maybe, or even a displaced aquatic creature or two to snack upon.

Eighteen, and I Like It

Is this the same Conewago Falls I visited a week ago?  Could it really be?  Where are all the gulls, the herons, the tiny critters swimming in the potholes, and the leaping fish?  Except for a Bald Eagle on a nearby perch, the falls seems inanimate.

Yes, a week of deep freeze has stifled the Susquehanna and much of Conewago Falls.  A hike up into the area where the falls churns with great turbulence provided a view of some open water.  And a flow of open water is found downstream of the York Haven Dam powerhouse discharge.  All else is icing over and freezing solid.  The flow of the river pinned beneath is already beginning to heave the flat sheets into piles of jagged ice which accumulate behind obstacles and shallows.

Ice and snow surround a small zone of open water in a high-gradient area of Conewago Falls.

Ice chunks and sheets accumulate atop the York Haven Dam.  The weight of miles of ice backed up behind the dam eventually forces the accumulation over the top and into the Pothole Rocks below.  The popping and cracking sounds of ice both above and below the dam could be heard throughout the day as hydraulic forces continuously break and move ice sheets.

Steam from the Unit 1 cooling towers at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station rises above the frozen Riverine Grasslands at Conewago Falls.  The scouring action of winter ice keeps the grasslands clear of substantial woody growth and prevents succession into forest.

Despite a lack of activity on the river, mixed flocks of resident and wintering birds, including this White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), were busy feeding in the Riparian Woodlands.  The White-breasted Nuthatch is a cavity nester and year-round denizen of hardwoods, often finding shelter during harsh winter nights in small tree holes.

The White-breasted Nuthatch is often seen working its way head-first down a tree trunk as it probes with its well-adapted bill for insects among the bark.

Jackpot!

Looking upstream from the river’s east shore at ice and snow cover on the Susquehanna above Conewago Falls and the York Haven Dam.  The impoundment, known as Lake Frederic, and its numerous islands of the Gettysburg Basin Archipelago were locked in winter’s frosty grip today.  Hill Island (Left) and Poplar Island (Center) consist of erosion-resistant York Haven Diabase, as does the ridge on the far shoreline seen rising in the distance between them.  To the right of Poplar Island in this image, the river passes by the Harrisburg International Airport.  At the weather station there, the high temperature was eighteen degrees Fahrenheit on this first day of 2018.

Strangers In The Night

We all know that birds (and many other animals) migrate.  It’s a survival phenomenon which, above all, allows them to utilize their mobility to translocate to a climate which provides an advantage for obtaining food, enduring seasonal weather, and raising offspring.

In the northern hemisphere, most migratory birds fly north in the spring to latitudes with progressively greater hours of daylight to breed, nest, and provide for their young.  In the southern hemisphere there are similar movements, these to the south during their spring (our autumn).  The goal is the same, procreation, though the landmass offering sustenance for species other than seabirds is limited “down under”.  Interestingly, there are some seabirds that breed in the southern hemisphere during our winter and spend our summer (their winter) feeding on the abundant food sources of the northern oceans.

Each autumn, migratory breeding birds leave their nesting grounds as the hours of sunlight slowly recede with each passing day.  They fly to lower latitudes where the nights aren’t so long and the climate is less brutal.  There, they pass their winter season.

Food supply, weather, the start/finish of the nesting cycle, and other factors motivate some birds to begin their spring and autumn journeys.  But overall, the hours of daylight and the angle of the sun prompt most species to get going.

But what happens after birds begin their trips to favorable habitats?  Do they follow true north and south routes?  Do they fly continuously, day and night?  Do they ease their way from point to point, stopping to feed along the way?  Do they all migrate in flocks?  Well, the tactics of migration differ widely from bird species to species, from population to population, and sometimes from individual to individual.  The variables encountered when examining the dynamics of bird migration are seemingly endless, but fascinatingly so.  Bird migration is well-studied, but most of its intricacies and details remain a mystery.

Consider for a moment that just 10,000 years ago, an Ice Age was coming to an end, with the southernmost edge of the most recent glaciers already withdrawn into present-day Canada from points as near as the upper Susquehanna River watershed.  Back then, the birds migrating to the lower portion of the drainage basin each spring probably weren’t forest-dwelling tropical warblers, orioles, and other songbirds.  The migratory birds that nested in the lower Susquehanna River valley tens of millennia ago were probably those species found nesting today in taiga and tundra much closer to the Arctic Circle.  And the ancestors of most of the tropical migrants that nest here now surely spent their entire lives much closer to the Equator, finding no advantage by journeying to the frigid Susquehanna valley to nest.  It’s safe to say that since those times, and probably prior to them, migration patterns have been in a state of flux.

During the intervening years since the great ice sheets, birds have been able to adapt to the shifts in their environment on a gradual basis, often using their unmatched mobility to exploit new opportunities.  Migration patterns change slowly, but continuously, resulting in differences that can be substantial over time.  If the natural transformations of habitat and climate have kept bird migration evolving, then man’s impact on the planet shows great potential to expedite future changes, for better or worse.

Now, let’s look at two different bird migration strategies, that of day-fliers or diurnal migrants, and that of night-fliers, the nocturnal migrants.

Diurnal migrants are the most familiar to people who notice birds on the move.  The majority of these species have one thing in common, some form of defense to lessen the threat of becoming the victim of a predator while flying in daylight.  Of course the vultures, hawks, and eagles fly during the day.  Swallows and swifts employ speed and agility on the wing to avoid becoming prey, as do hummingbirds.  Finches have an undulating flight, never flying on a horizontal plane, which makes their capture more difficult.  Other songbirds seen migrating by day, Red-winged Blackbirds for example, congregate into flocks soon after breeding season to avoid being alone.  Defense flocks change shape constantly as birds position themselves toward the center and away from the vulnerable fringes of the swarm.  The larger the flock, the safer the individual.  For a lone bird, large size can be a form of protection against all but the biggest of predators.  Among the more unusual defenses is that of birds like Indigo Buntings and other tropical migrants that fly across the Gulf of Mexico each autumn (often completing a portion of the flight during the day), risking exhaustion at sea to avoid the daylight hazards, including numerous predators, found in the coastal and arid lands of south Texas.  Above all, diurnal migrants capture our attention and provide a spectacle which fascinates us.  Perhaps diurnal migrants attract our favor because we can just stand or sit somewhere and watch them go by.  We can see, identify, and even count them.  It’s fantastic.

What about a bird like the Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)?  It is often seen migrating in flocks during the day (the truly migratory ones flying much higher than the local year-round resident “transplants”), but then, during the big peak movements of spring and fall, they can be heard overhead all through the night.  Perhaps the Canada Goose and related waterfowl bridge the gap between day and night, introducing us to the secretive starlight and moonshine commuters, the nocturnal migrants.

The high-flying migratory Canada Goose can be seen during the daytime and heard at night when passing over the lower Susquehanna River valley.  A large flight exiting from Chesapeake Bay in late February or early March often results in a 12 to 24 hour-long stream of northbound flocks.

The skies are sometimes filled with thousands of them, mostly small perching birds and waders.  These strangers in the night fly inconspicuously in small groups or individually, and most can be detected when passing above us only when heard making short calls to remain in contact with their travel partners.  They need not worry about predators, but instead must have a method of finding their way.  Many, like the Indigo Bunting, can navigate by the stars, a capability which certainly required many generations to refine.  The nocturnal migrants begin moving just after darkness falls and ascend without delay to establish a safe flight path void of obstacles (though lights and tall structures can create a deadly counter to this tactic).  Often, the only clue we have that a big overnight flight has occurred is the sudden appearance of new bird species or individuals, on occasion in great numbers, in a place where we observe regularly.  Just days ago, the arrival of various warbler species at Conewago Falls indicated that there was at least a small to moderate movement of these birds during previous nights.

In recent years, the availability of National Weather Service radar has brought the capability to observe nocturnal migrants into easy reach.  Through the night, you can log on to your local National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service radar page (State College for the Conewago Falls area) and watch on the map as the masses of migrating bird pass through the sweep of the radar beam.  As they lift off just after nightfall, rising birds will create an echo as they enter the sweeping beam close to the radar site.  Then, due to the incline of the transmitted signal and the curvature of the earth, migrants will be displayed as an expanding donut-like ring around the radar’s map location as returns from climbing birds are received from progressively higher altitudes at increasing distances from the center of the site’s coverage area.  On a night with a local or regional flight, several radar locations may show signs of birds in the air.  On nights with a widespread flight, an exodus of sorts, the entire eastern half of the United States may display birds around the sites.  You’ll find the terrain in the east allows it to be well-covered while radars in the west are less effective due to the large mountains.  At daybreak, the donut-shaped displays around each radar site location on the map contract as birds descend out of the transmitted beam and are no longer detected.

Weather systems sometimes seem to motivate some flights and stifle others.  The first example seen below is a northbound spring exodus, the majority of which is probably migrants from the tropics, the Neotropical migrants, including our two dozen species of warblers.  A cold front passing into the northeastern United States appears to have stifled any flight behind it, while favorable winds from the southwest are motivating a heavy concentration ahead of the front.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service radar image from May 5, 2010, at 11:18 PM EDT, shows rain associated with a cold front moving east from the border of Ontario, Canada, and the United States into New England and the Mid-Atlantic region.  The heavy blue and green reflections surrounding the radar locations ahead of the front are nocturnal migrating birds taking advantage of favorable conditions for flight including a tail wind from the southwest.  Note the lighter migration behind the advancing front.  Heavy radar echoes on the gulf coast, particularly in Texas, indicate dense bird concentrations exiting the tropics to fan out into North American breeding areas.  The westward progression of expanding echoes surrounding individual radar sites indicates birds rising into the radar beam at local nightfall.

The second and third examples seen below are an autumn nocturnal migration movement, probably composed of many of the same tropics-bound species which were on the way north in the previous example.  Note that during autumn, the cold front seems to motivate the flight following its passage.  Ahead of the front, there is a reduced and, in places, undetectable volume of birds.  The two images below are separated by about 42 hours.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service radar image (still) from September 5, 2017, at 2:38 AM EDT, shows rain in the northeast associated with a slow-moving cold front stretching from Maine southwest to New Mexico.  Heaviest nocturnal bird flights can be seen behind the advancing front where there are favorable tail winds from the north or northwest.

Nearly two full days later, the slow-moving cold front from the previous image has crossed Pennsylvania.  As nightfall progresses from east to west, ascending nocturnal migrants enter NEXRAD radar beams, their echoes creating expanding rings around individual sites.  Concentrations of southbound birds can be seen along the gulf coast.  Many will follow the Texas coastline into Mexico.  The Neotropical migrants that try to cross the Gulf of Mexico this night could be in for a perilous voyage.  Hurricane Katia is churning in the southern gulf and a much stronger storm, Hurricane Irma, is rolling toward the Bahamas and Florida from the southeast.  Masses of birds that follow learned routes or instinct to venture offshore and cross seas under such circumstances could suffer catastrophic losses.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

You can easily learn much more about birds (and insects and bats) on radar, including both diurnal and nocturnal migrants, by visiting the Clemson University Radar Ornithology Laboratory (CUROL) website.  There you’ll find information on using the various mode settings on NEXRAD (Next-Generation Radar) to differentiate between birds, other flying animals, and inanimate airborne or grounded objects.  It’s superbly done and you’ll be glad you gave it a try.

SOURCES

Clemson University Radar Ornithology Laboratory (CUROL) website:   http://virtual.clemson.edu/groups/birdrad/    as accessed September 6, 2017.

 

S’more

The tall seed-topped stems swaying in a summer breeze are a pleasant scene.  And the colorful autumn shades of blue, orange, purple, red, and, of course, green leaves on these clumping plants are nice.  But of the multitude of flowering plants, Big Bluestem, Freshwater Cordgrass, and Switchgrass aren’t much of a draw.  No self-respecting bloom addict is going out of their way to have a gander at any grass that hasn’t been subjugated and tamed by a hideous set of spinning steel blades.  Grass flowers…are you kidding?

Big Bluestem in flower in the Riverine Grasslands at Conewago Falls.

O.K., so you need something more.  Here’s more.

Meet the Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata).  It’s an annual plant growing in the Riverine Grasslands at Conewago Falls as a companion to Big Bluestem.  It has a special niche growing in the sandy and, in summertime, dry soils left behind by earlier flooding and ice scour.  The divided leaves close upon contact and also at nightfall.  Bees and other pollinators are drawn to the abundance of butter-yellow blossoms.  Like the familiar pea of the vegetable garden, the flowers are followed by flat seed pods.

The Partridge Pea can tolerate dry sandy soils.

But wait, here’s more.

In addition to its abundance in Conewago Falls, the Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow (Hibiscus laevis) is the ubiquitous water’s edge plant along the free-flowing Susquehanna River for miles downstream.  It grows in large clumps, often defining the border between the emergent zone and shore-rooted plants.  It is particularly successful in accumulations of alluvium interspersed with heavier pebbles and stone into which the roots will anchor to endure flooding and scour.  Such substrate buildup around the falls, along mid-river islands, and along the shores of the low-lying Riparian Woodlands immediately below the falls are often quite hospitable to the species.

Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow is a durable inhabitant of the falls.  Regular flooding keeps competing species at bay.  A taproot helps to safeguard against dislocation, allowing plants to grow in places subjected to turbulent currents.

Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow in bloom.  The similarity to cultivated members of the Hibiscus genus can readily be seen.  It is one of the showiest of perennial wildflowers in the floodplain.  Note the lobed, halberd-shaped leaves, source of its former species name militaris.

The seeds of Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow are contained in bladders which can float to assist in their distribution.  Some of these bladders cling to the dead leafless stems in winter, making it an easy plant to identify in nearly any season.

A second native wildflower species in the genus Hibiscus is found in the Conewago Falls floodplain, this one in wetlands.  The Swamp Rose Mallow (H. moscheutos) is similar to Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow, but sports more variable and colorful blooms.  The leaves are toothed without the deep halberd-style lobes and, like the stems, are downy.  As the common name implies, it requires swampy habitat with ample water and sunlight.

Swamp Rose Mallow in a sunny wetland.  This variety with solid-colored flowers (without dark centers) and pale green leaves and stems was formerly known as a separate species of  Swamp Rose Mallow, H. palustris.  Note that the flowers are terminal on the stems.

A few scattered specimens of a more typical variety of Swamp Rose Mallow are found on the shoreline and in the Riverine Grasslands of Conewago Falls.  The blooms are bright pink with darker centers and the leaf stems are robust and reddish.  This one is seen growing among Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow, with which it shares the characteristic of having flower stems growing from some of the upper leaf axils.  A variety with red-centered white flowers is often found throughout the plant’s range.

In summary, we find Partridge Pea in the Riverine Grasslands growing in sandy deposits left by flood and ice scour.  We find Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow rooted at the border between shore and the emergent zone.  We find Swamp Rose Mallow as an emergent in the wetlands of the floodplain.  And finally, we find marshmallows in only one location in the area of Conewago Falls.  Bon ap’.

Here’s S’more

SOURCES

Newcomb, Lawrence.  1977.  Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide.  Little, Brown and Company.  Boston, Massachusetts.

Summer Grasses

It has not been a good summer if you happen to be a submerged plant species in the lower Susquehanna River.  Regularly occurring showers and thunderstorms have produced torrents of rain and higher than usual river stages.  The high water alone wouldn’t prevent you from growing, colonizing a wider area, and floating several small flowers on the surface, however, the turbidity, the suspended sediment, would.  The muddy current casts a dirty shadow on the benthic zone preventing bottom-rooted plants from getting much headway.  There will be smaller floating mats of the uppermost leaves of these species.  Fish and invertebrates which rely upon this habitat for food and shelter will find sparse accommodation…better luck next year.

Due to the dirty water, fish-eating birds are having a challenging season as they try to catch sufficient quantities of prey to feed themselves and their offspring.  A family of Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) at Conewago Falls, including recently fledged young, were observed throughout this morning and had no successful catches.  Of the hundred or more individual piscivores of various species present, none were seen retrieving fish from the river.  The visibility in the water column needs to improve before fishing is a viable enterprise again.

Ospreys competing for a suitable fishing perch.  Improving water conditions in the coming week should increase their success as predators.

Versatile at finding food, adult Bald Eagles are experienced and know to be on the lookout for Ospreys with fish, a meal they can steal through intimidation.

While the submerged plant communities may be stunted by 2017’s extraordinary water levels, there is a very unique habitat in Conewago Falls which endures summer flooding and, in addition, requires the scouring effects of river ice to maintain its mosaic of unique plants.  It is known as a Riverine Grassland or scour grassland.

The predominant plants of the Riverine Grasslands are perennial warm-season grasses.  The deep root systems of these hardy species have evolved to survive events which prevent the grassland from reverting to woodland through succession.  Fire, intense grazing by wild herd animals, poor soils, drought, and other hardships, including flooding and ice scour, will eliminate intolerant plant species and prevent an area from reforesting.  In winter and early spring, scraping and grinding by flood-driven chunk ice mechanically removes large woody and poorly rooted herbaceous growth from susceptible portions of the falls.  These adverse conditions clear the way for populations of species more often associated with North America’s tall grass prairies to take root.  Let’s have a look at some of the common species found in the “Conewago Falls Pothole Rocks Prairie”.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi), seen here growing in the cracks of a pothole rock. High water nourishes the plant by filling the crevices with nutrient-loaded sediment. This species evolved with roots over three feet deep to survive fires, trampling by bison, and drought.

Freshwater Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) does well with its roots in water.  It creates exceptional bird habitat and grows in the falls and on ice-scoured small islands in free-flowing segments of the Susquehanna River downstream.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), like Big Bluestem, is one of the tall grass prairie species and, like Freshwater Cordgrass, grows in near pure stands on ice-scoured islands.  It takes flooding well and its extensive root system prevents erosion.

Though not a grass, Water Willow (Justicia americana) is familiar as a flood-enduring emergent plant of river islands, gravel bars, and shorelines where its creeping rhizome root system spreads the plant into large masses.  These stands are often known locally as “grass beds”.  This member of the acanthus family provides habitat for fish and invertebrates among its flooded leaves and stems.  Its presence is critical to aquatic life in a year such as this.

The Conewago Falls Riverine Grassland is home to numerous other very interesting plants.  We’ll look at more of them next time.

SOURCES

Brown, Lauren.  1979.  Grasses, An Identification Guide.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York, NY.

Fussy Eaters

She ate only toaster pastries…that’s it…nothing else.  Every now and then, on special occasions, when a big dinner was served, she’d have a small helping of mashed potatoes, no gravy, just plain, thank you.  She received all her nutrition from several meals a week of macaroni and cheese assembled from processed ingredients found in a cardboard box.  It contains eight essential vitamins and minerals, don’t you know?  You remember her, don’t you?

Adult female butterflies must lay their eggs where the hatched larvae will promptly find the precise food needed to fuel their growth.  These caterpillars are fussy eaters, with some able to feed upon only one particular species or genus of plant to grow through the five stages, the instars, of larval life.  The energy for their fifth molt into a pupa, known as a chrysalis, and metamorphosis into an adult butterfly requires mass consumption of the required plant matter.  Their life cycle causes most butterflies to be very habitat specific.  These splendid insects may visit the urban or suburban garden as adults to feed on nectar plants, however, successful reproduction relies upon environs which include suitable, thriving, pesticide-free host plants for the caterpillars.  Their survival depends upon more than the vegetation surrounding the typical lawn will provide.

The Monarch (Danaus plexippus), a butterfly familiar in North America for its conspicuous autumn migrations to forests in Mexico, uses the milkweeds (Asclepias) almost exclusively as a host plant.  Here at  Conewago Falls, wetlands with Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and unsprayed clearings with Common Milkweed (A. syriaca) are essential to the successful reproduction of the species.  Human disturbance, including liberal use of herbicides, and invasive plant species can diminish the biomass of the Monarch’s favored nourishment, thus reducing significantly the abundance of the migratory late-season generation.

Monarch caterpillar after a fourth molt.  The fifth instar feeding on Swamp Milkweed.

A fifth molt begets the Monarch pupa, the chrysalis, from which the showy adult butterfly will emerge.

Adult Monarch feeding on Goldenrod (Solidago) nectar.

Butterflies are good indicators of the ecological health of a given environment.  A diversity of butterfly species in a given area requires a wide array of mostly indigenous plants to provide food for reproduction.  Let’s have a look at some of the species seen around Conewago Falls this week…

An adult Silvery Checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis) visiting a nectar plant, Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata).  Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), a plant of the Riparian Woodlands, is among the probable hosts for the caterpillars.

A Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) visits Crown Vetch, a possible host plant.  Other potential larval food in the area includes Partridge Pea, Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow (Hibiscus laevis) of the river shoreline, and Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), a plant of wetlands.

The Eastern Tailed Blue (Cupido comyntas) may use Partridge Pea , a native wildflower species, and the introduced Crown Vetch (Securigera/Coronilla varia) as host and nectar plants at Conewago Falls.

The Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor) is at home among tall grasses in woodland openings, at riverside, and in the scoured grassland habitat of the Pothole Rocks in the falls.  Host plants available include Switchgrass (Panicum vigatum), Freshwater Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), and Foxtails (Setaria).

The Zabulon Skipper (Poanes zabulon) is an inhabitant of moist clearings where the caterpillars may feed upon Lovegrasses (Eragrostis) and Purpletop (Tridens flavus).

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), a female seen here gathering nectar from Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium), relies upon several forest trees as hosts. Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Willow (Salix), Yellow Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), also known as Tuliptree, and Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) are among the local species known to be used.  The future of the latter food species at Conewago Falls is doubtful.  Fortunately for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, the “generalist” feeding requirements of this butterfly’s larvae enable the species to survive the loss of a host plant.

A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, black morph, gathering nectar from Joe-Pye Weed.

The Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus), seen here on Joe-Pye Weed, feeds exclusively upon Pawpaw (Asimina) trees as a caterpillar.  This butterfly species may wander, but its breeding range is limited to the moist Riparian Woodlands where colonial groves of Pawpaw may be found.  The Common Pawpaw (Asimina triloba), our native species in Pennsylvania, and the Zebra Swallowtail occur at the northern edge of their geographic ranges in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Planting Pawpaw trees as an element of streamside reforestation projects certainly benefits this marvelous butterfly.

The spectacularly colorful butterflies are a real treat on a hot summer day.  Their affinity for showy plants doubles the pleasure.

By the way, I’m certain by now you’ve recalled that fussy eater…and how beautiful she grew up to be.

SOURCES

Brock, Jim P., and Kaufman, Kenn.  2003.  Butterflies of North America.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York, NY.

The Wall

It was one of the very first of my memories.  From the lawn of our home I could look across the road and down the hill through a gap in the woodlands.  There I could see water, sometimes still with numerous boulders exposed, other times rushing, muddy, and roaring.  Behind these waters was a great stone wall and beyond that a wooded hillside.  I recall my dad asking me if I could see the dam down there.  I couldn’t see a dam, just fascinating water and the gray wall behind it.  I looked and searched but not a trace of a structure spanning the near to far shore was to be seen.  Finally, at some point, I answered in the affirmative to his query; I could see the dam…but I couldn’t.

We lived in a small house in the village of Falmouth along the Susquehanna River in the northwest corner of Lancaster County over fifty years ago.  A few years after we had left our riverside domicile and moved to a larger town, the little house was relocated to make way for an electric distribution sub-station and a second set of electric transmission wires in the gap in the woodlands.  The Brunner Island coal-fired electric generating station was being upgraded downstream and, just upstream, a new nuclear-powered generating station was being constructed on Three Mile Island.  To make way for the expanding energy grid, our former residence was trucked to a nearby boat landing where there were numerous other river shacks and cabins.  Because it was placed in the floodplain, the building was raised onto a set of wooden stilts to escape high water.  It didn’t help.  The recording-breaking floods of Hurricane Agnes in June of 1972 swept the house away.

The view through the cut in the woodland, a little wider than in the early 1960s with the addition of the newer electric transmission wire towers. The “Wall” is the same.

During the time we lived along the Susquehanna, the river experienced record-low flow rates, particularly in the autumn of 1963 and again in 1964.  My dad was a dedicated 8mm home-movie photographer.  Among his reels was film of buses parked haphazardly along the road (PA Route 441 today) near our home.  Sightseers were coming to explore the widely publicized dry riverbed and a curious moon-like landscape of cratered rocks and boulders.  It’s hard to fathom, but people did things like that during their weekends before football was invented.  Scores of visitors climbed through the rocks and truck-size boulders inspecting this peculiar scene.  My dad, his friends, and so many others with camera in hand were experiencing the amazing geological feature known as the Pothole Rocks of Conewago Falls.

Conewago Falls on the Susquehanna River and several exposed York Haven Diabase Pothole Rocks.  Lancaster (foreground) and Dauphin (center) Counties meet along a southwest to northeast borderline through the rapids.  Lands on the west shoreline in the background are in York County.  Three Mile Island is seen in the upper right.

The river here meets serious resistance as it pushes its way through the complex geology of south-central Pennsylvania.  These hard dark-gray rocks, York Haven Diabase, are igneous in origin.  Diabase sheets and sills intruded the Triassic sediments of the Gettysburg Formation here over 190 million years ago.  It may be difficult to visualize, but these sediments were eroded from surrounding mountains into the opening rift valley we call the Gettysburg Basin.  This rift and others in a line from Nova Scotia to Georgia formed as the supercontinent Pangaea began dividing into the continents we know today.  Eventually the Atlantic Ocean rift would dominate as the active dynamic force and open to separate Africa from North America.  The inactive Gettysburg Basin, filled with sediments and intruded by igneous diabase, would henceforth, like the mountainous highlands surrounding it, be subjected to millions of years of erosion.  Of the regional rocks, the formations of Triassic redbeds, sandstones, and particularly diabase in the Gettysburg Basin are among the more resistant to the forces of erosion.  Many less resistant older rocks, particularly those of surrounding mountains, are gone.  Today, the remains of the Gettysburg Basin’s rock formations stand as rolling highlands in the Piedmont Province.

Flooded from the heavy rains of Tropical Storm Lee, the sediment-laden Susquehanna River flows through the Gettysburg Basin just south of Harrisburg, PA, September 10, 2011.  The “Wall” as seen from space.  (NASA Earth Observatory Image)

The weekend visitors in 1963 and 1964 marveled at evidence of the river’s fight to break down the hard York Haven Diabase.   Scoured bedrock traced the water’s turbulent flow patterns through the topography of the falls.  Meltwater from the receding glaciers of the Pleistocene Ice Ages thousands to tens of thousands of years ago raged in high volume abrasive-loaded torrents to sculpt the Pothole Rocks into the forms we see today.  Our modern floodwaters with ice and fine suspended sediments continue to wear at the smooth rocks and boulders, yet few are broken or crumbled to be swept away.  It’s a very slow process.  The river elevation here drops approximately 19 feet in a quarter of a mile, a testament to the bedrock’s persisting resistance to erosion.  Conewago Falls stands as a natural anomaly on a predominantly uniform gradient along the lower Susquehanna’s downhill path from the Appalachian Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay.

The scene of dangerous tumbling rapids during high flows, the drought and low water of 1963 and 1964 had left the falls to resemble a placid scene; a moonscape during a time when people were obsessed with mankind’s effort to visit earth’s satellite.  Visitors saw the falls as few others had during the twentieth century.  Much of it was due to the presence of the wall.  I had to be a bit older than four years old to grasp it.  You see the wall and the dam are one and the same.  The wall is the York Haven Dam.

The initial segment, a crib dam constructed in 1885 by the York Haven Paper Company to supply water power to their mill, took advantage of the geomorphic features of the diabase bedrock of Conewago Falls to divert additional river flow into the abandoned Conewago Canal.  The former canal, opened in 1797 to allow passage around the rapids along the west shore, was being used as a headrace to channel water into the grinding mill’s turbines.  Strategic placement of this first wall directed as much water as possible toward the mill with the smallest dam practicable.  The York Haven Power Company incorporated the paper mill’s crib dam into the “run-of-the-river” dam built through the falls from the electric turbine powerhouse they constructed on the west shore to the southern portion of Three Mile Island more than a mile away.   The facility began electric generation in 1904.  The construction of the “Red Hill Dam” from the east shore of Three Mile Island to the river’s east shore made York Haven Dam a complete impoundment on the Susquehanna.  The pool, “Lake Frederic”, thus floods that portion of the Pothole Rocks of Conewago Falls located behind the dam.   On the downstream side, water spilling over or through the dam often inundates the rocks or renders them inaccessible.

During the droughts of the early 1960s, diversion of nearly all river flow to the York Haven Dam powerhouse cleared the way for weekend explorers to see the Pothole Rocks in detail.  Void of water, the intriguing bedrock of Conewago Falls below the dam greeted the curious with its ripples, cavities, and oddity.  It was an opportunity nature alone would not provide.  It was all because of the wall.

York Haven Dam and powerhouse. The “Wall” traverses Conewago Falls upstream to Three Mile Island to direct water to the powerhouse on the west shore of the Susquehanna River.

SOURCES

Smith, Stephen H.  2015.  #6 York Haven Paper Company; on the Site of One of the Earliest Canals in America.  York Past website www.yorkblog.com/yorkpast/2015/02/17/6-york-haven-paper-company-on-the-site-of-one-of-the-earliest-canals-in-america/  as accessed July 17, 2017.

Stranahan, Susan Q.  1993.  Susquehanna, River of Dreams.  The Johns Hopkins University Press.  Baltimore, Maryland.

Van Diver, Bradford B.  1990.  Roadside Geology of Pennsylvania.  Mountain Press Publishing Company.  Missoula, Montana.