Spring thaw reveals winter-weary campus landscape

Sub-zero temperatures and wave upon wave of snowstorms tested even the most stalwart cold-weather fans as we slogged through the seemingly endless 2013-2014 winter. Recent warm-ups provide hints of spring’s arrival, but the curve balls keep coming. As spring thaw sets in and chilly rain replaces snow showers, our campus landscape reveals scars that only a record-setting winter can leave behind.

When the ice and snow finally started to melt, the campus community began to notice a fish die-off in Botany Pond. The pond froze solid during the winter months, obscuring view of the fish and reptiles that overwinter in the pond. As folks bundled up to protect fingers and faces from extreme cold and wind, many of our students, faculty and staff worried the pond residents were suffering out of sight.

 The FS Landscape Services crew each summer creates low pockets in the pond’s muck layer near the bottom for the fish to hibernate, and this is typically sufficient to ensure survival. This winter, however, the ground frost stretched 57 inches below the surface in some locations in the Chicago area, and the pond is only about 60 inches deep. That thick of a layer of ice severely reduced the amount of sunlight that could filter down to the bottom of the pond, significantly restricting the amount of oxygen generated by the plant materials growing in the muck. The sad result: dozens of fish die from lack of oxygen. This phenomenon has been noted in Chicago and throughout the region this spring, as many area ponds and lakes also suffered a drastic fish die-off.  Within Botany Pond, a group of approximately 30 fish survived, and will soon be breeding once again to repopulate the pond. Thankfully, turtles have recently been spotted swimming in the pond as well.

Bird species that rely on open water in order to feed struggled to find food also were impacted by the freezing cold winter, as many perished from starvation because they could not access fish or reach the bottom of the pond to feed.

The impact to some of our plant materials is also just now becoming evident. For example, we can now see the Magnolia virginiana near Botany Pond has lost most of its large evergreen leaves, and thus, we do not expect much of a flower display this year. Azaleas and Rhododendrons have also been hard hit – the flowerbeds of both species are set the previous year, so it’s likely they’ll have a limited display this season. Most of the campus trees are just now budding out, so Landscape Services are diligently watching to for other evidence of significant or lasting damage.

On a brighter note, the thick snow that blanketed campus most of the winter provided excellent cover for our perennials and spring bulbs. The snow provided insulation from the cold winds, which can also dry out soil. While Chicago received just a little over 80 inches of snow, which made it the third snowiest winter since record-keeping began the winter of 1884-85, the amount of moisture was not equally record breaking. For all the snowpack we experiences, records shows precipitation at only 1 inch above normal. That means we enter the spring season with adequate soil moisture for perennials and bulbs to rebound and provide their usual colorful display, though very much behind schedule

Campus lawns were another area impacted by severe weather, especially areas lining our well-travelled sidewalks. Heavy snowfall and fluctuating temperatures kept the Landscape Services crews busy clearing sidewalks, but it also required the application of large amount of ice melt materials to ensure safe and accessible passage. These materials damage the grass at the sidewalk edges, and remedying this damage requires FS to remove the damaged areas and install new sod in the spring. While the lighter color green of the newly-laid sod is noticeable in some areas of campus, the replacement is small price to pay to keep the sidewalks safe during the winter. Some other lawns and plant materials also suffered when our crews were forced to relocate piles of snow from sidewalks and entryways, which resulted in some marginal damage to lawns

As spring weather permits, the staff at Facilities Services will rise to the challenge and address these issues and get the campus show ready for celebratory Spring Quarter events – Reunion and Convocation, where we once again get a warm spotlight to show off our beautiful campus.

-- By Richard Bumstead, associate director, campus environment