Rebecca Williams

Reporter/Producer - The Environment Report

Rebecca has a natural science degree from the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources & Environment, where she had close encounters with escaped boars and poison sumac. Before getting into radio, Rebecca snapped photos of Mongolian diatoms and published a few papers in obscure scientific journals.

Now she spends her days reporting on everything from hungry watersnakes to heritage turkeys to people who live in 300 square foot houses.

She’s won several national awards for her work including a first place National Headliner Award at the network level for her stories on the uber-destructive emerald ash borer.

University of Michigan/S. Pipes

With all the heat and humidity we've been having, ice sounds pretty good right about now.

Sarah Aciego is going a long way for some ice this summer: she’s heading to Greenland to study glaciers. She’s an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Michigan.

She pioneered a new way to determine the age of dust trapped in glacial ice.

USGS

Federal scientists just wrapped up a look at the health of the nation’s streams and rivers. It was a big effort, looking at 20 years of data.

Daren Carlisle is an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the lead author of the study.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

The sea lamprey is an invasive fish with a round mouth like a suction cup.  It latches onto big fish like lake trout and salmon, drills its razor sharp tongue into them, and gets fat drinking their blood and body fluids. A single lamprey can kill up to 40 pounds of fish in its lifetime.

Scientists spend a lot of time trying to outsmart them, and they’ve just made a new discovery.

When you’re a male sea lamprey, with that slimy skin, and a suction cup full of teeth for a face: you’ve got to compensate for that somehow.

Hey baby, is it hot in here? Or is it just me?

It turns out male sea lampreys are hot. They grow a swollen ridge on their back when they’re sexually mature. Scientists at Michigan State University have discovered that ridge heats up when males get around a lady lamprey.

Wisconsin DNR

There are more than 11,000 inland lakes in Michigan, and a lot of us love to take boats out on them. But invasive species also like to catch a ride on boats, and that’s a major way they get from one lake to another.

You might see people wearing blue t-shirts when you go to a boat launch this summer. They’re with the program Clean Boats Clean Waters, and they want to show you a few things about where invasive species like to hide out.

Castle Dunes LLC

Castle Dunes LLC is proposing to develop more than 200 acres of reclaimed sand mining land in Norton Shores near Muskegon. The company has a purchase agreement to buy the land from the Nugent Sand Company.

A public hearing is being held today to begin the zoning process at the Norton Shores Planning Commission meeting (tonight at 5:30pm in the community room of the Norton Shores Branch Library at 705 Seminole).

The company wants to build single family properties and condominiums around a man-made lake.

That lake was created by mining the sand from the dunes. It turned out to be a major problem for a previous developer when the water levels in the lake rose.

Photo courtesy of Fellowship of the Rich, Flickr

It’s no secret that trees do some good things for us. But scientists are putting numbers on just how good trees are at removing certain kinds of pollution from the air.

David Nowak is a project leader with the U.S. Forest Service.  He and his team looked at the overall impact urban trees have on fine particle pollution (their study is published in the journal Environmental Pollution). Those are very tiny particles found in smoke and haze.

“These particles tend to stay in the atmosphere longer and tend to go deeper into your lung system and have greater human health impacts,” says Nowak.

CrowdHydrology

If you’ve ever wanted to get involved in science but thought it sounded like a lot of work, now all you have to do is send a text.

Chris Lowry is an assistant professor of geology at the University at Buffalo. He’s the co-creator of CrowdHydrology. You can think of it as crowdsourcing information about water.

“So basically how this works is we have some giant rulers that are set up in streams and there’s a little sign on the top of the ruler that says ‘please text us the water level’ and people who are walking by these signs with their mobile phones can look at the ruler and make a measurement off that ruler of what the water level would be at that particular time of the day and send us a text message," he says.

Then, the data you enter goes into an online database.

"And about five minutes after they send in that text message there’s a point on the plot that appears on our CrowdHydrology web page,” Lowry says.

Allen Chartier

Researchers are trying to learn more about the ruby-throated hummingbird.

There are just three people in the entire state who catch hummingbirds and put teeny little bands on their legs so they can track them. You have to get special training and a federal permit to handle hummingbirds.

Allen Chartier is the first person to ever band hummingbirds in Michigan. He started in 2001.

“You have to have a very gentle touch, and you have to have a lot of patience, and you have to be able to work with small things and have really good eyesight. To become a hummingbird bander it takes a little bit of the right stuff. We’re not quite astronauts, but…” he says.

Great Lakes Commission

Before you head to the beach this summer, you might want to check on the conditions.

There’s a free beach app you can get for your Android phone.  It’s called myBeachCast.

You can bookmark your favorite Great Lakes beaches, find out the wind and water conditions, and check to see if there are any beach closings for a particular day.

Photo © Richard Guy Briggs. Used with permission.

A new study in the American Journal of Health Behavior found if you walk or bike to work, you might be putting some subtle peer pressure on people around you.

Melissa Bopp is an assistant professor at Penn State University. She recently surveyed more than 1,200 people about their commuting habits.

“We discovered that people who had a spouse who actively traveled to work and had a coworker who actively travels to work were much more likely to actively travel to work themselves,” she says.

user jsome1 / Flickr

New research finds men are dirtier than women, but not by much.

Health officials say that washing your hands is the best thing you can do to avoid getting sick.

When it comes to putting that into practice, studies have found that a lot of us say we do a good job, but researchers found most of us don’t do anywhere near as good a job as we should.

Carl Borchgrevink is an associate professor in the School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University.

“We found that people do not wash their hands as much as they should… or to be blunt… there’s a lot of dirty hands out there,” he says.

CDC

On today's Environment Report, we talked about ticks.

Michigan State University entomologist Howard Russell told me that tick season is booming in Michigan this year.

And the boom is happening in areas where ticks were relatively rare a few years ago.

Specifically, Russell says the blacklegged tick population is expanding in Michigan. Those are the bad ones. The suckers that can carry Lyme disease.

Scott Bauer / USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org

There’s a guy at Michigan State University who people call when they find a tick on their child or their pet. Lately, he’s been getting a lot of calls.

Howard Russell is an entomologist at MSU.

“There are certain parts of the state that have had lots of ticks for a long time, the Upper Peninsula in particular. But I’m getting calls from people from areas that haven’t seen a lot of ticks, particularly the central Lower Peninsula, southeastern Lower Peninsula and the central part of the state.”

user trebol-a / Flickr

The worst mosquito swarms I’ve ever experienced are at my dad’s house in the country.

I’ll let my stepmom, Patty, explain:

“We actually run from the house to the car and when you open the door you get many in there, probably 30-40 mosquitoes, so you start swatting and you have to roll down your window and drive, as you’re getting eaten, to try to get the mosquitoes out.”

She says this spring is the worst she’s ever seen. It’s so bad, they attack you the minute you walk out the door and bite you through your clothes.  

So I decided to turn to a mosquito expert to find out what’s going on.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

If you’ve always thought of birding as a quiet, relaxing hobby… you haven’t been to a Birdathon.

During the recent West Michigan Birdathon, I met up with Team Fallout (as in migratory fallout) at the Blandford Nature Center. Shortly after I arrived, we were scrambling to the top of an overlook.

Michigan.gov

A group of scientists from 13 Michigan universities is urging Governor Rick Snyder to veto a bill (SB 78) if it reaches his desk. 

The bill prohibits the Michigan Department of Natural Resources from setting aside land specifically for maintaining biodiversity. The state Senate has passed the bill. It’s now being considered by the state House.

Bradley Cardinale is an associate professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. He wrote a letter to Governor Snyder and so far, more than 100 of his fellow academics from the state’s universities have signed it.

“There are a number of items in this particular bill that seem anti-science and run counter to the best available knowledge we currently have about how to manage natural resources sustainably.”

The state of Michigan owns 4.6 million acres of land. But for now, the state can’t buy any more land. That’s because the Michigan Legislature capped the amount of land the state can own.

But there’s a release valve built into the law. Last fall, Governor Rick Snyder asked the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to make a strategic land management plan. If the Legislature likes it, then the land cap will be lifted.

USFWS

The piping plover is a tiny bird. They’re endangered. Last year there were just 58 breeding pairs in the Great Lakes region. One third of the population nests in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area.

“The chicks, they look like they’re little cotton balls running up and down the beach. They’ve got these gangly legs, and ... a very endearing bird.”

Sue Jennings is the wildlife program manager at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. She says because of the federal sequester, they’ve had to cut back on their seasonal staff. They set up fences to keep people and predators away from the plovers when they’re nesting.

Anderson Eye Care / Facebook.com

The Grand River hit a record high level in Grand Rapids over the weekend.  Volunteers spent hours filling sandbags to protect homes and city buildings.

City managers are still dealing with the flood waters. But they’re also planning for future storms.

Haris Alibasic directs Grand Rapids’ Office of Energy and Sustainability.

“Given the more intense and more frequent, intense rain events we’re probably going to be experiencing, as climate change is anticipated to really have a serious impact in the Midwest," he says.

Isle Royale wolves
Rolf Peterson, John Vucetich / Michigan Tech

Wolves and moose fight for survival on Michigan's Isle Royale National Park. For more than 50 years, researchers have been closely watching them in the world’s longest-running study of predators and prey.

The number of predators on the island has been sinking fast.

The Park is a dedicated wilderness area, so managers do their best to keep it as untouched by humans as possible. But people might need to step in.

Phyllis Green is the park's superintendent.  “At this point we’re concerned about the low levels of wolves on the island, but we’re also concerned about making sure the next steps we take are well-thought-out,” she says.

There are just eight wolves left on Isle Royale. This is the first year that Michigan Technological University researchers were unable to document any pups born to the wolves.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

President Obama is asking for $300 million for the Great Lakes in his 2014 budget. That money would go to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

It’s a huge project to clean up pollution, fight invasive species and restore habitat.

Chad Lord is the policy director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. He says there’s been a lot of progress over the last four years.

“All of these results are coming from the investments in new wetlands, buffer strips along rivers, cleaning up toxic sediments in areas around Detroit,” he says.

Jake Neher / MPRN

Update 11:45 a.m:

An Ingham County judge says a lawsuit aimed at repealing the state’s new right-to-work law can proceed. This morning, Judge William Collette rejected a motion by the state to have the lawsuit immediately dismissed.

The lawsuit says the Legislature violated the state’s Open Meetings Act when it shut members of the public out of the Capitol as right-to-work bills were debated and passed.

ACLU of Michigan Attorney Michael Pitt says the ruling means they can now gather more information to build a case.

"So that the public will understand once and for all what happened, and how the Legislature conducted itself in a highly inappropriate way on December 6."

State Attorney General Bill Schuette says hundreds of citizens were in the House and Senate chambers as lawmakers took up the bills.

Joy Yearout is a spokesperson for Schuette. She says the judge’s decision is not a major setback.

"He has every right to lay out the parameters as to what evidence he needs before he can make a decision. That being said, we’re fully confident that after he reviews the evidence, which at this point we don’t expect there is much evidence to suggest violation, that he’ll uphold the law."

Judge Collette did dismiss from the case the Michigan State Police Captain who ordered the doors of the Capitol closed.

There are at least two other lawsuits seeking to repeal the new law in state and federal court.

10:50 a.m.

An Ingham County Circuit Court judge has denied the state attorney general's request to immediately dismiss a lawsuit to repeal the state's new right-to-work law.

The ACLU of Michigan says the new state law should be tossed out because it was passed in violation of the Open Meetings Act. The suit says lawmakers deliberately locked members of the public out of the state Capitol as the legislation was introduced and passed in December.

State Attorney General Bill Schuette says police stopped letting more people into the building due to safety concerns.

Jake Neher will have more on this story soon.

Today at 3 p.m., Michigan Radio's Jenn White will host a State of Opportunity call-in show.

We're focusing on the structures and policies that make it hard for Michigan's children to get ahead. 

How does having certain privileges shape our attitudes about poverty? What experiences have you had where you lacked the privilege required to get ahead? 

We'd love to talk to you!

U.S. Coast Guard

The Soo Locks will open with the official start of the main shipping season on the Great Lakes.

But somebody’s got to break the ice first.

Mike Davanzo is the Commanding Officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw. We caught up with him on the icebreaking ship.

“I am on the bridge of the Mackinaw and we’re breaking the ice on the upper approaches of the Soo Locks in preparation for lock opening.”

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

The lumbering boom in Michigan in the 1800s made some people very rich.

It also left a lot of waste behind. 

Terry Heatlie and I took a walk in the mud on the south side of Muskegon Lake.

“We don’t have to go very far to see slabwood – I see some sticking out there. Slabwood is what was left over when they squared off the logs to make planks. So, this is the outside of the log, and back in the 1800s, apparently they had no use for that, so they just threw it in the water.”

Aerial photo of Talmadge Creek after Enbridge oil spill
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

We’re rounding the corner on the three year anniversary of the Enbridge oil spill near Marshall.

The cleanup isn’t over yet and so far, more than a million gallons of thick tar sands oil have been cleaned up from the Kalamazoo River and Talmadge Creek.

State officials have been looking at possible health risks from the spill.

This week, the Michigan Department of Community Health released a report on drinking water wells along the spill zone.

Forestland in Michigan's northern Lower Peninsula.
user {inercia} / Flickr

The state Senate passed a controversial bill this week.

Senate Bill 78 would prohibit the Michigan Department of Natural Resources from setting aside an area of land specifically to maintain biological diversity. Basically, that means protecting the variety of plants and animals that live in an area.

Senator Tom Casperson sponsored the bill. He has argued that the DNR has too much authority to set aside land.

Here's what the bill would do (excerpted from the Senate Fiscal Agency floor summary):

--Prohibit the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Natural Resources Commission from promulgating or enforcing a rule or an order that designates or classifies an area of land specifically for the purpose of achieving or maintaining biological diversity.
-- Delete the conservation of biological diversity from the DNR's duties regarding forest management, and require the Department to balance its forest management activities with economic values.
-- Eliminate a requirement that the DNR manage forests in a manner that promotes restoration.
-- Provide that a State department or agency would not have to designate or classify an area of land specifically for the purpose of achieving or maintaining biological diversity.
-- Delete a legislative finding that most losses of biological diversity are the result of human activity.

Critics of the bill say it could tie the DNR’s hands.

Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say even low levels of lead in blood can affect a child’s IQ, their ability to pay attention and their performance in school. Kids are most often exposed to lead in paint in homes built before 1978.

Robert Scott is with the Michigan Department of Community Health. He says over the past several years, there’s been great progress in cleaning up lead contamination in old homes in the state. He says lead poisoning in kids in Detroit has dropped more than 70 percent since 2004.

“I do want to emphasize though, that with this steady decrease over the years, there are still pockets in Detroit and other places where the rates are still much higher,” says Scott.

Photo by USFWS; Joel Trick

The Kirtland’s warbler is a songbird with an enviable travel schedule. The birds spend the winter in the Bahamas, and in the spring, they come home to the Great Lakes region – mostly to Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula.

The warbler has been on the endangered species list for 40 years. But it’s been doing well lately. Federal officials say the birds have met their recovery goal.

But it’ll take a lot of work to manage the birds even after they’re taken off the endangered species list.

Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

I recently got a chance to hang out with Tom Brady.  

Nope, not the football star. 

But this Tom Brady is working on making a name for himself. Brady just wrapped up his Masters degree. He’s an aerospace engineer, and now he's also the chief financial officer of SkySpecs LLC.

He holds up something that looks half-insect/half-helicopter. It’s an autonomous flying robot. In other words... it has a mind of its own. Brady says it finds its way around with cameras and computer vision.

“Basically, what these things are: they carry sensors to places that an inspector would otherwise have to,” he says.

Say, down into a sewer or up to the top of a wind turbine.

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