Created: 12/31/2015 Updated: 1/8/2016
As we began closing out 2015, we asked our visitors to make a New Year's #ResolutionForNature. We asked them to complete an ornament to be hung on our Resolution tree, and the response was incredible. Visitors of all ages stopped to pledge their natural resolution for 2016, and we wanted to highlight our top 20 favorites. Check them out below! Then, share your own #ResolutionForNature with us in the comments section. Happy New Year and a Green 2016!
Created: 11/20/2015 Updated: 7/29/2016
Cook County has an extensive forest preserve system that has served as an example of habitat preservation, public involvement in stewardship, and species conservation throughout the world. This land also provides a variety of ecosystem services, such as flood control that, along with the sheer beauty of the space, increases the value of our neighborhoods. And, of course, the forest preserves provide space for a wide range of recreational opportunities. Whether you simply want a peaceful place to walk or a shelter to host a family reunion; if you need a path to bike, skate, or run on, or a river to paddle in; if you like to bird watch or fish, the forest preserves are there for you. You can even do things like golf, fly model airplanes, ride horses, snowmobile, ski, and more. To me, it has long seemed the only thing missing in our forest preserves was camping. Well, that lack is no more. This summer, under the leadership of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the forest preserves are now home to five campgrounds, too.
These campsites are set up for people of all camping preferences with places for tents, groups, RVs, and even cabins.
I am admittedly a campground snob. I grew up backpacking so if I’m going to spend time in a developed campground, it has to be a good one. Even for an overnighter, I usually drive an hour or two from home. However, after my experience at Bullfrog Lake last weekend, I discovered that nice campsites are within walking distance.
Visitors who have to drive from home will usually miss such sublime scenes as watching steam rise from the pond and listening to ice tinkle as it melts in the first rays of sun…or frost-kissed leaves.
First of all, booking was easy (much better than the online booking for most state parks) and a staffer called me a few days before I was scheduled to show up to check in and see how many parking passes I would need. Our group arrived well after dark and I was a little worried that I would have to deal with a gate, a trick padlock, or some obstacle. Nope. The path was clear, the signs direct, and the campsite easy to find.
The office is always open, stocked, and staffed by exceptionally friendly folks.
I set the kids to pitching the tent while I wandered over to the headquarters to see how check-in would work. I expected a dark hut, lit with a single mercury vapor bulb next to a cobweb filled pipe where I was supposed to cram some damp paper work. Again I was wrong. It turns out the forest preserve campgrounds are staffed 24 hours a day. I stepped into a well-lit, well-stocked, heated reception cabin and was welcomed by a staff member so enthusiastic that she would make Smokey the Bear seem grumpy. Check-in took a few seconds, plus time to spin a prize wheel (I won a free high five but the guy after me won a boat rental). Moments later, I was heading back to my camp site with a few pieces of well-seasoned ash wood.
The physical construction of our site was excellent and well prepared for heavy use. Where the average campground would use a few treated 4x4 posts to display site numbers, hold lanterns, and mark boundaries, this campground used 8X8s, heavy steel posts, and wide concrete. Paths around the site are wide, firmly packed limestone. Roads are wide enough to for two way car traffic without being so wide they feel like a barrier. The bathrooms are constructed on slabs with meter-high concrete wall foundations, finished with hardboard siding.
These features may seem inconsequential but such details are the difference between a durable campground that feels comfortable for years to come and a place that will soon feel more like Lower Wacker. For example, in addition to looking good, the high foundations on the bathroom ensure durability and ease of cleaning. They also keep out the bugs. Well packed trails ensure that trails drain and remain functional year round.
Year round functionality is important because these campgrounds are open 362 days a year. We were there on a cold night, the sort that makes one dread visiting the loo. As it turns out, the bathrooms are heated. They also have hot water, a shower, and automatic lights. Such details make camping very comfortable. In fact, I initially felt like heat and comfort was a bit excessive but then I met my camping neighbors.
These campgrounds are in the midst of one of the largest urban areas in the country. As might be expected then, many of the campers have never camped before. Frankly, for a first timer, especially if you don’t have an experienced buddy, camping can be daunting. Clean, spacious, heated bathrooms go a long way to making a pleasant experience for a neophyte. And the attention to detail doesn’t stop there. If you don’t have camping gear, the office has a variety of things for sale, including sleeping bags. They also have things like naturalist backpacks with binoculars and field guides available for check out. Apparently there are also staff-led nature hikes, archery, and other programs at times, too.
The landscaping uses a wide variety of native plants and, as it matures, will make the sites even better. This Echinacea was just outside my tent door.
I think such amenities are really important because camping can be a powerful way to learn about and appreciate nature. When you are camping, you are more likely to be at the right place and time to see amazing animals, plants, and natural phenomena than if you have to drive there from home. We saw tons of birds as they began their day--flickers, a downy woodpecker, a flock of geese flying into the mist on Bullfrog Lake-- and a wide range of frost-spangled plants. But the great thing is, you don’t even have to sleep in a tent to have these experiences, either. Across the path from the tent sites are camper sites with electric hook ups (and access to a dump station) and up the slight hill from there are some small cabins. Nearby, with a nice lake view, are some larger cabins, too. Clearly, the needs of people from all experience levels and abilities have been considered in the planning and construction of these camps.
Can you spot the foraging downy woodpecker? We watched him for 15 minutes.
After a nice hike in the frost- flaked air, I stopped by the office again. The staff person was new but the cheerfulness and devotion to the campers was the same. In the end, I’d say this is the best run, best built, and cleanest developed camp site I have ever been to. The only thing that might be missing are a few logs to sit on around the fire and use as chopping blocks for fire wood but, then again, the place is pretty new. The native grasses, flowers, and trees are still establishing and they are obviously paying close attention to how people use the space. I wouldn’t be surprised to see logs the next time I go camping in the forest preserve. It’s not easy to have camping in an urban area and this is a first rate opportunity. I hope everybody in the county will take advantage of these places; maybe I’ll see you there. Anybody up for snow caving in February?
Created: 11/13/2015 Updated: 7/29/2016
America Recycles Day is held annually on November 15 as an initiative of Keep America Beautiful and as part of the wider effort to get more Americans actively recycling. Since sustainability is so important to our institution, and plays such a big part of so many of our exhibits (including Peanuts...Naturally!)we wanted to help get citizens educated about recycling. We used America Recycles Day as an opportunity to field some of your recyling questions, and our Sustainability and Chicago Conservation Corps Manager Kristen Pratt found the answers!
Do we need to wash clean every container that goes into the recycling bin? Do they not get recycled if they still have stuff in them?
No. A small amount of food/beverage residual in the container is acceptable. Containers still partially full of food or liquid should be emptied before being placed in the blue cart. A benefit to rinsing containers is for sanitary purposes while storing the empty containers in the home, and the ultimate goal is to prevent the contamination of other recyclables (especially paper, which can't be washed). So...clean out what you can, but it doesn't have to be spotless!
What should we do with plastic caps?
Plastic bottle caps are generally made from different plastics than the bottle. Since different plastics are recycled in different ways, the caps should be separated from the bottles. That said: because people often DON'T remove the bottle caps, many recycling facilities have taken to cutting off the tops of bottles to separate the caps. Sometimes these caps are sold as a commodity, sometimes they aren't. For Blue Cart Recycling in Chicago, the caps ARE accepted, so throw 'em in!
Where can I recycle light bulbs?
Unbroken CFLs can go to the Household Chemical and Computer Recycling Facility or to most box stores where they are sold (Home Depot, Lowe's). Broken CFLs and incandescents go in the trash.
Where can I recycle old cleaning supplies?
Cleaning supplies go to HCCRF, as well.
Where can I recycle old pills?
Pills go to ANY police station.
Does the demand for recycled plastic drop after the price of oil decreases?
Yes, they're connected. Manufacturers often ask: which is cheaper? To make new plastic (out of oil) or to pay for post-consumer plastics? When oil is cheap, it unfortunately drives down the demand for the recycled plastics.
Want to learn more about Chicago Conservation Corps? Click here, or sign up for the C3 Volunteer Opportunities newsletter here. Have more pressing recycling questions? Submit them via this form and we will help find the answers!View Comments
Created: 10/22/2015 Updated: 7/29/2016
Halloween is just a week away, but if you still don’t have a costume ready to go, don’t worry. We have some scientifically-focused suggestions that date back to the early days of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, many of which you can recreate just by visiting a costume store, thrift store, or your own closet!
If you’re the outdoors type, rugged Academy founder Robert Kennicott is your man. To recreate his look, grab:
- A heavy, long wool coat
- A western style or oxford shirt
- A neck scarf or bandana
- Dark pants
- A woven sash and garters
- Moccasins or other soft shoes
- Unkempt hair and facial hair
Finish the look by toting around an animal pelt or, perhaps, a plush owl (bonus points if it is a Western screech owl, one of Kennicott’s scientific namesakes). Learn more about Robert Kennicott's work and legacy here.
Feeling a bit more refined? Academy founder and director William Stimpson is your man! Embrace the refine naturalist look by putting together the following ensemble:
- A frock coat or formal coat
- A collared shirt
- A floppy bow tie or cravat
- A formal vest
- A pair of old-fashioned spectacles
- Dark trousers
- A mustache
Finish the look by grabbing an aquatic invertebrate friend or two, perhaps a mollusk or crustacean, since Stimpson devoted much of his life to cataloging and researching aquatic invertebrates. Learn more about this work here.
Elizabeth Emerson Atwater
An important woman in the history of the Academy, and the history of botany, Elizabeth Emerson Atwater is the ideal subject for those who love plants and Victorian fashion. To create her look, assemble the following:
- Long-sleeve, Victorian style dress
- Victorian hairstyle – a low, parted bun is probably the easiest to attempt
Be sure to bring along a scrapbook of some plant clippings or pressings to complete the look! Did you know that Atwater embraced botany because it was one of the scientific activities that a "proper" lady could participate in? Learn more about her legacy here.
Howard K. Gloyd
Love all things reptile and amphibian? Then herpetologist and Academy director Howard K. Gloyd is the perfect costume for you! And the look is not very difficult to put together! Simply grab:
A Panama hat
A safari or cargo vest
- A white oxford shirt
- Tall hiking boots
- A bow tie
- A mustache
Gloyd spent his life researching herps of all kinds, so having a rubber snake or two in tow will help complete the look! Learn more about the species that are named after Gloyd here.
Think you can out-Kennicott our own Steve Sullivan? Planning on using one of the other looks for your costume this year? Be sure to share it with us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram! We'd love to see it!
Created: 9/14/2015 Updated: 7/29/2016
You may have noticed some new faces in our Blanding’s Turtle Conservation Lab, that’s because we have taken in a new group of Blanding’s hatchlings to headstart.
It all began a few months ago, when our Biology team and Dan Thompson of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County went out into the field to track down some gravid Blanding’s turtles that were ready to lay their eggs. Each turtle has a tiny radio transmitter attached to her shell which gives off a unique signal so using a receiver we can track them. After locating them, the turtles were put into secure laying pens so they could lay their eggs in safety before being re-released. The eggs were then collected and put into an incubator to hatch.
After a couple of months, the tiny turtles began to emerge from their eggs.
It was about at this same time that our 2014 hatchlings reached the point where they were ready to be released into the wild. So, a few weeks ago, our Biology staff, along with Dan Thompson, released 60 of our 2014 Blanding’s hatchlings into the wild. We kept 24 of the 2014 hatchlings (some of which you can see in our Blanding’s display tank in Mysteries of the Marsh), and have introduced 106 2015 Blanding’s hatchlings to the Conservation Lab.
The majority of turtle predation takes place as eggs or during the first two years of life. By giving the Blanding’s hatchlings a "headstart" at the Museum during this vulnerable time, we are increasing their chances of survival. Although our Animal Care team works hard to provide them with this headstart, we don’t want the turtles to become habituated to humans. In order to reduce the risk of this happening, our biologists keep handling to an absolute minimum and the turtles that are on exhibit at the Museum are behind one-way glass. This is all part of a larger effort, in collaboration with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, to help restore the population of this endangered, native species and help re-establish ecological balance to the area.
Created: 9/1/2015 Updated: 7/29/2016
Museum collections are filled with all types of objects – fish in jars, textiles, oil paintings, mammal skins, fossilized plants, historic photographs. These tangible items, the specimens and artifacts, are very cool and I’m only a little biased. But, the really good stuff is something more intangible. The really cool stuff in museums is the data associated with those objects.
Why is data more cool than the real item, you say?
With data, we can tell the story of each specimen and artifact. Here is a label from a Passenger pigeon specimen, Ectopistes migratorius, which states:
“Purchased by Mr. James Richardson, of [the] Am. Museum of N. Hist. [American Museum of Natural History], in the flesh, in the New York Market.”
Passenger Pigeons are an extinct species; the last member of their species died in 1914. This specimen was collected along the Canadian River in 1889, two and a half decades before they went extinct. The pigeon was shipped to New York for the purpose of being sold as food, where it was being sold in a local meat market. That a staff member of the museum purchased the bird and then added it as a scientific specimen to the museum’s collection is fascinating to me. It sparks questions in my mind -- Why did they collect this specimen? Did they have knowledge about the species’ decline at this time? Were they in the habit of scouring city markets for different species? Other species have been re-discovered this way, most notably the Coelacanth.
Without data, the specimen, artifact, or piece of art is only that. We might be able to identify it and give it a name or title, but we won’t know how that particular piece fits into the larger puzzle that lets us understand our world. We won’t know who the artist was or why the piece was created. We won’t know where the animal lived or when or be able to discern how it interacted with its environment. The story is truncated, as is any knowledge that we may have gained.
In the process of caring for the Academy’s museum collections and archives, it is not just the specimens and artifacts that we are preserving, but the information about those items as well. The relationship between a specimen and its data is protected as these components are not nearly as useful separated from each other.
Dawn RobertsView Comments
Created: 8/20/2015 Updated: 8/1/2016
Dead and dying trees are one of the most exciting parts of any landscape. Like a star in supernova, trees may persist for decades or even centuries before they are consumed in a flurry of activity. Of course this analogy brings to mind some of the wildfires that happen each year. The destructive power of fire in a dry, fuel-laden forest is both terrifying and exhilarating, the ratio of which probably determined by one’s distance from the fire and the skills and tools available to control the flames.
Trees burn so well because they are dense collections of carbon-rich molecules, such as cellulose, that are created, year after year as the tree uses energy from the sun and carbon dioxide from the air to construct its architectural matrix. When terrestrial plants first arose, they could simply cover rocks and gather all the sunlight they needed. But, with the advent of stems and leaves, some plants were able to outcompete others for sunlight and so a cold war of sorts began. The individual with the largest leaves gathered the most sunlight while shading out the other plants. When one kind of plant grew taller, it was more successful. But at some point, gravity and wind would pull it back to the ground-- at best, making the race start again for that plant, at worst, killing it. But with the development of woody tissue plants could get taller and taller while withstanding the effects of gravity and wind as well as climbing vines, perching birds, and our clamoring primate ancestors.
This cellulose is tough and not very nutritive. Termites famously being one of the few animals that can, through their symbiosis with gut bacteria, eat it. Some species further protect their wood with a variety of toxins. The volatile oils found in eucalyptus are especially interesting—they contribute to the hot/cold feeling of products like Vicks and they are explosive when burned. Most animals that appear to eat wood actually only consume a thin layer of the plant found just beneath the bark called the phloem. This goes for rabbits, deer, voles, even beaver. Many wood-eating insects are also only found in the phloem, too, most infamously, the Asian long-horned beetle and the emerald ash borer. The wood portion of a tree is useless to most organisms.
Of course you can see all sorts of animals in a forest but dead and dying trees are rare, at least in a healthy forest, so there are many species that utilize them more frequently than a given living tree, dead trees called snags are like the corner bodega where it seems everybody stops briefly during the day. Lack of leaves makes snags perfect perches for birds of prey. Even more importantly, as water, ice, fungi, and bacteria invade and soften the wood, that once tough and useless superstructure becomes accessible to many more species.
Woodpeckers are the most famous cavity nesting birds. They have a range of special adaptations that allow them to be among the first animals to take him take advantage of softwood: toes and claws that can grip vertical surfaces, stiff tail feathers that help form a tripod while they’re excavating, chisel shaped beaks, tendon strengthened for necks, and shockproof brains. Less specialized birds like nuthatches also excavate dead wood and there are a lot of species that either modify existing cavities or just move in to whatever is available. As the holes grow in size, they allow more water in which promotes fungal growth. Many species of fungus only grow on the decaying wood of certain species of tree. Soft wood also allows insects like carpenter ants to construct galleries to live in and raise their brood. (They don’t eat wood, they just remove it to create living space.) This soft, punky wood also provides good bedding for animals as diverse as mice and queen hornets.
All this leads me to the elm that I stopped at this morning. The tree is just 100 yards north of the Nature Museum along Cannon drive, south of a park bench. It’s mostly dead but still has a good quantity of sap within it. This sap is slowly oozing out nutritious sugary gobs of elm candy which are being eagerly consumed by many animals. Although these gobs are the elm equivalent of maple syrup at first, natural yeast in the air have also begun fermenting it. Standing beneath the tree, you can smell warm, beer-like yeasty-ness. This betrays the presence of alcohol, as well as sugar.
Here’s a list of the animals I’ve seen on the tree just today:
Birds: starlings, robins, barn swallows, flickers, English house sparrows, a downy woodpecker, and a crow
Mammals: I only saw one grey squirrel in the tree, and he was there simply because a dog was chasing him. I suspect squirrels will avoid the tree for some time due to some of the insects that are so prevalent. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some rats eating the cicadas at the base in the evening though.
Arthropods: Here’s where you hit the jackpot. 2 species of ant, cicada exoskeletons and adult cicadas, moth egg masses, spider sacs, some cocoons (one with a dead pupae inside), flesh flies, picture winged flies, and house flies. The occasional butterfly flits past: red spotted purple, questionmark, red admiral, and painted lady. The coolest part though, are the hymenoptera galore! Of course the cicada killers are the most obvious, but there are also honeybees, bumblebees, yellowjackets, bald-faced hornets, and even an ichneumon.
There are lots of things I expect to see at the tree but have not seen there yet. Since the tree is an elm and is just dying this season, it should be able to stand safely for many years. It will be interesting to see all of the diversity that uses this tree over the next few years and seasons. I hope you’ll take the time to visit the elm and tell us what you have seen there, too.
Created: 7/27/2015 Updated: 8/1/2016
Dr. William Beecher died on this day in 2002. In addition to being a Chicago native and ornithologist, Dr. Beecher held the position of Chicago Academy of Sciences director for 24 years! His legacy continues to live on at the Museum. The Beecher Lab, located in the Wilderness Walk, is named after him, and some of the students who studied under him as teenagers have returned to the Museum as volunteers! In this post, Collections volunteer Joan Bledig remembers her time with Dr. Beecher.
Dr. William Beecher
Dr. William J. Beecher was a dominant force in my life in the late 1950s-early 1960s. In an era when young women interested in science were considered weird, Dr. Beecher was there championing everyone’s right to study science and nature, girl or boy. He was my mentor in things scientific. And, unlike most adults of that era, he treated me and the other members of what he named his Junior Academy as equals, never talking down to us, never disregarding our questions or comments.
I was interested in anthropology at the time I discovered the Academy, but Dr. Beecher widened my horizons to include an appreciation of many other natural sciences, including Geology. Because of my participation in the fossil hunting trips Dr. Beecher arranged to the Mazon Creek area about 70 miles south of Chicago, I developed a love of this fossil assemblage which I never lost, and resulted in my returning to volunteer once again 45 years later.
Dr. Beecher had developed a program at the Academy to assist high school students with their science fair projects. I decided to participate, wanting to do something concerning human evolution. Beecher said that was out of field for the museum, since the projects would be incorporated into future exhibits once the science fair competitions were over. He said, “You enjoyed participating in those fossil hunting field trips to Coal City and Braidwood. Why don’t you do something on the Mazon fossils?” He was very convincing, so I agreed to do a science fair project on how the Mazon area had appeared when it was a living forest of tree ferns and giant insects 306 million years ago. And what an experience that became!
Joan Bledig with her 1961 Science Fair project at the Academy. Photo by Nancy Bledig.
The entire museum preparation staff, it seemed, helped me create a life-size tree trunk, some examples of ground plants, and the piece de résistance, Meganeura, a dragonfly with a two-foot wingspan. Dr. Beecher made arrangements with a noted expert at the Field Museum, George Langford, Sr., to assist with the research portion. When the science fair was over, parts of the project were eventually incorporated into a life-size, walkthrough coal forest in the back of the lobby of the building at 2001 N. Clark Street.
Dr. Beecher had a humorous side as well. Once he told us about one of his experiences while stationed on a remote Pacific island when he served in World War II. It was hotter than Hades; the native population didn’t speak English; and it was doubtful that they had much, if any, previous contact with modern civilization. He managed to get it across to one of the natives that he was thirsty. Suddenly, an islander appeared, offering him a bottle of Coca Cola! The islanders may not have had 20th century civilization, but they sure had Coca Cola. The punch line? Beecher said some future archaeologist would be beating his head against a wall wondering what the culture of “Coca Cola” was since its bottles were found everywhere on Earth.
With great regret I tendered my resignation from the Junior Academy when I finished high school in 1964. My father had recently passed away and I needed to find a full-time job in order to earn money to pay for college. It was a sad day, parting from the Academy and Dr. Beecher. However, I never left behind the marvelous influence he had on me. A great friend of Dr. Beecher, June Hanna, stated he said he chose not to marry because he felt he could be either a great ornithologist or a great father, but never both. Maybe he didn’t think he could be both, but I believe he did a great job being both to all the boys and girls he influenced during his tenure as Director of The Chicago Academy of Sciences.
Joan BledigView Comments
Created: 7/27/2015 Updated: 8/1/2016
Dr. William Beecher died on this day in 2002. In addition to being a Chicago native and ornithologist, Dr. Beecher held the position of Chicago Academy of Sciences director for 24 years! His legacy continues to live on at the Museum. The Beecher Lab, located in the Wilderness Walk, is named after him, and some of the students who studied under him as teenagers have returned to the Museum as volunteers! In this post, Collections volunteer Bob Morton remembers his time with Dr. Beecher.
Dr. Beecher leads a field trip
Dr. Beecher He was a world renowned ornithologist and I remember reading about him in the Tribune quite often. He was usually consulted when there was an article about birds or the environment. My one distinct memory of this time was the mural in the Laflin building lobby. Dr Beecher created this by himself. He was on scaffolding for months in addition to his duties as Director. His apartment was only a block away from the Museum so he practically lived there.
He gave me the position of Junior Curator around 1962 when I was 13 years old. The previous summer I had taken an entomology course given by the Academy and had attended a number of workshops and field trips conducted by Dr. Beecher. As a Junior Curator I worked primarily in the library and as a secretary. I prepared correspondence and on a couple of occasions Dr. Beecher received letters with insects inside them. People had found them in their homes and wanted to get rid of them. He had me research and identify the insects and then prepare a letter explaining how they could be exterminated. Dr. Beecher then signed his name to the letters. He also told me that I could prepare an insect exhibit for the Museum using only my imagination. I never took him up on this offer.
Dr. Beecher and a reporter examine dead birds on the beach
There were 3 of us Junior Curators who assisted with the Entomology course taught each summer. Most of the students were Chicago High School teachers. We assisted with the laboratory work and on the weekly field trips. Others worked on exhibits and I am aware of one other teenager who published a paper on the Monarch butterfly.
It was amazing, the responsibility that he gave to young kids and he never once micromanaged, to my knowledge.
Created: 6/17/2015 Updated: 8/1/2016
A Great crested grebe near the Helsinki Museum of Natural History at about 11 pm
I recently returned from presenting some of our Project Squirrel data to the International Colloquium on Arboreal Squirrels. This time, the meeting was held in Finland. Although the meetings filled the day, I spent a lot of time outside too because, this time of year at least, the sun doesn’t set for long in the northern latitudes. On my first night there, between 10pm and midnight, I was able to find nearly 20 species including wagtail, oystercatcher, and even a goshawk being mobbed by dozens of fieldfares and hooded crows. Along with the birds, I noticed something that seemed odd to me—there was no noise coming from stopped cars at red lights.
Barnacle geese are relatives of Canada geese
At first I thought locals must really be into hybrid cars but upon closer inspection I couldn’t find a single vehicle identified as a hybrid (and because of the danger they can be to rescue workers after a crash, hybrids are usually required to be labeled as such). In fact, amongst the mix of the usual commuter autos, I saw lots of patently non-hybrid and non-quiet vehicles like big American pickups, bigger Audi busses, and even a giant Avtospetsoborudovanie Silant rescue machine (I’m not sure what Silant means in Russian but it can’t be a synonym for “quiet”). Yet these were quiet at intersections too.
So what gives? It turns out that everyone was simply turning off their vehicles when they stopped at a light to prevent idling. Now I know that idling is bad but where’s the sane line between pausing in your forward motion and idling? I felt a little silly that I didn’t know the answer but as I asked around to various eco-conscious friends, none of them knew the answer either (hence this blog post because I assume lots of people don’t know the answer.)
Remember back in the 80s and 90s when schools would leave their lights on 24/7 “because it takes more energy to turn on the lights than it does to keep the running overnight”? Cars were like that too. Carburetors and chokes used a ton of gas to get the car started then required a good 15 minutes or more to warm up to operating temperatures. On the other hand, modern fuel injected, computer controlled engines are ready to drive as soon as you start them (even in cold weather, as long as you don’t stomp on the gas pedal but stomping on the gas pedal is bad for different reasons under all conditions) and the amount of gas you burn when starting is about equal to the amount you burn during 10 seconds of idling. That said, restarting your car causes wear on the battery, starter, and other parts. Most of the references I found suggested the cost of gas begins to exceed the increased maintenance costs after a mere 30 to 60 seconds of idling.
My conclusion from all this is: turn the car off as often as possible. Now I don’t think that turning your car off every time you come to a stop is a safe thing to do, at least in American traffic. In fact, it’s usually illegal here and, at least as far as I can determine in the English language translations, Finnish law doesn’t require it either. Some countries apparently do require turning off the car at intersections under certain circumstances and many countries have laws that prohibit more than 1 minute of idling per hour. However, I am convinced that idling the car as I wait for the kids to get in or for the cabin to warm is costing me money that I don’t need to spend, not to mention creating tons of excess CO2. I have also begun paying more attention to what I do at the beginning and end of every trip; I’m careful to turn the car on only after I’m done fiddling with my phone, jacket, glasses or whatever, and turn it off as soon as I park.
This really was something I should have known since study on the topic was active in the late 80s. I didn’t find a lot of news reporting on it until the early 2000s which is reasonable since it took until then for the knowledge to be applicable to most drivers. In researching this topic, I found a lot of reporting online but links from the articles to official sources and governmental reviews were broken more than usual. There are, of course, a lot of academic papers on this but most are behind paywalls, though you can still get a lot out of the abstracts. This one about motorcycles highlights some of the consumer issues.
Though it seems most of the EPA site is devoted to understanding what you can buy and how to shop, if you read between the lines, they also say, idling less makes a measurable difference.