July 26, 2010
“I want you to unwrap what’s before you, examine it, and pass it along” were the instructions given by Susan Diachun [pictured in (5) below], a geologist at Fort Niagara State Park in Youngstown, to our group, which is seated outside in the round (4). Each of us has a different rock that is representative of the greater Niagara region, along with a brief description on the inside of the cloth wrapping. Mine (1) read, “The Whirlpool Sandstone is made up of sand grains cemented together. It is in the [Niagara] gorge at the Whirlpool.” Whirlpool sandstone is the oldest near shore sedimentary rock in the Niagara Gorge, formed from sediments during the Silurian Period over 400 million years ago.
As we continued this “wrap and pass” game, Susan gave us some history on how the area came to be. Near the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,300 years ago, the Niagara River (which, today, flows north from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario) began to flow over a large cliff known as the Niagara Escarpment. Located at the northern end of the Gorge, it is here that Niagara Falls first formed. Over thousands of years, the Falls carved through the underlying rock and, as they receded, the Falls formed the 7.1 mile Gorge that we see today - a combination of layers including erosion-resistant limestone and Lockport dolostone (3) (6), as well as shale and fine sandstones (2). Niagara Falls straddles the international border between the Canadian province of Ontario and the U.S. state of New York.
Susan’s overview on the region, and the game, too, soon wound down, and the floor was open for questions and comments. Scott Krebbeks, a middle school teacher in Conesus, NY, said, “I had no idea that the geology of Lake Ontario was so diverse, particularly the unusual rocks left behind as the glaciers retreated.” Kim Ferguson, a high school teacher in Buffalo, considered the activity “a quick and fun way to learn about the variety of rock types that make up this portion of the Great Lakes region.” Several other teachers, including Paulette Morein from Dunkirk and Erik Bauerlein from Hamburg, said they found the informative exercise, or at least the method in which it was presented, a good example of what they would like to do in their respective classrooms.
Following Susan’s activity, our group walked down to the Niagara River, where we found some Cladophora (7), a common filamentous algae, in the nearshore area.
While the sight of Cladophora may not be pleasant to visitors of the shoreline, it is not harmful to humans. However, it is believed to create, as NYSG’s Helen Domske described to the teachers (8), anoxic conditions (an extreme form of hypoxia or “low oxygen”) ideal for botulism, a neurotoxin that has affected a number of fish and bird species in the Great Lakes, including, respectively, round gobies and loons. Eunice Reinhold, a teacher in Hamburg, said, “I was surprised to learn how botulism can disrupt a food chain and cause havoc in an ecosystem.” For example, botulism is potent enough when present in Lakes Ontario and Erie to make round gobies sick. Eating just two gobies affected by the toxin can, and often does, kill a loon. For more on botulism, see Sea Grant’s “Botulism in Lakes Erie and Ontario” Web site (click here).
Following our visit to Fort Niagara State Park, we made our way over to the Aquarium of Niagara (9), where the group was treated to a lively discussion by Helen (once an Aquarium employee before coming to Sea Grant about 18 years ago) on aquatic species commonly found in the northeast. These included hermit crabs (10), the American Lobster (11), and crabs (14). The teachers then explored the touch tank themselves (12), also discovering sea stars, blue mussels, horseshoe crabs, clams, and sea urchins. “I loved the touch tank,” said Kristin Sheehan, a teacher in Pulaski. “It just solidifies the idea that the best kinds of learning are hands-on.” Experiences like Kristin’s were duly noted by Buffalo News reporter Richard Baldwin [pictured in (13), with Helen], who was working on a story about this year’s Lake Ontario Exploration Workshop. Baldwin arrived just as group finished a one-on-one session with Opus, a 22 year old female Humboldt Penguin (15). Humboldt, or Peruvian, Penguins are medium-sized South American penguins, breeding in coastal Peru and Chile and growing to 26-28 inches long and weighing around 8-13 pounds. During the meet-and-greet, the teachers were able to pet Opus’ small, stiff overlapping feathers, which help to keep her body temperature between 100-102 degrees Fahrenheit. She often flapped her sturdy wings as a means to keep herself cool.
Public exhibits at the Aquarium included some “fish of the Great Lakes” tanks, which featured, among other species, carp (16), lake sturgeon (17), brown bullhead, white perch, rock bass, walleye and both small and large mouth bass.
We couldn’t leave the Aquarium without taking a walking bridge over to sights way above the Niagara River (20) and, not far off, the Niagara Falls. As Helen explained at one of the displays along the way (18), Niagara Falls continue to be renowned both for its beauty and as a valuable source of hydroelectric power, although managing the balance between recreational, commercial, and industrial uses has been a challenge for the stewards of the Falls since the 1800’s. The Falls is a large draw for tourists, many of whom get up-close through a Maid of the Mist boat tour (19). While not exceptionally high, Niagara Falls is very wide. More than 6 million cubic feet of water falls over the crest line every minute in high flow, and almost 4 million cubic feet on average. It is the most powerful waterfall in North America.