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What Time is it in Nature: Summer Storms on the Prairie

September 19, 2014

If you’ve lived in the Triangle Area for almost any length of time, you know that the weather can change rapidly without a lot of warning. A perfectly sunny day can devolve into a nightmarish storm in the blink of an eye. Prairie Ridge is subject to the same sorts of storms that you see anywhere else in the area and weather changes like rain, high winds, and cooler temperatures can impact the species living on and using the grounds. If a storm is big enough, it can even cause damage to trees or structures on the grounds. Let’s take a look at the sorts of things we see during and after storms, when few visitors are here to see them!

Before I do, however, let me say that in the event of severe weather or lightning, we encourage our visitors to seek shelter or leave the grounds immediately. There’s simply no reason to risk your safety by remaining on the grounds during storms! Pay attention to all weather alerts on your phone and please keep an eye on the sky while you’re here. Make immediate preparations to leave before storms, such as this, set in:

Storm over the prairie

Summer storms at Prairie Ridge vary from light sunshowers that drizzle a bit of water over everything while the sun is still out to intense storms where the blackened sky unleashes a fiery deluge of rain and lightning. Some animals might stay out during some of the lighter storms, such as the squirrel in this admittedly terrible photo:

Soggy squirrel

You’ll see soggy birds, soggy squirrels, soggy rabbits, and other wet animals emerging from whatever shelter they sought and return to their normal activities shortly after a storm passes by. If the rain lasts a while, you might even see an increase in animal activity immediately after storms as they make up for the time lost while they sheltered from the rain. If it’s safe to be outside, a trip to Prairie Ridge soon after a storm passes through can yield some interesting wildlife sightings!

In the more severe storms, the ground becomes quickly saturated and you’ll start to see the excess water runoff. The water runs downhill, over the slopes and into the low areas of the grounds, such as the stream and the pond. In the case of severe storms, the water can knock over plants and move mulch. In fact, immediately after many bad storms, you can often see evidence of little river systems that formed in the mulch as the water rushed downhill toward the stream:

rivulets in the mulch

If a storm is big enough to start pushing mulch around, it’s also big enough to make the stream flood, and you should not be there to see it! Our stream drains a huge amount of impervious surfaces in our area (parking lots, roads, and buildings primarily), and a lot of the water that runs off these surfaces ends up running through our grounds. The normally calm, clear, and shallow stream can turn into a roiling, muddy mess capable of carrying large rocks downstream and knocking whole trees over.  These floods develop quickly and can occur after only a few minutes of hard rain, but they also pass quickly. The water may look muddy for several hours after a storm:

Stream before and after a storm

… but the water levels will return to nearly normal within a few hours. After a few days, you probably won’t be able to tell it flooded at all!

While some of these storms can cause damage and might drive you away from your planned outdoor recreation, they are also responsible for a lot of the beauty you see at Prairie Ridge. The rain helps keep the pond full for frogs, insects, snakes, and birds and helps the flowers in the Nature Neighborhood Garden grow. The prairie is wholly dependent on rain for its water, and some species use rains as cues to reproduce or feed, such as Spadefoot Toads, fireflies, and dragonflies. Everything is clean and alive after a storm, and the light glittering off every surface can be quite stunning. You’re likely to see some of the best views as soon as the sun comes back out after a storm.

We do not encourage anyone to remain on the grounds during storms, but after a storm has passed and it is safe to go outdoors again, consider making a visit to Prairie Ridge! You can often see things that you might not see on your average nice day as storms disrupt the everyday activity of many species. You might get wet and muddy on a post-storm visit, but that’s all part of the fun, especially if you see something amazing!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

Photos by Chris Goforth

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