Home / Blog

Blog


If a Tree Falls in a Forest, and No One Knows What to Call It, Does It Exist at All?

I

By: Liz Clift

On a recent trip, I was back in a familiar landscape where I know a number of the names of native plants—not just trees and flowers, but grasses as well. Being able to recognize these deepened my sense of temporarily returning home, and what it means to belong to a place.

The experience also led me to consider how an ecological vocabulary changes the way we see the world. Much like having a vocabulary around estuary English, having a vocabulary around one’s local ecological environments can add depth and texture to the world. A red-capped mushroom with charming white spots is no longer just a toadstool, or just warning that it’s poisonous. It’s suddenly likely Amanita muscaria (and culinary, if properly identified and prepared. That being said, please don’t eat foraged mushrooms unless you’re very certain in the ID.). Finding a good spot for morels (Morchella spp.)is an opportunity to become acquainted with that plant community—and the conditions that cause morels to fruit. The evergreen becomes a conifer becomes western red cedar (Thuja plicata), whose boughs have been used for medicinal purposes for longer than time can tell and which may have modern applications as a broad-spectrum anti-microbial.

Environmental biologist, botanist, and professor Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that an ecological vocabulary is more than just a base of knowledge. She argues that knowing the names of plants and animals turns them from objects into a part of our communities. She writes

“When I am in the woods with my students, teaching them the gifts of plants and how to call them by name, I try to be mindful of my language, to be bilingual between the lexicon of science and the grammar of animacy. Although they still have to learn scientific roles and Latin names, I hope I am also teaching them to know the world as a neighborhood of nonhuman residents, to know that, as ecotheologian Thomas Berry has written, ‘we must say of the universe that it is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.’”

However, we’re losing nature-words, words that describe our local ecologies all the time. In 2007, the Oxford children’s dictionary removed a number of nature-based words, including acorn, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heron, mistletoe, newt, pasture, and willow (along with a number of other words).

Maybe losing the word acorn from a children’s dictionary seems insignificant. However, it’s also a way to begin to erase a rich social and ecological history. Acorns not only come from, and produce, oak (Quercus spp. and Lithocarpus spp.) trees, they are also a source of food for a variety of animals (including humans). Acorns have been used to barter and for medicine. Acorns are so iconic that they’re frequently used to represent beginnings and potential. You can probably picture one right now.

But what if I asked you about something less familiar, and less ubiquitous?

Picture, if you will, blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis). Botanists, plains ecologists, native plant nerds, and a handful of others can probably call it to mind with no problem. We even have a cute trick to help ourselves remember what it looks like.

Got it in your mind?

Unless you’re in a job that requires you to know plains or “decorative” grasses, the answer is probably not.

Blue grama is a type of bunchgrass, which used to grow over large swathes of the upper plains, Rocky Mountains, and midwestern North America. Now, in many places, native prairies—and the grasses that make them up—have shrunk to just a fraction of their historic range. Which, if I’m being honest, is pretty unfortunate. Blue grama has florescence that resembles “a gramma’s eyebrows.” (Now you know the trick for identifying it] and the potential for an incredibly long lifespan, which means it can help stabilize soil for years.

[Insert picture of blue grama from Stapleton?]

What if I asked you to tell me what a newt is?

Or what you call a group of herons?

Or what we call a baby swan?

Or to describe the difference between a great blue heron (Ardea herodias)and a black-capped night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)?

Or what it means if an animal is crepuscular?

Or the right way to pronounce nudibranch? Geoduck?

How are you doing with your ecological vocabulary?

My point in this isn’t to shame or provide accolades.

My point is that by losing this vocabulary, we disrupt our ability to understand the world around us and the interactions that take place. We might miss the migration of nudibranchs from deeper waters to eelgrass (Zostera marina)  beds in the Salish Sea in early summer. We don’t look for a brown lizard-like animal among the leaf litter when we’re out on a hike on a rainy day, or question why it evolved to move so slowly. We miss the opportunity to notice that a cowbird (Molothrus spp.) has replaced another bird in its nest, or to explore the relationship between the decline of sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata)and the changes in collection and grazing patterns. We plant milkweed because we think it will help the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), only we plant tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica)when that’s not our local variety—and as a result, potentially cause more harm to monarchs.

We say the grass is always greener on the other side, not just because things may seem better from afar—but perhaps also because we can’t tell the difference between the telltale blue-green of western wheat (Pascopyrum smithii) and the deeper green of common spike-rush (Eleocharis palustris), indicating the presence of wetter soil. From afar, perhaps it’s harder to see the places where cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) has already given the landscape a rusty hue—and up close, if we don’t know what we’re seeing, we just know that cheatgrass leaves its seeds in our pants, socks, shoes, and wedged into the soft pads of our dog’s paws.

It’s possible, however, to encourage ecological vocabulary—both in our own lives and in the lives of people around us.

We can do this by learning—and using—the names of plants, animals, fungi, rocks, and other things we encounter, and resourcing ourselves to support this learning (through the use of field guides, apps, college and popular education courses, forays, online identification groups, and more).

In doing this, we enable ourselves to begin to rebuild our relationship to the land—and with each other. We are better able to recognize our interdependence as a species—not only with other people, but with all that makes life on earth possible.

This is not a novel concept.

Director and Founder of Local Futures writes “I have seen that community and a close relationship with the land can enrich human life beyond all comparison with material wealth or technological sophistication. I have learned another way is possible.” Indigenous activist and economist, Winona LaDuke has said “Power is not brute force and money; power is in your spirit. Power is in your soul. Power is what your ancestors, your old people gave you. Power is in the earth; it is in your relationship to the earth.” Terry Tempest Williams offers “I think our lack of intimacy with the land has initiated a lack of intimacy with each other. What we perceive as non-human, outside of us, is actually in direct relationship with us.”

With ecological vocabulary, we can begin to awaken the corners of our mind that recognize that we are part of this world, rather than architects. Wendell Berry writes “People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.” That is to say, we protect what we love, we’re more likely to love that which we know.

In this, a flower cannot simply be a flower and a bird cannot just be a bird. There still are plenty of flowers in the world. There still are plenty of birds. In Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett writes “The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. Words make worlds.”

Make the flower Cephalanthera austiniae, phantom orchid, the only North American orchid that doesn’t produce chlorophyll and which might be dormant for 17 years. Phantom orchid is considered a mycoheterotrophic parasite. Myco meaning fungus. Hetero meaning different. Trophic referring to nutritional requirements. The phantom orchid, then, is a rare parasitic orchid that does not have a direct attachment to its host plant, but instead gets its nutrients from the host plant via a mycorrhizal network.

Make the bird Cinclus mexicanus, American dipper, North America’s only aquatic songbird—and an unassuming little grey bird at that. It catches all its food under water in swiftly flowing streams. It is a common species in parts of the country west of the Missouri River—and can provide an indicator of stream health.

The phantom orchid and American dipper are part of the United States’ Pacific Northwest ecology. We can notice their presence or absence in a forest, or along a stream, and begin to get other clues about the ecosystem. Add to these two organisms every other organism that make up a place and you might begin to decipher other clues about the health or stress of the ecosystem, about interdependence, about historical uses of a place.

Of course, this isn’t limited to the Pacific Northwest. For instance, abundant invasive species may indicate high nitrogen levels in the soil or a recent disturbance. Prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) holes suggest potential habitat for burrowing owl (Aethene cunicularia) and bullsnake (Pituophis catinefer) and are likely surrounded by clipped grasses with encroaching invasive plant species. Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) occurs between 2,950 feet in British Columbia up to 12,000 feet elevation in the Sierra Nevadas, and indicate the presence of Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana), which these trees rely on for seed distribution.

With an ecological vocabulary, the world becomes a story, full of rich characters and relationships. We can foster these relationships not only through the tools I mention above—but through reading for pleasure. Some books (including children’s books) I’ve especially loved that focus on fostering this connection are:

B is for Bear: A Natural Alphabet by Hannah Viano

The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane

The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv

The Fragile Edge by Julia Whitty

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb

Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors by Carolyn Finney

The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring by Richard Preston

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean

This is, of course, far from an exhaustive list. What books should I add to my reading list? Leave us a comment on social media.

Leave a comment

Seagrass, Seagrass, Who Do You See?

By Liz Clift and Jessica Foley

Have you seen this on the beach lately?

Eelgrass in the Salish Sea (photo by Liz Clift)

If you live in an area with ultra low tides during the summer—the answer is likely yes. During ultra low tides, fields of seagrass, like the eelgrass (Zostera marina) pictured above, can become exposed. However, even if you don’t have ultra low tides—and many areas don’t–you may see seagrass wash up when it becomes uprooted from its substrate due to animals feeding, storms, or human activity.

What is Seagrass?

Seagrass is a general term for a variety of underwater flowering plant that belongs to one of four families (Posidoniaceae, Zosteraceae, Hydrocharitaceae, and Cymodoceaceae). Seventy-two species of seagrass are known, and many superficially resemble terrestrial grasses in the Poaceae family (think Kentucky bluegrass [Poa pratensis], which you likely see in urban parks or even in your own yard). Seagrasses, importantly, are like terrestrial grasses, in that they can form roots and rhizomes, rather than having a “holdfast” or floating freely like macroalgae (“seaweed”).

Seagrasses grow in underwater meadows in estuarine or marine environments (not freshwater!) within the photic zone. Like terrestrial prairies or grasslands, seagrass meadows are diverse and productive ecosystems that provide shelter, forage, and breeding grounds for a variety of ecologically important and economically significant species. What you’ll find in fields of seagrass depends on where you live (i.e. tropical versus temperate climates), but some animals that commonly rely on this ecosystem include a variety of juvenile fish, American manatees (Tricherchus manatus),  sea turtles, dugongs (Dugong dugong), sea urchins, and crabs.

Crab in Eelgrass (Photo Credit: NOAA)

In addition to providing important habitat, seagrass offers a number of ecosystem services including:

  • Habitat for commercially and recreationally important fish;
  • Wave protection;
  • Oxygen production;
  • Coastal erosion protection; and
  • a carbon sink.

Total Sales Generated by U.S. Commercial and Recreational Fishing Industries:
U.S . Total-208 Billion Sales (Image Credit: NOAA)

In addition to helping support the $200 billion fishing industry, seagrass meadows account for more than 10% of the ocean’s ability to store carbon—per hectare it is able to store twice as much carbon dioxide as a rainforest! Meaning seagrass meadows are able to support the U.S. economy as well as mitigate climate change all at the same time.

Because seagrasses provide so many services and are experiencing global declines, communities are working to enhance and restore seagrass beds, which have been impacted or destroyed by human activities. Since so much of this work happens under water—and therefore out of sight to anyone who isn’t a diver or looking for news about seagrass conservation and restoration—I wanted to highlight a few of the projects occurring around the U.S. to restore seagrass habitat.

Chesapeake Bay

In the Chesapeake Bay, eelgrass beds are essential to maintaining the iconic blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) and wild oyster industries, two of the region’s most valuable fisheries. major seagrass conservation and recovery efforts, including reducing  nutrient loads and seeding seagrass have been underway. Since runoff from agriculture is a major component of nutrient pollution, state and federal agencies have  been working with farmers to incentivize better practices that has led to decreased nutrient loads in some areas.

In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put the Chesapeake Bay on a “pollution diet,” or a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) to reduce levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. Six Chesapeake Bay states, and Washington D.C. must have pollution  controls in place by 2025. Earlier this year, the EPA released a “check-up” report on the pollution diet. The partnership has fallen short of its nitrogen reduction target; however, this check-up allows the six states and D.C. to use the TMDL information to continue to strive toward the 2025 target and remain accountable.

Concurrently, scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) having been activity restoring seaside bays in the Chesapeake region. The VIMS Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) Lab has effectively broadcast 60 million eelgrass seeds over 450 acres over the last 15 years. Given the enhanced water quality in the region and successful reintroduction of eelgrass seed, the species has colonized over 6,000 acres of seagrass meadows (over 10 times its originally seeded area!). This successful restoration effort is one of the largest seagrass restoration projects by size in the world.

Photo: Aerial photographs of one Chesapeake eelgrass restoration site in South Bay in 2004 (left) and 2008 (right). By 2008, the area within the polygon had become almost completely vegetated with eelgrass (Orth et al. 2010).

Salish Sea

In the Salish Sea, seagrasses provide critical habitat for herring (Clupea harengus pallasii), Dungeness crabs (Metacarcinus magister), and young salmon (all of which support many types of wildlife and are important commercially and recreationally), and six different types of seagrass exist in this area, of which eelgrass is the most widespread.

However, eelgrass (and other seagrass) growth can be hampered by algal blooms, overwater structures because these things block light, sediment loading, shoreline armoring, and vessels anchoring or mooring. Since seagrass is a vital component of this ecosystem, in 2011, an interdisciplinary taskforce developed a strategy with five overarching goals to help Washington state reach its target of expanded eelgrass habitat by 20 percent between by 2020. The goals are:

  • Conserve existing eelgrass habitats;
  • Reduce environmental stressors to support eelgrass expansion
  • Restore and enhance degraded or declining eelgrass meadows;
  • Identify research priorities; and
  • Expand outreach and education.

The Port of Bellingham, which is part of the Salish Sea has also supported eelgrass recovery efforts, including the redesign of a waterfront park to connect tideflats and eelgrass beds. This project won the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA) award for best restored beach in the Northwest in 2012 and America’s best restored beach in 2009.

Sand Dollar Exoskeleton among Seagrass, Marine Park, Bellingham, WA (Photo Credit: Liz Clift)

Tampa Bay

Since the 1800s, Tampa Bay has lost approximately 80% of its seagrass coverage. Many areas of the Bay were historically affected by direct input of raw sewage from the adjacent communities. This type of nutrient pollution allowed for think mats of algae or seaweed to take over and block all the available light to the seagrasses.

Here, seagrass restoration will provide important fisheries for snook (Centropomus undecimalis), seatrout, and shrimp while also improving water quality. One of Tampa’s approaches to restoration focuses on micropropagation, which is a way to clone plants by collecting the terminal buds, surface-sterilizing them, and then growing them in test tubes with a specific nutrient medium. Once scientists can maintain a rapidly multiplying plant stock in the lab, they will be able to use these plants as a source for additional micropropagation or subculturing (dividing the plant into smaller plantlets and growing plants from these pieces).

This will allow for less disturbance of Tampa’s remaining seagrass beds and allows for more production in less time. Other seagrass restoration efforts include planting and transplanting grasses and repairing scars from anchors or propellers using sediment tubes.

Changes in Seagrass (Image Credit: Smithsonian)

In 1991, when the Tampa Bay Estuary Program was founded, local, state, and federal government set out to clean up and restore seagrasses in Tampa bay. Their goal was to reach 1950 seagrass levels of or nearly double the cover. By 2015, their goal was met and surpassed with seagrass covering over 40,000 acres. The recovery process involved research, planning, enhancing the water quality, and restoring grasses. Work and proper management is still continuing to this day to protect the Bay.

Conclusion

All of these seagrass restoration efforts—and many more that aren’t covered here—serve to improve habitat and forage for a variety of animals, protect shorelines, and trap carbon, among other functions.  And, since seagrass exists around the world—and can form meadows large enough to be seen from space, protecting and restoring seagrass anywhere will provide benefits beyond local coastlines. Seagrass restoration is also a two-fold effort where both enhancing water quality and reintroducing the plants are necessary for success.

Keep an eye on our blog for more posts about seagrasses. If you want to learn more about the ecology of seagrasses—as well as their ecosystem services, check out this link.

 

 

Unlinked Reference:

Orth, Robert & R. Marion, Scott & Moore, Kenneth & J. Wilcox, David. (2010). Eelgrass (Zostera marina L.) in the Chesapeake Bay Region of Mid-Atlantic Coast of the USA: Challenges in Conservation and Restoration. Estuaries and Coasts. 33. 139-150. 10.1007/s12237-009-9234-0.

Leave a comment

Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) are Key to Salish Sea Ecosystem Health

By Liz Clift

Historically, conservation groups were responsible for saving the whales. The earliest of these groups was the American Cetacean Society, which was founded in 1967. More groups focused on whale conservation, education, and research formed soon after and include the Center for Whale Research which has been performing orca surveys since 1976[1]. The Center for Whale Research has  specifically focused on the study and conservation of the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW; Orcinus orca), which make the Salish Sea their home.

Image by NOAA

The SRKW made news earlier this year, when a grieving mother orca (J35 aka Tahlequah, b. 1998) carried her calf—which died half an hour after it was born—for 17 days. This mourning period is unprecedented among orcas (although a mourning period, in general, is fairly common). At the same time a young orca (J50 aka Scarlet, b. 2014 to a different mother in the J-pod) was, starving to death

The SRKW population totals only 74—a number that puts their population at risk. The death of J35/Tahlequah’s baby brought this into stark relief because no babies have been born—and survived—in any of the three pods that make up the SRKW in the three years. Stress factors attributed to the SRKW plight include: toxic pollutants, vessel noise, and lack of salmon (their primary food).

Drastic measures were taken by multiple agencies, scientists, and researchers from the US, Canada, and the Lummi Nation, who provided chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) for J50/Scarlet to eat. The team administered an antibiotic injection to J50/Scarlet and as of late August, she’d been spotted socializing with other members of her pod. As of this publication J50 is presumed dead.

SRKW are unique among orcas. They spend their life in the Salish Sea and eat primarily chinook, which has earned them the nickname “fish-eating orcas.” These whales were also heavily impacted by the marine mammal trade for marine park exhibition. Between 1965 and 1975, 13 SRKW died and 45 were delivered to marine parks around the world[2]. In addition to the hardships faced by whales in marine parks, whales were historically killed as part of the commercial whaling industry. Commercial whaling ended in 1986.

While this may (or may not) tug at your heart-strings, protecting whales means increasing the resiliency of marine ecosystems. “Whales,” as Asha de Vos states in her TED Talk Why You Should Care about Whale Poop, “are ecosystem engineers. They help maintain the stability and health of the oceans, and even provide services to human society.”

Whales help cycle nutrients from deeper in the ocean—which stimulates the growth of phytoplankton (which forms the base of all marine ecosystems), help move carbon from the surface of the water into the deeper ocean and provide a meal for up to 400 different species when they die. They’re also an apex predator, which helps keep their prey populations in check. Whales feed on a variety food ranging from plankton and krill to sharks—and it’s through this feeding (and their fecal plumes) that whales are able to sink carbon.

But even with the moratorium on commercial whale fishing, whale populations continue to remain well below their historic levels. To help our ocean ecosystems, we must continue to make steps toward helping whales. The specific steps needed to protect whales varies from species to species—and location to location—so from here, I’ll return my focus to the SRKW. The three major stressors impacting the SRKW are degraded habitats (including those of their prey species) and contaminants within those habitats, prey population, and disturbance from vessels.

Habitat Restoration & Contaminants

SRKW depend on chinook populations—but damming rivers and commercial fishing both impact chinook populations. The average adult SRKW needs to eat 18 – 25 adult chinook a day. Chinook can weigh up to 100 pounds, but average about 30 pounds as adults. And, in recent years, very large chinook are becoming rarer.

Dam removal projects, such as the Elwha dam removal, can help restore connectivity between the ocean and salmon spawning grounds—and improve overall forest and watershed health (which are linked to improved ocean health). The Columbia River and the Snake River have been identified key rivers to restore.

The waters of the Salish Sea—as well as adjacent upland areas—should also be the focus of a restoration effort with the goal of reducing the number of contaminants entering the food chain. Since the SRKW are apex predators, they consume contaminants consumed in all the lower trophic levels, through bioaccumulation. This may lead to lower rates of fertility, increased calf mortality, and other problems with the whales. In addition, these contaminants can impact populations of fish (known as forage fish) that chinook rely on, thus also reducing prey populations for the SRKW.

In addition, continuing efforts to restore seagrass in the Salish Sea is critical to improving salmon habitat. Seagrass provides habitat for juvenile fish of many species, including salmon and increases in seagrass meadows could lead to higher overall fish populations as well as Chinook populations.

Prey Populations

In addition to habitat restoration activities that can help restore overall salmon populations, as well as populations of forage fish, daily bag limits on chinook can help ensure more fish make it to their spawning grounds. Recently, some Washington restaurants made the decision to stop serving chinook for the foreseeable future, in order to support the SRKW population. Although not many restaurants are currently choosing this route, if enough do elect to stop serving chinook, it could begin to force changes on commercial fisherman.

It isn’t just human salmon catches that have raised concerns. Recently, discussions have begun anew on reducing the number of other ocean-dwelling predators that eat salmon, including harbor seals and sea lions. The thought behind this is that if these competing predators are killed, more salmon would be available for the whales. But predator-control efforts often don’t result as intended and are focused on a top-down management view (i.e. – fewer predators equals more prey instead of more prey equaling more food for predators—as thus allowing target predator populations to expand [in the case of the SRKW]).

Noise Pollution and Vessel Disturbance

Noise within the Salish Sea has been cited as another problem impacting the SRKW. The Salish Sea is a popular shipping channel, contains numerous port cities, and is traversed by ferries taking people from the mainland to the populated islands off the Washington coast, as well as whale watching and fishing boats. In 2008, regulations were put in place to require boaters to steer clear of orcas, which can help reduce noise and general disturbance from these boats. In addition, a voluntary “no-go” zone has been established at one of the SRKW forage and socialization sites.

All of these are helpful measures; however, noise from these boats can impair the orcas ability to hunt—as well as limit their ability to communicate with the rest of their pod to stay safe or find mates. In 2017, some ships participated in a voluntary slow down near one of the SRKW popular feeding grounds west of San Juan Island. The hope was that slower ships would decrease underwater noise—and hopefully have a positive impact on the whales. The preliminary analysis indicated that this experiment was a success, with underwater noise levels falling by nearly half.

In short, there’s no easy answer. But Washington state governor, Jay Inslee signed Executive Order 18-02 in March 2018 designating state agencies establish a Task Force and take other immediate action to benefit the SRKW, with a goal of developing longer term recommendations for SRKW recovery and sustainability. A full draft of the recommendations was released earlier this month and a final set of recommendations is due by November 2018. A second report, which will outline progress made, lessons learned, and unmet needs will be developed by October 1, 2019.

Steps recommended by the Task Force, along with steps already being taken by those who have dedicated their lives (or free time) to ecological restoration, improved fisheries, whale conservation, and marine science, among other fields will hopefully lead to healthier and more vibrant whale populations—as well as healthier marine ecosystems, overall.

 

[1] In this blog, I’ll use whale to refer to both baleen and toothed whales, including orcas. Orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family.

[2] Free Willy provides a fictionalized glance (Keiko was not an SRKW) into what happened to whales who were captured for marine parks (Freeing Willy provides a 12 minute long look into what happened to Keiko, the whale who played Willy, after the movie was filmed)—and the movie Blackfish highlights the living conditions of whales in these marine parks.

Leave a comment

Climate Change and Coastal Fish Assemblages

By David J. Yozzo, PhD

Climate change is impacting the health and biological integrity of marine and estuarine waters throughout the United States, and globally.  Rising average air and water temperatures, more frequent and extreme weather events, and steadily rising sea levels are changing baseline environmental conditions, and may alter the distributions and life history patterns of marine/estuarine organisms, including fish, invertebrates, sea birds, sea turtles and marine mammals. The magnitude of these ecological changes is expected to increase in the future, with important implications for strategic, effective management of marine and coastal resources, including sustainable fisheries and swimmable waters. One especially widespread (global) indicator of the effects of climate change (specifically increased sea surface temperatures) on marine resources is the increasing magnitude of change in the distribution of marine and estuarine fish species. (Roessig et al. 2004, Nye et al. 2009, Koenigstein et al. 2016). For example:

  • Along the southeastern Brazilian coast, up to 50 fish species have altered their distribution patterns in recent decades, with subtropical species contracting their range in the north, and tropical species expanding their ranges to the south. (Araujo et al. 2018);
  • A general shift northward in fish migration patterns has been documented in European estuaries, from Portugal to Scotland, from the mid-1970s to present (Nicolas et al. 2011);
  • Within the Tagus Estuary, along the Portuguese Atlantic coast, an increase in sea surface temperatures from 1978 to 2006 was correlated with greater abundance of sub-topical species and a decline in temperate fish species (Vinagre et al. 2009); and
  • Tropical fish species are increasing in abundance within temperate estuaries along the coast of South Africa, and future projected changes in the intensity and periodicity of precipitation and river flow is anticipated to strongly affect coastal fish populations in this region (James et al. 2013).

Large School of Fish (from Wikimedia Commons)

However, discerning climate-driven changes in marine fish distributions is challenging – the signal from climatic effects may be confounded by other factors such as forage availability, changes in inshore habitat structure and commercial overharvesting. In addition, marine fish populations can undergo cyclic patterns of abundance associated with multi-decadal natural changes in oceanic currents, such as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), and the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) (Crozier and Hutchings 2014). Even under nearly constant environmental conditions, fish distributions are not static. Fish populations occupy optimal habitats under low abundances, but also disperse into less optimal habitats at high abundances (Sinclair 1988, MacCall 1990). This means that species that are only rarely or periodically seen in temperate estuaries may be driven there in response to higher densities/competition for resources in more tropical waters and not necessarily because of favorable temperatures.

Many aquatic and marine species are sensitive to temperatures just a few degrees higher than those they are generally adapted to in nature (Kennedy et al. 2002). Oceanic warming simultaneously reduces the total amount of dissolved oxygen that can be held in water and increases demand for oxygen in cold blooded aquatic animals. Even modest increases in ocean temperatures may affect growth/metabolism, determine behavior and alter distribution patterns. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2014) has documented an average global temperature increase among land and ocean surfaces of 0.85 °C (1.53 °F) between 1880 and 2012. The upper ocean (0 to 75 m) has, on average, warmed by 0.11 °C (0.20 °F) every decade since the early 1970s.

Increased surface water temperature, along with changing patterns of precipitation and riverine hydrology may alter the timing and magnitude of phytoplankton production in estuaries, favoring production by species known to form harmful algal blooms (HABs) (Pyke et al. 2008)—such as the notorious “red tides” currently occupying a large expanse of the southwestern Florida coastline, resulting in massive fish kills, and respiratory distress to humans on beaches. Toxic effects of HABs vary; some forms may exhibit toxicity to fish and aquatic biota even at low cell concentrations, while others may be essentially non-toxic but present a nuisance through high biomass production – they interfere with grazing by zooplankton and alter patterns of nutrient supply and elemental recycling (Gobler et al. 2017).

Along the U.S. Atlantic coast, warm-temperate fish species fish assemblages may benefit from climate changes that are impacting cooler-water species, by expansion of their range to more northern estuaries. One of the most compelling examples of this phenomenon is Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. Nye et al. (2009) documented changes in the abundance and latitudinal distribution for several bottom-dwelling species, which were historically abundant and characteristic of the Narragansett Bay winter fish community, including red hake (Urophycis chuss), and silver hake (Merluccius bilinearis). Simultaneously, the abundance of warm water species that migrate into the Bay during summer such as butterfish (Peprilus triacanthus) and scup (Stenotomus chrysops) increased.  These changes coincided with a 90% decline in winter flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus) abundance in the Bay (Oviatt 2004, Jefferies et al. 2011). Winter flounder spawn in estuaries at temperatures ranging from 1 to 10 °C, with optimal spawning conditions at 2 to 5 °C. The evolution of cold water spawning in winter flounder is a mechanism for avoiding predation on newly emerged/metamorphosing larvae, principally by sand shrimp (Crangon septemspinosa). Winter flounder eggs hatch when sand shrimp have historically been absent or dormant in the Bay. However, as winter water temperatures increased, sand shrimp remained active and consumed flounder larvae (Taylor and Collie 2003). Warmer waters are also associated with greater egg mortality rates, reduced larval growth rates, and diminished larval condition (Keller and Klein-McPhee 2000). Winter flounder have historically exhibited long-term cyclical abundance patterns; however, abundance peaks have diminished in recent decades.

Further south, faunal shifts have also been documented for the Hudson-Raritan Estuary, including the extirpation of rainbow smelt (Osmerus mordax). Smelt abundance in Hudson River tributaries began to decline during the 1970s, and the last recorded specimen from the Hudson drainage was collected in 1998 (Waldman 2006). Another cold-water species, Atlantic tomcod (Microgadus tomcod), has also diminished in the lower Hudson River; a contributing factor may be the species’ naturally short lifespan at this extreme southern portion of their distributional range (most Hudson River tomcod only live one year compared to 3 to 4 years in the northern reaches of their range). It is expected that the Hudson River population will further diminish, and perhaps become extirpated entirely in the coming decades (Waldman 2014).

In contrast, gizzard shad (Dorosoma cepedianum), historically rare north of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, colonized the Hudson River during the 1970s and has become established as far north as the Merrimack River, Massachusetts.  Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus), another species most often associated with aquatic habitats (including large coastal river basins) to the south of the Hudson drainage, became increasingly abundant in the tidal Hudson river during the mid- to late-1990s (Daniels et al. 2005). Another recent faunal shift in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary is the increasing presence of species in the drum family (Sciaenidae), including Atlantic croaker (Micropogonias undulatus), spotted seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosus), and red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus). These species are most often associated with estuaries to the south such as Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay, and Albemarle-Pamlico Sound (Waldman 2014).

The coastal management community is paying close attention to changes in the distribution and abundance of marine and estuarine biota, as well as other climate-related impacts on coastal habitats, water quality, and recreation. Future climate projections and vulnerability may require re-assessing present-day federal, state, and local water quality (e.g., temperature and dissolved oxygen) standards for estuaries and coastal waters. For example, meeting existing thermal standards may represent an increasing challenge for electrical power generating facilities and other industries which discharge heated effluent into estuaries and coastal bays. Maintaining compliance will likely require the development of newer, more efficient technology and operational procedures, especially if regulators were to adopt more stringent (protective) criteria to protect coastal resources.

Power Plant (photo by Dr. Yozzo)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Estuary Program (NEP) has identified projected Increases in ocean surface temperature as a key vulnerability of its program to protect and restore the water quality and ecological integrity of estuaries of national significance. EPA’s Climate Ready Estuaries Program (https://www.epa.gov/cre) provides resources to support individual NEP component programs, and the coastal management community, in identifying climate vulnerabilities, developing adaptation measures/strategies and educating and engaging local stakeholders affected by climate change impacts in coastal areas throughout the U.S.

 

 

 

Literature Cited

Araujo, F.G., T.P. Teixeira, A.P.P. Guedes, M. C. C. de Azevedo and A.L.M. Pessanha. 2018. Shifts in the abundance and distribution of shallow water fish fauna on the southeastern Brazilian coast: a response to climate change. Hydrobiologia 814: 205-218.

Crozier, L.G. and J.A. Hutchings. 2014. Plastic and evolutionary responses to climate change in fish. Evolutionary Applications 7:68-87.

Daniels, R.A., K.E. Limburg, R.E. Schmidt, D.L. Strayer and R.C. Chambers. 2005. Changes in Fish Assemblages in the Tidal Hudson River, New York. American Fisheries Society Symposium 45:471–503.

Gobler, C. J., O.M. Doherty, T.K. Hattenrath-Lehmann, A.W. Griffith, Y. Kang and R.W. Litaker. 2017. Ocean warming since 1982 has expanded the niche of toxic algal blooms in the North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114: 4975-4980.

IPCC 2014. Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1132 pp.

James, N.C., L. van Niekerk, A.K. Whitfield, W.M. Potts, A. Gotz and A.W. Paterson. 2013. Effects of climate change on South African estuaries and associated fish species. Climate Research 57: 233–248.

Jeffries, H.P., A. Keller and S.Hale. 2011. Predicting Winter Flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus) Catches by Time Series Analysis. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 46:650-659.

Keller, A.A. and G. Klein-MacPhee. 2000. Impact of elevated temperature on the growth, survival, and trophic dynamics of winter flounder larvae: a mesocosm study. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 57: 2382-2392.

Koenigstein, S., F.C. Mark, S. Gofsling-Reisemann, H. Reuter and H. Poertner. 2016. Modelling climate change impacts on marine fish populations: process-based integration of ocean warming, acidification and other environmental drivers. Fish and Fisheries 17: 972–1004.

MacCall, A.D. 1990. Dynamic Geography of Marine Fish Populations. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Nicolas, D., A. Chaalali, J. Drouineau, J. Lobry, A. Uriarte, A. Borja and P. Boet. 2011. Impact of global warming on European tidal estuaries: some evidence of northward migration of estuarine fish species. Regional Environmental Change Journal 11:639–649.

Nye, J.A., J.S. Link, J.A. Hare and W.J. Overholtz. 2009. Changing spatial distribution of fish stocks in relation to climate and population size on the Northeast United States continental shelf. Marine Ecology Progress Series 393: 111-129.

Oviatt, C.A. 2004. The changing ecology of temperate coastal waters during a warming trend. Estuaries 27:895–904.

Pyke, C. R., R. G. Najjar, M. B. Adams, D. Breitburg, M. Kemp, C. Hershner, R. Howarth, M. Mulholland, M. Paolisso, D. Secor, K. Sellner, D. Wardrop, and R. Wood. 2008. Climate Change and the Chesapeake Bay: State-of-the-Science Review and Recommendations. A Report from the Chesapeake Bay Program Science and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC), Annapolis, MD. 59 pp.

Roessig, J.M., C. M. Woodley, J.J. Cech, Jr. and L.J. Hansen. 2004. Effects of Global Climate Change on Marine and Estuarine Fishes and Fisheries. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 14: 251–275.

Sinclair, M. 1988. Marine Populations: an Essay on Population Regulation and Speciation. University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA.

Taylor D.L. and J.S. Collie. 2003. Effect of temperature on the functional response and foraging behavior of the sand shrimp Crangon septemspinosa preying on juvenile winter flounder Pseudopleuronectes americanus. Marine Ecology Progress Series 263:217–234.

Vinagre, C., F.D. Santos, H.N. Cabral and M.J. Costa. 2009. Impact of climate and hydrology on juvenile fish recruitment towards estuarine nursery grounds in the context of climate change. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 85:479-486.

Waldman, J.R. 2006. The diadromous fish fauna of the Hudson River: life histories, conservation concerns, and research avenues. Chapter 13, pp. 171-188 in: J.S. Levinton and J.R. Waldman, (Eds.) the Hudson River Estuary. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Waldman, J. 2014. Climate change: a cool-eyed look at fishing in our warmer waters. The Fisherman, March 2014: 4-7.

Leave a comment

Upwells of Life and Oil

By Amber Jackson

If someone asks you to describe spring or summer, you might talk about new life, with pops of color flowering in open spaces and on trees, and a seemingly endless soundtrack of bird songs. The land, however, is not the only place where life is replenished in the spring and summer months. The ocean, with its seemingly unchanging surface, is also privy to the productivity of these seasons, especially off the coast of California, where the winds and deep underwater canyons provide the perfect conditions for upwelling. These coastal upwelling regions are relatively rare, accounting for less than 1% of the ocean surface, however, they are incredibly productive regions and contribute roughly 50% of the world’s fishing landings.

Life Beneath a Platform (in Gulf of Mexico)

But before we dive below the surface, imagine the feel of a breeze across your skin. Winds create a powerful and direct effect on oceans and are an important force in creating currents. From the global circulation of entire ocean systems to small eddies nearshore, winds move water and its resident animals and plants in complex and interesting patterns.

In the spring and summer months, warm winds from the north blow parallel to the coastline towards southern California. When this occurs, an intriguing and biologically important event takes places. Affected by the rotation of the earth, these winds move water at right angles to the direction the wind is blowing, a phenomenon known as the Coriolis effect. Along the California coastline, winds that blow from the north drive surface waters offshore. As surface waters are pushed offshore, water is drawn from below to replace them. The upward movement of this deep, colder water is called upwelling.

Upwelling brings cold, nutrient-rich waters to the surface, which encourages the growth of large blooms of phytoplankton. The phytoplankton blooms form the ultimate energy base for large animal populations higher in the food chain, such as tuna, seabass, and even large marine mammals, like whales. Although an impressive biological event, this is not the only major consequence of upwelling because upwelling also affects animal movement. Upwelling moves nearshore surface water offshore and takes with it whatever is floating in the water column, such as larval young produced by most marine fish and invertebrates. These larvae are tiny, ranging from microscopic to the size of a potato chip, and they spend the first few weeks or months of life adrift in the water column. Upwelling that moves surface water offshore can potentially move drifting larvae long distances away from their natural habitat, to shelters such as a nearby oil and gas platform.

This past spring, I experienced the plethora of larval young swarming around California’s offshore oil and gas platforms. Although my dive partners and I focused our cameras on the anemone-covered beams, and the sea lion curiously swimming by, when we revisited our footage after the dive we found that many of the photos had been “photobombed” by a larva that landed on the lens! Even, when we exited the water, we noticed that our wetsuits were crawling with life. It was quite a shock to see thousands of tiny white shrimp and other larvae contrasted against our black wetsuits.

Larva Photobombing!

Offshore oil and gas platforms don’t cause upwelling but act as a landing site for those larvae displaced by upwelling. In fact, the vertical platform structures may cause a slight shift in current direction that mixes the surrounding ocean nutrients. This mixing, although small, provides the distribution of an important foundational food source for other, larger fish that call offshore oil and gas platforms home—which contributes to these offshore platforms being an important fisheries resource that can be disrupted if the platform is completely removed after it is decommissioned.

Leave a comment

Plants with a Purpose

by Jared Huennekens

Horticulture Encounter, ‘Plants with a Purpose’, Miramar Landscape Center and Growing Grounds

When I stepped into the Village Nurseries’ Horticulture Encounter, ‘Plants with a Purpose,’ at the Miramar Landscape Center and Growing Grounds, my senses felt bombarded with incoming stimulus. Like an owl who’s spotted a nest of mice, my head flew in circles absorbing an array of aromatic and beautiful plants.

The Encounter, curated by Suzie Wiest, a one stop shop for all your horticulture questions, boasts a robust collection of plants highlighting relevant landscape topics within San Diego county: fire resistance, edible flowers, fillers, deer and rabbit tolerance, pollination, pairings, and plants that promote well-being (health, productivity, and happiness). The San Diego office of Great Ecology (and the office dogs!) had the pleasure to learn and engage in a productive dialogue concerning these plants and the plants we use in our own projects and homes. Wiest has over 20 years of experience of experience in wholesale industry and her ability to navigate landscaping issues, pollination, native versus non-native species, and water resiliency was impressive to say the least.

For Great Ecology, the fire resistance collection titled ‘Blaze Battlers’ poses particular relevance to upcoming projects such as trail routing at Camp Ramah because of the recent wildfires in Southern California. Wiest developed a phenomenal collection to address our wildfire outbreaks and increase the ecological health of impacted spaces.

This collection was of particular interest to us, not only for large landscaping projects conducted at Great Ecology, but the yards and canyons in our neighborhoods. For me, this collection could mean a difference in the way my friends and family experience wildfires. At  four years old, I was forced to evacuate my home because of wildfires in our area. Over the next 15 years, three major wildfires have occurred in my area burning down a few of my friends homes and favorite natural environments.

Horticulture Encounter

Many plants within the collection deserve mention on the merit of their beauty, aroma, and potential value as a sustainable solution (not specific to California). An exceptional succulent, the hybrid Aloe ‘Always Red,’ blooms masses of stark, blood-red blooms ten months of the year. Light frost, rain, and drought pose no threat for this South African native known as a magnet for droves of hummingbirds. The needle-like red and white bloom on the evergreen shrub Grevillea hybrid ‘Kings Celebration’ stood apart along with the Verbena lilacina ‘De La Mina,’ a fragrant purple bloom that attracts hosts of butterflies and bees. My personal favorite, the ‘Meerlo’ Lavender, displays an unassuming, untraditional cream, pale green color, but its aroma permeates my mind to this day, a week later.

Unfortunately, describing the beauty and smell of these plants is akin to a food critic describing a 12 course meal at Noma or google searching the Northern Lights. Nothing compares to the real thing.

Laurel with Her Pup, Scooter, at the Horticulture Encounter

The Great Ecology team enjoyed our visit and would like to thank Suzie Wiest along with the Village Nursery for allowing us to escape the routine of the  work day, spend time outside learning about plants that influence our ecological works, and letting us take home a few plants free of charge!

 

Leave a comment

Exploring Urban Green Space

by Jared Huennekens

High Line in New York, from Wikipedia (Image by Beyond My Ken)

Our environment plays an instrumental role in determining our ability to rise in social and economic class in America. Yet, not all environments are created equal.

By the year 2025, 65% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban environments. In America, people of color and low income Americans experience a disproportionate lack of green space within their communities–which have, in recent history, been urban environments. By instituting green space, urban environments may improve wellbeing of residents in disinvested communities, boost their economic performance, and address ecological concerns such as stormwater runoff and air quality.   

Green space development attempts to balance economic, ecological, and environmental justice themes into a comprehensive framework. When green space development occurs, property values increases. For example, the High Line, an old train line converted into a green walkway in New York City, attracts millions of visitors a year and thus, despite a deep recession, between 2003 and 2011 nearby property value increased by 103% and $2 billion was invested in property development. Although property and business owners benefited an immense amount from the High Line, green space development aims to help disinvested communities – people of color and low income Americans who suffer from a disproportionate lack of green space.  

Unfortunately, the High Line and other green space projects have acted as a catalyst for gentrification. As overall neighborhood conditions improve, rent increases for residents and they’re forced into communities without established support systems. Residents may find themselves separated from family members or friends, without community-based organizations like after school programs that provide additional education for children, with even less green space than before (re)development occured, and farther from work, health-care services, welfare offices, or healthful food. Without an emphasis on environmental justice–and input from the communities being impacted–green space development ignores the very people it aims to help. In addition, ecological considerations should motivate projects, instead of aesthetic prioritization. When beauty is prioritized, not only are there few ecological benefits such as improved water infiltration, stormwater capture, or localized cooling of air or water, residents are inhibited from recreational activities that can promote better physical health, improved community connections, and decreased stress levels.  

In a Comprehensive concept planning of urban greening based on ecological principles: a case study in Beijing China, Feng Li et al. establish a green space framework aimed at long-term, achievable sustainability on the regional, city, and neighborhood levels. The regional level constitutes large scale buffer zones, forests, and farmlands on the outskirts of urban areas. When approaching city and neighborhood green space development, disinvested community priorities need to inform what type of green space development occurs. A bottom up approach ensures “just enough green space” will arise to increase the psychological well-being of residents and create a healthier ecological environment in the area, yet not cause property values to increase so much as to force residents from their homes. Feng Li et al. advise on the city level to create a green network system of wedges, parks, and green corridors that  connects the regional and neighborhood levels, establishing migration pathways and habitats. For neighborhoods, utilization of vacant lots and greening sidewalks, medians, rooftops, and riversides has abundant potential for ecological and psychological health benefits. By breaking green space development into three categories, developers are better able to build connections between spaces, build a greater ecological vision for a region, and identify underdeveloped or unprotected areas.

When developers institute a bottom up approach, they’re placing the needs of the community before economic incentives by integrating the community into the development process. Developers need constant communication with community leaders before, during, and after green space implementation  to design a successful green space that address community needs. Planners need to ask questions such as what their priorities are for improving the community, what type of green space they prefer, and what their major concerns are for implementation. For people of color and low income Americans, their list of priorities may rank environmental injustices lower than other wicked problems such as poverty, homelessness, education, employment, affordable housing, and mass incarceration to name a few. Resources directed towards disinvested communities needs to address issues most important to disinvested communities. Often, more pressing matters should take priority over urban greening. By asking community members what type of green space they prefer and their major concerns, planners can institute green spaces that maximize the wellbeing of residents. For example, a green walkway and cafe gears towards the needs of middle and upper class and may lead to gentrification in an area while cleaning up a toxic creek decreases exposure to harmful materials without increasing property value an exponential amount. When developers deploy this principle of “just enough green space” to mitigate the effects of gentrification, projects may not be economically viable because people don’t flood the surrounding area leading to stagnanet property value and business incentives. These projects address environmental injustices and the needs of community members without adding tremendous economic value to the area.

Street trees, lawns/parks, urban forests, cultivated land, wetlands, lakes, seas, and streams are identified as the seven urban ecosystems by Per Bolund and Sven Hunhammar. Each ecosystem prioritizes different ecological services in urban areas: air filtering, microclimate regulation, noise reduction, rainwater drainage, sewage treatment, and recreational/cultural values.

Ecosystem Services by Ecosystem, per Bolund and Hunhammar (1999)

Although Bolund and Hunhammar identify those ecological services as most important, urban green space can provide other services such as food production, roof longevity, carbon sequestration, and soil erosion mitigation. Food production combines disinvested communities need for green space with another wicked problem: food insecurity and food deserts.

Ron Finley, who envisions a world where “cool kids know their nutrition and where communities embrace the act of growing, knowing and sharing,” promotes urban guerrilla gardening. Based in South Central Los Angeles, he found himself traveling great distances to find an apple without pesticides. Even though Beverly Hills is only a few miles away, South Central’s obesity rate is 10 times higher, which is correlated with a lack of access  to healthful, affordable food. The Ron Finley Project transforms yards and parkways into vegetable and fruit gardens. Finley argues Los Angeles should utilize their 26 sq. miles of vacant lots, the equivalent of 20 Central Parks, by allowing people to grow food for the community and for themselves. Through projects similar to Finleys, urban greening has the potential to address multiple issues  facing disinvested communities whether that’s food insecurity or their psychological and physical wellbeing.

Different types of green space facilitate different health benefits for nearby residents. Parks encourage physical activity. When children and adults have more access to parks and recreational facilities, more physical activity occurs and obesity rates decrease. Parks and other green spaces are shown to both aid social interactions (linked to improved physical and social-emotional health) and provide an area for residents to experience solitude. Increased exposure to green space rejuvenates residents, enhances contemplation, provides a sense of peace and tranquility, reduces stress, and builds a connection to nature. Vegetable and fruit gardens expose children and adults alike to learning about the food production process, expose them to foods they might not otherwise eat, increase opportunities to do physical activity in the garden, and foster community connections. Ron Finley exclaims in his TedTalk, “If kids grow kale, they eat kale.”

Although there are many positive benefits to urban green space, several negative aspects exist. For example, if developers use non-native vegetation when reviving the ecological health of an area, adverse effects may arise for the environment, including introduction of new weeds or pests. Whenever new ecological features are introduced, residents may suffer from unexpected noise disturbances, increased allergies, or bad odors from improperly managed stormwater conveyance or treatment systems. These annoyances are avoidable if an ecologist or knowledgeable landscape architect informs the development process. Further, there can be unintended economic impacts on residents. Unfortunately, the principle of “just enough green space” to discourage gentrification may mitigate growth, causing the projects to not be cost effective and therefore be rejected by city planners and other decision-makers. All of these factors need to be considered before developing green space in urban environments to ensure sustainable development that benefits communities.  

No resource goes to waste in a natural environment. Urban green spaces, whether community gardens, wetlands, or urban forests, have the potential to transform a wasteful, inefficient artificial environment into a natural environment. Up to 85% of air pollution can be filtered out in a park. Tree cover can reduce total energy costs for heating and cooling by $90 per dwelling per year. And, wetland restoration has potential to treat wastewater and stormwater significantly before it re-enters streams or sewers while increasing increasing biodiversity. Urban greening diminishes the negative effects of urbanization, improves the well-being of residents, and enhances the economic performance of an area. Through this development, people are more capable to create healthier communities and rise in socioeconomic class.

Leave a comment

All We Need is Some Vitamin Green

By Gali Laska

Your local city park is likely playing a vital role in your city’s health, and probably your own mental health too. Parks and other “green spaces” help keep cities cool, and as places of recreation, can help with health issues such as anxiety and depression. Just looking at greenery can make you feel better! But in increasingly crowded cities, it can be difficult to find room for parks and other green spaces. About 66% of the world’s population lives in a bustling loud city. But do they know that the lack of green may be the reason they feel less motivated, happy and fulfilled?

Central Park Rendering – Great Ecology

Most likely not, considering that when architects and city planners initially created the blue prints for their cities, they didn’t realize it either. Something has to change, and it is changing—toward greener cityscapes. Great Ecology works everyday with different municipalities and businesses that need assistance in making their properties more ecologically friendly. This includes developing better management plans for city parks, converting nonnative landscapes to native landscapes to improve resiliency, developing mitigation plans, helping coastal areas plan for sea-level rise, and creating stormwater wetlands.

And, we hardly work alone in this. The importance of greener cities is being researched on many fronts, from ecological to psychological impacts.

Over the past 25 years, psychologists have begun to understand the impact that the urban environment has on its citizens. Researcher Colin Ellard, who studies the psychological impact of design at the University of Waterloo in Canada, found that people are strongly affected by building façades. He performed an experiment where individuals were instructed to walk past specific buildings while wearing a bracelet that monitors skin physiological arousal. When the subjects would walk past a long, smoked glass frontage of a grocery store for example, arousal took a dive and they quickened their pace, as if to get out of that area. As soon as they entered a stretch of restaurants their arousal picked up and their pace slowed down. Each restaurant was surrounded by various plants and other eye-catching additions to make for a more arousing place.

What do the findings of this study tell us? Colin Ellard shared the following sentiment “Historically, the attitude toward the importance of green space has been basically to consider the presence of greenery as an aesthetic nicety, rather than as something of fundamental importance to people’s psychological state.” We need to start building with the thought of mental and physiological health in mind, not just feel good aesthetics. Having more plants can lower blood pressure, reduce muscle tension, improve attention, and reduce the feeling of fear and aggression.

Studies have shown that patients recovering from surgery in a room overlooking trees recovered faster and with less fewer complications than those overlooking a brick wall. Having a greener environment not only affects mental health, but also physical health. In children, ADD symptoms are relieved after contact with nature. Green spaces may enable people to think more clearly and cope more effectively with life’s stresses. Overall green is good. Whether it means reducing symptoms or increasing happiness, the need for green in the everyday life is a necessity. Perhaps this is linked to what E.O. Wilson coined as “biophilia.”

Biophilia is the positive effect that being around blue water, green trees and space give us.  It is also the love of earth and the environment. Biophilia suggests that humans seek connections with nature and other forms of life. It makes us healthier, more productive, and more generous.

That’s nice, of course, but how do we implement this in our cities?

Amanda Burden had a huge part of making New York into a greener city. Burden fought for the High Line and for making a public space for citizens to be able to enjoy the environment. Amanda said “Public space always need vigilant champions. Not only to claim them at the outsets of public use but to design them for the people that use them, then to maintain them to ensure that they are for everyone…Public spaces have power. It’s not just the number people using them, but the even greater amount of people that feel better about their city just knowing that they are there.”

You may ask: Does having a greener environment affect my social life? The answer is yes. When living the busy life, you might not have enough time to just be, and take in your surroundings, especially if your surroundings consist of cement and bustling streets. Even those of us who aren’t living in the city may feel stuck in harried lives filled with the need for speed and technology.

Most of us are constantly doing things that keep us busy—and as a result we don’t make  time to stop and look around. If a city (or any other local government) fosters inviting green spaces that make it easier to have social interactions outside, mental health would likely improve.

Dr. Andrew Lee, a public health researcher at the University of Sheffield in England says: “If it’s a social space where people meet together and chat and go on walks, that kind of social contact and interaction builds social networks, that’s probably where the real impact is coming from that gives people a sense of wellbeing.”

While city officials have work to do, we need to spend more time looking out at the world instead of looking down at our screens. We need to surround ourselves with human interaction and nature so that our mood and our lifestyle improve. Making public places more accessible—and encouraging people to use them and letting them know how their lives are affected without them—can improve the health and well-being of citizens.

 

Leave a comment

Learn (a bit more) Ecology, Improve Your Scrabble Game, Part 3

By Liz Clift

Last month, we posted Part 2 of this blog with 10 words from our field that might improve your Scrabble game (or at the very least, help you out when you’re staring at your rack wondering what you do with those letters. And in February, we posted Part 1.

Now, we offer Part 3. As with Parts 1 and 2, points are based on the Hasbro website’s Scrabble dictionary, which assumes only the face value of tiles.

Adit (5 points) –  an entrance, as to a mine

Related: adits

Arkosic (13 points) – sand that is rich in feldspar

Related: akrose

Ctenidia (11 points) – a comb-like anatomical structure, such as a gill

Eelier (6 points) – resembling an eel

Related: eely, eeliest

Feldspar (14 points) the single most abundant mineral group on earth

Meristem (12 points) – formative plant tissue containing undifferentiated cells

Related: meristems

Notochord (15 points) – a flexible rod that exists at some point during the life cycle of all vertebrates

Related: notochords

Parr (6 points) – a young salmon

Related: parrs

Peat (6 points) – a soil composed of partially decayed vegetative material

Related: peaty, peatier, peatiest

Sculpin (11 points) – a type of fish that may appear in both freshwater and marine environments

Related: sculpins

 

Fun fact: Eelier is one of my favorite words, and although I don’t get to use it in an ecological context all that often (okay, so once, exactly, while talking with a volunteer at a marine life center about eels and wolffish), it is handy for getting rid of a surplus of “e” tiles and almost guaranteeing that someone will challenge you.

Study up on these words—I’m sure we’ll have more coming at you in the future.

Leave a comment

Earth Day 2018: End Plastic Pollution

By Liz N. Clift

This year, Earth Day (April 22nd) falls on a Sunday. This year, Earth Day is focused on plastic pollution. Plastics take many different forms—ranging from drinking straws and Styrofoam to mattresses and medical supplies to cigarette filters and shopping bags, and many more items we use on a regular basis. Since plastic is such an ubiquitous part of life, it’s sometimes easy to forget that plastic was invented just over a century ago in 1907.

Since then, we’ve produced 9.1 billion tons (8.3 metric tons) of non-recycled plastic. 5.5 billion tons of that has accumulated in landfills and the natural environment—and it’s estimated this amount will more than double by the year 2050 if current trends continue. The primary culprit in the increased plastic production is the rise of plastic packaging—in 2015, packaging made up 42 percent of the non-fiber plastic produce and composed 54 percent of the plastics thrown away.

This is part of what’s behind the various campaigns to reduce plastic consumption—ranging from plastic shopping bag bans (which, at least in some areas, is linked to increased rate in Hepatitis A outbreaks since those experiencing homelessness used these plastic bags to dispose of waste), plastic straw bans, and other single-use plastic restrictions or bans. And, it’s not just municipalities or countries enacting these bans. The BBC, which helped highlight the problem of plastic pollution through Blue Earth II has plans to eliminate all single-use plastics from its operations by 2020.

These efforts are not for nothing. The World Economic Forum estimates that by the year 2050, plastics will outweigh fish in the oceans. If you’ve ever done a beach—or a roadside or stream or playground—clean-up, you probably noticed that most of the things you picked up were plastic or plastic-lined. You’ve likely heard about the great Pacific garbage patch (now three times the size of France or a bit more than twice the size of Texas)—but did you know that there are five massive patches of marine plastics?

Birds, and other animals, can be harmed by these plastics. Birds may peck at plastics or swallow them whole. If you’ve ever done a clean-up and found a plastic product that looks like it has bite-marks all over it, this is likely from a bird pecking at it. Whales have washed up with bellies full of plastic. Turtles can become tangled in plastic causing them to die or grow deformed.

In addition, researchers have begun to find plastic in our food supply as well—and while this field is still new, and understudied, it may be a cause for concern since plastics contain known human carcinogens. One study indicated that consumption of shellfish means that an “average” European shellfish eater consumes 6,400 microplastics (defined in this study as smaller than one millimeter) each year. Other studies have found microplastics—which may be less than 150 micrometers, or roughly the width of a human hair—in tap and bottled water, sea salt, honey, and beer. This means that not only do we have little idea about the health implications of consuming plastic—we also don’t know much about how much plastic we’re consuming or the impacts of plastic-pollution as it moves through various trophic levels (i.e. – that salmon you ate is a predatory fish and accumulated toxins from things it ate before it was captured, through a process known as bioaccumulation).

Not only are plastics in so many products and foods we use daily, plastics can also pose problems when they are “biodegradable.” Biodegradable plastics (as opposed to other biodegradable products made without petroleum) create “fragments” of plastic more quickly than other plastics. These fragments can quickly deteriorate to microplastics, which can be harder to identify and clean up—in some cases you’d need a microscope to even see them. In other words, “biodegradable” plastic products may simply be another type of greenwashing—so, whenever possible, do your research and figure out if the product you’re considering buying—or putting in your compost pile—is truly biodegradable or not. By being an informed consumer, you can make choices that help reduce the plastic stream.

So, what else do we do?

There are a number of things you can do to both help clean-up plastic and reduce your plastic consumption. Here are a few:

  • Volunteer for a clean-up effort at a park, playground, roadside, stream, or beach. Numerous organizations host regular clean-up efforts, including Surfrider, Trout Unlimited chapters, I Love a Clean Sand Diego, watershed groups, and stream/river/bay advocacy groups.
  • Reduce your use of single-use plastics.
    1. Invest in re-usable straws if you or someone you love regularly uses straws. If you don’t live in an area with a straw ban, refuse straws at restaurants when you order your drink.
    2. Always bring your travel mug for coffee / tea (or at least forgo the plastic lid and stirrer).
    3. Repurpose your pod-using coffee makers (or at least invest in re-usable pods). Use a French press or pour over for your small-batch coffee needs.
    4. Swap your plastic toothbrush for one made from bamboo.
    5. Buy in bulk—and bring your own container, when you can.
    6. Bring your own bag—and choose canvas or another fabric over one made out of a plastic or plastic derivative.
    7. Use an alternative to plastic wrap to cover dishes, wrap snacks, and more.
    8. Re-use and upcycle creatively – old yoga mats can become sandals, coasters, or soften sharp corners in a house with young children; soda bottles, yogurt containers, and butter tubs can all be re-used as planters or for children’s science experiments; and orange juice and milk jugs can have holes punched in the lid for a repurposed water can.
  • Prevent the creation of microplastics by properly disposing of plastic products and picking up trash.
    1. Do not toss plastic products in or near water ways, beaches, open spaces, or parking lots (where plastic can easily enter water ways during a wind or rain event).
    2. Pick up trash—especially plastics—wherever you see it, when possible. Carry an extra pair of gloves for this.
  • Throw dryer lint in the trash rather than washing it down the drain.
  • Purchase items made from natural fibers when possible.
  • Determine your plastic footprint.

All this week we’ll be posting more information about plastics on our social media—so be sure to check us out on Facebook and Twitter, if you don’t already follow us.

 

Leave a comment

Older Posts »