June 21, 2018
by Jared Huennekens
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.
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
June 14, 2018
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?
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
April 19, 2018
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
Arkosic (13 points) – sand that is rich in feldspar
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
Notochord (15 points) – a flexible rod that exists at some point during the life cycle of all vertebrates
Parr (6 points) – a young salmon
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
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
April 18, 2018
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:
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
April 5, 2018
By Liz N. Clift
In ecology, edge effect refers to changes in a population or community along the boundary of a habitat. A clear example of this is when an agricultural field meets a forest. Perhaps a less well-defined example is a fragmented habitat (such as those that occur because of selective logging or in areas impacted by human development (e.g. urban greenways or small areas of clear-cutting for ranching). Edge effect impacts of fragmented habitats may extend further into target habitat.
Think about it like this:
Assume, for the image above, that each example of a specific target habitat (green) has an area of 100m2 and that the edge effect for the target habitat is 10m. Habitat A has a relatively large area that has the least amount of impact due to edge effect (represented by the black outline). The interior of the habitat is undisturbed.
Habitat B, is discontinuous due to a meandering divided highway. This creates an edge effect (in black) that extends 10 meters on either side of the highway (represented by the dashed white lines) leaving the habitat fragmented and vulnerable to edge effects at each curve in the road as well as at the perimeter of the target habitat.
Habitat C is encroached upon (or is encroaching upon) a different habitat type (yellow)). Habitat C demonstrates the “peninsula” effect in varying degrees, which means that certain areas are fully impacted by the edge effect and other areas are less impacted. This habitat has greatest amount edge exposure.
Edges are sometimes thought to create areas of higher biodiversity, which can be true for soft edges, like ecotones. Ecotones (e.g. – the border between the High Plains and the Southern Rocky Mountains that makes up portions of Colorado’s Front Range or the banks of a pond) represent a gentler transition between two environments. Soft edges can also be designed, and in the ecological restoration field these are often referred to as “buffer zones.” In soft edges, the edge effect can become the transitional zone, which allows an intermixing of species that can move readily between both environments. For example, frogs begin their life in water and, as adults, split their time between land and water. A new hole in the canopy of a forest, because of selective logging or a tree falling because of natural causes, creates opportunities for other species to take hold.
Some birds of prey use the edge agricultural fields, parks, and roads as a fruitful hunting ground (not to mention the raptors that have adapted to urban living!). Not only is there no where for their prey to hide, they may also benefit from killed or injured animals that didn’t make it across unscathed.
Of course, ecology has no easy answers. The above examples can also lead to colonization of a habitat by an invasive or noxious species (e.g. – bull frogs along a pond edge, in areas where bull frogs are not native; English ivy in American forests). And in fact, edges can be detrimental for certain species.
The extent to which a species is impacted by edge effect is sometimes referred to its sensitivity to habitat edges. Sensitive species may be dependent on the state of interior conditions for their survival. In the example of a new hole in the forest canopy, shade-loving plants that survived due to the protection of that tree may fail to thrive (sub-lethal implications) or die back (which could provide the perfect place for an invasive species to take hold!). Trees along the (abrupt)edge of an agricultural field will experience more wind pressure, which could lead to die-back or stunted growth, even if they are established
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer shares an example of how a fragmented habitat (which is divided by a highway) impacts a yellow-spotted salamander population:
“[Ambystoma maculata] come from under logs and across streams all pointed in the same direction: the [vernal] pool where they were born. Their route is circuitous because they don’t have the ability to climb over obstacles. They follow along the edges of any log or rock until it ends and they are free to go forward, on to the pond. The natal pond may be as much as half a mile away from their wintering spot, and yet they locate it unerringly…Though many other ponds and vernal pools lie along the route, they will not stop until they arrive at the birthplace…”
These migrating salamanders, Kimmerer goes on to describe, may face no greater danger than cars. Unlike frogs and other more ambulatory creatures that must cross a road during an annual migration, salamanders move slowly. They have no way to get out of the way of cars. This is where program’s like Burlington, Ontario’s (closing the road during salamander migration season) and amphibian passage ways (like this one in New Jersey) can help reduce edge effect—even if only temporarily.
Unfortunately, corridors are not always the straightforward answer—because these areas too, are impacted by edges. This should be planned for during the design and construction of such corridors, to whatever degree possible. Monitoring for invasive species or antagonist species (like predators) should also be part of corridor planning and management, since these species may also benefit from corridors connecting habitat areas.
Edge effects can differ by target habitat or population—and so it’s critical to clearly identify which specie(s) are of concern and their habitat requirements (including, potentially, abiotic conditions such as soil temperature or wind pressure). It may also be useful to identify corollary information such as:
Keeping edges in mind can help assess the impact of certain projects and help the public understand the benefits of a particular restoration project. Understanding edge effect can also guide management plans, which supports the long-term success of a restoration project or species conservation plan.
Featured image by: US Fish and Wildlife Service Mountain PrairieLeave a comment
March 22, 2018
By Liz Clift
Last month, we posted Part 1 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.
Now, we offer you Part 2. As with Part 1, points are based on the Hasbro website’s Scrabble dictionary, which assumes only the face value of tiles.
Apical (10 points) – in plants, refers to roots or shoot tips; it’s also a sound made with the tip of the tongue
Byssal (11 points) – relating to the super strong threads mollusks use to adhere to a surface
Also: byssus (but that seems like a waste of a lot of perfectly good S tiles)
Calyptra (15 points) – hood-shaped organ of flowers (according to Hasbro, anyway), but remember it as the gear that protects moss spores!
Gabbro (11 points) – a type of dark, igneous rock
Also: gabbroic (for 15 points)
Hypha (17 points) – the threadlike component of fungi
Octopod (12 points) – basically a very generic octopus; any order of an 8-armed mollusk
Operculum (15 points) – the little trap door on some snails (especially marine and aquatic snails)
Radula (7 points) – a rough, tongue-like organ on mollusks (you can remember this by thinking about the radiantly toothy smiles of snails)
Also: radulas, radulae
Seiche (11 points) – oscillation of an enclosed or partially enclosed body of water, often due to changes in atmospheric pressure
Thalweg (14 points) – a line defining the lowest points along the length of a riverbed or valley
Fun fact: I’ve actually managed to use thalweg in a game of Scrabble—and got that sweet 50 point bonus at the same time! Additional fun fact? The featured image is a hydra–which is another good word for using up some bizarre tiles you might have on your board!
Study up on these 10 words—we’ll have 10 more coming at you soon!
Leave a comment
March 9, 2018
By Liz Clift
It’s not always easy to know what’s happening in a landscape—or why it’s happening. This can be especially true if you’re not familiar with the native (or invasive) plants in your area, with natural local variations in topography, or with the presence/absence of certain animal species seasonally and generationally (among many other variables), although all of these factors offer clues.
However, the landscape frequently offers many clues as to its overall health—and potentially what has happened in its history, especially if you become familiar with plant species (which, unlike animals, can’t run away, swim away, or fly off when they hear you approaching).
One recent weekend, I was hiking through a park located in Washington state and noticed an abundance of blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) and English ivy (Hedera helix), both of which are listed as noxious weeds by the state of Washington. The rest of the park, by comparison, had very few noxious weeds present, and was instead dominated in the understory layer by sword fern (Polystichum munitum), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), thimbleberry (Rubus parvilorus), and assorted mosses, lichens, and liverworts.
This localized invasion of noxious species was a curious thing—and indicative of some sort of ecosystem disturbance. Later that evening, I began to research the history of that park. As it turns out, the park does have a history of ecological disturbance—namely a pipeline spill that resulted in a fire that tore down the creek channel for more than a mile (and at a fairly wide swath). Although this happened nearly two decades ago, the landscape is still recovering, and it shows. In fact, the sources I was reading specifically called out the invasion of blackberry as one of the lasting consequences of the fire.
Ecological disturbances, like fire, can make it easier for opportunistic species (such as blackberries, yellow star thistle [Centaurea solsitialis], or cheatgrass [Bromus tectorum]) to move into an area previously dominated by native plants. However, it’s important to note that the disturbance doesn’t have to be dramatic, such as a fire or scouring flood. These species will also take advantage of lands that have been grazed, worn down through unauthorized uses, or developed, where they are often able to outcompete native plants.
You can learn more about the noxious weeds in your area by looking at your state’s noxious weed control board, using the US Department of Agriculture noxious weed list for your state, or through your local department of agriculture. By becoming familiar with these species (especially those listed as Class B or Class C), you’ll find that you start to notice more of them in the landscapes and ecosystems around you. At times, this may even feel disappointing (I’ve definitely said, “that plant is pretty, it must be invasive”) as you begin to recognize how many plants you enjoy greeting are, in fact, not so healthy for your local ecosystem.
If that’s how you find yourself feeling about a particular plant, remember that all of these plants also have a place where they are native and that, in many cases, the reason that we have local problems with invasive plants is precisely because they’re beautiful—and so someone planted them ornamentally, only to have the plants go rogue. Instead, we should focus on the fact that plants in their native ecosystems aren’t typically invasive; their numbers are kept in check by a variety of environmental factors, including predators, disease, and rainfall.
Learning to read the landscape—as well as understand how to tell when things in a particular landscape seem generally (even if not specifically) off can yield clues to the health of the landscape, the history of the landscape, and perhaps even ecological reclamation or restoration work that has taken place.Leave a comment
March 1, 2018
by Liz Clift
I was in middle school when Titanic hit movie theaters. The RMS Titanic, which sank in April 1912, rests more than two miles below the surface of the water, off the coast of Newfoundland. And while the footage in the early scenes of the movie showing a submerged ship turned artificial reef are largely recreated, it provides a general idea of what the shipwreck reef actually looks like (note, the linked video is also clearly manipulated with ghostly figures to tug those heartstrings).
But as an aspiring marine biologist getting my feet wet (very literally) with freshwater ecology, I loved the idea of other animals reclaiming our wreckage—an idea which was gaining traction in restoration projects.
In the pond near my parents’ house, a dumped Christmas tree was an ideal spot to catch minnows (or sometimes young bluegill) and baby turtles. Although the Christmas tree in that pond was simply dumped—probably because a neighbor missed the cutoff for the city collecting Christmas trees—using people’s Christmas trees to create artificial reefs is something that fisheries program managers actually do. Beginning in 1992, at Lake Havasu in Western Arizona, a large habitat recovery program began to use discarded Christmas trees to create habitat* for young fish. Over the course of a decade, 875 acres of artificial reefs were created from cinderblocks, PVC pipe, concrete sewer pipe, and Christmas trees.
And the results were astounding. When the project started, divers monitoring these artificial reefs could “count all the fish at any spot on their fingers.” But, as time passed, these artificial reefs developed into sustaining habitat, a place for fish to spawn, breed, and grow to maturity. And sure enough, as the fish populations grew, so did the artificial reefs popularity as a local fishing destination.
Since Christmas trees take five or six years to decompose under water, the project is replenished with approximately 500 new trees every year—and more places are picking up the program. These Christmas tree reefs create fish nurseries, which are places for young fish to hide from larger fish and other predators. The algae, which grows on the decomposing trees, helps feed aquatic insects which feed a variety of fish and other aquatic animals, and can help oxygenate the water. (Too much algae can result in eutrophication, but that’s another blog post.)
Of course, Christmas trees are far from the only way to create freshwater reefs.
In Lake Michigan, there have been efforts to displace invasive species like alewives, round gobies, and the rusty crayfish through the creation of artificial reefs filled with cobble. This cobble is the appropriate size for native fishes, such as lake herring and lake trout (which have both maintained remnant populations for more than half a century). The folks leading this effort hope that by displacing the invasive populations of alewives (whose bodies contain an enzyme that makes their predators unable to reproduce) and developing a better understanding of how round goby and rusty crayfish interact with the reef through additional study, native fish populations will be able to rebound.
This, in itself, is an argument for making sure that restoration and conservation projects always include ecologists and biologists.
Similar projects are underway in other parts of the Great Lakes. And, those of us in the field of ecological restoration should take note. My guess is that if you’ve never lived in the Midwest, you probably don’t think about the Great Lakes all that often—but if you’re interested in artificial reefs, perhaps you should. Not only are these projects scaling up, they’re also providing plenty of research about what works and what doesn’t in these particular freshwater environments.
The Great Lakes offer a huge study area. Collectively, they have more than 95,000 square miles of surface water, enclosed in almost 8,000 miles of shoreline. And, they house an estimated 5,000 shipwrecks (which, we know in marine environments, can be the basis for impressive artificial reefs).
Many of the Great Lakes shipwrecks are accessible to Open Water-certified recreational divers and snorkelers (and even, in some cases, swimmers). The filtering capacities of invasive mollusks, like the zebra mussel and quagga have improved underwater visibility—which means that these wrecks are easier to see and photograph. Several just off the coast of Chicago, like the 200-foot long ferry, Straits of Mackinac and the shipwrecks near the Morgan Shoal, are being colonized by underwater life.
Although in the Great Lakes you’re not going to find the bright colors (or warm waters!) that would characterize a Caribbean shipwreck or decommissioned, near-shore oil platform in warm waters, that doesn’t mean these and other artificial reefs aren’t dive-worthy or of ecological and economic importance.
Regardless of whether an artificial reef occurs in a freshwater or marine environment, they add definition to the environment—textures, patterns, crevices, footholds, where before there was little or none. Life takes hold on these structures (often quite literally in the case of mollusks and some cnidarians), and life begets more life.
Providing more consideration to the potential benefits of artificial reefs is becoming increasingly important as incidents of coral bleaching, dredging, coastal run-off and proliferation of invasive species continues to occur.
At Great Ecology, we help design freshwater systems that encourage increased biodiversity and structural diversity, and have worked to improve the ecological function of a variety of freshwater ecosystems ranging from mountains streams, to lakes, to the mouths of rivers.
Through our partnership with Blue Latitudes, we also specialize in helping clients plan for end-of-life for marine structures, including oil and gas platforms. Check out our Platform Decommissioning services page to learn more about this work.
*Christmas trees have also been used to help create dunes—and while I like the story of Lake Havasu, the largest freshwater habitat recovery program of its time, similar programs were also starting up elsewhere.
Leave a comment
February 23, 2018
By Liz Clift
A few weeks ago, someone asked me to play a game of Scrabble, which is one of my favorite games. We settled down to play and I knew I had a bunch of unusual ecology words up my sleeve—if only the right letters would appear on my rack and on the board.
Ecology, like other specialized fields, has a lot of words you probably don’t hear often (or ever) if you’re not doing this work. The following ten words are just a sampling of some of words pertaining to ecology and ecological design that you might throw into your next game (and which are a length you could, feasibly, lay or connect onto the board without extraordinarily good fortune). Points are based on the Hasbro website’s Scrabble dictionary, which assumes only the face value of tiles.
Chitin (11 points) – the main component of insect shells
Chiton (11 points) – a type of ocean mollusk with eight plates, that outwardly resemble roly-polies (they aren’t related); a tunic worn in ancient Greece
Ligule (7 points) – a strap-shaped plant part
Limpet (10 points) – a type of mollusk
Petiole (9 points) – the stalk of a leaf
Protonema (13 points) – the cells that form in the earliest phase of life for mosses and liverworts
Senesce (9 points) – to deteriorate or wither
Also: senesces and senesced
Setae (5 points) – a coarse, stiff hair, like that on an insect
Spikelet (14 points) – a type of flower cluster
Stipule (9 points) – an appendage at the base of a leaf in certain plants
Study up on these 10 words—we’ll have 10 more coming at you soon!
Leave a comment
February 20, 2018
By Amber Jackson
The oil and gas industries, in the U.S. and abroad, have entered a new era of outer continental shelf activity. As the fixed structures of offshore drilling’s past slowly creep towards the end of their useful production lifetimes, the accelerating decommissioning market continues to evolve. From the Gulf of Mexico to areas off the coasts of Africa, the North Sea, and Malaysia, the decommissioning market is adapting to serve a range of depths and structures.
Traditionally, the decommissioning plan has defaulted to complete removal. In this process, the well is sealed, the drilling rig and all associated infrastructure are removed, and the seabed is ostensibly restored to its original condition. However, some of these platforms with their lattice-work superstructures of pilings, columns, beam, and pipes, have been quietly serving another purpose, below the surface, offering an artificial rocky substrate for a variety of economically and ecologically valuable fishes, including threatened species (i.e. rock fish in California and red snapper in the Gulf), invertebrates, and marine mammals.
Offshore platforms provide a refuge for vulnerable marine species, which is becoming especially relevant because nearshore habitats are more vulnerable to degradation through anthropogenic run-off, pollution, and overfishing.
Decommissioning these facilities into artificial reefs through the Rigs to Reefs (R2R) program presents an alternative to complete removal that may meet or surpass the level of environmental protection mandate by regulators. In fact, a recent study found that in California, the oil platforms “are among the most productive marine fish habitats globally.”
But not every platform is a suitable candidate for the R2R program. That’s when Great Ecology steps in. Using data collected both in the field and through scientific research, Great Ecology develops cost-effective and sustainable decommissioning strategies. We examine all options, from complete removal, to reef, to partial removal, to re-use to determine the strategy that would best serve to optimize your decommissioning project.
We understand that decommissioning planning is often an after-thought to the rush of oil exploration and the operation of offshore facilities. However, strategic decommissioning planning can result in major benefits: cost savings; streamlined permitting; regulatory compliance; environmental enhancement; and stakeholder engagement.
Discover a way to reduce costs by optimizing your decommissioning strategy and contact us today.
Amber Jackson is an ecologist at Great Ecology and co-founder of Blue Latitudes.Leave a comment