December 20, 2013
By: Lauren Alleman
“Coastal sustainability” is a phrase you’ll hear with some regularity in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
What does the phrase “coastal sustainability” mean to you? Do each of us define it in the same way? To an engineer, a sustainable coast might be one that includes hard structures like seawalls to control flooding and allow humans to live in low-lying areas. To an economist, a sustainable coast may be one has several industries such as tourism, fishing, shipping, and manufacturing rather than a single economy. To a coastal ecologist, a sustainable coastline has layers of wetlands, oyster reefs, and barrier islands that act in concert as storm energy dissipaters.
Wetlands have been adjusting to rising and falling sea levels for thousands of years. The shape of our coastline looked different during the last ice age, and will look different in 100 years. Wetlands are incredibly effective at absorbing flood waters and filtering pollutants, but they do have limitations to how much water they can handle.
Wetlands are programmed to adjust their productivity to match the hydrology of a site through an elegant feedback loop.
When sea-level rise happens at a slow enough rate, plants can adjust by increasing productivity and adding roots to the soil, where they are slow to decompose in the aerobic environment, and eventually become peat. This effectively raises the elevation of the plants to their optimal level. Sediments suspended in the water help sustain the elevation and stimulate growth when they are deposited on the surface of the marsh or swamp. However, when sea level rise happens too quickly or there is not enough sediment deposition, the plants become submerged and drown.
Current estimates from NASA estimate a global sea-level rise rate of 3.16 mm/year. In New York, this will rise sea-levels a total of 2.3 feet by 2100. The flooding that would occur with an increase in sea level would impact much of Long Island, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens. Check out this interactive map which shows what coastal cities would look like if if there is no coastal protection.
The few remaining wetlands that do protect New York City, such as Jamaica Bay, will have a hard time keeping up with this rate of sea-level rise. Those that attempt to migrate upslope will encounter hard edges, piers, seawalls, and structures that will prevent them from settling into a new equilibrium. This is referred to as “coastal squeeze”, the process where natural migration of habitats is prevented by human infrastructure.
In recognition of the anticipated impacts of this sea-level rise on New York City there is healthy debate around what should be done to protect the coastline. The U.S. Department of the Interior allocated $162 million to 45 projects along the Atlantic Coast, from dam removal to beach restoration. Additionally, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force has initiated a competition called Rebuild by Design that challenges engineers, landscape architects, and ecologists to envision sustainable solutions to areas impacted by Hurricane Sandy. The winning design concepts will be eligible for funding by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2014.
Planning for coastal sustainability means forecasting the areas that will be new coastline and planning our roads, cities, and parks around them.
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December 13, 2013
By: George Patten
There are an estimated 41 million acres of wetlands, including both saltwater and freshwater, in coastal watersheds of the US. These wetlands are an important environmental resource that provides critical ecological services to society, such as shoreline stabilization and protection against impacts from sea-level rise. However, according to a recent report issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) coastal wetlands have declined substantially in recent years – threatening the important ecological services they provide.
The social and ecological importance of wetlands in many areas of the coastal United States is becoming increasingly recognized, particularly in the wake of severe coastal storms and environmental contamination.
The report by the USFWS studied wetland trends from 2004 – 2009 in the Atlantic Coast, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, and the Pacific coast regions. The results of the study indicate that wetlands in coastal watersheds in the US had declined by over 360,000 acres, which is roughly a 25% increase over the previous study period (1998 – 2004).
Losses to wetlands have significant implications for environmental systems and to society. Coastal wetlands provide habitat and support an array of aquatic and terrestrial life, as well as provide ecological services to society. These may be less direct service provisions, such as nutrient cycling and as reservoirs of biodiversity, or more socially-pertinent services such as support for fishing industries or for coastal area tourism, a $6.6 trillion industry. Furthermore, coastal communities recognize the critical role of wetlands for shoreline protection and as a buffer to sea-level rise. Although the report doesn’t delve deeply into the issue of sea level rise, studies indicate that marshes cannot compensate if seas rise too quickly and may become submerged and die back.
The report does highlight the importance of wetland reestablishment or restoration projects, which help to offset wetland declines. These projects can be pivotal in supporting fragile wetlands systems and ecosystem services, as well as help to meet the federal policy of preventing impacts to wetlands impacts from development or other human activities, known as the “no net loss” rule.
Successful wetland restoration projects enhance ecological function and can also add economic and cultural value by increasing tourism and recreation opportunities as well as attracting local businesses particularly in urban areas. Over the past decade, wetland restoration and enhancement has been a significant focus in New York City, transforming degraded urban waterfront sites into thriving natural eco-systems. As a part of a multidisciplinary team, Great Ecology has helped enhance a number of waterfront sites including the Brooklyn Bridge Park, East River Waterfront Eco-Park, and Randall’s Island. The City continues to support restoration projects as demonstrated by the community board approval of Matthews Nielsen’s master plan for the Pier 42 revitalization.
Although wetland losses have been significant and rates of decline are increasing in the coastal U.S, the potential for new restoration projects and greater awareness from this report could help mitigate future loss of our wetlands.
T.E. Dahl and S.M. Stedman. 2013. Status and trends of wetlands in the coastal watersheds of the Conterminous United States 2004 to 2009. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service. 46 p.
Fears, Darryl. Study says U.S. can’t keep up with loss of ecologically-sensitive wetlands. The Washington Post. December 8, 2013. Accessed Online.
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December 7, 2013
As 2013 wraps up, we’re sharing some of our favorite posts. Each week in December we’ll reveal the next group of our favorites.
An Age Defined By Human Impact?
At night, city lights become the prominent feature on earth and we can see a new physical quality of the earth—it glows. On a planet defined by human impact restoration efforts must fit the context especially to create habitats that thrive in the urban environment.
Snowmobiling in Yellowstone
Yellowstone is a vulnerable ecosystem that is actively shaped and managed by humans. A controversial debate, without a simple solution.
Restoring the Ohio River with Lessons from the Hudson
We are beginning to see rivers across the country from a new perspective—one that understands the value of riparian ecology, but the Ohio River seems left in the dark. As the source of drinking water for 3 million people, restoration is essential and using lessons from the Hudson, restoration can integrate the currently conflicting urban and natural environments.
Society is exceeding what our planet can handle in terms of waste, pollution, and consumption. It’s going to take innovation at the intersection of disciplines and radical solutions like Styrofoam made out of mushroom materials and ocean roombas, to figure out a way to live sustainably. And Generation Y is leading the way.
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November 23, 2013
By: Carl Carlson
Green roofs have been growing in popularity in the last few years with the recent push towards low impact design. They help mitigate environmental impacts of the built environment by offering storm water sequestering, reduced urban heat island effect, and providing superior insulation for buildings. The idea of putting plants on roofs is nothing new, but up until now the vast majority of green roofs have used non-native plants that are able to survive in the tough conditions of urban roof tops. These roofs can be very effective, however they can also be difficult to establish and maintain properly. Once they are established they usually don’t offer significant habitat opportunities due to the types of plants that are installed. The staff and students at my Alma Mater SUNY, ESF got creative and designed a green roof that thrives instead of survives and fits within the ecological context of northern New York State.
The Landscape Architecture firm Andropogon and the Landscape Architecture and Biology departments of SUNY ESF, collaborated to design and build a highly functioning green roof by recreating habitats that could be found naturally in the northern New York ecosystems.
After studying solar, wind and precipitation patterns they determined that there were two very rare ecosystem typologies that would likely survive well on their Syracuse roof top, Great Lake Dune and Alvar. The Great Lake Dune ecosystem is a very unusual habitat that exists along a 17 mile stretch of Lake Ontario shoreline. The very dry and windy environment of the dunes mirrors the conditions found on top of the building. East of the Great Lake dunes towards Watertown, NY is the Alvar ecosystem. Alvar communities only exist in a few concentrated areas on northern New York. They are high stress plant systems that have very shallow soils on top of limestone substrate. The soil and growing conditions are remarkably similar to what would be found on a typical green roof in Syracuse. The conditions of these ecosystems seemed perfect for adaptation.
As with most construction projects, significant challenges arose after the project started, especially asthis was the first time anyone had created Great Lake Dunes or Alvar ecosystems on a building’s roof. The plants were almost impossible to source and many are protected species in New York State. Using seeds collected from a private land owner students experimented with germination and propagation in their research greenhouses. Using test plots on their roofs, the students were able to study the best combination of soil depth, plant spacing and plant variety.
After a year of research the green roof was installed on ESF’s brand new Gateway building. Styrofoam was used to create “topography”, real limestone flagging was brought in to help mimic the habitat and soil was carefully placed to proper depth. The plants were only watered during the first few weeks after installation to help with establishment. Now, the roof relies solely on rainwater for irrigation. Overall the natural community green roof is a great success. The roof will continue to be studied and monitored as an ongoing research project. Students are continuing to collect data on insects, birds, and the spread of the seed bank on the roof. Future goals are to set up systems to study the stormwater infiltration and runoff rate from the roof. Although the habitats selected for the Gateway green roof are not appropriate for all regions of the United States, their systems can be used to find other native habitats that will provide the same benefits.
The Gateway green roof project was highlighted during the recent American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) annual conference as one of the latest trends and techniques in landscape design. It demonstrates the significant value of integrating science and design, the core practice of Great Ecology. Using scientific processes to influence and enhance design goals is crucial to the long term sustainability and success of projects.
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November 15, 2013
By: Jill McGrady, Ph. D.
Scientists have long known the characteristic ‘smell of the ocean’ comes from a compound called demethylsulphoniopropionate (DMSP), produced by the symbiotic algae living inside corals. However, an article published in Nature last month revealed that the coral animal itself also produces DMSP1. Furthermore, this research indicates that corals may help regulate the Earth’s temperatures – a role that is significantly threatened as coral cover continues to decline worldwide.
Coral reefs account for less than 1% of the entire ocean floor and are in decline because of rising sea temperatures, increased ocean acidity, and powerful storms.
As the “rainforests of the ocean”, they provide food and shelter to a multitude of marine organisms, harboring more than 25% of all marine life. Now there is another reason coral reefs deserve their nickname. Like terrestrial rainforests, corals may be involved in a regulatory cycle that helps regulate local climates.
Coral production of DMSP increases in response to stress caused by rising water temperatures, basically acting as anti-oxidants for cellular protection. DMSP also serve as cloud-condensation nuclei (CCN) for the formation of water droplets in the atmosphere, aiding in cloud formation. As we know, cloud production is an important climate regulator through reflection of the sun’s heat back into space, keeping Earth’s temperatures down. However, if coral numbers continue to decline, less DMSP would be produced, potentially reducing cloud formation and resulting in less heat being reflected back to space. As a result, fewer clouds mean warmer sea surface temperatures and more stressful conditions for coral colonies.
These findings are the first evidence that coral itself may play a role in regulating the local climate in which it lives. Declining coral cover worldwide, and the concomitant reduction in DMSP from coral reefs could further disrupt climate regulation and increase the speed at which coral communities disappear.
This discovery about the regulatory nature of coral reefs shouldn’t come as a surprise. It has long been known that forests play an important role in regulating the earth’s temperatures by storing large quantities of carbon, the main constituent of CO2 – the most significant greenhouse gas. This temperature regulation process has a profound effect on local as well as global climates.
Innovative Solution: Designer corals
Trees and corals (or the lack of them) are key problems that must be tackled if we are to minimize the effects of climate change. Researchers around the world are working on various strategies for saving coral reefs, which are particularly sensitive to the damaging effects of pollution, global warming, and sedimentation. One research team is taking a new approach to the problem. Researchers from the University of Hawaii and the Australian Institute for Marine Science are assuming that climate change is here to stay and preparing to make corals resistant to its effects.
Drawing on genetic selection practices used in agriculture, aquaculture, and forestry, the researchers will pre-condition corals to withstand the stress of future warmer scenarios. Their innovative solution will develop a process of ‘human-assisted evolution’ to build a stock of “super corals” which are resilient to the higher temperatures and acidic conditions created by climate change. These super corals will be used to repopulate dead reef areas and return these highly valued ecosystems to their former grandeur, restoring their potential role in climate regulation.
These “designer corals” could represent a new approach to reduce the adverse effects of climate change. Both our terrestrial and aquatic rainforests play important roles in temperature control and both are threatened by climate change. It is essential that we continue to develop new and innovative approaches to protect and restore our valuable natural resources.
1Jean-Baptiste Raina, Dianne M. Tapiolas, Sylvain Forêt, Adrian Lutz, David Abrego, Janja Ceh, François O. Seneca, Peta L. Clode, David G. Bourne, Bette L. Willis, Cherie A. Motti. DMSP biosynthesis by an animal and its role in coral thermal stress response. Nature, 2013; DOI: 10.1038/nature12677
2 Aoun, Gabriela. Ocean Acidification Has A New Enemy: Super Corals. The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 21 Oct. 2013.
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November 9, 2013
By: Tyler Nicoll
With an upcoming trip to Israel, I felt it would be quite fitting to blog about an environmental treasure found there, the Dead Sea. One of the most unique features on earth, it is the lowest point on earth at an elevation of approximately 400 meters below sea level and is the world’s saltiest large body of water, with a salinity of just under 300 ppt in the top layer of water and 332 ppt in the lower layer. For the sake of comparison, the Atlantic Ocean, the saltiest ocean in the world, has a salinity of approximately 35 ppt.
The lake’s extreme salinity excludes almost all life except some forms of bacteria. While there is a lack of wildlife in the Dead Sea itself, the surrounding region has unique flora and fauna, including endangered species such as the Nubian Ibex, Arabian Leopard and the indigenous Dead Sea Sparrow.
In addition, the water and mud contain over 35 elements including, chlorine, calcium, potassium, magnesium, bromine, sulfur and iodine. The mineral rich mud is said to have many beneficial and therapeutic health properties – a tradition I can’t wait to try and not to mention it’s just a great excuse to play in the mud.
As a result of impacts from water and mineral extraction as well as increasing development pressure, the wildlife and wetlands in the surrounding area and the Dead Sea itself are in peril.
The Dead Sea water levels are dropping at a rate of more than one meter per year. According to the latest available data on July 1, it stood at 427.13 meters (about 1,400 feet) below sea level, nearly 27 meters lower than in 1977. This is primarily due to increasingly intensive withdrawal for irrigation from the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers, which feed directly into the Dead Sea. The second major cause is the direct withdrawal of water from the Dead Sea used for the manufacture of fertilizer by the Potash Industry in Jordan and Israel. In addition, regional development plans including the construction of new hotels and expansion of industry will further deplete the natural resources. Without drastic changes in consumption rates, a comprehensive development plan, and a feasible solution to the problems this region is already facing, the Dead Sea is on course to dry out by 2050.
The water usage in the region has numerous detrimental consequences. Factories are facing higher pumping costs to extract potash, salt and magnesium out of the Dead Sea as water levels fall. Pumping water directly out of the rivers for irrigation creates a hydraulic gradient which causes an accelerated outflow of freshwater from surrounding underground water aquifers back into the rivers. This will rapidly deplete the aquifers which are an important source of freshwater.
The receding water levels cause buried salt to dry out and also decrease hydrostatic pressure which is needed to maintain a stable shoreline. With this new landscape, when rain water infiltrates the ground, the buried salt dissolves creating soft underground areas. Combine this with the decreased hydrostatic pressure along the shoreline, and there is an unstable situation in which inevitable sinkholes form. The area is becoming treacherous as roads and structures are becoming severely damaged due to the formation of sinkholes and mud. In addition, the receding shoreline has created erosional terraces, which make it difficult and increasingly unsafe for tourists to access the water for traditional or medicinal purposes.
Is there a solution to the sinking sea in an area of rising demand?
A joint Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian plan consisting of a Red-Dead Sea pipeline, a 180 Kilometer long underground pipeline that will carry 2 billion cubic meters of sea water per year from the Red Sea through Jordan to the Dead Sea.
The proposed pipeline is designed so that the downward flow of water goes through a hydroelectric plant that would power a desalination plant. The brine waste-product from the desalination plant would be discharged to the already saline Dead Sea. This plan will also provide a new supply of freshwater to the water stressed countries, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.
The plan is seemingly holistic with multiple positive effects but is not without potential adverse environmental impacts. The World Bank held hearings earlier in 2013 to gather public comments on this plan.
The environmental and social assessment, led by the Environmental Resources Management, an international consultancy, indicates that “all potential major environmental and social impacts can be mitigated to acceptable levels” — with one major caveat. If more than 400 million m3 of sea water is added to the Dead Sea, the body of water could be afflicted with algal blooms or the formation of gypsum crystals. However, these effects from the addition of such a large volume of water are difficult to predict. Furthermore, much more than 400 million m3 of water is needed to stabilize or raise the water level of the Dead Sea.
So we are between a rock and a hard place, or in this case a dry and a potentially even drier place. Is it better to do nothing for fear of the unknown effects, or forge ahead with the best plan possible and hope that solutions can be devised as new environmental complications arise? In August of this year, the Jordanian Prime Minister chose the latter of the two options by deciding to press on with the Red-Dead Pipeline project, although some environmental groups continue to reject the project.
The peril of the Dead Sea provides important lessons. We need to increase the sustainability of our society by looking for comprehensive, globally accepted solutions and most importantly realize we live on a planet with finite resources. The Dead Sea is a one of a kind environmental feature and it is in danger of being lost forever, or at least drastically changed. I hope that many generations after me will continue to have the chance to visit such an interesting natural feature.
Dead Sea. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Dead Sea. FoEME (Friends of the Earth Middle East).
Glausiusz, Josie. Environmental Concerns Reach Fever Pitch over Plan to Link Red Sea to Dead Sea. Nature.com. Nature Publishing Group, 27 Feb. 2013.
Liven, Ido. Dead Sea, Red Sea Plan Raises Environmental Hackles. Rappler.
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October 31, 2013
By: Joshua Eldridge
This just in….An All-Points Bulletin for a missing species has just been released.
The northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis) has been disappearing from its native habitat throughout North America at an alarming rate since 2006. An estimated 5.5 million cave-hibernating bats have been killed and some populations in the Northeast have been reduced by 99% (USFWS 2013). Because of the startling number and rate of population decline, on October 2, 2013, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed that the northern long-eared bat be included for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The Missing Species
Distinguished by its long ears, the northern long-eared bat is a medium-sized bat that can be found in 39 states including much of the eastern and north central United States and all Canadian provinces. Like many other bats, the northern long-eared bat is most active during the spring, summer, and fall and hibernates during the winter in caves and mines. It feeds on a diverse array of insects and has a relatively long lifespan (5-15 years). However, northern long-eared bats only produce one offspring per year.
The suspected culprit is a fungus called Geomyces destructans (a.k.a. white-nose syndrome). Named after the physical display of a white fungus around the muzzle, ears, and wing membranes of affected bats, it was first observed outside of Albany, New York in the winter of 2006/2007 (USFWS 2011a). On-going research indicates that the fungus was introduced to North America from Europe, potentially transported on equipment from a contaminated site (Sleeman 2011). This cold-loving fungus thrives in low temperatures (40-55° F) and high levels of humidity (>90%) (USFWS 2011a). Previously unknown in North America, the fungus is considered a consistent pathogen as the spores of the fungus remain viable for long periods of time on the surfaces of caves and mines. While it appears to affect different bats species differently, white-nose syndrome always attacks bats during hibernation in the winter and in most cases mortality in the infected population reaches 95% within 2 to 3 years of initial detection. Since the winter of 2007/2008, the fungus has spread to 22 states and five Canadian provinces, killing over 5 million bats.
Humans have played a key role in the spread of this disease. Caves and mines provide the ideal environment for the fungus, which can be spread by humans who enter the sites and come into contact with the fungal spores (Sleeman 2011). While human-assisted transmission does not appear to be frequent, there have been suspicious jumps longer than distances that bats would travel and the jump sites are frequently visited by cavers (USFWS 2011b).
Why It Matters
Bats add a significant value to the agricultural industry – approximately $23 billion (Boyles et al 2011). White-nose syndrome poses a significant threat as nearly half of the 47 species of bats found in North America could be susceptible. Bats consume large amounts of insects and certain bat species can capture from 500 to 1,000 mosquitoes in one hour resulting in an average of 1.3 million insects a year (Boyles et al 2011). In addition to pest control, bats pollinate more than 360 different plant species in the United States and are highly effective at dispersing seeds (Fleming 2011). These benefits to society are often not observed by humans because bats provide their service under the cover of darkness. However, we may soon feel the effect in increased food costs and potentially higher exposures to pesticides as farmers will have to increase pesticide use to counterbalance the decrease in bats as natural insect controls. Furthermore, the projected recovery of bat populations is slow because of the low reproduction rate.
What Can Be Done
As the main accomplice, we need to be aware of and respect cave and mine closures. Although many people enjoy exploring caves, a number of them have been closed to prevent exposure and spread of this deadly disease. If you enter, or are around caves or mines, clothing must be properly decontaminated before and after you leave the cave. Washing your caving clothes will help keep the disease from spreading to uncontaminated sites (Sleeman 2011). Finally, if you notice bats flying in daylight during the winter months or clustered near the entrances of caves, alert your local USFWS office.
The spread and impact of this disease is unprecedented for bats in North America. Action plans to protect bats and help the recovery of the affected populations are underway, but we can help keep these creatures of the night from vanishing.
Boyles, J.G., P.M. Cryan, G.F. McCracken, and T.H. Kunz. 2011. Economic importance of bats in agriculture. Science. Vol 332. No. 6025. Pp. 41-42
Fleming, J. 2011. Why we should care about bats: Devastating impact white-nose syndrome is having on one of nature’s best controllers. U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Fisheries,
Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs Committee on Natural Resources. Washington, D.C. June 24, 2011.
Sleeman, J. 2011. Universal precautions for the management of bat white-nose syndrome (WNS). USGS National Wildlife Health Center. Madison, WI.
USFWS. 2011a. A National Plan for Assisting States, Federal Agencies, and Tribes in Managing White-Nose Syndrome in Bats. USDI. Washington, D.C.
USFWS. 2011b. Human Spread of White-Nose Syndrome: Why Decontamination is Important. USDI. Washington, D.C. New York Field Office.
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October 25, 2013
By: Sarah Stevens
With damages exceeding $68 billion from one storm (Sandy) we need cities which are more resilient and sustainable. And as storm frequency and sea levels are predicted to increase we have to rethink and redesign our cities for the future, today. The City of Copenhagen is leading the way, with an innovative master plan to address various climate change challenges, especially increased storm frequency.
Currently, the coastal city’s infrastructure can handle stormwater, however as storm frequency is predicted to increase by 30% the city and infrastructure will be pushed beyond capacity, causing flooding and other damages. Copenhagen’s largest storm to date in 2011 caused approximately $11 million in damages. To plan for the future, an interdisciplinary team created the Climate Change Adaption Plan which redesigns the city to be more sustainable and resilient by recalibrating the city’s perspective on stormwater as a resource instead of a problem.
The comprehensive plan, rethinks the city as a whole from the sewer system to public spaces. Most importantly, it uses excess water as a vital resource and innovative design solutions to reduce construction saving the city money. The city will use blue and green infrastructure to guide the water to places where it will have the least impact. Creating more green spaces, such as green roofs and public parks, will help absorb excess water. In addition, water boulevards in streets combined with underground pipes will steer the water out of the city, without impacting the sewers. Furthermore, this combination of blue and green infrastructure will help keep urban temperatures down, combating the heat island effect as the urban area continues to grow.
Planners believe the climate adaption plan allows the city to increase the quality of life for its residents by choosing solutions that improve the physical environment, are aesthetically pleasing, and add local jobs.
The Copenhagen Climate Adaptation Plan has gained worldwide attention and recently won one of the five prestigious Index Awards. Already one of the leading cities for sustainability and green design, Copenhagen’s plan creates a reusable framework for cities worldwide.
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October 19, 2013
By: Jeffrey Harlan, LEED AP
It was a strange sound to hear walking along Solana Beach’s Cedros Avenue just before midnight.
I had just left the club where Steve Earle and The Dukes left my ears buzzing, but instead of a quiet hum in the night air, the loud, constant rush of water streaming down the street’s gutters accompanied my walk. Two hours of rain (an unseasonable surprise) moved quickly by my feet and disappeared into the darkened mouths of the city’s stormdrains.
We often see stormwater as it wipes across our windshields, sheets down roadways, or pools at the bottom of a hillside. But we rarely hear it. Listening to the rainwater reminded me how important it is to design our communities to conserve this valuable resource, especially in Southern California.
In urban areas, where the amount of developed land and supporting infrastructure (including streets and highways, sidewalks, and parking lots) significantly outnumbers preserved open space, the impact of stormwater is particularly acute. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, urban stormwater runoff deposits almost 10 trillion gallons of polluted water into our country’s coasts and waterways annually. Not surprisingly, the US Environmental Protection Agency reported in its last Clean Watersheds Needs Survey (2008) that local governments need to invest more than $42 billion over the next twenty years to address the nation’s aging stormwater infrastructure (and nearly $64 billion to address combined stormwater-sewer system overflows).
Traditional city systems, gray infrastructure, treat stormwater like a nuisance to be abated by the quickest means necessary. Curbs, gutters, stormdrains, and pipes were designed to take this resource—which collects trash, bacteria, oil and grease, metals, and other pollutants—away from our homes, buildings, parks, and streets and conveyed to the nearest body of water. We built complex and costly systems to flush, literally, one of our most precious assets down the nearest drain.
More recently, however, communities have recognized the value of incorporating ecological design principles into a wide range of development projects, resulting in a new approach called green infrastructure. Rather than engineer a solution to pipe water and move it away quickly, we now focus on using vegetation and designing natural processes that capture, detain, and filter stormwater so that it can be harvested, recycled, or conserved to recharge our groundwater supplies.
Whether it’s retrofitting parking lot, renovating a streetscape, or creating a civic park space, planners and designers employ a range of site-specific, low-impact development strategies to better manage stormwater. Bioswales, permeable paving, bioretention ponds, constructed wetlands, greenroofs, and rain gardens are but a few examples of design strategies that have become mainstream. Creating the right solution, of course, depends on an individual site’s condition, climate, soils, and design program.
I’m not the only one to hear the siren’s call of stormwater. This month, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel announced the city will invest $50 million in water infrastructure spending over the next five years to improve stormwater management. Chicagoans stand to reap the community health benefits offered by green infrastructure, such as reducing flood risk and greenhouse gases, improving air quality and property aesthetics, providing habitat for urban wildlife, and mitigating the urban heat island effect.
So during the next rainstorm, take a closer look at the path your stormwater follows in your neighborhood. Better yet, listen carefully and maybe you’ll hear the quiet melody of nature soaking up and storing water.
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October 12, 2013
By: Sarah Stevens
A new study published this week, The projected timing of climate departure from recent variability, predicts when the climates will change for cities across the world and it’s a lot sooner than you may think.
The study, led by Camilo Mora, developed a new metric, climate departure – the year when current climate change will result in brand new environments. Climate departure is the date when “the coldest year of the future will be warmer than the hottest year in the past.” So, according to the study, our recent summer heat wave would be only a warm winter spell…and this change is within our lifetimes.
The average date for global climate departure: 2047.
How is the climate departure determined?
Mora and his team combined predictions from the 39 models and created a timetable of global climate departures. They used temperatures from 1860 to 2005 as the historical bounds and determined the climate departure date when future temperatures exceeded the historical bounds.
Interestingly the study produced two predictions, one optimistic and one…not so optimistic. The first prediction is an immediate, significant reduction in greenhouse gases resulting in a later global climate departure, 2069. In the second prediction, “business as usual” as Mora refers to it, emissions increase regardless “of international climate agreements or strong domestic policies in the developed world.” It is the second prediction which provides the year 2047 for global climate departure however, even with dramatic reductions in emissions, the study only prolongs the climate departure by 22 years.
So which regions are at the highest risk?
The study found that tropical regions, not the poles, will experience climate departure first, approximately 15 years before the rest of the world – New Guinea in 2020, Jamaica in 2023, and Equatorial Guinea in 2024. Remember, climate departure refers to the break in historical temperatures, and the tropics have little variability, so the historical bounds are not as dramatic as those of higher latitudes. The earlier higher temperatures of the tropics pose significant environmental, economic, and population threats.
The tropics are home to approximately 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Tropical species are used to a very stable climate, unlike those living at the poles who are already adapted to large variability in the climate and as a result better suited to deal with climate change. (Mora) Economically, the region only generates around 20% of global economic output. As a result, these countries have the least ability to respond to the changes including effective conservation strategies. Furthermore, 40% of the world’s population lives in the tropics and will be affected by changes they may not be able to mitigate.
The study demonstrates that climate change is not a question of if, but a question of when. As they stand now, our cities are ill equipped to withstand dramatically increased temperatures as well as associated environmental impacts. We need to prepare out cities to be more resilient to a changing climate.
Read the full study published by Nature, The projected timing of climate departure from recent variability.
Mora, Camilo; Frazier, Abby G.; Longman, Ryan J.; Dacks, Rachel S.; Walton, Maya M.; Tong, Eric J.; Sanchez, Joseph J.; Kaiser, Lauren R.; Stender, Yuko O.; Anderson, James M.; Ambrosino, Christine M.; Fernandez-Silva, Iria; Giuseffi, Louise M.; Giambelluca, Thomas W. “The projected timing of climate departure from recent variability.” Nature Publishing Group, a Division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. All Rights Reserved, 10 Oct. 2013.
Jervey, Ben. “New Study Predicts Year Your City’s Climate Will Change.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 09 Oct. 2013.
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