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Urban versus rural nature

14 Sep

Maybe it’s in the zeitgeist: this week’s New York magazine waxes poetic about ecology in  The Concrete Jungle. Not what I was expecting when the city has been teeming with fashionistas and urban wildlife on the pop edge of culture. But, there it is in the first photo: Staten Island turkeys!

In our heat island, enveloped by concrete and lush parks engineered to look natural, the nuance here goes beyond rabid coyotes and bears in the suburbs.

An ecological feedback loop is a natural extension of the idea that nature exists in the city, but it requires a change of thinking that is equally profound: There is no difference between urban nature and rural nature. It is all one ecology, adjusting and cross-pollinating in the face of change. This can be disturbing, since local stresses threaten to disrupt wildlife hundreds of miles away. But it is, in fact, a hopeful idea. If New York City’s ecology has taught us anything, it is that nature likes intrusions—counts on them, even. Change makes for vibrancy. We are not just a city of bedbugs and rats; we are a wellspring for regional vitality.

But it’s a challenging metaphor for the City and our global community. As urban dwellers, we’re both part of the problem and part of the solution.

Scientists believe genetic diversity is as important to species survival as sheer numbers. It has a lot to do with the mix, in other words, and if it is characteristic of human nature to look at things metaphorically, then it turns out that the city serves the same function for nature as it does for human beings. It is an intersection, a place where outsiders arrive to set up camp anew, to commingle, to move on, carrying influences and encouraging dynamism elsewhere. Like cities in the seventies, our global ecosystem is in trouble; we are flirting with environmental bankruptcy. If we are to save nature—which is to say, save ourselves—then we need to embrace that which is around us.

Over Labor Day weekend, I got to spend time on a friend’s farm in western Colorado– a wonderful experience that left me more than a wee-bit jealous of wide-open rural spaces. I love my city, too, and I’m glad to appreciate it as nature, too.

UPDATE Sept 30th: This post got a nice shout-out in New York magazine’s comments.

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Making sense of 200,000 gallons per day

11 May

View of the Gulf Oil Slick from the Terra satellite Credit: NASA/Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen, using data provided courtesy of the University of Wisconsin’s Space Science and Engineering Center MODIS Direct Broadcast system.

How much? It’s one of those basic journalism questions, but when it comes to many science stories, it can be a tough one to answer in meaningful way. In most of my writing and reporting, I’m trying to find analogies to describe features smaller than the eye can see. But on the macroscale– like with the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico– comparisons are equally challenging.

This weekend, NPR’s On The Media looked at how reporters have characterized the size, scope, and political implications of this environmental disaster. Here’s a piece of the size discussion:

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jackie Savitz, a senior scientist with Oceana, an international ocean conservation association, says that describing the scale of the leak in geographical terms, or how it looks from outer space, gives the public an incomplete understanding of the spill’s true dimension.

JACKIE SAVITZ: It may paint a picture of an area on the surface of the ocean that’s the size of Delaware, to the exclusion of all that area down below the surface, where lots of fish and other marine animals live who are also being exposed to the contamination. It might be more telling to think of it in terms of volume, like how many Olympic-sized pools is that or how many stadiums would that be, or what lake might that be equivalent to.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does the fact that can see it from space actually convey anything meaningful?

JACKIE SAVITZ: Most people don’t really have a sense of how far away space is, and even when you say it I’m not really sure how far away you’re talking about. Is it a satellite that’s circling the Earth or are you seeing it from the moon, right?

Yet another reminder to think carefully about analogies to thread that needle between cliche and useful comparison.

Listen to the whole segment here.

The specter of ocean garbage

9 Sep

On a spring afternoon walk earlier this year, I obsessively took pictures of New York harbor garbage. A buildup of plastic bottles, crates, driftwood and furniture fragments littered the rocks along our coastal walkway– a strange jumble of junk.

May 2009 photos of NY harbor garbage in Brooklyn

May 2009 photos of NY harbor garbage in Brooklyn

But my local trash doesn’t come close to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch– our global oceanic trash dump– where swirling currents collect garbage and have created an oceanic desert. I can’t even fathom a clump of refuse the size of Texas.

How did we get to this point? A few plastic bottles here? A few cheap plastic items there? In August, researchers took a closer look at the Patch to see our garbage’s impact on the ocean environment.

First off, they found even more garbage than they expected, according to the Associated Press.

“It’s pretty shocking — it’s unusual to find exactly what you’re looking for,” said Miriam Goldstein, who led fellow researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at U.C. San Diego on the three-week voyage.

Plastics in the ocean are (at least) a three-pronged problem from what I can tell:

  • Wildlife get tangled in the junk or choke on it.
  • The plastics break down into smaller pieces that interfere with the life cycles of smaller organisms.
  • Then there’s the unknown of how much these plastics break down into their essential chemicals. As organisms are living in this water, how much do these chemicals build up?

I’m haunted by that floating Texas in the Pacific, the largest “landfill” in the world. Want to be even more depressed? There might be another one at least as large and just as nasty in the Southern Hemisphere.

P.S. Thanks, Suzanne, for the story tip.

Exploding Color

4 Jul
NYC fireworks July 4, 2008 by Barry Yanowitz via flickr

NYC fireworks July 4, 2008 by Barry Yanowitz via flickr

Yesterday, we plotted how best to see the NYC fireworks display tonight with the least amount of inconvenience. In other years, we’ve had friends with roof access and good proximity. And a few years ago, we lived in an apartment in New Jersey that sat on a hill facing Manhattan with a bay window vantage point of much of New York Harbor.

That view was my favorite feature of that apartment, which we paid for in sweat equity– a climb up narrow stairs to the third floor. Any time of the year, but particularly on summer evenings, we might hear pops and crackles and head to the window to see where the colored bursts might appear next. Though we usually had no idea of the reason, the sky exploded in color just for us.

As a chemist I know that the palette of those bursts is all about burning different metal ions to produce fountains of shimmering color. And there’s a downside: some of the chemicals– such as perchlorates– in traditional fireworks can cause health and environmental problems. While researchers are working on greener solutions, conventional pyrotechnics are still cheaper.

Even if it means fewer displays, I hope more fireworks shows will “go green”– and red and blue and purple. Even if fireworks occur less often, the “added color value” would be worth it.

Molecule of the Week: Carbon dioxide (part 1 of many)

28 Jun
Carbon dioxide (via Wikipedia by JacekFH) carbon atom in the middle flanked by two oxygen atoms

Carbon dioxide (via Wikipedia by JacekFH) carbon atom in the middle flanked by two oxygen atoms

This small molecule is too big for a single post, so I’ll probably revisit it at different points in this blog. It’s the most oxidized form of carbon, often thought of as waste product: both of fossil fuel burning and of the energy reactions that fuel life. But it’s also an essential component of photosynthesis to generate food and natural fuel sources.

But today I’m thinking about one of the many environmental impacts of rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide: the acidification of the oceans.

Changing the acidity of the oceans alters a delicate balance. Science suggests that this growing acidity may be dissolving carbonate in corals and releasing metal ions that would normally be wrapped up in carbonate minerals. (See this article in Chemical & Engineering News about the disrupted chemical balance).

The ocean has always been a giant sink for carbon dioxide, water absorbs it forming carbonic acid. Cooler water absorbs more carbon dioxide, but higher concentrations in the atmosphere are the primary force in pushing more of the gas to dissolve into the water, turning the ocean more seltzer-like (in terms of pH, not fizz).

coral reef in Red Sea, copyright iStockphoto/wierdeau

coral reef in Red Sea, copyright iStockphoto/wierdeau

The effects, however, are not always what one might expect. In looking at fish earbones, called otoliths, researchers reported in Science that higher carbon dioxide levels actually made these structures larger rather than smaller. (Cornelia Dean of the New York Times wrote about it on Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog).

Otoliths are the tree rings of fish life-cycles. What does this mean for the fish? Not necessarily good– changes in ear bones could mangle their navigations skills.

Of course all of this science sits around the edge of the passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) by the House of Representatives this week. There will be plenty of opportunities to talk more about carbon dioxide. . . . stay tuned.

Molecule of the Week: Water

6 Jun
Rippling water drop, copyright iStockphoto.com/deliormanli

Rippling water drop, copyright iStockphoto.com/deliormanli

It’s been a rainy week in New York City, and my office next to our front porch and my container garden has me thinking about that ubiquitous wetness. It’s been soaking my plants, and after a quick errand on Friday afternoon, its dampness lurked for hours on the hem of my jeans.

It’s easy to take the wonder of water for granted because it’s everywhere, but its physical properties are anything but ordinary. Almost all solids of any substance are more dense than their liquid counterparts. But if ice were more dense than liquid water, ice cubes wouldn’t float in cool drinks on a summer day. Ice wouldn’t freeze at the tops of cold lakes (no ice skating), and polar ice caps would be more like suboceanic ice cushions. If water were a normal liquid, the Earth would look really weird.

Water molecule, via Wikipedia/Booyabazooka

Water molecule, via Wikipedia/Booyabazooka

The molecule itself is bent, lending hexagonal elegance to snowflakes. In a liquid the molecules glom to each other, not quite like superglue. But that watched pot (that seemingly never boils) needs lots of energy to release water into steam.

For those of us who’ve built molecules for a living, water is often our enemy, something that can get in the way and keep the right components from getting together. But Nature incorporates water beautifully, using the molecule as a structural tool and as a critical player in the reactions that make life work. Forced to take some tricks from Nature in my own graduate work (my highly charged molecules wouldn’t dissolve in any other solvent), working in water was like learning a related foreign language. I learned some basic grammar and vocabulary, but fluency of water chemistry is a challenge beyond the synthetic lab. By Nature’s standards, I was, perhaps, third rate.

I missed the AMNH’s exhibit on Water when it was in NYC (but I think it’s still touring, check your local science museum). As climates change, ice melts, sea levels rise, more intense storms brew in the oceans, water sits at the heart of the environmental challenge. According to the World Health Organization, as of 2002, nearly 20 percent of the world’s population didn’t have access to healthy, sanitized drinking water supplies.

Three atoms hooked together connect to the inner workings of life, health, the environment and public policy.

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Whales in NY Harbor: Update

4 Jun
Blue Whale, copyright iStockphoto.com/roclwyr

Blue Whale, copyright iStockphoto.com/roclwyr

In my post last week about blue whales singing in NY Harbor, I mentioned that I had an email out to the Cornell Bioacoustics Research Program to find out the current status of the NY harbor listening project. I heard back yesterday from Connie Bruce at Cornell:

The current status is that we have terminated data collection efforts as of April of this year. The data we collected is approximately 50% analyzed and yielding ground breaking scientific information since this, to our knowledge, is the first acoustic study of it’s kind in the NY area. Dr. Clark is encouraged by the initial results to continue and expand the study.

They are actively looking for funding sources to continue the research, and the clock is ticking.