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Posts Tagged ‘grass’

 

 

When Transportation Alternative’s absolutely wonderful Tour de Queens (enjoy the Street Films video above) rolled into Maspeth on Sunday under the blaze of a record-setting June heat wave, we were subjected to a brutal lesson in urban planning and natural history.

 

The Newtown Creek is infamous for being home to the largest oil spill in U.S. history, and to heavy metals and other industrial pollutants. Increasingly, lay greens are becoming aware of the combined sewer overflows that plague the waterway with pathogens after rainstorms. What’s less known is that, apart from airport landing strips, you won’t find hotter a hotter place in New York City than the banks of the Newtown Creek. The area’s sewage and swelter share the same origin: a concrete and asphalt “hardscape” instead of a landscape. In the absence of trees, grass, and other plants, water rolls off the impermeable surfaces and floods the sewage system while sunlight beats down on unshaded streets that reradiate heat.

 

NASA used Landsat to map our “urban heat island,” where temperatures are over seven degrees Fahrenheit hotter than surrounding region. Maspeth was of particular interest to the NASA researchers because it was both particularly afflicted and a prime candidate for mitigation, with low, flat-topped, strong buildings that could bear the weight of green roofs.

 

 NASA thermal image of New York City.

 

The natural history element I alluded to above is of greater concern to bikers than NASA: Oh, the hills! Maspeth sits on the western end of the Harbor Hill Moraine (as you can see in the U.S. Geological Survey map below) that was plowed up by glaciers over 10,000 years ago.

 

 

USGS Harbor Hill Moraine.

 

The image below is Helen Ho’s photograph of the Queens Museum’s celebrated New York City panaroma model, with pink tape showing our route over the hills and through the mini-torrid zone. 

 

 

Tour de Queens route in the panorama. Photo by Helen Ho.

 

I wrote for the Village Voice about the Urban Heat Island phenomenon (including diet, lifestyle, and city planning tips to survive it) and various animal heat adaptations last year. One part that didn’t get published is the fascinating possibility that migrating birds are leaving New York City plumper than they arrived because they needn’t burn as many calories to stay warm at night. I spent a morning in the woods of Bronx Park observing Chad Seewagen, a Wildlife Conservation Society ornithologist, investigating this hunch. My friends Robin Lloyd and David Berreby later wrote up items about Chad and his work for Live Science and the New Yorker, respectively.

 

 

 

These days, however, most species are working hard to shed heat. Humans are particularly lucky in that we sweat copiously, a gift from our tropical heritage that remains with people of all ancestries. Bear in mind, however, that parents can undo in their own kids’ resilience by raising them with air conditioning; sweat glands that aren’t activated in infancy remain dormant for life. Dogs are among the species that have wet noses, long tongues, and very wrinkled nasal passages to allow for heat exchanges with the air.

 

My favorite evolutionary solution is the carotid rete, a fine web where arteries dump heat into veins and the upper respiratory system so that blood rising to the brain is significantly cooler than the rest of the body. Gazelles have an extraordinarily well-developed carotid rete, but humans are much less impressive in that regard. It’s usually brain temperature that dictates when an animal must stop or pass out, so you can imagine how useful such a tool is for hunters and especially fleeing prey.

 

And so I might have been the only volunteer marshal ready to scream, “A carotid rete! My kingdom for a carotid rete!”

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Redback salamander by Sarah Goodyear

 

by Erik Baard

 

Global warming is forcing the upward migration of reptiles and amphibians to cooler altitudes, according to an American Museum of Natural History researcher. While much has rightfully been made of the world’s visibly melting alpine glaciers, a desperate and quiet migration has been occurring, with creatures scaling slopes to escape the heat at the bottom of the mountains.

 

The alarm is sounded from Madagascar, where the AMNH Associate Curator of Herpetology Christopher Raxworthy has been studying habitats in the mountainous north. The shift uphill, by as much as 167 feet, was observed across the spectrum of amphibian and reptile species over a decade as temperatures rose slightly. By this century’s end there will be no escape and at least three species in that region will be doomed, he asserted in the journal Global Change Biology.

 

What does this have to do with New York City? Well, our own amphibian population is low and confined to small hills where chances for refuge are even more meager. That’s true not only for local rarities like the spotted salamander, but even for frogs and common species like the red back salamander (sitting in my palm in the photo by Sarah Goodyear above). As New York City Department of Parks and Recreation ecologist Ellen Pehek noted in our April 24 entry on Dusky Salamanders, these species prefer cool and damp areas.

 

On an outing to the Marshlands Conservancy in Westchester County with WildMetro (please consider joining this important conservation and education group as a member, volunteer, or trip participant), I learned that wetlands grass species have already begun creeping inland and upland by yards, yanking along with them the ecosystems they support. Global warming is a local threat. It’s quiet, but the losses have begun.

 

 

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View from Fresh Kills South Hill. Photo by Emmanuel Fuentebella.

 

by Erik Baard

 

Not so many years ago, if you told people that you were getting up early on Saturday morning to rush over to Fresh Kills on Staten Island, they would have thought you were crazy or a highly-paid union worker. Today, a few savvy folks might peg you for a naturalist.

 

The world’s largest dump (actually, the world’s largest manmade structure, of sorts, in that it exceeded the volume of the Great Wall of China) is quietly transforming into the city’s second largest park, after Pelham Bay Park. You can witness the process yourself by signing up for a free tour now through November through this link. Don’t fret the competition to get a ticket – the tour I joined this weekend wasn’t booked up. Besides, you have, oh, a few more years of chances. The park officially opens in 2036.

 

 

My friend Emmanuel Fuentebella and I hit the road early, biking from LIC to South Ferry in 35 minutes. At the St. George ferry terminal on Staten Island we were picked up by a mini-bus operated by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation along with 11 other guests (many of whom were NYC Audubon affiliates and Audubon Society members). Our guide was Christina Somma Berrocal, a NYC Urban Park Ranger. We started learning about the site before we even arrived, as Somma Berrocal pulled out a cardboard cross-section of a trash mound (the site has four large ones, ranging between 140′ and 200′ tall), with a garbage core covered by layers of fresh sand, soil, topsoil and plantings.

 

 

Fresh Kills Vision by NYC Parks.

 

 

Perhaps the most critical component is also the thinnest and toughest, an “impermeable geomembrane.” That rugged black tarp is what stands between 2036’s gorgeous recreation area and wilderness preserve above (in the computer rendering immediately above) and frightening contamination. Tree plantings must be chosen carefully to exclude deep vertical roots systems, Somma Berrocal explained, to avoid any puncture risk.

 

At the moment the trash is being digested by microbes, which will actually cause the mounds to shrink a bit. But not before they’ve earned their keep! The methane (“natural gas” in daily parlance), organic chemicals, and carbon dioxide produced are tapped via long pipe networks (see the methane taps in the foreground of the above photo by Emmanuel). The natural gas is purified and sold to Keyspan (now part of National Grid), which in turn sells it to heat up to 10,000 homes at a time. I can imagine a “green” dry cleaner using the CO2 to spiff up designer suits for the local gentry.

 

Less immediately marketable is the leachate goo that landfills produce when water jazzes up microbial and fungal activity. That’s dried and shipped out to another landfill in West Virginia. As a side note, the five boroughs now send trash to Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. Remember, the primary insight of environmentalism is that when things are thrown away, there is no “away.”

 

 

A few times we caught a whiff of something not-so-fresh at the North Mound of Fresh Kills. “It smells like badly burned bacon,” remarked fellow-traveler Melody. But those moments were truly the exception, and a useful reminder of the admirable audacity of the endeavor.

 

 

View from the North Mound of Fresh Kills. Photo by Emmanuel Fuentebella.

 

There’s plenty of encouragement from nature, however. Emmanuel snapped some wonderful photos contrasting the Manhattan skyline with the landscape rolling out from the North and South Mounds. To start, only 45% of the 2,200-acre site was actually used for garbage piles. The rest is composed of wetlands, creeks, and grasslands rich with wildflowers. Black locust and cottonwood trees are shading lowlands.

 

South Mound wildflowers. Photo by Emmanuel Fuentebella.

 

 

Before our vehicle even stopped, we saw an enormous turkey vulture aloft over the former wastelands. At the North Mound we were dazzled by the wheeling figures of two osprey silhouetted against a cloud-dappled sky. One of our group, Annie, identified them even at that height by the finger-like feather pattern at their wing tips.

 

 

Osprey gliding. Photo by Emmanuel Fuentebella.

 

 

 

As the trip unfolded there were treated to sightings of egrets, cormorants, an oriole, mallard ducks in a fresh water collect (where I imagine there might also be snapping turtles), and a zigzagging barn swallow. Opal, Meloday’s daughter, explained that the erratic “kamikaze” flight pattern meant it was feeding on insects in flight.

 

 

My biggest thrill was spotting a sharp shinned hawk. In truth, I wavered between that identification and calling it a Coopers Hawk and was clueless either way; I was playing the odds. The juveniles of both species look quite similar, being a dab brown, and it was Opal who sorted it out. Adults are easier to distinguish, and some birders call lanky Coopers Hawks “flying crosses” while sharp shinned hawks are “flying mallets.”

 

 

Blue herons and killdeer are also reliable finds, Somma Berrocal said. The killdeer often lay eggs on the infrequently traveled gravel paths, because their speckled eggs blend so well, she added.

 

We didn’t see deer but Somma Berrocal informed that over 200 of the species now on Staten Island. I imagined them sneaking across the Outerbridge Crossing or graceful Bayonne Bridge, but she stunned me by telling us that the deer swam to the island from New Jersey. How brave and hungry must a deer be to stealthily swim tidal waters plied by oil barges?

 

Curious humans aren’t yet permitted to visit the site by boat, but rowers and paddlers should seek the site’s inclusion in the NYC Water Trail. It would make a wonderful destination, even if for specially arranged tours (as with our landside excursion). And an early dialog might help prevent some well-intention mistakes from being implements, such as the large, artificial launch conceived for Fresh Kills (NYC Parks’ computer generated image below). A soft shoreline, even if created with deposited sand, would be safer, more pleasant, and ecologically friendlier.

 

Fresh Kills kayak launched envisioned by NYC Parks.

 

 

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