Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Plants’

Worlds living under two suns might be covered in forests and glens of gray or black, according to a Royal Astronomical Society presentation reported by ScienceNow. With disparate wavelengths to harness at once, plants might deploy densely packed pigments of different hues. To our eyes, such broad spectrum absorption would make the leaves look black.

Red dwarf stars are the most common in the Milky Way and could frequently pair up with large companions here and in other galaxies. Astronomers have detected three planetary systems shone on by binary stars, but in each case the planets orbited only the primary star and the smaller companion was distant. In many cases the violence of two stars’ gravitational fields would simply hurl worlds out into the void. Red dwarfs themselves might pose hazards to life, lashing out with enormous flares.

Our green planet isn’t so unlike these imagined graylings swimming through space. Chlorophyll, which comes in three forms, is helped in its light-to-sugar alchemy by handmaiden pigments like carotenoids, anthocyanins, and betalains. These other yellow, orange, red, blue, and purple pigments are nearly ever-present but are more easily observed in autumn foliage and ripening fruit when chlorophyll drains away (or in some species, like members of the rose family, in young leaves before chlorophyll fills in), or by turning over forest understory leaves.  These pigments absorb wavelengths that chlorophyll fails to catch for energy or protection against damage, or reflect light back into the chlorophyll before it can exit the leaf. One point of curiosity is that science has yet to identify a plant in which  anthocyanins and betalains coexist.

If our sun were to capture a stray red dwarf, might evolution favor plants best able to boost and adapt use of their complementary pigments?

An absolutely wonderful way to enjoy stars and leaves in one setting is to hike up Inwood Hill for a picnic before sharing the splendor of the heavens with the Inwood Astronomy Project.

Eerie gray planets aside, it’s beautiful to imagine worlds of myriad hues. I’m with Robert Frost, however, on the point that there’s one color no living world can maintain:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

 

 

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!”

Read Full Post »

Yellow warbler at Ridgewood Reservoir. Photo by Steve Nanz.

 

 

 

The graveyard’s a fine and verdant place,

But none, I think, do there play ball or race.

 

…with apologies to Andrew Marvell            

 

 

 

by Erik Baard 

 

City Council District 30 in western Queens boasts some of the widest swaths of green in New York City, but much of that consists of cemeteries. The stony highlands of the terminal moraine make for bad farmland, so elders in preceding generations set those tracts aside for burials. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is now trying to build more ball fields and tracks in the area, but finds itself running into opposition from more restless living residents, including the candidates vying to represent the district in a special election on June 3.

 

The controversy has two key facets. First, the city has chosen a thriving wild space, Ridgewood Reservoir, for its new facilities. Secondly, the agency proposes to use potentially dangerous artificial turf on the new ball fields (and in parks throughout the city – more than 100 sites when installation is complete).

 

The Ridgewood Reservoir hasn’t provided water to residents for five decades and it became a possession of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation in 2004. Basins have grown over with seeded-on forests on the 50-acre site, and it helps sustain more than 120 bird species, including seven classified as endangered.

 

 

 

 

The $46 million NYC Parks plan would bulldoze 20 acres of land for sports while residents complain that similar facilities at nearby Highland Park are falling into disrepair. NYC Audubon has “strongly urged the Parks Department to commit to no net loss of forest cover.”

 

The Natural Resources Defense Council summed up the crisis this way:  

For not yet heeding the call to preserve this unique natural setting in the heart of New York City (but with the understanding that it is not too late for a change of course), we award the Parks Department plans to develop the Ridgewood Reservoir landscape with an Earth Day 2008 Bad Apple designation.

This video, produced by the invaluable Rob “CityBirder” Jett (and including photos by Steve Nanz – the yellow warbler above was taken by Nanz at the reservoir) provides an excellent overview of the imperiled reservoir wilderness area.

Artificial turf, a chief component of which is crumb rubber derived from used tires, poses potential health hazards to children and performs none of the services of plant life. The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene acknowledges that the threat demands more testing, but encourages play on the plastic fields as an alternative to obesity. The tradeoff is a false one, or at very least an entirely unjust one to demand citizens accept.

 

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, a former Parks commissioner, has called on the agency to halt installation and allow independent testing of the artificial turf. CUNY psychology professor William Crain sent samples over to Rutgers University chemist Junfeng Zhang who found hazardous concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), according to NY State Department of Environmental Conservation standards. One sample contained highly carcinogenic benzo(a)pyrene at more than eight times above levels deemed acceptable for soil.

 

 

The New York Environmental Law Project has also taken up the cause, providing a very informative summary page.

 

 

The reservoir and artificial turf plan was raised at a recent candidate forum hosted by the Historic Districts Council. Each candidate, seated in alphabetical order, commented in turn. Republican Anthony Como has said in the past that some of the land surrounding the reservoir might be built over for recreational use. At the forum he stated that in such a small habitat area it was impossible to eliminate sections of growth without affecting the ecosystem of the rest. Democrat Elizabeth Crowley (for whom I’m doing low-level volunteer work: get-out-the-vote phone banking, carrying literature as she pounds the pavement) often mentions her enjoyment of playing ball with her sons but in this case opposed any recreational development, calling the unofficial refuge an “enchanted land” for visitors. Democrat Charles Ober also railed against the plan, questioning the City’s logic in cutting down “5,000 trees” while asking volunteers to help plant a million trees. Republican Tom Ognibene who that evening announced himself as a skeptic of global warming, has argued before that the reservoir should be maintained as an emergency backup resource. At the forum he focused on the artificial turf aspect of community concerns. He conceded that he supported the introduction of the substitute based on the best information he had available at the time, but asserted that he now believes more testing is needed.

 

As I rode my bike home from the forum, I noodled through the broader implications of the Ridgewood Reservoir issue. It seems our city might be best off if future developments by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation adhered to three principles:

 

 

1) Preservation and restoration of wild spaces is first priority.

 

I don’t need to lecture NYC Parks about the value of green and blue areas. The Forever Wild program is fantastic, and I support transferring public wetlands into its administration. When I find myself disagreeing with NYC Parks so strongly over land use, it pains me.

 

Using hardy indigenous plant species (some are far less prone to invasive species competition than others) and adaptive xeriscaping, natural habitat areas can be created affordably.

 

 

2) New built spaces must incorporate athletic recreation.

 

New developments, especially those sited near residences, should be required to include places for active play and fitness. The declining sport of baseball is very land-intensive. Basketball, roller hockey, water polo, and volleyball are just a few space-efficient team sports – so much so that they can be placed on the rooftops of new stores.

 

3) We must foster a culture change toward outdoor, eco-recreation.

 

Wilderness areas aren’t exclusively for birders. Hiking, rowing, paddling, rock and tree climbing (in designated areas), and other activities can be as physically demanding as any typical weekend sport while also introducing young minds to the science and excitement of exploring nature. And we’ve seen that habitat can thrive in spaces like the reservoir that aren’t amenable to the uniform grass required by ball fields, leaving public servants in the utterly perverse position of destroying green, lush natural spaces so that artificial grass can be installed.

 

There is no park as grand as our harbor. Protected bike paths should be means of bringing green into neighborhoods by using green medians; they should offer access to habitat areas but not slice them up. Bike paths can weave neighborhoods together so that young people are exposed to new foods, cultures, and ways of living. Cycling is civics.

 

 

And so is voting. As the old punchline goes, “Is this a personal fight or can anyone join in?” A habitat like Ridgewood Reservoir is a boon for all New Yorkers, and this most egregious use of artificial turf will only embolden officials to spread it over public spaces in all five boroughs.  

Read Full Post »

Bumblebee on an eggplant flower East Harlem. Photo by Kevin Matteson. 

 

by Erik Baard

 

There can be no local foods, community garden, and green spaces movement in New York City without a healthy bee population, and that’s a resource we could lose. Our first defense is simply to look a little more carefully at our backyards and gardens.

 

Bee Watchers 2008 wants to train you to observe bees with free sessions in all five boroughs: at Alley Pond Environmental Center (May 19, 6PM), Central Park’s North Meadow Recreation Center (May 21, 6PM), the Greenbelt Nature Center (6PM, May 20), Prospect Park Audubon Center (May 21, 6PM), and Ranaqua, the Bronx headquarters of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation (May 22, 6PM). You’ll also be equipped with five native New York flowering plants and a sunflower.

 

For an informative flyer and contact information, click here:

bee-flyer-may-9

 

Being a Bee Watcher is fun, but this is also an urgent mission that has the backing of the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, New York City Urban Park Rangers, and the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History.

 

“We’ve already lost some species. At least two bumble bee species that used to be quite abundant haven’t been seen in years,” said Elizabeth Johnson, manager of the Metropolitan Biodiversity Program at the American Museum of Natural History.

 

“At this point we’re trying to drum up business for bee watching,” added Kevin Matteson, a Fordham University biologist conducting the program.

 

A third of human food stocks depend directly on the services of pollinators, which include insects, birds, and mammals. In the northeast, we rely on bees most (like the bumblebee pollinating an East Harlem eggplant in the photo by Matteson above – click to enlarge). New York State boasts about 423 species. 

 

“Most people have no idea that we have so many local species. They’re amazed at the metallic shiny green ones, the blueish ones. It gets people excited,” Johnson said. (If you happen to spot a bee or other insect that fascinates you, drop a note to wildeyed@naturecalendar.com and we’ll share your observations with readers.)

 

While 219 species have been spotted living in NYC (54 in East Harlem and the South Bronx alone), nearly a fifth of those aren’t native, according to Matteson.

 

The mysterious population collapse of the honeybee, a species imported from Europe aboard sailing ships, has gotten considerable media attention, and rightfully so. But habitat destruction and exotic diseases could pose a great threat to our indigenous partners in sustaining edible and flowering local plants.

 

“We don’t know a lot about most of our native bees. Where do they live? What kinds of habitat needs do they have? We have a lot to figure out about pollinator service and it would help to know how quickly bees show up at their plants in the Spring, and how often, and then correlate that with surrounding land use,” Johnson explained.

 

The honeybee is an exceptional species not only for its production of the syrupy sweets, but for its large colony combs, which are occupied for years. They even huddle for warmth in winter. Most bees live in less enduring groups, or even in relatively solitary fashion: a queen might never see her offspring, laying eggs and sealing them off with provisions before moving on. Many burrow underground or bore into wood, crawl into hollow twigs, or even take over abandoned mouse holes.

 

Development often wipes out bee food sources like wildflowers or even invasive flowers. Paving also eliminates burrowing species from an area.

 

Your community garden or backyard is an oasis in the asphalt desert, but you might see fewer flowers, fruits, and vegetables because a building has gone up on what was a weed-strewn lot a block or two away. A green roof with plants that support bees and butterflies might compensate for that loss, but you won’t get it unless you’re armed with data supporting your case.

 

For the sake of your community’s green spaces, join Bee Watchers 2008 by calling Kevin Matteson at 646-3730250 or emailing him at kevmatteson (at) gmail.com.

 

Read Full Post »