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Posts Tagged ‘village voice’

 

Full moon perigee of 2008 by Ron Hodges.

Full moon perigee of 2008 by Ron Hodges.

by Erik Baard

 

What a Wolf Moon this will be! Tonight will be the biggest full moon of 2009, and the glory it borrows from the sun will be reflected from every snowy rooftop, branch, and field…if the clouds break.

The moon increases in apparent size for two reasons. Routinely we observe an apparent swelling in the moonrise. Because of a quirk of human optical neurology we percieve the moon as larger on the horizon, rather than overhead. But the moon is also at times closer or further from Earth in different points of its elliptical orbit. Tonight is perigee, the closest pass. It will appear 14 percent larger and 30 brighter than what you’ll typically find for the rest of the year.

Near-full perigee moon. Captured Dec. 9 in Kingston, NY by Jeffrey Anzevino of Scenic Hudson.

Near-full perigee moon. Captured Jan. 9 in Kingston, NY by Jeffrey Anzevino of Scenic Hudson.

Of course, oldsters might tell a young’n that the moon was bigger and brighter when they were young. Well, they’re right in fact but there’s no way a human could detect it: the satellite is ever-so-slowly spiralling away from its host planet. Each year it stretches our gravitational bonds by about 1.6 inches (4cm).

The moon tantalizes us, draws us into the Cosmos beyond. At some level, this is our narrowness making us silly: we are born, live, and die in space as much as those who might do the same on any other world. Still, it remains a place of national posturing, from the Space Race of the 1960s to the emerging powers of India and China.

For an inner city child, however, the lure of the moon is that it reveals a real topography to his or her eyes from any street corner, even without expensive equipment or the crystal clear skies of the backwoods. As South Bronxite Neil deGrasse Tyson told me for a Village Voice article, a realm of personal possibilities was opened when he stared at the moon from his stoop through a pair of binoculars after his father took him to Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History.

“I saw the mountains and valleys and craters of the moon. It became another world, something to learn about,” he remembers. “I knew I wanted to be a scientist since I was nine years old and I never wavered.”

He is now an astrophysicist and the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium.

* As a side note, the mountains are seen better on a half or crescent moon, because features are seen in relief. Straight on, light bounces back up from every little crevice, washing out our view.

My own enjoyment of tonight’s delight takes me back to the wintry Snow Moon perigee of February 1988. I was staying over at Smith College with my then-girlfriend (who now works for an oil company — some things weren’t meant to be). Seeing her sleep inspired this poem (and forgive that WordPress always screws up spacing and formatting):

 

 
It is no matter of wonder
to me
 
that light should wander
from the nurturing warmth of the sun
 
across cold vast space

to the broad and barren moon

to the field of snow outside
to find

the peace of being lost

in my sleeping lover’s

black hair.
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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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CDC photo of a feeding mosquito.

by Erik Baard

Last night I saw my first mosquito of the season, flying into my bedroom, hot on my carbon dioxide trail. I lost track of it, but minutes later I heard the soft buzz of menace in my ear. One must never underestimate the dangers of mosquitoes. Emperor Titus was driven made by one that flew up his nose and picked at his brain, buzzing ceaselessly until he was driven into madness and death. Well, at least according to the Babylonian Talmud, written by Jews hopeful that God at least took some vengeance on the sacker of the Great Temple of Jerusalem.

 

Actually, those ancient Jewish exiles aren’t unique in offering a slanted view of history centered on this insect. Consider yourself, a person who’s probably an environmentally aware reader. If I mention DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), the first person to spring to mind (okay, bad pun) is probably Rachel Carson. Her book, “Silent Spring,” and crusade against the chemical for its role in collapsing bird populations helped unleash one of the strongest currents in modern environmentalism, and led to the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Few remember Paul Hermann Müller, who won the Nobel Prize in 1948 for synthesizing DDT, which contemporaries saw as an incalculably humane achievement. Some credit the invention of DDT with saving upwards of 500 million lives. Even today, the mosquito threat is real. The species transmits diseases to 700 million people in tropical, often poor, regions each year. Over five million people, usually children, die from malaria annually. Mosquitoes also playing a central role in transmitting yellow fever, elephantiasis, dengue fever, Rift Valley fever, several encephalitis type diseases, and Ross River fever.

 

The fight over DDT usage, as policy leaders balance its risk to human health (in 1987 the EPA classified it as a “probable human carcinogen”) and the environment against its benefits. Of course, strains of mosquitoes in some regions developed a resistance to DDT in the intervening decades. Succeeding pesticides are also controversial. Locally, where 57 of the world’s 3,500 species of mosquitoes live, concerns over pesticides grew with aggressive spraying programs to eradicate insects potentially carrying the West Nile virus.

 

A few years back I wrote for the Village Voice about how New York City-bound containers of the insecticide malathion, made by Cheminova, was being stored at temperatures known to cause carcinogenic impurities. Spraying has continued in recent summers, affecting neighborhoods in areas as widespread as the South Bronx, western Staten Island, and northern Queens. A recent article in the Antigua Sun continues to raise the red flag.

 

One troubling passage on the malathion directions label reads:

“Malathion is approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the USA.

The EPA doesn’t actually test malathion.  It approves the product based on information supplied by the manufacturer.”

In other words, our safety is in the hands of the industry, from the manufacturer down to the evidently often-negligent distributors.

 

Another aspect of the argument against malathion spraying is that our reaction to the West Nile threat could be overblown, perhaps even hysterical, given how infrequently the disease is fatal.

 

Some argue that given our relatively less-dense mosquito populations we might take less radical measures like wearing light-colored clothing (the species is drawn to dark colors), eating more repellent vitamin B1 (found in brown rice, blackstrap molasses, sunflower seeds, brazil nuts, wheat germ, and soybeans, among other foods), applying cinnamon oil, deploying nets and screens, and introducing more animals that prey upon mosquitoes. One odd note: mosquitoes are highly sensitive to women’s menstrual cycles. I’m not sure what that says about interspecies sisterhood…

 

The environmental damage done by spraying is of increasing concern. Parallel to the bee decimation, lobster stocks are historically low. Both marine biologists and the industry suspect malathion spraying, as I reported in the New York Times. Of course there are worrisome inherent contradictions with an insecticide to be used against a wetlands species like mosquitoes when the directions read, as they do on malathion, “Avoid contaminating any body of water.”

 

Joel Kupferman of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project pointed out to me recently that sprayers near Soundview Park were unaware that just over a ridge they were covering was the Bronx River.

 

What is not heard often, however, is cost of losing mosquitoes themselves. Their importance as pollinators has been greatly underestimated. After all, sugar from nectar is the species’ primary diet, not blood. Males drink no blood at all, and females imbibe blood from a variety of species only as their prenatal nutrient “superfood.” In the Centers for Disease Control photo above, you see the mother-to-be salivating her anticoagulants into capillary and sucking up a meal). Without mosquitoes, our wildflower and community gardens would be impoverished. Mosquitoes and their larvae are a vital food source for shorebirds, amphibians, reptiles, dragonflies, and small fish.

 

I don’t expect to see green activists sporting “save the mosquitoes” tee-shirts, but sober policymakers should perhaps be more considered in their decisions.

 

 

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