Public Spectacle

A beacon of hope in a changing climate.

kid Spectacle

On a clear hot August day you can take a ferry to Spectacle Island and walk a winding path up to its northern summit, admiring wildflowers and eating blackberries. The summit is the highest point of land on Boston Harbor, with low wooded islands scattered around.

Off to the east you can spot a windmill near the huge sludge-digesting eggs of Deer Island, and a second windmill a few miles south at the tip of the Hull peninsula. These two points of land bracket the entrance from Massachusetts Bay to the harbor’s inner archipelago.

One distant day, Deer Island and Hull also may anchor a massive sea barrier, holding off an ocean that’s now projected to climb as much as eight feet by 2100.

Today it’s hard to imagine how we might start to build such a Big Dike, given our current politics.

But you can also see hopeful signs on this Spectacle for our ability to clean up our own messes.

The first time I sailed past the island it was a garbage dump, with the remnants of a horse-rendering plant buried under many feet of still-smoldering refuse.

Now that’s all taken away and replaced by fill from the Big Dig. The island was reengineered and replanted. Rich ecosystems began to reappear. On summer days like this, children swim a stone’s throw away from the site of the old factories.

In wildness is the preservation of the world, as Thoreau said. But not just in wildness.

Ark de Triage

What should we prioritize to try to save from the flood tide of extinction?


“The world is on fire, and we have to do something about it,” said Kate Jones, an ecologist with University of College in London.

Jones was one of the speakers at two Harvard panels last month about the species extinction perils of our Anthropocene age: climate change, overfishing and overhunting, pollution, loss of habitat, invasive species, sea level rise, ocean acidification and all the ugly rest.

Extinction threats are not like a field of bullets hitting everything equally, noted Jones, speaking at a session on Human Imprints on the Tree of Life. Primates are at greater risk than most mammals. Amphibians, palms and corals are particularly vulnerable. Ditto species on islands. Animals with large body sizes, long lives and small ranges are vanishing. Along with, of course, so many other forms of life.

Facing this global storm of extinction with severely limited resources, what should conservation groups and governments prioritize?

One framework for decisions is to safeguard plants and animals with particular values to humans, as food, fuel, eye candy or just insurance for the future, the scientists said. Another framework is to consider the tree of life—protecting genetic diversity so that we can better understand biology and maybe exploit that understanding down the road. (Saving, for instance, the ginkgo tree, full of idiosyncrasies after branching off from other trees 100 million years ago.)

Habitat protection initiatives don’t always follow these outlines, naturally enough. As one audience member noted, many projects in Britain aim to preserve butterflies that remain happily common elsewhere in Europe.

“Most conservation is local, which is fine,” said Ana Rodrigues of the French National Center for Scientific Research. But very few resources work at a global level, Rodrigues emphasized.

One of the few is the Evolutionarily Distinct & Globally Endangered (EDGE) program led by the Zoological Society of London. “We can take attention away from charismatic megafauna like pandas, which are cute and fluffy with big eyes,” remarked Jones. Instead, attention can be paid to offbeat creatures like the pink fairy armadillo. (“It’s another poster child but I think it’s spreading out the love.”)

“We’re in deep trouble,” said Yale botanist Michael Donoghue. “We have to act quickly. The problem is, there are too many things we value.”

Many forms of ecological damage have spread surprisingly quickly across vast areas of ocean, noted biologists at an Ocean Evolution Today seminar. Jellyfish are on the march  as we vacuum up commercial finfish. Two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral died off in two years. “In the Arctic, ice algae is disappearing and the entire food web is compromised,” commented Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia.

All too often this marine damage is invisible to most of us, said Boston University’s Randi Dawn Rotjan. Even survival stories can be worrisome–for instance, the killifish that have evolved to shrug off PCB-laced harbors.

More generally, “I’m worried that my children will jump into the water and not know what they haven’t seen,” Rotjan said.

“The most important ecosystems on the planet are almost unknown,” pointed out Bruce Robison of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. One case in point: the ocean animals that migrate in “uncountable numbers” up toward the surface at night and then back down during the day, which brings carbon out of the surface waters.

Or we can think of the seafloor hot water vents discovered 40 years ago, which stream out key nutrients and may act “like the ocean’s multi-vitamins,” said Harvard’s Peter Girguis. Life throughout the sea, he added, “is linked to things that happen in the deepest darkest parts of the ocean.”

The scientists applauded the spread of marine sanctuaries, which can provide significant safeguards if established (and enforced) on sufficient scale. So far, sanctuaries have grown most notably in sparsely populated stretches of the Pacific. (The Republic of Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands Protected Area is a coral archipelago the size of California with exactly 24 people, living on one island, Rotjan said.) The High Seas Alliance aims to extend this strategy with protected areas in the no-man’s-lands of the open ocean.

Another positive sign is the rapid growth of sustainable aquaculture, to supplement and replace capture fisheries.

And we also can see payoffs of local and regional marine renewal efforts, such as the massive cleanup of Boston Harbor. Last month, out with a boatful of biologists for a conference hosted by Northeastern University, we were cheered to see harbor porpoises calmly working the clean waters of the Mystic River, in what not long ago was the dirtiest harbor in the U.S.

Top, the “life-size” version of Noah’s Ark built by Johan Huibers of the Netherlands. Bottom, clockwise from panda: Ice algae, pink fairy armadillo, ginkgo berries, mussel.

10 farm fish stories

What aquaculture experts tell me about the world’s fastest-growing food source.26326495102_757a4e2476_k

  1. Nigerian catfish are bred so densely you can walk across their ponds.
  2. “In an urban environment, why not use a rooftop to grow fish in a couple of recirculating ponds?”
  3. China grows grass carp in quantities equal to the catch of the entire U.S. fishing fleet.
  4. “Everyone’s working hard to reduce the use of fishmeal and fish oil in feed, and to fool the fish into thinking they are eating what they want.”
  5. All the tilapia we eat are male, with females forced that way early in life.
  6. “Many agricultural landscapes are becoming more saline and facing more seasonal inundation from the sea. There’s a big opportunity for aquaculture explicitly to be part of a planned transition that can not only recover but actually dramatically increase the value of these landscapes.”
  7. Shrimp lack an immune system.
  8. “In Africa, the sooner we move past small-scale aquaculture, the better. It’s a dead duck.”
  9. Eight miles off Panama’s Atlantic coast, cobia destined for plates in the United States fatten up in high-tech cages.
  10. The world needs to grow 30 million more tons of fish each year by 2050: “We mostly know how, but is there a will to do it?”

Photos courtesy WorldFish.

Hub of Universe meets change of climate

swirlsmall (2)Boston often sits under rather large swirls of clouds.

Hurricane Joaquin was a surprisingly narrow miss last week. Experts may worry even more about northeasters like those that pounded Boston last winter. In a truly major storm, hundreds of thousands of people may wait too late to evacuate and be stuck without power or other services for weeks. In the long run, Boston’s inner harbor will need to look a lot more like the future New Orleans, with the waterfront turned into parks and wetlands, and Logan Airport and residential areas barricaded behind high levies.

That’s some of what we heard on Wednesday about how Boston is readying (or not) for climate change. Here are 10 highlights from a Hubweek session’s speakers and videos, held at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre.

1. Sitting in between the Canadian Arctic and the Gulf Stream, the northeastern U.S. has “one of the most significant temperature gradients on the planet,” commented Kerry Emanuel, MIT professor of atmospheric sciences.

2. Joaquin was “the most intense extratropical storm ever to reach this high in latitude this late in the season,” said James McCarthy, Harvard professor of biological oceanography. “That was really eye-opening.” The storm packed winds up to 155 mph as it veered off toward Bermuda.

3. Alan Berger, MIT professor of landscape architecture and urban design, proposed reimagining Boston’s waterfront with open areas backed by lines of defense against rising sea levels and storms. This approach would create a “new urban fabric, with eight or nine pockets of high density,” Berger said. And yes, “so much for living on the waterfront!”

4. Hurricane Katrina “was the most predictable of surprises,” commented Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard’s Center for the Environment. “We made a conscious decision not to prepare; we’re lucky it wasn’t worse.” Fortunately, the storm didn’t hit New Orleans directly, or there might have been tens of thousands of deaths. “The surprise was not that we didn’t get everybody out, but that we couldn’t cope with people who didn’t get out,” added Robert Young, director of Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines. “We need to ensure we have a plan to get services to people where they are.”

5. People in Boston “think they are tough and want to sit home and wait it out,” said Jennifer Leaning, professor of the practice of health and human rights at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. But by the time residents realize they really need to leave, it may be too late, and they may lose power for weeks. Atyia Martin, Boston’s chief resilience officer, pointed out that emergencies like Katrina have shown that many people don’t get clear word in time, or simply can’t leave. “We assume people are not educated about these issues, but they are,” Martin said. In planning for emergencies, it’s key to remember that “the community is the expert on the community,” she emphasized.

6. Last week’s astonishing South Carolina rainstorm often was called a thousand-year storm. That description is meaningless, because “there’s no precedent for a storm like this,” Schrag said flatly.

7. Unsurprisingly, much of the South Carolina flooding was in areas of recent development, “in places where water would like to be,” as Young put it. That’s a theme all along the coast: Some new Gulf coast communities just should never have been built, he remarked.

8. Carl Spector, Boston’s director of climate and environmental planning, outlined regional planning initiatives  to address vulnerable supplies such as the Chelsea Food Market and other threats such as extreme high heat days. Young applauded those efforts, but added that “the trick is taking all that high-level, long-term planning and putting that thinking into the minutiae of how we run our government.”

9. “Money seems to flow after a disaster,” Schrag noted, but not always in the best directions. We’ve done a “terrible job” recovering from Hurricane Sandy, in Young’s opinion. To actually create change, he declared, governments and all their partners must move very quickly after storms before business as usual resumes. Owners in floodplains, for instance, may be ready to buy out a few weeks after the storm, but not a few years after.

10. “Every storm is an argument to change the vulnerability of our community,” Young said. “Storms tell you where the problems are.”

7.5-foot_flood_Boston_Harbor_AssociationBoston under a hypothetical-but-expected flood (from Boston Harbor Associates data).

Deepsea change


When the deepsea research submersible Alvin was commissioned in 1964, undersea exploration carried a strong flavor of direct human exploration. That summer as Alvin made its first dives, the U.S. Navy also launched its Sealab I underwater habit, a successful pioneer in saturation diving.

Sealab I has long been a museum piece. But Alvin, still owned by the Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), keeps going.

The first half of its career, which received the most public attention, is nicely summarized in Water Baby by Victoria Kaharl (a classmate of mine at journalism school).

In 1966, the sub made the world a tad less worrying by finding a hydrogen bomb that had sunk to the bottom of the Mediterranean, and helping in the bomb’s recovery.

Alvin had another widely memorable moment in 1968 when it sank, sans crew. When it was recovered in 1969, “lunches left on board were soggy but edible,” a WHOI history notes. “Discovery that near-freezing temperatures and the lack of decaying oxygen at depth aided preservation opened up new areas of biological and chemical research.”

But the sub’s greatest scientific contribution arguably came with its 1977 dives to warm-water seafloor vents more than 8,000 feet down off the Galapagos Islands. Scientists onboard watched clams living, well, as happily as clams, in an ecosystem built on chemosynthesis rather than photosynthesis.

In 1986, the sub enjoyed its highest moment of popular fame in the first human visits to the wreck of the Titanic.

Since then Alvin has mostly quietly plugged away, to a total of more than 4,600 dives. And it has become like an ax that has had two heads and seven handles. It has no original parts. Its most recent overhaul was a $41 million job completed last year, with a larger titanium sphere for the crew, better imaging equipment and other goodies.

Over all these decades, oceanography has seen even more stunning advances in undersea unmanned research equipment, going beyond simple towed devices into highly sophisticated remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), undersea gliders and a colorful collection of other specialized undersea beasts. These vehicles can not only go where no man has gone before, but where no manned submersible will ever go, for reasons of logistics and safety.

Alvin is the last manned deepsea submersible in the U.S. fleet, and today’s tight National Science Foundation research budgets ensure that its role is under debate—most recently in a report released yesterday by the National Research Council.

An expert group that included Don Walsh (who piloted the bathyscape Trieste to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 1960) found that Alvin remains highly useful but not critical to the highest priorities for U.S. ocean science in the next decade. “This is due to the greatly increased capabilities and availability of ROVs, AUVs, and gliders,” the report says.

Probably more importantly, the NRC report adds, Alvin’s dedicated support ship Atlantis, one of the last big research vessels left in the fleet, might be employed more profitably in other scientific projects.

When Alvin eventually retires, probably quite a few years from now, the scientific and budget reasons will be solid.

But we’ll regret the loss of opportunities of direct human witnessing to the unknown, like the one on that sunny day off the Galapagos in February 1977.

We can picture Alvin’s original support ship Lulu (a funky catamaran built on two surplus minesweeping pontoons) trudging over to an area where a towed camera vehicle had reported a spike in water temperature and brought up photos of clam and mussel shells near the spike.

Near daybreak, pilot Jack Donnelly joined geochemist Jack Corliss and geologist Tjeerd van Andel (there were no biologists on the cruise) and Alvin headed down. The three men could see that living clams surrounded the shimmering water where hot water poured up from the seafloor. And they could confirm the discovery that would change our understanding of life on earth.

Take a shad song

shad3edit2Commissioner Mary Griffin of the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game and CRWA scientist Elisabeth Cianciola release shad larvae into the Charles.

In spring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grabs adult American shad from the Merrimack River for spawning in tanks at its fish hatcheries in North Attleboro, MA and Nashua, NH. Last week, a Fish and Wildlife truck arrived at Charles River in Waltham with a huge tank filled with a few hundred thousand week-old larvae, each about half the size of a penciled eyebrow.

Shad are the largest member of the herring family and can grow to maybe eight pounds. Present in huge numbers in east-coast rivers, they were easy targets as they swam upstream from the sea to spawn, and they were crucial food fish for native Americans and then early European settlers.

But their range narrowed as dams were built, and like other local fish they were hit further by overfishing, pollution and loss of habitat. A decade ago shad were just about gone from the Charles and the Merrimack.

Both rivers had been painstakingly cleaned up, however. They offered fishways in their lower reaches. And effective technology for propagating shad fry was in hand, as shown by successful restocking programs in Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River.

So the Fish and Wildlife Service joined with the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game to begin bringing shad back in 2008. The partners now work with the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) to stock up the river with two or three million larvae annually.

This year, they were pleased to find that in a sample of adult shad in the Charles, most came from the restocking program.

“I’m really happy to return this part of the Charles River to wildlife,” CRWA executive director Robert Zimmerman told the small crowd gathered on the river bank just before the release. Nicely written up in a Boston Globe story, the event was a festive occasion, especially for the sunfish who soon lined the shallows for their best lunch of the summer.