NASA: New Danger from Glacier Melt

Water Wonk Wednesdays

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.


Rink Glacier in western Greenland, with a meltwater lake visible center. Credits: NASA/OIB

Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory using novel techniques revealed in the peer-reviewed journal Geophysical Research Letters that Greenland’s glaciers are prone to losing mass faster than expected. In the record hot Greenland summers of 2010 and 2012 glacier melt water pulsed toward the ocean more powerfully than previously observed or predicted, likely providing a preview of a warming Earth. With that melting will come sea level rise that threatens coastal habitations like New York City.

More here:

NASA Scientists Reveal a New Mode of Ice Loss in Greenland


Nerds Unite Across the Seas


The scientists at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) who helped launch the Ocean Health Index to objectively measure the value and sustainability of marine services are now pioneering new means of collaboration in global research. Ocean scientists of all stripes, from Indonesia to Scandinavia, are sharing data in real time along models established by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and academics. If your eyes are glazing over, you’re missing a vital point: we have no time to spare in adapting shoreline management and fishing practices to a world in which oceans are both rising and dying.

Mote here:



Gotham’s Little Brown Bats

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.


Little Brown Bat. Photo by Chesapeake Bay Program.

by Erik Baard

A single Little Brown Bat, which is New York City’s most common bat species, eats up to 1,000 mosquitoes per hour. That might not be the stuff of comic books, but in our book that makes each one a true hero of Gotham.

These highly intelligent and sociable mammals protect human health and well-being by removing these disease-spreading insects and agricultural pests. Little Brown Bats rarely have rabies and they’re so unobtrusive that many New Yorkers don’t realize that so many live among us. Two terrific places to see them are the Conservatory Water (aka the model boat pond) in Central Park and the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. They love to live near water. You won’t hear the high pitched echolocation used by bats to locate their prey, but you might catch some squeaks and clicks as they pass overhead.

Sadly, a fungal disease called white nose syndrome has killed millions of these marvelous creatures. In the Eastern U.S., 94% of Little Brown Bats died over the past few years. Other bat species have been devastated too. HarborLAB is building bat boxes for donation to waterfront parks and natural preserves throughout NYC to help this species replenish itself. The boxes are simple to make. The interior is slotted to create the narrow nooks bats enjoy. The wood is scraped inside to create grooves for the bats to grip when sleeping upside down. We paint them a medium shade and face them south to absorb heat. Little Brown Bats both migrate and hibernate, with males and females sleeping together when food is scarce. The sexes separate in warmer months when insects are plentiful, though they still sleep quite a bit — almost 20 hours a day.



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Volunteer for Water Quality Monitoring!

Water Wonk Wednesdays

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.




HarborLAB will kick off our 2017 season of water sampling water at Gantry Plaza State Park on May 18, to help ensure the safety of our programs and contribute to a better understanding of human impacts on our estuary. We welcome new volunteers and prospective interns to help out! Email with the subject “Water Sampling” if you’d like to join the crew.

On Thursday volunteer Patricia Vidals-Aquino will take a sample from the dock at Gantry and bring it to the laboratory of HarborLAB Board Member, Holly Porter-Morgan, PhD, director of the environmental science program at CUNY LaGuardia Community College. Our work is part of a citywide program organized through NYC Water Trail Association.

HarborLAB Environmental Monitoring Manager Josue Silvestre describes the process:

1. Selection of a sampling point is extremely important. This sampling point should be located where current is visible, no still water.

2. Sampling material includes a sterilized sampling bottle, ziplock bags, and ice cubes, additionally a cooler bag/lunch box to keep it cool and out of light/sun. If you cannot get a cooler bag/ lunch box, Erik kindly offer to provide one.
3. Make sure to use the sterilized sampling bottle, if it’s open it may be contaminated and the sample wouldn’t be representative.
4. Mark the sampling bottle with location, date and precise time that the sample is taken.
5. Rinse the bottle in water from the sampling site three times before taking the sample. Fill up the bottle entirely and cap the bottle immediately and put it inside the ziplock bag with ice cubes or ice pack.
6. Place the sample inside the cooler bag/lunch box to keep the sample cool and out of light/sun.
7. Take the sample to the drop off location. This CWQT season, the drop off location is the NBBC at 437 McGuinness Blvd Brooklyn, NY 11222. Willis Elkins from from Newtown Creek Alliance and NBBC will take the samples for enterococcus testing to Dr, Porter-Morgan’s lab at Laguardia Community College.
8. Take a new sterilized sampling bottle from the same drop off box/bucket for next time you sample.
Josue will train new participants in the program in the near future.  Drop us a note if you’d like to help!



Nontoxic Transformer Oil

Water Wonk Wednesdays

A weekly column on science, policy, and innovations.


By Erik Baard

A Con Ed transformer burst in a Dumbo, Brooklyn electrical substation, releasing about 37,000 gallons of insulating oil. A significant amount of oil made its way underground into the East River, upon which it was carried as far north as Gantry Plaza State Park.

Con Ed uses dielectric fluid, a toxic synthetic mineral oil. The utility has the option of using natural and synthetic esters and pentaerythritol, which are common transformer fluid upgrades now for coastal applications because they are nontoxic and biodegradable. They also have a higher flash point (a safety bonus atop the environmental advantages) and other superior qualities for daily functioning. Another option under development is using vegetable oils, but the load demands and weather extremes of NYC so far preclude that option. Nanotech enhancements might make coconut or other natural oils more suitable in the future. Many of these products are already marketed.

Other substitutes for mineral oil , like silicone and fluorocarbons, are safer and superior within the transformer, but a hazard to the environment if released.

After the transformer explosions we witnessed during Hurricane Sandy, perhaps it’s time to explore more modern transformer fluid.

Furure accidents needn’t result in a threat to the environment and paddlers. HarborLAB volunteers provide paddling programs at Gantry to hundreds of children. Paddlers were restricted this week from entering a wide zone.

HarborLAB contributed to the safety response by reporting the sheen at Gantry to the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Spill Hotline:

NYS Spill Hotline: 1-800-457-7362
National Response Center: 1-800-424-8802






April 29: Climate March Seedball Making Station!

People s Climate Movement March on Queens-page-001

Come make seedballs with HarborLAB at the Astoria Houses sation along he NYCHA Western Queens satellite People’s Climate March (!

830AM: Meet at HarborLAB GreenLaunch (53-21 Vernon Blvd)
9AM: Leave HarborLAB with supplies. Fill water cooler (for hand washing) along the way.
10AM: Set up.
1030AM-1230PM: Make seedballs with Astoria families!
1PM: Leave Astoria.
2PM: Back at HarborLAB GreenLaunch

We’ll continue to make seedballs at the GreenLaunch and do other site work.


HarborLAB seedball making station. Some kids are super serious seedballers. 🙂

Mason Bees — True New Yorkers

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.


Hornfaced mason bee by Beatriz Moisset via Wikimedia Commons.



Blue Orchard Bee by Robert Engelhardt via Wikimedia Commons.

Quick! Picture a bee’s home. Most folks visualize a honeycomb, with its elaborate system chambers and complex society in service to a queen. New Yorkers are even prone to compare their dense, buzzing lifestyle to those of drone honey bees. In this increasingly freelance economy where over half of Manhattanites live alone, the mason bee might a more apt symbol. These small but energetic pollinators live alone in individual nests yet packed as close to another as apartment dwellers. It doesn’t hurt their relatability for Knickerbockers that some mason bees are a bit flashy, with metallic coloring.


Osmia georgica mason bee via University of Virgina.

In nature, mason bees seek out crevices, holes bored by other insects, hollow straws, or even empty snail shells. They don’t drill into wood like carpenter bees. The common name for the osmia genus of bee, of which there are hundreds of species, derives from how they compartmentalize their masonry-like nests with walls of grit, clay, chewed plant fibers, and mud. One fancier sort, however, true to Ottoman and Persian opulence, lines its nest with flower petals throughout its range from Turkey to Iran. Each chamber houses an egg that’s laid atop its provisions of pollen and nectar. As each egg is set up, the female walls it off and starts anew. She does this again and again over her six-week life. Females are laid first, in the deepest levels, and males toward the front. The males emerge first and wait for the females to emerge for mating — some might even extract a female. Then the males quickly die.

For all of their diversity, masons comprise just 7% of all bees in New York State. Most other bees live underground, in abandoned animal  boroughs, hollowed out logs, or hives.

Mason bees are not at all aggressive, and their stingers — which lack barbs — evolved to become primarily egg guides. One can even gently handle mason bees without fear of being stung. For this reason, and their high activity (they’re orders of magnitude more efficient as pollinators than honey bees), mason bees are increasingly popular in urban gardens and natural conservation areas. The native Blue Orchard bee is especially solicited, though Japanese Hornfaced Mason Bees were imported and have become naturalized. Other varieties commonly seen in these parts are the Bufflehead Mason Bee (Osmia bucephala), Bull Mason Bee  (Osmia taurus), Hoplitis Mason Bee, Osmia Georgica Mason Bee, and Osmia Pumila Mason Bee. We’ll encourage these bees to strengthen HarborLAB’s shoreline plantings of native flowers and fruit bushes that stabilize shorelines and sustain migratory birds and other wildlife.

To welcome mason bees, some folks purchase commercially made houses made from bundled tubes. HarborLAB uses a different and equally proven design: “bee blocks.” Volunteer Jessica Grable, who leads our fabrication projects, provides wood in three pieces: a block with an angled top, a small piece to be nailed on that slope for a rain roof, and a thin mounting plank. Students and volunteers nail those pieces together, paint only the roof, and use a manual drill to make rows of holes for the bees to occupy. Some designs are more elaborate, drilling deeper holes into larger blocks (6″ is ideal) and lining them with parchment paper. These measures are generally taken by farmers and serious gardeners. We’ll experiment with different forms, and perhaps even try using invasive phragmites reeds.

Our mason bee homes will be donated to waterfront parks, gardens, and wilderness areas throughout NYC. One of our first installations will be the historic and beautiful Old Stone House near the Gowanus Canal. We’ll of course erect them all around our home waterway, the Newtown Creek!


Prototype mason bee home by Jessica Grable.

Tips for placement:

  • Southern exposure is ideal because mason bees seek warming morning sun.
  • Choose a secure and peaceful place, not one that sways or is noisy and full of movement.
  • Hang at eye level to keep them safe from critters and easy to check.


HarborLAB is Getting Seedier!


HarborLAB intern Jamilah Grizzle (second from left) and volunteers Patricia Vidals-Aquino, Scott Wolpow, and Phillip Anthony Borbon seed starting in reused cardboard paper towel rolls at the HarborLAB’s Newtown Creek GreenLaunch. 


HarborLAB Performing Arts Manager Mambo Tse tossing goldenrod seedballs on White Island, Brooklyn. 


Volunteer Davis Janowski and day volunteer planting Goldenrod and Little Blue Stem at Coney Island Creek. 

HarborLAB works to make New York City safer and more beautiful by planting native plants on waterfronts in all five boroughs. Best of all, we perform this service as we explore the city by canoe and kayak!

We accomplish this through spartina seedlings provided by the Greenbelt Native Plant Center (coming by June) and seeds our students and volunteers collect (with permission from park managers) and those provided by the center, native seed companies, and our friends at Briermere Farms.

Shoreline vegetation protects us from storm surge and erosion, stabilizes dunes, and sustains birds, mammals, reptiles, and beneficial insects. These plants also beautify neglected spaces in lower-income neighborhoods and provide new science, technology, engineering, and math teaching opportunities and inspiration.

HarborLAB intern Jamilah Grizzle, a Brooklynite attending The Masters School, recently inventoried our current seed holdings so that ecologists working for city, state, and national parks and preserves can direct us to where these plants are needed and what method would be best. For example, one strategy HarborLAB loves is seedballing, because these cherry-sized globes of clay, compost, and seeds can be tossed from a boat or tossed into areas of need without trampling through nests and existing plants. Making seedballs is also a terrifically social way of teaching kids and adults about local plant life cycles and how seeds are spread in nature.

Email us at if your school or youth service group would like to make seedballs, gather seeds, make seed starters, or even paddle with us to plant!

Binomial Common name Variety
Ageratina altissima White Snakeroot  
Amelanchier Serviceberry, Shadbush.
Asclepias Milkweed Purple
Cyanococcus Blueberry Highbush, Lowbush
Eragrostis spectabilis Purple Love Grass
Fanicum virgatum Switchgrass
Helenium autumnale Sneezewood
Helianthus Sunflower Common Sunflower, Incredible, Mammoth Russian, Mammoth, Solar Eclipse, Sunscraper Hybrid, Sunshine
Lathyrus japonicus Beach Pea
Leymus mollis American Dunegrass
Lespedeza capitata Bushclover
Opuntia humifusa Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus
Phytolacca decandra Pokeweed
Pinus rigada Pitch Pine
Prunus maritima Beach Plum
Rhus typhina Staghorn sumac
Rubus altissima, occientalis Raspberry Black cap, Pennsylvania
Rudbeckia hirta Black Eyed Susan
Solidago Goldenrod Canada, Gray, Seaside

HarborLAB volunteers planting Beach Plumb at Plumb Beach, Brooklyn. 


Hour Children kids with HarborLAB volunteers planting spartina grass plugs in Jamaica Bay, Queens, under the guidance of American Littoral Society and Jamaica Bay EcoWatchers.