July 26 Saturday Science Stumper!



How has this diamond caused scientists to radically revise their diagrams of Earth as a water world?



Nacre is the inner lining of shells that we call “Mother of Pearl.” It’s also the coating that gives pearls their luster. Mollusks secrete nacre to encase pathogens or irritants to protect their own soft tissues. But though nacre (rhymes with acre) exudes a cool, liquid iridescent light, it’s composed of many layers of plates assembled from aragonite. When light hits nacre, some is reflected right off of its surface, but much of it penetrates through the translucent layers of nacre. At each layer, some light penetrates deeper while other light is reflected. Light can even be reflected by in inner surface downward before bouncing outward again. Imagine this happening million and millions of times at any given moment through each 500 nanometer thick layer of nacre. Optical engineers might recognize that this thickness matches the wavelength of human perception, because our eye can detect wavelengths between 390nm-700nm.

Though beutiful to our attuned eyes, nacre’s aragonite is a calcium carbonate not too different from classroom chalk. If we ever found aragonite in an alien meteorite, we could be very confident that there was life out there. Aragonite is assembled by living organisms or forms in the presence of water. Because it can be eaten by organisms and dissolved in more acidic water (our oceans are increasingly acidic because of CO2 pollution), on a living world, you rarely find it older than 300 million years.

Some of the loveliest nacre in our region is that of orange and yellow jingle shells, an indigeous bivalve mollusk scientifically named Anomia simplex pictured below. HarborLAB volunteers Erik Baard and Caroline Walker gathered these from the Long Island Sound. They were inspired to formulate a HarborLAB outing with children to gather jingle shells and craft gifts for themselves and their families!

Jingle shells. Photo by Erik Baard.

Jingle shells. Photo by Erik Baard.


Citizens Committee for NYC “GreenLaunch” Grant!

HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson picking up the shoreline greening grant check from Citizens Committee for NYC!

HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson picking up the shoreline greening grant check from Citizens Committee for NYC!

Many thanks to Citizens Committee for NYC for a $3000 grant to help HarborLAB and community partners start to transform a 125′ stretch of Newtown Creek waterfront into a kayak and canoe launch set within green and thriving habitat! We call it the “GreenLaunch” project. We also give deep thanks to Schuman Properties, which permits HarborLAB to use its land. HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson will oversee much of the work, in coordination with Schuman Properties, scientific directors, and gardeners.

We continue to seek additional funds for this work.

HarborLAB seeks to renew a compacted dirt 125′ x 21′ lot alongside the Newtown Creek, an EPA-designated Superfund Site with wetlands species (especially spartina) in the intertidal zone, salt-tolerant uplands species to stabilize land, and raised bed edible vines and trees for shading. Annual crops will be grown in straw bales, which can also serve as safety perimeters, as recommended and supplied by Dorothy Morehead, Community Board 2 Environmental Chair. We’ll preserve and expand areas where monarch butterfly supporting milkweed and goldenrod is growing. About 50′ of upland space will be for active use while the rest is phased in as habitat restoration. All 125′ of shoreline will be devoted to habitat, apart from narrow strips for stairs and a boat slide.

We will also install a small field station (a simple overhanging small deck of plastic timber made from recycled plastic bags) from which we can have younger students safely do water sampling and make observations.

This Field Station platform will eventually also be home base for a “biocrete” oyster habitat (solar-
powered system to accrete minerals from seawater, pioneered locally by Coastal Preservation Network), floating photobioreactor, Newtown Creek livecam, and other innovative projects.

Our Voyage to Kids Rule Island!



Hour Children kids run loose on Kids Rule Island! Photo by Elizabeth Lopez.

On July 19, HarborLAB took Hour Children on the second of several learning adventures planned for this season. This time we paddled at Orchard Beach Lagoon in Pelham Bay Park, New York City’s largest park. We chose this location foremost because there is public swimming at Orchard Beach, so water quality in the park is more closely monitored than it is at most launches. Patricia Erickson and Erik Baard surveyed and paddled Pelham Bay Park last year with WildMetro, an urban conservation and ecological education group. HarborLAB Operations Manager EJ Lee, who frequently catch-and-release fishes in the park using barbless hooks, brought volunteers on an orientation paddle in May.

The park also offers a great variety of natural experiences for the kids. We divided the 13 kids into two groups, alternating activities. Each child paddled, hiked the Kazimiroff Nature Trail, and swam at the beach! A third draw is that the area is scientifically fascinating. The uplands include a forest within which one can see one of New York City’s oldest trees, the Grandmother Oak, and migrating raptors and songbirds. Nestled within the forest is a rare meadow that’s home to native wild orchids (which absolutely must remain untouched) and insects seldom seen in our city.

At the shore there are saltwater marshes lush with spartina, also called cordgrass. This reinforced HarborLAB’s focus on the species through Cordgrass in the Classroom and activities with the American Littoral Society. We launched the first group at low water, which was a mucky affair, but it allowed the kids to see egrets feeding on invertebrates in the mudflats that skirted the spartina and to see mussels, oysters, crabs, snails, and soil porous with tiny sand crab and bloodworm holes. These two organisms are amazingly specialized. The crabs are egg-shaped and lack claws so they can more easily slip through sand, while bloodworms actually concentrate copper in their jaws to better withstand sand and gravel erosion and perhaps catalyze a venom! Like other shore denizens, they move and aerate the sand. We had kids shout back and memorize the names of the new species they encountered on the paddle. Their favorite new birds weren’t the showy white egrets, daring diving cormorants, or furtive night herons. Red winged black birds, with their striped epaulets, won the day. “Why? Because I like beautiful birds,” said Christian, one of the Hour Children kids. He added that “people should go to jail if they hurt animals.”

But the greatest creatures encountered that morning were of the imagination. One Hour Children girl, Jada, was absolutely certain that the orange buoys dotting the lagoon for rowing races were actually the heads of menacing octopi. Her adult paddling partner, HarborLAB Relationships Manager Bob Din, a father of three, was clearly amused and did little to discourage this notion.


First wave of Hour Children’s paddlers with HarborLAB at low tide on the rocky section of the launch, which is flanked by muddy expanses and healthy spartina. Photo by Erik Baard.


First wave of Hour Children’s paddlers with HarborLAB at low tide on the rocky section of the launch, which is flanked by muddy expanses and healthy spartina. Rowers in white racing sculls in the background. HarborLAB volunteers Elizabeth Lopez and Bob Din in the foreground. It was a great help that three of the four volunteers were parents themselves. Photo by Erik Baard.

Oystercatchers were also busy feeding at the edge of rocky islets, some so small that even Canada geese ignored them. It’s those islets, however, that were one of greatest goals for the second wave of paddlers. We fibbed a bit when the kids asked us, “Where are we going?” and we responded, “We don’t know! We’re explorers!” That got the kids excited and they readily embraced their new occupation. But Patricia discreetly suggested that we head for an island she’d enjoyed visiting during the volunteers’ May trip. As we rounded the lagoon’s marshy gate, the island of smooth and seemingly flowing stone came into view. Hour Children kids Christian and Braden piped up. “Can we climb it?,” Braden cheerily asked. Christian just boldly announced that he’d climb it as soon as we landed.

We asked the kids how old the rock of the island might be. Braden answered, “Fifty years old?” When we explained that the youngest rock was perhaps 400 million years old, the kids yelled that fact to each other and paddled even faster, eager to discover an ancient remnant. The island, Hog Island, belonged to the Siwanoy, an Algonquin people. The only recorded resident, however, was squatter Marion Lang, according to an excellent Columbia Journalism School account City Island and its smattering of neighbors.

Given the light footprint of history on the island, we left it to the kids to name it anew. Brianna quickly dubbed it Kids Rule Island, and the others heartily concurred. We adults all requested permission to come ashore, except for Bob, who declared with a smile that he was a pirate. Bob proved to be more of an archaeologist, spotting what might be post footings from the Lang residence, which was abandoned upon her death in 1930.


The landing beach at Kids Rule Island. HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson looks on as Relationships Manager Bob Din helps kids discover life under the rocks. Founder and Executive Director Erik Baard brings a boat around for the return. Oystercatchers were busy on the smaller island in the background. Photo by HarborLAB volunteer Elizabeth Lopez.

The landing beach offered many chances for learning. with numerous and varied shells. Skittering around were juvenile blue claw crabs. But the stone of the island itself told the story of ancient volcanoes and the crash and drift of continents. Orchard Beach Lagoon opens onto the Long Island Sound, which is famous for giant boulders deposited by glaciers that retreated over 10,000 years ago. But these islets among the Pelham Islands are eruptions of bedrock. They are banded and swirled, or “foliated metamorphic rock,” because at one point the immense pressures and frictions of North America and Africa colliding and retreating at the very spot melted stone and folded those molten layers into each other. Any fossils from those times would have been erased. In some places Ice Age glaciers scarred the rocks by grinding and scraping them. It’s hard to imagine this quiet spot was once so violent with lava and ice, but the ancient tales are written in stone.


Hartland Gneiss at Hog Island, aka Kids Rule Island. Photo by Elizabeth Lopez.

The two most famous types of bedrock in our region are Fordham Gneiss, which is over a billion years old, and Manhattan Schist. But when we launched our kayaks into this realm of islets, we found ourselves among Hartland Gneiss. In landing on such an islet, explains a great Queens College report, “Now we have stepped off the old North American continent, onto the exotic terrain that arrived ~450 Ma ago (Figure 4C). The Hartland formation here contains a variety of rock types, including quartz-feldspar gneiss, biotite-sillimanite schist, amphibolite, and marble.” Many of the rock formations were formed on the ocean floor.

But we had only hours, not epochs, for our little voyages. We had to turn back so the kids could make it home in time after enjoying ice cream! The ice cream was paid for by a HarborLAB supporter through Patricia, earmarked for Hour Children programs.  Thanks, Pat!


Patricia Erickson and her Hour Children kid partner paddle back to the launch. Photo by Elizabeth Lopez.

July 12 is City of Water Day! Come to Governors Island!














It’s City of Water Day! Come to Governors Island today for FREE KAYAKING with HarborLAB from 10AM-1:30PM and visit our education table! Then stick around for the crazy cardboard kayak races! Enjoy many more events, entertainments, foods, and arts arranged by the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, producer of City of Water Day! Directions to Governors Island here: http://cityofwaterday.squarespace.com/directions-to-gi/



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