Getting the Drop on Pitch Pine

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.
(Our apologies for the delayed publication.)

Photos and text by Erik Baard

Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) is a hardy little tree that’s native to the eastern US and coastal from the Chesapeake Bay to Acadia National Park, Maine. They thrive in a variety of harsh conditions from poor alpine scratch to low swamps. They protect dunes, stabilize shores, and feed birds and insects. These crooked and twisted trees are rarely used for lumber, but as you can imagine, they were in great demand for the resin pitch.

Physicists are fascinated by how a drop of room temperature pitch can be shattered by a hammer blow yet is experimentally shown to be a liquid (unlike ice, which is a true crystalline solid). The hardness and consistency of pitch, which is also malleable when heated, makes it extremely useful for preserving and waterproofing ships, railroad ties, and mine shaft supports. It’s also used to flavor wine, and sometimes medicinally. Outdoor enthusiasts often use pitch for lamps and torches, glue and wound binding, or even to make natural plastic widgets! Now research labs are following suit.

These trees are very well protected against fire by their specialized bark. In a worst case scenario, even a stump can spring to life with new branches. Their cones also pop open when exposed to intense heat, so they not only endure the flames but help regenerate the ecosystem.

In our region, you can enjoy pitch pine forests in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, Fire Island, and Long Island’s East End. But NYC parks have stands of them too,  including Hunters Point South Park just blocks away from HarborLAB. We’ll grow seeds gathered there at the HarborLAB GreenLaunch!

HarborLAB makes pitch pine seedballs to benefit our entire harbor. We’ve gathered cones with students and volunteers with Baruch College, New Jersey Institute of Technology, National Iranian-American Council, and Hunters Point Parks Conservancy. We learned our seed ball making technique from Seedball NYC, and how to get seeds from pine cones (by baking them) from the Greenbelt Native Plant Center of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s Natural Resources Group.

Pine seed. Photo and labeling by University of Miami: http://www.bio.miami.edu/dana/dox/altgen.html

Pine seed. Photo and labeling by University of Miami: http://www.bio.miami.edu/dana/dox/altgen.html

Worrying Dawn of the Blue Era

Water Wonk Wednesdays

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

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Erik Baard at Hallets Cove in 2015. Photo by NYCDEP for HarborLAB. 

by Erik Baard

The East River has so far rolled through this winter unadorned by a white speckling of sea ice (photos here are from 2015). On the Hudson River, bald eagles and seals have no ice floes to ride from the foot of the Palisades to the skyline. HarborLAB volunteer Thomas Dieter, director of CUNY Start at LaGuardia Community College, relays his observations from his home in Hunters Point South:

“We haven’t spotted ice yet this winter, and at this point I’m guessing we won’t. From our apartment at Hunters Point South Park, we can see that the inlets and coves just north of Newtown Creek haven’t iced over. In the past, the inlet where the ferry docks and the cove south of the fishing pier iced over at some point–but no such luck so far this year that we could see…The water in these areas doesn’t move as quickly as the river, and it’s far shallower, so I expected ice to collect there again this January and February.”

Our local disappointment echoes the vanishing polar sea ice aspect of the global climate change crisis, though some seek to take advantage of it for undersea fuel extraction, military maneuvers, and shipping. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Report Card on sea ice, glaciers, snow cover, temperatures, indigenous cultures, and animal health is profoundly grim. A special concern is ocean acidification in the Arctic, which is undermining the regional ecosystem’s less diverse food chain.
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Scientific American/Climate Central report that winter sea ice at both poles has retreated to record lows. This is a sharp reversal from a record Antarctic peak last year, but a continuation of a trend of historic lows in the Arctic. Ice sheets ashore — notably in Greenland — are shrinking and thinning too. Winter heat waves are lashing the Arctic as warm air pushes north.
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Gantry Plaza State Park in 2015. Photo by Mark Christie, Hunters Point Parks Conservancy. 

The Gift of Greater Safety!

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HarborLAB is very happy to announce that this week we’ll be purchasing a dock ladder for Gantry Plaza State Park to make it easier, less stressful, and safer for people to climb out of the water. To our volunteers and partners, an even safer 2015 is the best holiday gift of all!

Unintended swims are a natural, if rare, part of kayaking. All participants and dock workers wear life vests, so not every dunk is an emergency. But every dunk has the potential to become an emergency should wakes, medical conditions, currents, or other factors add complications and dangers. It’s best to have a quick and safe way out of the water to where volunteers are ready to help.

HarborLAB volunteers have been advocating for public paddling programs at Gantry Plaza State Park for over a decade, even before our organization existed! We’re grateful and thrilled that through the efforts of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation and Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance that our dreams were realized. We’re also deeply grateful to the Hunters Point Point Parks Conservancy for partnering on outreach and volunteer recruitment for the public program. We pioneered public paddling and floating science programs in the park this year, to the benefit of Baruch College, Hunters Point Community Middle School, 350.org, and other environmental education partners.

The ladder we install will also be a boon to other programs at Gantry Plaza State Park, such as the recreational paddling program produced by the Long Island City Community Boathouse, which was also founded by Erik Baard, founder of HarborLAB.

HarborLAB is grateful to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation for permitting this ladder work and partnering with our skilled volunteers (contractors and mechanics) to see to the sturdiest and most user-friendly installation. We’ll look to the State to make the final determination of what ladder would be proper before we make the purchase from West Marine. We’re looking at lifting ladders and flip ladders to prevent slippery fouling of the lower rungs and damage at low tide.

And hey, if you’re wondering about water quality in Gantry Plaza State Park, we have great news! Water sampled by HarborLAB volunteers at Gantry Plaza State Park, as gauged by specific bacteria counts, routinely tests in LaGuardia Community College labs as far better than any other paddling program spot in western Queens! But though Gantry water is often swimming quality, we’re all about the boats, ’bout the boats. No treading…   😉

HarborLAB at Gantry Plaza State Park. Photo by Erik Baard.

HarborLAB at Gantry Plaza State Park. Photo by Erik Baard.