African Americans in Marine Sciences

African Americans have made contributions to maritime history and the sciences from the colonial period forward. The first wave of academically credentialed African American marine scientists, however, would not be born until toward the end of the 19th century. HarborLAB serves budding African American scientists through its youth programs each year, and for Black History Month honors trailblazers from years past.

Outstanding among the first generation of African American university scholars in the marine sciences were Ernest Everett Just and Roger Arliner Young, both born in the 1880s. Both went to prominent universities and did field-shaping research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, but white students were deprived of their gifts as teachers because of racial bigotry. Fortunately Dr. Just and Dr. Young received faculty appointments at historically black institutions where they inspired new generations of scientists.

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Ernest Everett Just

Dr. Just was renowned as a master designer of experiments. Though he died before the discovery of DNA, Dr. Just focused on eggs, especially those of marine invertebrates, because he saw them as the key to understanding life as an emergent complex system. An excellent biography of Dr. Just is Black Apollo of Science, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

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Roger Arliner Young

Dr. Young was the first African American woman to earn a PhD in zoology. She studied under Dr. Just and they both shared a mentor in Frank Rattray Lillie, a founder and first president of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She performed cutting edge experiments on the effects of radiation on marine eggs. Her radiation work, study of cellular salt regulation, and dehydration and rehydration of living cells can be seen as a precursor to today’s booming field of extremophile studies. Understanding the extreme tolerances of terrestrial organisms aids astrobiologists searching harsher worlds for signs of life.

Despite the achievements of the generation of Dr. Just and Dr. Young, and those who followed, even today to be a black marine biologist or oceanographer is pioneering. Dr. Ashanti Johnson, oceanographer, shares her experiences and inspiration in the video above. Students entering the field will likely have few or no black professors. HarborLAB’s message to these students is a simple one: Please, don’t be discouraged. Don’t allow yourself to feel excluded. We need as many bright young people as possible to study these fields because with fish stocks crashing and coral reefs dying, and ocean acidity increasing due to carbon dioxide pollution, advancement of marine sciences is a matter of survival.

A great resource for students of color seeking careers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields is the Institute for Broadening Participation’s Pathways to Science program. HarborLAB strongly recommends studying with our Natural Sciences partners at CUNY LaGuardia Community College and CUNY Baruch College. And of course, HarborLAB volunteers serve students by introducing them to the greatest teacher of all: Nature. As Dr. Just describes his first classroom, it was not with four walls:

“[It] was full of birds and flowers, especially in the spring, when the wrens awakened to the smell of wisteria and dogwood. Azaleas and camellias blossomed along the ditches where tadpoles swam, and Spanish moss gleamed from the trees…”

If you are part of a school or community group and want to join HarborLAB in environmental service learning on our boats or ashore, please email edu@harborlab.org.

East River Ice Floes and “Ice Bridges”

HarborLAB launch on the Newtown Creek from the Pulaski Bridge. Photo by Steve Scofield of the Transportation Queens Activist Committee (http://transalt.org/getinvolved/neighborhood/queens).
HarborLAB launch (beige building to the right) on the Newtown Creek from the Pulaski Bridge. The East River and its branches, like the creek, are saltier and so don’t freeze as easily, but perhaps the creek’s water treatment plant’s outflows and street runoffs are freezing? Photo by Steve Scofield of the Transportation Alternatives Queens Activist Committee (http://transalt.org/getinvolved/neighborhood/queens).

1867 etching of a flow of humanity across the frozen East River. One of eight times the strait froze over during that century. Image via Gothamist (click for link).

Ice floes on the East River are a rare sight in recent years, but the Brooklyn Bridge is a daily reminder of how extreme even relatively recent planetary climate fluctuations have been. Let’s explore how that is so, and take a fun detour into the molecular structure of water.

When scientists worry about climate change and global warming, they’re not ignoring the fact that Earth has experienced wildly different atmospheric compositions and temperatures over its 3.8 billion years as a living world. What we’re destabilizing, they worry, are the conditions that for 12,000 years have fostered the neolithic agricultural revolution and civilization itself.

Some worry that the more energy retained by the atmospheric system (global warming) through higher CO2 concentrations, the more chaotic it might become in mid-latitude coastal areas (our temperate zone) as we become a pass-through for storms that transport energy between the tropics and arctic. But just as a cold snap in one region or continent doesn’t refute the mounting evidence of global warming, it can be argued that we can’t say with certainty that storms like Hurricane Sandy are the result of warming.

That said, there are records, written and archeological, of worldwide changes that lasted years or even centuries. Might we enter another “Little Ice Age” like that of roughly 1300-1870? To get an idea of how severe winters of that period could be, several times the East River froze over. Brave souls walked over “ice bridges” from Brooklyn to Manhattan, but ferries vital to commerce were locked in place. After this happened again in the winter of 1866-67, businesses in our growing metropolis had enough and lobbied hard for a long-contemplated “Great East River Bridge” to keep commerce flowing in all weather. As it happens, the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, eight years after the East River last froze over solid. In a sense, the Brooklyn Bridge touches down on the shores of two boroughs and on the shores of two climatic ages. And we might have a Brooklyn Bridge because the Sun lacked spots!

A few things can cause the planet to cool. Some ascribe the deepest points of the Little Ice Age to the Maunder Minimum, a period sunspots and solar flares were extremely rare. Our sun is in a lull right now, but a 2012 NASA study found that recent solar inactivity hasn’t impacted our planet’s “energy budget” much.  A 2013 study by researchers with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (part of the National Science Foundation) and partners concluded that a Maunder Minimum redux wouldn’t save us from global warming.

Just as adding carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane to the atmosphere can warm the planet, kicking up dust and soot can cool it. Volcanoes have caused global cooling, as perhaps have asteroids and comets (even beloved Halley’s Comet). Some people even advocate for “geoengineering” projects that would cool the planet, but implementation could bring their own disasters. Besides, Ocean acidification, which could collapse the planetary ecosystem, would proceed apace if we continue to burn fossil fuels, even if we dust up to cool down.

East River ice floes and Hunter's Point South. Photo by Mark Christie of Friends of Gantry and Neighborhood Parks (http://friendsofgantry.org/).

East River ice floes and Hunter’s Point South (and the ice-whitened mouth of the Newtown Creek). Photo by Mark Christie of Friends of Gantry and Neighborhood Parks (http://friendsofgantry.org/).

East River ice floes floating past Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City, Queens. Photo by Mark Christie of Friends of Gantry and Neighborhood Parks (http://friendsofgantry.org/).

East River ice floes. Photo by Steve Sanford (http://www.stevesanfordartist.com)

East River ice floes. Photo by Steve Sanford (http://www.stevesanfordartist.com)

Bald Eagles on Hudson River ice floes. Photo by David Burg of WildMetro (www.wildmetro.org).

Bald Eagles (those little black dots) on Hudson River ice floes. Photo by David Burg of WildMetro (www.wildmetro.org).

Snow covered Palisades with Hudson River ice floes. Photo by David Burg of WildMetro (www.wildmetro.org).

Snow covered Palisades with Hudson River ice floes. Photo by David Burg of WildMetro (www.wildmetro.org).

Finally, a fun thing to ponder: What if ice didn’t float?

Join the OMEGA Exploratory Paddle!

Image courtesy of NASA.

Image courtesy of NASA.

Come paddle into the future! (We’ll stop for ice cream along the way).

HarborLAB will be receiving seed funds this month (announcement coming) to work with students to build a small, prototype photobioreactor on the Newtown Creek Superfund site modeled on the NASA’s project called OMEGA — Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae. HarborLAB’s vision is to work with students to grow clean, green fuel in membranes floating on a waterway polluted by the largest U.S. urban oil spill. Algae chosen for biofuel potential would harness sunlight on the open surface expanse and derive nutrients from treated water from the Newtown Creek sewage plant. How poetic is that?
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HarborLAB hopes to undertake OMEGA Newtown Creek as a project that will enrich the educational experiences of students at LaGuardia Community College and other area schools. As OMEGA Newtown Creek grows, we’ll welcome other nonprofit partnerships. One of our sponsors, Arup, is leading Hunters Point South park and infrastructure development at the Newtown Creek mouth and in Germany built an algae-powered building.
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HarborLAB sponsor Arup building in Germany with a photobioreactor skin.

HarborLAB sponsor Arup building in Germany with a photobioreactor skin.

On August 25th, we’ll be installation site scouting and generally exploring the creek, which tells uniquely instructive ecological tales. We’ll soon name our canoes for local and renowned environmental heroes — we hope Bernie Ente, Jenni Jenkins, and Rachel Carson would get a kick out of the NASA OMEGA Project.
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To participate in this paddle, please be at least 18 years old.  Email tours@harborlab.org with the subject line “OMEGA Paddle.” If possible, please email with your signed waiver form (https://harborlab.org/waivers/) attached. You can also visit our Facebook event page. BONUS: We’ll stop by Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory on the Greenpoint side before heading back.
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OMEGA might be especially suitable for the sheltered waters of Newtown Creek, away from destructive wave action. We’re in touch with NASA’s OMEGA project lead scientist Jonathon Trent, Ph.D. to learn as much as we can. We’re a long way from implementation (classroom and lab work, further funds, permits, curricular integration, etc.), but it starts Sunday, August 25 with a canoe paddle to assess possible installation sites.
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