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. 

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.

Types of Fog

The fog comes

on little cat feet.

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.

—  Carl Sandburg, 1916

Gothamist has been obsessing over fog this season, and for good reason. These beautiful cloud colonizations of the understory highlight our city’s skyscraper peaks and shroud our harbor in mystery and danger.

The National Weather Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, explains that what we experience is called “advection fog,” which is generated by “the horizontal movement of warm moist air over a cold surface. This means that advection fog can sometimes be distinguished from radiation fog by its horizontal motion along the ground. Sea fogs are always advection fogs, because the oceans don’t radiate heat in the same way as land and so never cool sufficiently to produce radiation fog. Fog forms at sea when warm air associated with a warm current drifts over a cold current and condensation takes place.”

Learn about the different types of fog from this National Weather Service educational page.