Isn’t she truly awesome?
For that is when, I’m told, the first of my four essays written for Valley public Radio’s series “The Moral Is” was broadcast! I didn’t get a chance to hear how my words sounded as read by Kaye Cummings, because I was out of KVPR’s broadcast range, somewhere in Texas on my way back from the ESA conference in Austin.
Unfortunately, KVPR’s website is woefully behind the times, as you might’ve noticed if you clicked the above link: the most recent episode in the archive is from December 2009! Even the show’s description doesn’t quite match the content of this year’s essays (written by 4 others from Fresno State besides me). My first essay – the one read last week – for instance, was about the role of science in democracy, especially in the context of what happened in Egypt during the ongoing Arab Spring.
Since it may take them a while to update the archives, I will post the text of my essay here soon – probably a slightly expanded bloggy version (when we’ve restored our access to the interwebz at home).
Meanwhile, if any of you locals reading this have actually heard the essay, do let me know what you thought of it!
One of the factors attracting almost 4000 ecologists to downtown Austin in the middle of a hot Texas summer, I’m sure, are bats. Urban bats. Not the high-tech gizmo-laden kind from comic books, but tiny furry creatures that emerge from their urban lair in the heart of Austin every summer night to wreak vigilante justice on insects! Its a remarkable phenomenon: a breeding colony of some 1.5 million bats roosting under/inside the heavily trafficked Congress Avenue bridge smack-dab in the middle of the city.
What an amazing example of reconciliation ecology in practice! A bridge retrofit in 1980 resulted in structural changes that created crevices underneath the bridge which led to hollow spaces inside. Perfect habitat for the Mexican Free-tailed Bat, which soon discovered the swank new dwellings—a rent-free, safe, roomy dwelling, overlooking a fabulous river view, plenty of food nearby, and a safe environment to raise kids n teach them how to catch bugs; what’s not to like?—and moved in in droves. After initial fears and concerns about these seriously misunderstood creatures, fears that were allayed by Bat Conservation International, Austinites settled into an easy coexistence with the little creatures, which have continued to return to the bridge every spring from their winter homes in Mexico, to raise new broods by the hundreds of thousands. BatCon’s website has more about this colony’s history and social / economic significance.
This morning I had gone out early to see the bats return to roost in the dawn. I returned in the evening, with my iPad, to see the more remarkable phenomenon of mass emergence at night. The above video is the result – watch it full screen in the highest possible resolution (480P) for the best view. The clip starts a bit slow as I was waiting for the show to start along with a patiently sweating throng under the bridge. The bats started streaming out from the below the far end of the bridge first, so they are a bit hard to see – squint at the lowest strip of the sky near the lower-middle of the screen to see the stream. Keep watching, though, because soon enough more bats came out from right over our heads, and I managed to catch multiple streams pouring out into the evening sky, and a nice view of the sunset too! You’ll also hear the clicking of the bats as they navigated their way around the struts of the bridge, and squeals of delight and amazement from the watching humans.
Watch closely, and you might also notice a curious pattern to their flight under the bridge – the bats on the northern end of the bridge (where I was) wend their way around the struts and pillars supporting their bridge all the way to near the southern end where they then take to the sky as part of the main stream of traffic! I wonder why, except for once or twice during the peak of flow, they don’t just leave the bridge at once instead of joining that single stream. Mysterious and fascinating.
Later, talking to a volunteer docent from Bat Conservation International on the bridge, I learnt that the numbers were probably at the highest for the year because mama bats had weaned their pups of this spring, and were bringing them out to sample the night’s delights!
What a wonderful experience to watch this remarkable natural phenomenon happen right in the middle of a major urban area. And how amazing to see the wonder on the faces of humans crowding the bridge (some 8 million come to watch them every year, I’m told) for a glimpse of bats on a hot day. If this is possible in the middle of Texas, with all its rattlesnake-round-ups and evolution-denying schoolboards, surely we can find other ways to accommodate other wildlife in the midst of our own habitats now blanketing most of the land.
Watching the bats, mamas, pups, and all, drawing such a human crowd, with many a child gaping in awe… what a perfect way to end the ESA meeting, which had as its main theme: Earth Stewardship! There may yet be hope for our species and cohabitants of spaceship Earth, it seems…
As I have been tootin my own horn in several posts here this past week, I co-organized two symposia (1 & 2 and a workshop on Wednesday for a day of Urban Stewardship at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America which ended in Austin earlier today. The two symposia brought together researchers from 21 sites in the ULTRA-Ex network, and we met again later for a late evening workshop to discuss ways to nurture, grow, and sustain a grassroots network of collaborative long-term urban research sites. More of my thoughts on that later. For now, read the following report from science writer Hillary Rosner, who happened to be in the audience for much of the day, and even came to the evening workshop on an empty stomach! I’m very happy at the turnout to the events, and the quality of the conversations throughout the day – and thrilled to have our work appear in the online pages of the Gray Lady!
Researchers at Boston University have been measuring the ebb and flow of carbon dioxide emissions on different days of the week.
In Boston, scientists measuring the city’s greenhouse gas emissions have found what they call a “weekend effect,” a clear drop-off in the amount of carbon dioxide entering the city’s atmosphere on Saturdays and Sundays. In Fresno, researchers have discovered that backyard water use increases with wealth, as does backyard biodiversity. And in Los Angeles, ecologists studying the city’s “ecohydrology” have calculated that planting a million new trees, an idea with fairly universal appeal, would have the drawback of increasing water consumption by 5 percent.
The researchers, who presented their findings this week at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting in Austin, Tex., are all involved in a nascent program to understand the nation’s cities, home to 80 percent of the population, as functioning ecosystems. The goal is to educate urbanites about their environment and how they can act to make it more sustainable.
The program, called Ultra, for Urban Long-Term Research Area, is a joint effort of the National Science Foundation and the Forest Service. A total of 21 projects are under way, including two in New York City. In establishing financing (known as Ultra-Ex grants) for exploratory sites in 2009, the science foundation called urban sustainability one of “the greatest challenges to the long-term environmental quality of the nation.”
At a research site in Fresno, Calif., overseen by Madhusudan Katti, an ecologist at California State University’s campus there, the aim is to untangle the interactions between city water policy, outdoor water use at homes and biodiversity to help inform policy. On the average, wealthier households in Fresno use more water in their yards, yet not because the water is more affordable for them: the city has no metering system, so residents pay a fixed monthly rate.
Reducing water use is considered crucial to guaranteeing long-term sustainability, yet Dr. Katti found that using less water could cause local bird diversity to decline.
“Half the population globally lives in cities, but we don’t have a conceptual understanding of how cities work as dynamic systems,” Dr. Katti said. “We need to generate that understanding.”
Nathan Phillips, an ecologist at Boston University who runs one of the city’s two Ultra-Ex sites, told the audience at the conference that his project, which includes rooftop plant experiments both in and outside the city as well as measurements of greenhouse gases, had revealed a “pulsing type of urban metabolism.”
In a visible signature of human activity, emissions of carbon dioxide increase during the week and decline on the weekends, he said. The next step is putting sensors on 160 Boston buses and identifying the locations of natural gas leaks around the city.
In New York City, one Ultra-Ex project based at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is exploring links between public health, green spaces, and ecosystem services, or nature’s ability to perform functions like cleaning the air and water or preventing flooding. The project is studying seven green roofs, including one at the main post office building on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, to understand their role in preventing sewage from spilling into the city’s waterways during heavy rains.
Some Ultra-Ex projects have a social justice component. In Syracuse, the research helped prevent the installation of a sewage pipe in a low-income neighborhood. Scientists were able to show that installing features like green roofs and porous pavements could reduce storm water runoff.
Just as these research sites are beginning to reveal how such urban ecosystems function, federal budget cuts are calling their future into question. At the ecology meeting, a few dozen Ultra researchers met to discuss how to merge their independent projects into a more closely knit network with an online hub, with or without a central financing source. Cities, after all, will still live and breathe and eat and sweat regardless of what happens in Washington — where there is, by the way, an Ultra-Ex site researching the environmental factors that cause neighborhoods to decline or flourish.