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Larry Swanson

Stony Brook University’s Larry Swanson, Malcolm Bowman and Carl Safina have been chosen to be part of the new state Ocean Acidification Task Force. Photo from Stony Brook University

Stony Brook University will be well represented on the new state Ocean Acidification Task Force examining the effect of acidification on New York’s coastal waters. The legislation was drafted by Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), chair of the Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation.

The university has three representatives on a 14-member team that will explore the impacts of acidification on the ecology, economy and recreational health of the coastal waters, while also looking to identify contributing factors and make recommendations to mitigate the effects of these factors.

“We have some of the best people in ocean acidification science who will be part of the process.”

— James Gennaro

Englebright said he was pleased to have the SBU representatives on the task force.

“We have these extraordinary scholars and researchers at the university who have a lot to contribute, and I hope that we’re able to listen closely to their advice regarding new policy and potentially new law to protect our coastal ecosystem and marine water.”

Larry Swanson, associate dean of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences will join Malcolm Bowman, distinguished service professor and Carl Safina, endowed research chair for nature and humanity, both also from SoMAS. The task force, which will have its first meeting some time in September at SBU, was signed into law in 2016 and is operating under the direction of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the New York State
Department of Environmental Conservation.

“We will make recommendations to the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Legislature and will share information about what our understanding of the state of knowledge of ocean acidification is, what are the impacts that we know about in New York state waters,” Swanson said, adding the group will suggest factors to monitor for consequences of acidification.

The composition of the group reflects its wide-ranging mandate, with members including Karen Rivara, owner of Aeros Cultured Oyster Company and former president of the Long Island Farm Bureau.

“We have a very significant shellfish industry that’s potentially in jeopardy. We need to understand what ocean acidification is doing to that industry.”

— Larry Swanson

Ocean acidification has been increasing at a rapid pace amid the increasing output of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Since the industrial revolution more than 200 years ago, ocean acidification has increased by about 30 percent, as absorbed carbon dioxide is converted into carbonic acid. The rate of change of ocean acidification is at a historic high and is 10 times faster than the last major acidification, 55 million years ago, according to a press release announcing the formation of the task force.

The task force, which will allow the public to provide input through a website it is developing and at its meetings, will focus on gathering existing data about the waters in and around Long Island, collecting additional information and offering the New York State Legislature suggestions for future policies.

The group will “figure out how to make science into policy-ready proposals,” said James Gennaro, chair of the task force and deputy commissioner at the DEC. Gennaro is pleased with the composition of the group.

“We have some of the best people in ocean acidification science who will be part of the process,” Gennaro said.

Swanson believes it’s important to consider understanding what is going on in the interior bays, including the Great South Bay and the Long Island Sound, as well as the New York Bight which is a curved area from Long Island to the north and east, and includes areas south and west to Cape May, New Jersey.

Some of the questions Swanson said he believes the group will explore include, “Can we measure changes based on what we know from historical information, how bad are those changes and what are the likely consequences?”

“This is very much a local water, coastal water, embayment improvement initiative.”

— James Gennaro

Improving the ecology of the ocean doesn’t have to be at the expense of the local economy, and vice versa, Swanson suggested.

Indeed, New York’s marine resources support nearly 350,000 jobs and generate billions of dollars through tourism, fishing and other business.

“We have a very significant shellfish industry that’s potentially in jeopardy,” Swanson said. “We need to understand what ocean acidification is doing to that industry. We can do things like control effluent going into the Great South Bay and Peconic Bay.”

Protecting and preserving the environment will “have a payoff” for the economy, Swanson added.

While the problem is global, monitoring agencies should oversee local impacts, Swanson and Gennaro agreed.

“This is very much a local water, coastal water, embayment improvement initiative,” Gennaro said, who added he is “eager” to get started.

The task force will meet no less than four times. The public will be able to follow the task force on the website that SBU and the DEC
are creating.

It is “imperative to do all we can to make sure we stay ahead of [and] act on” ocean acidification, Gennaro said.

Swanson suggested that local action can have consequences. People sometimes suggest that whatever policymakers do in New York will be a drop in the bucket compared to the overall problem of ocean acidification.

“If that’s the drop that causes the bucket to overflow, that’s an important drop,” Swanson said. “We can certainly make suggestions that we ought to do things on a national and global level.”

An eroding bluff at Long Beach has been stabilized by constructing a stone seawall at the bluff’s base. The bluff has been terraced to capture material that rolls down from the top and can be planted with vegetation that will help stabilize it. Photo from R. Lawrence Swanson

By R. Lawrence Swanson

Much has been proposed, written, and even implemented, to sustain, armor, adapt, make resilient and conserve the low-lying areas of Long Island’s South Shore since Hurricane Sandy five years ago. That coast is vulnerable to extensive inundation by accelerated sea level rise, the vagaries of storm surges and climate change. Indeed, there are core areas that now flood regularly on the semi-monthly spring tides.

The North Shore of the Island has been largely neglected in the sea level rise/storm surge discussions and planning even though it is equally vulnerable to these processes. The entire geomorphology of the North Shore is subject to change with or without anthropogenic intervention. The challenge is to be able to manage this change so that the environmental services — harbors of refuge, beaches, wetlands, fisheries, aesthetics — provided by the complex, precarious topography of the North Shore remain functionally stable for the region, communities and private interests.

Much of the North Shore is composed of unconsolidated morainal bluffs — many 50 feet or higher — accompanied by down-current cobble barrier beaches. These spits form the small pocket bays and harbors that are the locations of historic settlements. They provide refuge for people and marine ecosystems from the energy of waves and storms. The beautiful pocket bays of Mount Sinai, Port Jefferson, Stony Brook, Northport, Huntington, Cold Spring Harbor and Oyster Bay are now the cultural centers of the North Shore.

The protective spits that form these bays are fed by erosion of the adjacent coastal bluffs. In order for the pocket bays to be maintained, spits must have a sufficient sediment supply to overcome erosional forces and sea level rise, which is currently increasing at about 1.5 feet a century in Long Island Sound, but undoubtedly will accelerate here and globally. The general process is that the bluffs are undercut at their base or toe by waves and extreme tides. This undercutting will become more severe as sea level rises and we experience greater and longer lasting storm surges in the coming years. The bluffs then slump — about 2 feet per year — creating new beach material, some of which is transported by littoral (near-shore) currents to create and sustain the barrier spits. The small beaches at the toe of the bluffs reduce the wave run-up and thus bluff erosion.

“The North Shore of the Island has been largely neglected in the sea level rise/storm surge discussions and planning even though it is equally vulnerable to these processes.”

— R. Lawrence Swanson

Construction of seawalls for which there is increasing demand along the bluff faces hinders these natural processes. Beaches fronting the bluffs will disappear so that waves will be beating directly on the seawalls. Little material will be available for transport to maintain the barrier spits with rising sea level. Those spits will then be subject to overwashing — perhaps exposing the embayments behind continuously to the open waters of the Sound.

What can be done in the way of resiliency to preserve the character of the North Shore and yet also protect individual properties on the Sound — both those on the cliffs and those on the barrier spits? Is hardening the bluffs and beaches at great expense the answer? Do we let nature take its course? Do residents on the barrier beaches have rights to the sediment of eroding cliffs in much the same way that downstream California claims rights to Colorado River water? If hardening of bluffs is allowed, will there be enough sediment at the toe to maintain a beach to reduce wave run-up?

New York State needs to examine this issue and develop guidance that works for all. Current policies are confusing and perhaps conflicting. This is a regional issue that cannot be solved property by property or even on a town-by-town basis.

With the state of development on the North Shore, some form of intervention or adaptation is probably required; nature cannot be left totally unchecked, given the grim climate projections for this coming century. Extensive hardening of the shoreline is equally unpalatable. There are negative downstream effects from almost all anthropogenic solutions. We need to understand and minimize them. Once started, hardening will eventually result in entombing us, totally eliminating the natural beauty and functionality of the North Shore that we enjoy. Perhaps there are softer forms of resilience that will allow preservation of natural processes yet significantly reduce the anticipated severe erosion from wind, rain, accelerated sea level rise and climate change. We need to find those techniques and implement them consistently.

In the meantime, there are zoning measures that can be practiced that will reduce erosion of these steep coastal faces — establish respectable setbacks, reduce or eliminate clearing, minimize variances resulting in overbuilding and consider downstream impacts of stabilization measures.

Long Island’s low-lying South Shore is at risk to the negative impacts of storm surge, sea level rise and climate change and much attention is being given to it. The North Shore, while seemingly elevated from these impacts, is not. Because its steep coast consists of unconsolidated sediments, it will experience extensive erosion. We need to understand, plan for and implement regional adaptive measures to reduce potential adverse effects to assure resilience of this vulnerable coastal environment.

R. Lawrence Swanson is the interim dean and associate dean of the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

A steam shovel fills a waiting dump truck to distribute sand along West Meadow Beach. By Donna Newman

Winter strolls along West Meadow Beach have been put on hold to avoid future environmental and boating problems.

Since Dec. 4, the Town of Brookhaven beach and Trustees Road in Stony Brook have been closed to the public. The town’s parks  department made the decision to accommodate an ongoing Suffolk County dredging project.

“It was the determination of the law and parks departments to close the beach due to safety and liability issues,” town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said. “Resident safety is paramount to the town.”

While the dredging project is in effect, multiple trucks and dredging equipment will be accessing the beach, which could potentially cause dangerous situations for visitors if the beach remained open.

Dredging is nothing new for Long Island waterways, according to Larry Swanson, interim dean and associate dean of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and director of the Waste Reduction and Management Institute at Stony Brook University. The sediment dredged from the depths of waterways is added to beaches to nourish the shorelines, which in turn helps to slow down erosion and protects structures from rising sea levels and storm surges. He said dredging projects are ideally done in the winter to protect marine organisms, which aren’t as active during the season as they are in warmer months. He said the currents are typically strong where the county is dredging, which most likely will produce clean sand and gravel.

Swanson said Long Beach in Smithtown, which is located slightly west of the Stony Brook beach and regularly needs dredging material, is progressing to the east/northeast about 1 yard per year.

“What that does as it progresses, it tends to cause the currents to eat into West Meadow Beach,” he said. “So when that happens, sometimes there’s a cut that forms in West Meadow Beach.”

The dean said it is ideal to fill up the cut so it doesn’t keep eroding, as there’s a possibility in 20 years that it could break into West Meadow creek.

“The preservation of beaches as we know them is somewhat depending upon this source of dredge material,” Swanson said.

The dean said dredging is done for other reasons, too.

“The channel coming into Stony Brook Harbor fills up to the point where the low water depth is no more than 1 or 2 feet, and most boats that enter Stony Brook Harbor have a draft in excess of 1 or 2 feet and so they hit bottom,” Swanson said. “People don’t want to damage their boats.”

West Meadow Beach is expected to reopen on or about Jan. 1, according to a statement from Brookhaven Town.

Beetles, which thrive in warmer temperatures, are threatening pine trees

Residents from Cutchogue work together to place sand bags at the edge of the Salt Air Farm before Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Photo by Prudence Heston

While surrounded by salt water, Long Island is in the midst of a drought that is heading into its third year. Amid a trend towards global warming, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation sent a letter to water district superintendents throughout Suffolk and Nassau County to ask them to lower their water consumption by 15 percent in the next three to four years.

“The primary area that is ripe for reduction is summertime watering,” said Bill Fonda, a spokesman for the DEC. The department has asked the water districts to reduce consumption, but it’s up to the districts to determine how they will reach those goals, he said.

The letter, written by Tony Leung, the regional water engineer, indicated that “results for 2015 show both Nassau and Suffolk County have exceeded the safe yield as cited in the 1986 Long Island Groundwater Management Program,” and that “a concerted effort is needed to reduce peak season water demand.”

The letter, which doesn’t cite global warming, indicates that salt water intrusion, contaminant plumes migration, salt water upconing and competing demand have raised concerns about a need to reduce peak season water demand.

Observers suggested the demand was likely rising for a host of reasons, including increased use of underground irrigation systems and a rise in the population of Long Island.

Water experts welcomed the DEC’s initiative, which is one of many steps Long Islanders can and are taking to respond to a changing environment.

“Most people have no clue how much water they use…They get their water bill, it is what it is, and then they write a check and send it in.”

— Sarah Meyland

Sarah Meyland, the director of the Center for Water Resources Management and associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology, commended the DEC for asserting control over water withdrawals.

“Most people have no clue how much water they use,” Meyland said. “They get their water bill, it is what it is, and then they write a check and send it in.”

She admitted changing consumer behavior will be challenging.

The first step in ensuring water suppliers meet this request, Meyland suggested, is to inform the public about the need for less water use, particularly during the summer months. One possible solution is for irrigation systems that turn off automatically after a rainstorm.

The change in climate has posed a threat to trees that commonly grow on Long Island.

Pine trees have faced an invasion from the southern pine beetle, which extended its range onto Long Island in 2014 and is now a pest that requires routine managing and monitoring.

Long the scourge of pine trees in southern states, the pine beetle, which is about the size of a grain of rice, has found Long Island’s warmer climate to its liking.

“We’re assuming either [Hurricane] Irene or Sandy brought it in,” said John Wernet, a supervising forester at the DEC. “Because it’s getting warmer, the beetle has been able to survive farther north than they have historically.”

Forestry professionals in the south have waged a battle against the beetle for years, trying to reduce the economic damage to the timber market. On Long Island, Wernet said, they threaten to reduce or destroy the rare Pine Barrens ecosystem.

The beetle can have three or four generations in a year and each generation can produce thousands of young.

The first step relies on surveying trees to find evidence of an infestation. Where they discover these unwanted pests, they cut down trees and score the bark, which creates an inhospitable environment for the beetle.

“If left alone, the beetle is like a wildfire and will keep going,” Wernet said. Without direct action, that would be bad news for the pine warbler, a yellow bird that lives near the tops of pine trees, he said.

Wernet added Long Island’s drought also increases the risk of
wildfires.

Farmers, meanwhile, have had to contend with warmer winters that trick their crops into growing too soon while also handling the curveballs created by unexpected cold snaps, frosts, and the occasional nor’easter.

Dan Heston and Tom Wickham survey waters that entered Salt Air Farm after Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Prudence Heston

Last year, the colored hydrangeas of Salt Air Farm in Cutchogue budded early amid warmer temperatures in March, only to perish amid two eight-degree nights.

“We lost [thousands of dollars] worth of hydrangeas in two nights,” said Dan Heston, who works on the farm with his wife Prudence, whose family has been farming on Long Island for 11 generations. “Our whole colored hydrangea season was done.”

Heston said he’s been a skeptic of climate change, but suggested he can see that there’s something happening with the climate on Long Island, including the destructive force of Hurricane Sandy, which flooded areas that were never flooded during large storms before.

“I think the climate is shifting on Long Island,” Prudence Heston explained in an email. “Farmers are constantly having to adapt to protect their crops. In the end, pretty much every adaptation a farmer makes boils down to climate.”

Changes on Long Island, however, haven’t all been for the worse. Warmer weather has allowed some residents to grow crops people don’t typically associate with Long Island, such as apricots and figs. For three generations, Heston’s family has grown apricots.

Other Long Islanders have attempted to grow figs, which are even more sensitive to Long Island winters, Heston said. This was not an economically viable option, as each plant required individual wrapping to survive. That hasn’t stopped some from trying.

“People are now finding our winters to be warm enough to make [figs] a fun back yard plant,” Prudence Heston said.

In other positive developments, the Long Island Sound has had a reduction in hypoxia — low oxygen conditions — over the last decade, according to Larry Swanson, the interim dean of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University.

“The state and the Environmental Protection Agency have agreed to a nitrogen reduction program,” Swanson said. “It appears that the decline in nitrogen may be having a positive effect.”

Brookhaven Town took a similar step in 2016.

The town board approved a local law proposed by Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) last summer that established nitrogen protection zones within 500 feet of any body of water on or around Long Island. The zones prohibit new structures or dwellings being built in that range from installing cesspools or septic systems.

Scientists, like those who work out of the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences’ Marine Sciences Center, are constantly asking questions, as the desire grows to find links between correlation and causation. File photo

Researchers often desire more data to help make the distinction between correlation — it rained the last three Tuesdays — and causation — dumping nitrogen into the lake caused the growth of algae that robbed the lake of oxygen.

Scientists don’t like to get ahead of their information, preferring to take the painstaking steps of going that extra mile to control for as many mitigating or confounding variables as they can.

Researchers are often “reluctant to say with certainty that they are correct,” Larry Swanson, the interim dean of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University said.

This hesitation to indicate a certain conclusion can raise challenges for politicians, who would like to rely on scientific proof in developing plans for their constituents.

“Policy people want to create a law or regulation that is definitive and will have the desired outcome,” Swanson added.

File photo.

Since he began working in and around Long Island waters in 1960, he started his work collecting data at wetlands around New Haven, and has since studied hypoxia — the process through which oxygen levels are depleted in waterways.

Swanson urges a more extensive collection of data around Long Island.

“I believe we need to monitor the physical environment for changes not just for time series data, such as temperature, but in order to understand how ecological processes are being altered as a consequence of warming,” Swanson said.

Henry Bokuniewicz, a distinguished service professor of oceanography at Stony Brook, said there was a coastline monitoring program in place in 1995 after nor’easters and hurricanes in 1992, but that the effort petered out.

“This should be re-established if [New York State is] serious about coastal impact of shoreline changes,” he said.

Bokuniewicz also suggests measuring and recording waves that are close to shore, and water levels at the ocean coast and interior bays.

Stony Brook had an initiative for additional hires in a cluster for coastal engineering and management, but never completed the hires for budgetary reasons, Bokuniewicz said. “We could do much better with a new generation of scientists dedicated to the Long Island shore,” he said.

Scientists acknowledge that the study of climate change rarely involves establishing the kind of linear connection between action and reaction that turning up the thermostat in a house would provide.

Scientists distinguish between the weather — is it raining today, tomorrow or next week — and the climate — how does March in New York compare to March in North Carolina?

File photo

The climate, generally, remains consistent with a long-term outlook, even if Long Island might experience an unseasonably hot July, an unusually cool September and a heavier-than-normal snowfall in December.

With climate change, scientists collect as much data as they can to determine how the climate is shifting. That presents significant challenges: how do researchers pick data to feed into their models and the patterns to explore?

The broader trend in March could be that spring starts earlier, extending the growing season and creating opportunities for insects, plants or animals to affect the habitat. That could be slightly different this year, amid a cold snap that lasts more than a few days, or in the wake of an unexpected blizzard days before spring.

Indeed, until, and even after there is a scientific consensus, researchers debate long into the night about their interpretations, conclusions and simulation models.

More often than not, scientists crave more information to help them interpret evolving conditions.

“While we know in general why hypoxia will be bad, we can’t really predict it,” Swanson said. “When will it start? How long will it last? This is because we do not understand all the processes — things like the role of bacteria, phytoplankton and the blooming processes and water circulation.”

Science, as it turns out, is often more about collecting more information to ask better questions and developing more precise theories.

As researchers often point out, they can be wrong for the right reasons and right for the wrong ones, all of which, they hope, helps them understand more about the inevitable next set of questions. And, as scientists have offered, it’s a never-ending discussion, as the best answers lead to more questions.

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