Category Archives: development

Feeling Nature Deficit. Sad!

Last month I bought a “happy lamp” to fill my office cubicle with the light of a fake sun. This form of light therapy is supposed to mimic the effects of sunlight and improve your mood accordingly. The disease it tries to cure is SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, which usually occurs in winter when the days are darker, sunlight is milder, and time indoors seems preferable to braving the cold.

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Fake ads.

You’ve probably felt it on a rainy day. String together a seemingly endless set of rainy days, and your mood and energy level drop. SAD.

Does the lamp work? Maybe. But I’m not sure that sunlight is the only thing I’m missing. What about fresh air, greenery, water, and wildlife? I’m feeling less SAD and more NAD, or nature deficit disorder.

Unlike SAD, this disorder is not diagnosed clinically, and debate continues about what it really is. The term comes from a journalist’s perspective (author Richard Louv) instead of from experimentation. Grad students, get on this!

Cubes of Death

I have lived in worked in very natural environments and very artificial ones. My current

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Cubicle farm, minus the outdoor-farm part.

situation is one of the most artificial, and we joke that it’s a “cubicle farm.” One gray cube blends into another and another, and most of us don’t have a window to light our way. It feels very much like a cage. It is a dead zone. The hallways have zero plants. The windows cannot open, ever. It takes 16 flights of stairs and passing through a security gate before I can take a  breath of fresh air.

Because our office  works on marine conservation, I’m surrounded by photos of fish, whales, and other attractive, natural settings. I’m not sure if the pretty images make things better, or if the extreme contrast makes things feel even more desperate and disconnected.

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Pepe will walk me.

Today I plan to walk my dog into Rock Creek Park, a lovely, wooded oasis in the middle of Washington, D.C. My dog loves the walk, but really it’s the dog taking me to see the trees and the water.

Why Build What is Given

When I think of the greatest palaces and most impressive places built by humans, nothing comes close to even one flower. Why is that? Why can’t man-made “human nature” replace Nature? Shouldn’t we know best what we need?

Apparently we deceive ourselves into separation from natural inspiration. We build cathedrals for spiritual life, yet these spaces cannot compare to the wonders of nature.

I wish there were a bottle of Nature Supplement that I could drink to fix my deficit. I wish that my happy lamp could replace the Sun. I wish that I could become as free as wild fish, whose avatars hang in my cube. I miss being surrounded by life.

New technique makes cheap and healthy coral reef babies

Don’t baby your babies—after two weeks of life, just toss them in the water and see what happens. The results will be 10 times more effective and 25 times cheaper.

These are new claims behind an experimental approach to create an orphanage for coral reefs. Instead of raising young corals for years in a pricey laboratory, remove them soon after reproduction and hurl them onto a natural reef, where they will face menacing microbes and strange sponges. The toughest babies will survive and eventually reach emancipation.

The harsh beginning is like thrusting an infant onto a brutal, muddy obstacle course with thousands of steroid-driven adult competitors. Coral experiments on the southern Caribbean island of Curacao are proving that two-week old infants survive better in the wild than the typical two-year old from the laboratory. But there must be some element of shock.

 

skip to 15:40 to see Valerie Chamberland discuss the “only specimen in the world in artificial conditions.”

“Oh my God, what is this new world!” says the youthful marine scientist Valerie Chamberland, imagining the reaction of a baby coral moving from the laboratory to the ocean only two weeks after fertilization. She says babies left in the laboratory too long become spoiled and unable to transition into the real, cruel world.

“When you raise baby corals in an aquarium, they get used to it,” she says. “We give them a reality check right away.”

Valerie Chamberland

Valerie Chamberland works with the world’s smallest corals.

At a recent meeting of specialists in Caribbean marine environments, Chamberland reported positive and cost-saving results from a few years of piloting the technique. A true internationalist, the native of Quebec works in Curacao and is finishing a doctorate for the University of Amsterdam, with funding from the German SECORE Foundation.

Taking risks with young corals is paying off.

“We didn’t know if it would work at all,” she says, sitting at a table just a few feet from the beach at the Carmabi Research Station in Curacao. The center celebrated its 60th anniversary last week when it hosted the meeting of the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean, where Chamberland and nearly 200 other scientists shared their findings.

Coral reefs worldwide have suffered huge declines in the past few decades, and climate change threatens to eliminate them from the planet this century. Researchers are scrambling to create new restoration techniques that might help them recover—or at least buy some time. Similar to reforestation on land, the field of coral gardening is so new that no one really knows what methods will stick.

Smaller than a beer bottle (from Venezuela), these concrete tripods serve as cribs for corals to grow on.

Smaller than a beer bottle (from Venezuela), these concrete tripods serve as cribs for corals to grow on.

Plenty of people can raise corals for aquariums, but few know how to release them successfully into the wild. With a new tetrapod mold designed to fit into natural reefs, Chamberland and her team go scuba diving and deploy the baby corals in ten seconds flat.

“We just wedge them into the reef. It’s super fast,” she says with a smile. The new concrete tiles came from a contest held by the SECORE Foundation, which specializes in the sexual reproduction of corals. Chamberland works with SECORE’s president, Dirk Petersen, and board member Mark Vermeij, who organized the meeting in Curacao.

The initial process of creating coral babies in the laboratory is nearly as involved as humans seeking in-vitro. Divers must wait for the full moon and other cues to predict coral spawning.

“In the field, spawning is dictated by temperature and the lunar cycle,” says Chamberland. “We use a big spawning net and we tent the colonies. On the top is an inverted funnel.”

Although the beach outside was tempting, the scientists stayed inside to listen to their colleagues in the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean.

Although the beach outside was tempting, the scientists stayed inside to listen to their colleagues in the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean.

After they catch the buoyant eggs and sperm, divers haul them back to the lab, and mix. Coral larvae must attach themselves onto the palm-sized concrete tiles, which are much larger than previous models. It’s similar to a snail clinging to the Empire State building.

Soon to be published in a scientific journal, the technique has been proven with common brain corals. Now the team is expanding its use for endangered staghorn and elkhorn corals.

The hopeful findings were a trend at the week’s meeting of marine scientists, even though they recognize that threats are severe and growing. “Not everything is dead yet,”said Mark Vermeij, one of Chamberland’s co-experimenters, when introducing a plenary speaker. That speaker’s talk ended with a hashtag: #OceanOptimism.

The smallest of coral creatures are bringing optimism to beleaguered Caribbean reefs, because their harsh childhood could result in a new breed of survivors.

Rally posters ready to rock the pine rocklands

Love the creativity! Thanks to Georgina and all the volunteers working on Rally for the Rocklands. See you tomorrow, 2 pm at Zoo Miami parking lot.

Did you know that 25% of all native plants in South Florida, more than 350 native species, live in the pine rocklands around the zoo? Amazing.

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Piney or Pine Rocklands, it’s dying

Today, two plants that cling to life in one of the world’s most endangered habitats were added to the U.S. list of endangered species. Less than one month ago, two butterflies endemic to the same habitat were also listed.

This endangered Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak butterfly depends on Pine Rocklands to survive. (USFWS)

This endangered Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak butterfly depends on Pine Rocklands to survive. (USFWS)

The ecosystem is called Pine Rocklands (although grammatically it should be Piney, but whatever). My article about it was just published, and it outlines the scandal involving Walmart and the last large patch in urban Miami-Dade County.

Yes, it’s bad, and it looks like it’s getting worse and worse for the plants and animals that depend on this shriveling habitat.

People in southern Miami-Dade can voice their opinions about proposed developments in Rocklands at a town hall meeting on Thursday, September 11 at 7 p.m., sponsored by the Kendall Federation of Homeowner Associations. The location is Kendall’s “Little House” at 8625 SW 124 Avenue.

 

Florida Reef Tract gets the “special” treatment

The Sunshine State’s many exceptional natural features have made it a tourism mecca and standout in the oeuvre of postcards, but promoters may want to bury the latest description of its coral reefs. The most comprehensive report on the state of Caribbean coral reefs calls Florida’s reefs “a special case”– and not in the good way.

A promotional cartoon paints a rosy image of the world's first underwater park.

A promotional cartoon paints a rosy image of the world’s first underwater park. (http://www.fla-keys.com)

“Florida has seen a sharp decline in its coral reef in the past 40 years,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of Global Marine and Polar Programme at the IUCN, the world’s authority on extinction and publisher of the report on Caribbean reefs. “Improved management, particularly of reef fish and regulation of coastal use can help reverse this trend,” he says.

Decadal decline applies to most Caribbean reefs, but the report singles out the Florida Reef for its harshest assessment.

Florida represents the “worst-case scenario” where “intensity of human use and environmental impacts greatly exceeds that of any other region in the wider Caribbean, if not the world,” states the IUCN report, Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012. The report analyzed 35,000 reef surveys to detect patterns across the region. The report names Jamaica and the U.S. Virgin Islands, in addition to Florida, as places lacking healthy corals.

Six million people are sandwiched in between the Everglades and the Florida Reef (Florida Ocean Alliance 2013)

In southern Florida, six million people are sandwiched in between the Everglades and the Florida Reef, in red. (Florida Ocean Alliance 2013)

One trend emphasized in the report is that positive human intervention can control negative impacts. “The Gulf of Mexico has some of the worst and some of the best reefs in the Caribbean. The key determining factor for this is the way the reefs have been managed,” says Lundin.

Florida’s reefs have been managed very poorly, the report contends, and “inadequate governance and regulations have resulted in the critical endangerment of an entire coral reef ecosystem.”

Endangered Reefs, Made of Coral

Only in recent years have entire ecosystems been considered candidates for mass extinction. According to the IUCN, the wider Caribbean region of reefs qualifies as “endangered” under its new criteria for ecosystems.

In 2006, two major Caribbean corals were listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In 2009, Florida passed the Coral Reef Protection Act, and it establishes fines for boat strikes that damage coral.

The threatened staghorn and elkhorn species are stony corals that have constructed much of the Florida Reef. The theory of reef extinction being played out in Florida and elsewhere is that if reef-building corals die out, the system dies with it. Coral reef ecosystems host the greatest concentration of species in the ocean.

In a Name

The Florida Reef contains 455 square miles of reef area and stretches across the Florida Keys, Miami, and north of Palm Beach into Martin County. This northern section along the mainland lies outside the protection of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, established in 1990.

Unlike the Everglades, its sister ecosystem on land, the system of reefs that dot the southeastern Florida coastline does not have an iconic name. Scientists call it a “tract,” but I prefer to drop that ugly term and dub it the “Florida Reef.” Even better would be the term “Great Florida Reef,” but its recent history and status are anything but great.

A timeline for the Florida Reef within the IUCN report demonstrates that the number of new protective measures has waned since the end of the twentieth century. Note that a no-take area, banning all fishing and related activities, first appeared in 2001. These no-take areas comprise six percent of the reef area in the Florida Keys.

The list below revises the report’s original timeline by removing natural disasters and including only protective measures.

Timeline of Protective Measures for the Florida Reef

(adapted from Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs)

 

1935: Dry Tortugas National Monument established by President Roosevelt

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Digging Miami, Part II

As a follow-up to the book review, here are my Cliff Notes of Digging Miami’s interesting tidbits.

It is quite startling to read that the mouth of the Miami River has been occupied for at least 2,500 years, yet we still insist on saying that Columbus “discovered” America and Ponce de Leon founded Florida (this year marks 500 years, and publicity for tourism is in full swing). How can you discover something that has already been found?

The Miami Circle remains mysterious.

The Miami Circle remains mysterious.

Descriptions of the Tequesta people indicate that they were quite adept at living alongside the dual watery worlds of the swamp and the ocean, and Carr states that by canoe they could navigate a wide swath of South Florida within hours. And to think that in Miami today, we still don’t have a water taxi.

The Tequesta settlement in Miami persisted until 1761, when Uchises Indians forced them to flee to Key West and eventually to Cuba. By 1763, Spain lost Florida to England.

Some ancient Tequesta paths have become today’s busiest highways. The ever-congested 836 Expressway follows the canoe trail that used to connect central Miami to the Everglades. Even the new Intermodal Center near the airport was built on top of a prehistoric village. I hope someone erects a sign.

I also learned that the highest natural point in Miami-Dade County is 19 feet above sea level. This sand mound is called Madden’s Hammock, and it is composed of fine-grained quartz, like beach sand. Many of its skeletons were raided by curiosity seekers.

Lastly, there’s a much more recent Bahamian cemetery (abandoned around 1940) that has been re-discovered in Lemon City, just a few miles from my house, so I plan to visit the memorial placed there in 2011 and review it for my Park Patrol column. Visions of Poltergeists danced in their heads…

By the way, this is South Florida we’re talking about–the end of the road on the East Coast. If Native Americans originally migrated from a land bridge between Asia and Alaska, how long did it take them to arrive in Miami? Did they push onwards to Cuba, or vice versa? Great mysteries indeed.

Review of dirty book, Digging Miami

Digging Miami by Robert S. Carr, 2012, University Press of Florida4206

The first archaeologist of Miami-Dade County has penned his account of discovering the Miami Circle and other impressive pre-historic artifacts in the most urbanized part of Florida. It also turns out to be one of the state’s most ancient areas, as it has been inhabited continuously for thousands of years.

The book’s title, Digging Miami, and its cover photo of the Miami Circle caught my eye. The Circle became a park in 2011, and the site was unknown until 1998. While not fully understood, the Miami Circle sits at the mouth of the Miami River where it feeds into Biscayne Bay, and this strategic site is also where modern-day Miami began. The Circle is attributed to the Tequesta Indians who lived in South Florida until they went extinct after colonization (learn more here).

While full of interesting facts, the book suffers somewhat from the lack of a continuous narrative and diversions into archaeologist talk. For people unfamiliar with pre-historical Florida, it may be hard to follow the jumps between periods and locations, and for non- archaeologists, it gets difficult to remember which site is meant by “8DA11.” Named sites are much easier to envision.

What was enjoyable was the sense of discovery that accompanied many digs and especially those of gravesites. So many bones are buried beneath the skyscrapers of downtown that you start to worry about ancient curses arising to engulf the buildings or the sidewalk where you are strolling.

The book makes me excited to visit the Deering Estate again because of major finds on that property that may still be inaccessible to the public (I’ll have to work my contacts for an insider’s tour).

Everglades Hunt - Tequesta, by artist Theodore Morris

Everglades Hunt – Tequesta, by artist Theodore Morris

Although a strong and ancient connection to the sea should not be surprising, given Miami’s location, it’s quite dramatic to read that South Florida was one of only two places in North America where Native Americans “developed complex chiefdoms based on marine resources rather than agriculture” (p. 245). The other location is the Pacific Northwest. On the East Coast, this is it.

This book is recommended for people who want to discover a history of Miami that is completely opposite of its current tourism and television-based image. It is hard to imagine how people lived here when the Everglades licked at Miami’s doorstep and Miami Beach was an impenetrable mangrove swamp. But they certainly did, and the best evidence we have is in the dirt.

Tomorrow: Nuggets of Intrigue from Digging Miami