Sunday, September 18, 2011

Where is the Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES)?

BES as Place

Why in Baltimore of course?  But that’s not a complete answer.  Our research, education, and community engagement are of course focused on the five-county conurbation that is centered on the city of Baltimore.  There, we focus on built, modified, and native watersheds, which are perhaps better labeled catchments.  We also focus on airsheds, captured by data from the first permanent urban tower that measures the composition and physical features of air that represents either the city or the suburbs, depending on the wind direction.  And there are neighborhoods and networks of social institutions to be understood as well as the social interactions and characteristics of entire counties and the whole city-suburban-exurban system.  These various locations are the geography of understanding and interaction of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study.  This is the geography of discovery, sharing knowledge, and interaction with communities on the ground – the three activities that make up BES

BES as Extensive Community

But BES has another, much more extensive geography as well.  BES itself is a community of scholars, practitioners, and stakeholders.  That community is most dense in the immediate region of Baltimore.  You can see a list of all the current members of the BES community by clicking on this page of our  website:  This community consists of people who are part of the Long-Term Ecological Research program grant from the National Science Foundations, or who are supported by the USDA Forest Service or the US Geological Survey to conduct research, educate, or reach out to interested communities.  Some of the people listed as Co-Principal Investigators (Co-PIs) have written their own grants to various funding agencies to support their work in Baltimore.  Another key group is collaborators.  These are people who make and affect environmental policy in the city, surrounding counties, and the state of Maryland.  They are also people who manage various agencies that are concerned with the environment, such as sustainability, parks, public works, housing, and health.  

A map of the United States shows the spatial extent of the community of scholars and practitioners that makes up BES.  Green dots represent Co-PIs, and blue dots represent collaborators.  We don’t really try to represent each individual or institution in the Baltimore regions, because there are so many.  But the dots spread more broadly represent the different locations where at least one person who participates in BES is located.  Some dots represent several people.  

There are some dots that lie outside the borders of the US.  These point to collaborations in place or being developed, with international partners.  This is perhaps especially appropriate because urbanization has become one of the major environmental trends on the planet.   The growth, spread, change in pattern, and connectivity of urban areas is truly a global phenomenon.  Understanding Baltimore is facilitated by comparisons with older cities in Europe, and with exploding cities in Asia.  Comparison promises to be an important tool in understanding and applying the concept of urban sustainability.  In fact, I have to admit that I am writing this post in France, where I have been invited to participate in a summer school session, entitled “Urban Environment: A Complex System.”  I look forward to learning more about the exciting urban research underway in France, and to sharing findings and organizational lessons learned from BES. 

So you see, the answer to the question, “Where is BES?” is actually spatially complex.  And this spatial complexity points to the richness of expertise and institutional commitments require to attempt integrated socio-ecological research in a major conurbation.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Swamps and the City: Part II

A special guest post by Prof. Grace S. Brush, Johns Hopkins University.

My last post discussed how the role of people in shaping the swampy systems of the Everglades had been erased.  That erasure paralleled how biophysical processes had in the past been ignored in thinking about urban systems.  Because Baltimore is a coastal city, it occurred to me while I was writing that post, that there were insights about the role of swamps and wetlands in the history of our city that would be worth exploring.

Prof. Grace Brush
Who better to lead us on that exploration than Professor Grace S. Brush, one of America's leading paleoecologists -- a scientist who studies past environments and the ecological networks that existed within them, usually by using fossil pollen or larger preserved parts of plants or animals?  Here is her essay, reminding us of Baltimore's important swampy heritage, and the implications for the Chesapeake Bay that result from the reduction or obliteration of those many swampy features. S.T.A.P.


            A prevailing question today, as the historical fish harvests of the Chesapeake and other aquatic systems are greatly diminished, is “What was the land really like, when the water was clear and seafood abundant? 

             Pollen and seed records in dated sediment cores indicate a forested landscape 300 years ago with most herbaceous plants belonging to wetland species.  Pre-colonial soils exposed along river cuts contain water lily pollen. Sedge seeds were common in the sediment.  Rainfall runoff  was minimal in a pervious forest  floor rich in leaf litter and decomposing wood.  Hence groundwater was constantly recharged, creating wet soggy ground.  Seeds of submerged macrophytes in cores collected in present day tidal fresh water marshes record open water at those locations in pre-colonial time. 

Beaver landscape (Morgan 1867)
Historical maps published in 1897 show springs at the mouths of many tributaries.  Druid Hill Park in Baltimore City has structures built for drinking water for horses at sites where ground water surfaced.  They are now dry. Upland trees such as black locust and species of oak are replacing wetland species like green ash and box elder on floodplains of many streams.  This phenomenon, which we have described as a “hydrological drought” is being reported in various parts of Eastern and Midwestern USA.  All through the watershed, a very large beaver population created many marshes behind the numerous dams they built on inland streams  All of the evidence points to a wet environment characterized by many marshes, swamps and ponds.

Baltimore, 1792, with agricultural clearing.
             Within a very short time following colonization, much of the watershed was converted to agricultural land, accomplished by cutting down the trees and draining and filling in wetlands and marshes.  This conversion was facilitated by the near extinction of the beaver population by the fur trade in the 18th century.  The soil that eroded from the less pervious agricultural land -- along with fertilizers -- was transported by streams to estuarine waters.  Excess nitrogen, a major constituent of fertilizers, is particularly harmful because of its many potential transformations in the soil and water, making it available for generations of plant growth.  It can be removed from the system only by denitrification, where nitrogenous compounds are converted to elemental nitrogen and returned to the atmosphere.  Denitrification occurs almost entirely in wet, anaerobic environments, such as marshes and swamps.  The pre-colonial landscape, which was ideally suited for denitrification, was destroyed as nitrogen loads and sources increased.
Baltimore 1801, showing extensive, wet lowlands.

            Along with overfishing, the transformation of the landscape from wet to dry contributed directly to the fishery decrease in the Chesapeake Bay, as nitrogen not recycled to the atmosphere became a major contributor to increased eutrophication, anoxia and habitat loss in the Bay ecosystem.

Grace S. Brush, PhD, Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore MD

The map of the beaver dams is from Morgan, L. H.  1867.  The American beaver and his works.  New York: Burt Franklin (reprinted 1970).