In a Queens Forest, Compiling a Picture of Urban Ecology
Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times
Deep in the woods at Alley Pond Park in Queens is a laboratory that looks like something out of a weather fanatic’s wild imagination.
Attached to a lofty oak are a webcam and a wind vane, humidity and temperature sensors, rain gauges and instruments to measure solar radiation. The high-tech tools, which transmit information in real time, are part of the United States Forest Service’s new “smart forest” initiative, in which data is collected from selected woodlands to help scientists manage landscapes in a changing climate.
At 635 acres, Alley Pond Park, at the head of Little Neck Bay, is the first urban forest to be included in the current crop of a half-dozen wired forests across the Northeast. And despite its location in one of the most populous and developed corners of the country, its natural features remain intact, including freshwater and saltwater wetlands, tidal flats, meadows and forests. The data collection began in 2011, when researchers at Drexel University teamed up with the city’s parks department to study the sylvan nook inside the park, along with two other engineered green spaces in the city designed to capture storm-water runoff. But the Forest Service has now added Alley Pond Park to its Smart Forest Network.
Lindsey E. Rustad, a research ecologist with the Forest Service and co-director of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Northeast Climate Hub, said that scientists had extensive data on pristine wilderness areas, but needed a better grasp of urban forests.
“We know relatively little about what’s going on in these forest ecosystems,” Dr. Rustad said on a tour of the outdoor laboratory at Alley Pond Park on an unseasonably warm November afternoon. “Eighty percent of the population lives in urban areas, so understanding urban forest ecology is critical.”
Dr. Rustad added that in some ways the information gleaned from urban sites like Alley Pond Park would help steer policy-making decisions on climate change and resiliency elsewhere in the country. “We can think of them as the canary in the coal mine because of their heat island effects, air pollution and development pressures,” she said.
Hourly photographs taken by the webcam in the park, for instance, reveal precisely when buds burst each spring, when leaves open and when they die off. Over time, that information will give scientists a clearer picture of how quickly climate change is altering ecosystems.
For New York City, measuring things like soil moisture and soil temperature and determining when the trees leaf out each spring will also inform decisions, if not immediately, then down the road.
As the city nears completion of its million-tree planting campaign, the data collected from Alley Pond Park could, for example, guide future decisions about stewardship and species selection.
Since 2007, the city has planted 45,000 trees and shrubs in Alley Pond Park alone. “You can see why we would want this information to ensure that the new trees and shrubs live and thrive,” said Bram Gunther, the parks department’s chief of forestry, horticulture and natural resources.
Mr. Gunther said he envisioned a time when armchair naturalists, park advocates and students could tap into the trove of information being pulled from the soil and sky at the site.
Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times
“Everyone is wired up, and now we’re wiring up our forests and wetlands,” Mr. Gunther said. “Anyone who has a phone can be linked more closely to places like this in a new way.”
The sensors, located off a trail near the park’s adventure course, are not immediately visible. Some are about 12 feet off the ground, and some are buried next to the tree. The site has been vandalized once since its installation.
On this afternoon, Lauren A. Smalls-Mantey, a doctoral candidate with Drexel’s Sustainable Water Resource Engineering Laboratory, was standing waist-deep inside a circular pit containing modems, radios and other devices that collect and transmit the data.
“This is the equipment bunker,” she said. “This is where we log everything.”
Franco A. Montalto, an associate professor in Drexel’s department of civil, architectural and environmental engineering, said that the availability of affordable digital sensors made it possible for him to gain access to that day’s recordings from Alley Pond Park on his iPad and instantly compare them with data from the two experimental storm-water runoff sites in the city.
But despite the high-tech tools, Dr. Montalto insists on having eyes and ears verify the data. To that end, more than a dozen high school, college and graduate students have periodically trekked to the site at Alley Pond to sift soil through their fingers and take photos.
“To believe the sensors, you need validation,” he said. “Bad data is worse than no data.”
Eventually, scientists working at Alley Pond Park would like local schools to make the research part of their lessons.
“We’re all excited about seeing the data online, but we’d like to put it in the classroom and curriculum,” said Richard Hallett, a Forest Service ecologist based at the New York City Urban Field Station, a joint city-federal research center in nearby Fort Totten. “It’s teaching kids how to think and ask questions about the natural environment.”