Experts pick Baltimore for ecology study Undertaking is first long-term effort to examine urban areas

6-year, $4 million project

Scientists shift focus from pristine systems to Md. city, Phoenix

October 20, 1997|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

In what scientists call one of the first studies of its kind, national experts will be studying Baltimore's ecological system for the next six years in an attempt to understand the dynamics of urban environments and man's influence on nature.

The study, funded through grants of almost $4.38 million from the National Science Foundation, is the first time researchers will examine the long-term ecology of an urban environment, said Scott Collins, a spokesman for the foundation.

Typically, ecologists focus on the wilds and places relatively untouched by man, Collins said, adding that it is a new approach to study ecology in the grit and grime of a large city.

"We have long-term ecological research going on in 18 places, some in the tundra of Antarctica, some in the prairies and some in the northern lakes," Collins said. "Most of the studies focus on pristine natural systems. But now we're starting to realize that everything is impacted by humans, and we need to study the urban environment as well."

So the researchers will be looking at the urban settings of Baltimore and Phoenix to address such issues as how wildlife adapts to cities, what effect pollutants have on water and soil, and even how organisms develop in the sewer system.

Baltimore was primarily chosen as an ideal city to study because of its ages-old system of watersheds, which give ecologists a good starting point for their research, said Steward T. A. Pickett, director of the Baltimore site and a scientist at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.

"Baltimore, unlike a lot of cities, still has some neat functional watersheds that you can use as a common starting place," Pickett said. "Watersheds provide a long history of data about an area, and that's what we'd like to begin with."

Pickett called the environmental study of a city a "new kind of ecology" that historically has been overlooked.

"It sounds like it's something that's real obvious to do. It would seem that we'd know a lot about the ecology of our cities, but we don't," Pickett said.

"The usual approach was that if you wanted to study ecology, you'd study it in a place that didn't have any people," Pickett said.

"Now we're taking the next logical step, to look at the environment that is affected by people," he said.

One of the primary goals of the study will be to help people "become more ecologically informed," said Pickett, who hopes to involve Baltimore schools with some of the studies and information gathering in the next six years.

Much of the research will be undertaken not only by scientists from the Institute of Ecosystem Studies, but local professionals such as natural resources officials. The researchers will first look at the Gwynns Falls watershed and test water and sediment cores.

The field crews will take a broad look at Baltimore's environment, from the minute particles that make up city soils to how the water flows and how urban factors affect the weather, plants and animals.

At the end of the study in 2003, scientists hope to present a report and tell local officials and community groups about the findings.

"After it's all done, we hope we can make people better aware of what makes their environment work and how they can play a part in it," Pickett said, "whether it's how they manage their lawns or how they might be able to help the Chesapeake Bay."

Pub Date: 10/20/97

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