WASHINGTON -- If the idea of Baltimore as an ecological system sounds foreign, you're not alone.
Ecologists, who make it their business to study the interaction between living organisms and their environment, have long conducted their fieldwork far from urban centers.
"Most places ecologists have researched in the past are places that are conspicuously devoid of people," said Steward T. A. Pickett, speaking during a presentation in Washington yesterday. The scientist called the study of the urban system "ecology's last frontier."
In October, Pickett began overseeing a six-year, $4.38 million project that will seek to reconstruct Baltimore's environmental conditions as far back as 200 years and then use the data to make projections for what the city will be like in 2100.
Baltimore area students will be included in exploring the new ecological frontier. The National Science Foundation, which made the grant, stipulated that $600,000 be spent on educational outreach.
Baltimore and Phoenix, Ariz., were the cities chosen for the study, which is said to be the first long-term study of an urban environment. The Baltimore project will be managed by the Institute of Ecosystem Studies, a nonprofit research and educational institution in Millbrook, N.Y.
Part of Baltimore's appeal to researchers is the city's preponderance of watersheds -- particularly the Gwynns Falls -- whose main waterways have been left largely intact through the centuries.
Pickett said that many other cities have so altered their waterways that it would be impossible to make historical comparisons.
Taking samples along waterways allows ecologists to measure the influx of materials and to determine where they came from, Pickett said.
Researchers also will study what Pickett called "sediment cores," deep soil samples that can provide centuries-old data.
"You can tell a lot about what state the land was in," Pickett said, noting that tests on pollen and shards of animal bones can be instructive. "You can get way back before there were written records."
That information will be combined with old documents, such as courthouse records and maps, to help reconstruct the past, he said.
For practical purposes, researchers intend to share what they learn with civic leaders.
"How do you deal with the vacant lots in Baltimore?" Pickett asked. "People have decisions to make. Hopefully, our research will provide new information to help them make those decisions."
Pickett said that aerial photos and satellite images are being collected to determine "target" areas. Once the areas are chosen, researchers will begin taking samples to collect pollution data and to determine such things as how areas retain or release materials. That work could begin in summer.
While project leaders hope students will assist in collecting data, the educational facet of the program won't be solely concerned with developing groundbreaking information, according to Alan R. Berkowitz, a plant ecologist who will be the liaison with private and public schools in Baltimore and Baltimore County.
Berkowitz said he hopes to hold a one-week workshop of area teachers this summer to begin coordinating educational plans.
Berkowitz envisions an arrangement where interested teachers will solicit "requests for proposals" from their students similar to those that foundations seek from scientists. Students would then be given micro-grants to conduct field research, such as on the life cycle of trees.
"They could study when the leaves turn, when they fall, when the buds break, when the flowers fall off," Berkowitz said.
Students could also propose projects such as interviewing their grandparents on the changes in Baltimore's ecology they have witnessed, he said.
The institute plans to coordinate with efforts of area environmental groups, such as Save Our Streams, Pickett said.
Pub Date: 1/27/98