Environment's line of defense


Knowledge: Research centers record invaluable data that can help protect the environment.

May 14, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

WE SWING freely in the breeze in a small metal cage, 165 feet off the ground -- nearly as high as the Bay Bridge roadway is off the water.

Forest is all you can see here, to every horizon at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center south of Annapolis in Edgewater.

The bird's-eye view alters forever the way you understand forests -- which is why Smithsonian scientists use cranes that can hoist them above the tree tops, swivel across acres of forest canopy, and lower precisely to measure an individual leaf.

From the ground looking up, the place all seemed similarly green and leafy. Looking down, it's as different as the bay's surface in calm and gale.

Hovering above a 55-year-old section of forest, a reverted farm, the canopy is all fast-growing tulip poplars and a few sweet gums, homogenous as a lawn. These days in much of Maryland, such places pass as full-fledged forests.

Then we swing over a 120-year-old forest. Oak, beech, hickory, poplar and others share the canopy. It's bumpier, lumpier -- an array of different shapes, heights, textures. Old, dead snags protrude, full of holes and rot.

It translates as habitat -- lots more types of food and shelter in the older forest, more than you'd guess from the ground.

The canopy crane was one of many newsworthy glimpses of the research center during a recent "media day" the Smithsonian staged for science writers.

Researchers here study the Chesapeake, its wooded and marshy edges, on fronts that range from orchids to jellyfish, from blue crabs to invasive species in ballast water from foreign ships.

Competition for money in the science world is intense, and publicity doesn't hurt. And we in the media know readers like fascinating insights into the worlds of science and nature.

What seldom gets its due in all this is the abiding importance of the institutions themselves, of maintaining bastions of research like this center around bay and globe.

I consider our marine research institutions the modern equivalent of forts whose cannons protected the approaches to harbors and coastlines during times of war; as latter-day equivalents of the monasteries that tended knowledge during the Dark Ages.

At the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory(CBL) on the Patuxent River at Solomons, it was careful research during the 1930s -- rediscovered when cleaning an attic -- that cast new light decades later on the bay's decline.

The old data proved water quality was markedly better then, blowing away those who argued that problems in the 1970s were temporary or imaginary declines.

CBL scientists also opposed state and federal bureaucracies who dismissed the need to reduce nitrogen in the bay. Twenty years later everyone knows that is the No. 1 problem; but the researchers risked their careers then by saying so.

At CBL's sister lab at Horn Point, guarding the Choptank River, researchers established the critical link between the bay's drastic losses of submerged grasses and too much fertilizer pouring into the Chesapeake from sewage, air pollution and land runoff.

Half a world away at Townsville, on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, I visited with scientists compiling evidence that polluted runoff is gradually degrading the fantastic corals that are keystones of their coastal ecosystem.

In a small marine research station operated by the University of Gdansk on Poland's Puck Bay, I saw researcher Krysztof Skora documenting shifts in habitat and fisheries that reflect overfishing and pollution -- symptoms of problems affecting the entire Baltic Sea.

One of the clearest calls to action I have read in recent years was a paper co-authored by Swedish scientist Rutger Rosenberg and Bob Diaz, a Virginian.

Diaz operates from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the marshy mouth of the York River. Rosenberg's institution, the Kristineberg Marine Research Station, overlooks glittering blue fjords on Sweden's rocky west coast.

Both have experienced their respective home waters suffering similar sources of pollution. They documented more than 50 coastal water bodies now suffering "dead zones" of oxygenless water around the globe.

Nowhere, they report, have we brought one back.

If we faithfully prosecute the science, the facts will make it much less likely that we will let our environment slip away. Smithsonian research on forests as filters of polluted runoff has led to planting thousands of miles of bay tributaries with trees.

Maybe unique about the Smithsonian's facility is its immense value of just being.

It covers nearly 2,900 acres and 13 miles of bay shoreline, almost all undeveloped and protected. This links with 12,000 more acres that are privately preserved.

I arrived early for media day and paddled the shoreline by kayak. That experience will stick with me after I've forgotten the science presentations.

A century from now those forests will be coming into their full birthright as old growth, an astounding island of green life, remarkable as any scientific Eureka.

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