State of the Planet

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Biotherapy: Technology Assisted Wetland Revival

By: Madeleine Dale

Dr. Cervino and City Council member Dan Halloran at MacNeil Park Installation
Dr. James Cervino, a marine scientist with the  Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and instructor at CERC treated students in his Wetland Restoration and Conservation course to a hands-on demonstration at MacNeil Park in College Point, Long Island. In association with NYC Parks and the Department of Environmental Conservation, Dr. Cervino has an on-going experiment using Low Voltage current to bolster biological recovery on a depleted shoreline. The new technology promotes mineral accretion through electrolysis, a process by which currents release chemical components of salt water, thereby increasing available nutrients for microbes and primary producers.  Dr. Tomas Goreau, President of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, a non-profit which owns the patented Biorock process, has  pioneered the technology to restore coral reefs from Bali to Ft. Lauderdale.  Dr. Goreau praised the Queens experiment: “this little unfunded project has done more to grow oysters and saltmarsh than all the projects they (NYC Green Infrastructure Programs) have been throwing money at with very little real results.”

On one side of the MacNeil Park shoreline spartina thrives. The sea grass anchors shellfish like mussels and oysters that create shoals which harbor a variety of marine flora and fauna. The other side of the estuary is barren. Once used as a landfill, the site is strewn with remnants of construction and contaminated by pollutants. Dr. Cervino’s installations blend in with the debris, but the group of twisting steel rods have produced small islands of life in a wasteland.

With DNA as her inspiration, artist Mara Haseltine contributed the welded steel spirals. The structures are anchored in the shallows and wired to solar panels designed by Rand Weeks, an electronics engineer. Low voltage current running through salt water traps calcium carbonate building Biorock to provide nutrients and an anchor for shellfish. At the base of the each helix, mussels thrive and a mineral crust coats the steel. The waterline at high tide is easily visible, delineated by a clear line where the calcification stops and rust takes over. Dr. Cervino’s study, soon to be published, has shown improved survival and thicker shells when compared to an unsupported control group. Shellfish are filter feeders that clean the water and build shoals of shells and limestone to sequester magnesium, copper and PCBs along with carbon. The assisted technology combats pollutants and spurs re-growth so eventually the habitat survives without intervention.

Rebar grid embedded on shoreline

Students on the Wetlands field trip participated in an installation that will expand the experiment to restore on-shore vegetation. On the depleted side adjacent to the spirals, Dr. Cervino sank a 6×4 grid of rebar in the mud and Rand Weeks connected a solar panel. Students planted three cordgrass plants in each square of the grid establishing a healthy green clump at the site. Spartina partners with the shellfish clustered around their roots to create a buffer between land and sea. Together, they prevent shoreline erosion and filter nitrogen run-off.  A growing problem, nitrogen is plentiful at the shore.  Increasing quantities, from agricultural fertilizers, burning fossil fuels and municipal sewage, contribute to dead zones (marine areas deprived of oxygen where all life flounders).   As a natural strainer, sea grass prevents the chain reaction that causes eutrophication – the build up of nitrogen feeding algae blooms which deplete oxygen and strangle aquatic life. Along with shellfish, coastal plants anchor a healthy ecosystem of algae, bacteria and dinoflagalletes where fish spawn and birds feed.

After the planting, E3B graduate student Mollie Thurman led a tour. Steering clear of the hazardous side of the estuary, the group collected native creatures like Crassostrea virginica oysters, blue crabs, and a foot long centipede. City Councilman Dan Halloran  who has funded the project turned out to show support and demonstrate his expertise on environmental topics. Then, E3B Masters student Davia Palmeria led a bird watching contingent. Davia pointed out gulls and a flock of Cormorants noting “birds are ecological indicators: no birds means very bad news for the environment.” The field trip concluded by examining water samples crawling with invertebrates and bacteria under a microscope.

Cordgrass planted in grid at MacNeil Park Installation

Viewing Dr. Cervino’s experiment, students had a unique opportunity to observe a restoration in progress. On this contaminated shore, low voltage current delivered by the Biorock technology will jump start the natural ecosystem services of a coastal wetland. The process is expensive and requires maintenance but the tools and helping hands will revive a precious resource. As carbon sinks and water filters, nature here works hard to compensate for an increasingly heavy human footprint. Coastal Wetlands provide homes for migrating and native birds, protected areas for fish hatcheries, flood mitigation and an unrivaled biodiversity of the microorganisms that serve as the basis of the marine food chain.  Weather we sink or swim will depend on the health of this valuable environment.

Madeleine Dale is a student in the Earth Institute’s Executive Education Certificate Program in Environmental Sustainability at CERC.

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