Central Park Is Turning Into a Climate Lab

Photo shows the Great Lawn in New York City's Central Park. Central Park is getting its own climate lab.

New York City’s world-famous Central Park is getting its own climate change lab, and a new study shows the true complexity of American song sparrows’ song-based courtship.

Meanwhile, scientists just discovered a pristine coral reef just off the coast of Tahiti, giving many people hope that the ocean’s unexplored depths contain more still-healthy ecosystems.

In Milan, new bike paths will link a huge 80 percent of the city safely, and the state of Montana has finally moved to shut down wolf hunting for the season.

Here’s this week’s good climate news.

Photo shows the Great Lawn in New York City's Central Park. Central Park is getting its own climate lab.
The Central Park Climate Lab will use Central Park Conservancy data to study and map the deterioration of urban green spaces due to human-caused climate change. | Tetra Images/Getty.

Central Park is getting its own climate change lab

The good news: New York City’s Central Park, one of the most iconic public gardens in the world, is getting a research facility to tackle issues like climate change and deteriorating urban forests. The Central Park Climate Lab will use decades of Central Park Conservancy data about wildlife, plant, and soil health in order to study the human-caused deterioration of urban green spaces and woodland.

The impact: The climate lab could give scientists a unique opportunity to study years of existing data on-site in Central Park. They will also be able to observe changes as they happen in real-time, looking at the park as the living, breathing network of life that it is.

Speaking to Scientific American, Karen Seto, a professor of geography and urbanization at Yale who will be directing the program, said: “What we want to do is study Central Park as an ecosystem, as a coupled human-natural system, and we’re looking at it top-down and bottom-up — from soils to satellites.”

Did you know? Central Park is 2.5 miles long and half a mile wide, and home to more plant and animal species than Yellowstone National Park. (As covered in this previous Good Climate News.) The coronavirus pandemic has shown the importance of access to public parks and woodland like never before, and access to urban green spaces (from the expanse of Central Park to Bristol’s cozy “Pocket Park”) is high on the agenda for cities around the world.

How you can help: Support your local park! Many urban green spaces are mostly maintained by local volunteers, even those “funded” by local government. Much like rewilding and other changes you can make at home, introducing native wildflowers and insect hotels to your local green spaces helps to support the ecosystem.

Litter picking and minor repairs can be easily carried out by grassroots groups, and you can also write to your local MP or representative to let them know what your neighborhood needs. Central Park Conservancy has its own volunteer section, while the National Parks Service operates a Volunteer-In-Parks program. 

Photo shows a sparrow sat on a branch.
Song sparrows’ music is more complex than previously thought, drawing comparisons to human language. | Dmitry Feoktistov/TASS via Getty Images.

Nature’s DJs: Sparrows change their tune to spice things up

The good news: A new study, published by the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, has found that song sparrows’ singing is more complex than previously thought. The melodious animals regularly switch between known songs in order to promote variety. 

The impact: Overall, the study indicates that song sparrows are unexpectedly talented when it comes to their musical repertoire. If a sparrow can choose a song based on what he sang 30 minutes ago, that means that the birds have a sharper memory than canaries, the previous record holders, and makes human language less unique than once thought.

Study author William Searcy writes: “Such dependencies are characteristic of more complex levels of syntax than previously attributed to non-human animals.”

Did you know? Male sparrows sing in order to defend their home territory and attract mates, and it’s likely that introducing as much variation as possible helps to make an individual stand out. While song sparrows can be found throughout the U.S. and Canada, they are most widespread throughout North America. They have loud, distinctive trills, and begin singing when they are four months old. There are over 30 recognized subspecies of song sparrow.

How you can help: Song sparrows need very little human help to get by. If you want to encourage birds into your garden (and promote a healthy ecosystem in general), planting plenty of native wildflowers, plants, and shrubs, and promoting insect life through bug hotels will ensure a bustling wildlife area. Song sparrows are ground nesters, but birdhouses could encourage other avian visitors to pop by.

Photo shows divers examining a pristine coral reef deep underwater.
Divers just found a pristine coral reef, giving hope for the deeper sections of the world’s oceans. | @Alexis.Rosenfeld

Pristine coral reef discovered near Tahiti

The good news: Underwater explorers supported by The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have discovered a pristine coral reef near Tahiti, the biggest island in French Polynesia. At two miles long, it is one of the largest systems ever found at a depth of 100 feet.

The impact: Because the reef is located in the ocean’s “twilight zone,” an underwater area that we know little about, it’s likely that there are more reef systems safely distanced from coral bleaching and the other negative effects of climate change that the shallower waters experience.

In a statement, Dr. Laetitia Hedouin, France’s National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) said: “The discovery of this reef in such a pristine condition is good news and can inspire future conservation. We think that deeper reefs may be better protected from global warming.”

Did you know? Coral reefs are absolutely essential for biodiversity and support an estimated 25 percent of all marine species. Tahiti’s pristine reef is also not the first coral to be found in deep water

The high seas make up 66 percent of the world’s oceans. They contain nearly 90 percent of all marine biomass, produce 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe, and capture 1.5 billion tons of CO2 per year. Despite this, they are afforded relatively little legal protection. But discoveries such as this new reef offer hope that the flora and fauna of the deep are managing to weather climate change better than those closer to the surface.

Photo shows a cyclist riding through the Porta Nuova district of Milan.
Milan’s new bike paths will make clean, efficient cycling the easiest form of transportation. | PIERO CRUCIATTI/AFP via Getty Images

The good news: The Italian city of Milan has committed to building over 450 miles (750 kilometers) of bike paths by 2035. The Cambio Network will link existing routes with “super-cycle corridors” to connect the city center itself with the wider metropolitan area. The initiative is part of Milan’s overall goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

The impact: According to Dezeen, this will place 86 percent of the city’s population and 80 percent of all services (including hospitals, schools, and businesses) less than one kilometer from a bike route, effectively making cycling the most convenient form of transportation. The Cambio Network will include 24 cycle highways and the city hopes that 20 percent of all local locomotion will be achieved using bicycles.

Did you know? Despite being over two centuries old, the humble bicycle could well be the transportation of the future. It’s relatively affordable (much more so than cars, anyway), sustainable (definitely more so than cars), and good for our mental and physical health (yep, once again, much more so than cars).

The last few years have seen an absolutely enormous cycling boom, and electric bikes with modern designs are making bikes more accessible than ever before. Anyway, paved roads weren’t really built for cars, they were built for bicycles. Isn’t it time we took them back?

How you can help: If you’re able to, cycling is a fantastic way to get around sustainably right now. There are a huge number of local and regional charities and organizations throughout the UK, the U.S., and around the world, dedicated to helping people get out on bicycles—whatever that looks like to you. Cycling UK, People For Bikes, World Bicycle Relief, and Gearing Up are just a few. You can also write to your local MP or representative about building bike lanes, pedestrianization, and other ways to make cycling safe and inclusive.

Photo shows wolves by a pond in Kalispell, Montana.
Wolf populations have barely recovered, but many are still being hunted. | Holly Cannon/Getty

Montana finally moves to shut down wolf hunting

The good news: Last month, Montana’s wildlife commissioners voted unanimously to bar the hunting and trapping of wolves in the southwestern region of the state. This follows criticism from environmentalists, scientists, and animal advocates over the record number of wolves killed just outside of Yellowstone National Park, where they are protected. (Governor Greg Gianforte himself shot a radio-collared wolf and violated hunting regulations.)

The impact: The pause gives the region’s wolf population some much-needed respite from persecution, but the solution is far from perfect. The commissioners rejected calls to reintroduce a strict limit to the number of animals that can be culled. Republican lawmakers previously lifted these longstanding restrictions in order to drive down the population, even though the ecologically important animals were only restored to the Rocky Mountains in 1995. Notably, hunting will only be paused once the current quota has been met.

Did you know? According to Mission Wolf, a Colorado-based educational wolf sanctuary, there were at least 250,000 wolves (though possibly as many as two million) living on the continent prior to European colonization and mass extermination.

Even after decades of conservation efforts, the U.S. has less than 18,000 grey wolves, the majority of which live in Alaska. Predators such as wolves remain controversial and unpopular, but they provide invaluable ecosystem services by keeping deer and elk populations in check, which in turn benefits other wildlife and plants.

How you can help: With animals like wolves, education is key. Learn more about wolves from organizations such as the California Wolf Center, and spread the word about their beauty, importance, and vulnerability. You can also support charities such as the International Wolf Center, the Wolf Conservation Center, Yellowstone Forever, the American Wolf Foundation, and the American Hunt Saboteurs Association, which uses direct action to target hunting.     
Looking for more good climate news? Read the previous installments here.