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Can Coral Gardening Save the World’s Reefs?

This was written for my environmental reporting class in late February. I’m currently looking for a place to publish it.

In the past four decades, 40 percent of the world’s coral reefs have been lost, largely due to global climate change and other manmade issues. This epidemic has scientists scrambling for ways to halt or reverse reef degradation and save these vital ecosystems. Over the last two decades, a deceptively simple and promising method to save reefs has emerged: plant new ones.

Baruch Rinkevich, a senior scientist at the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute, has been studying coral reef gardening – growing small coral-nubbins cut from larger corals in nurseries and replanting them in damaged reefs – since the mid ‘90s. Rinkevich explained his methods in the upcoming volume of Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. After decades of smaller studies, he said he wanted to summarize his conclusions in an article geared toward the scientific community in general, not just those who closely follow reef restoration.

There are a handful of people gardening coral worldwide, and Rinkevich is one of the most well known scientists promoting the method. He said people need to accept that the environment is changing and that his field needs to work on rebuilding those reefs that can survive in this new reality. Although some other reef experts question the viability of gardening as a restoration method, Rinkevich is not dissuaded.

He was inspired by the success of silviculture – controlling the growth of forests to meet specific industrial or environmental needs. “The tree species are different, in many places the technologies are different, but the rationale and the approaches are the same,” he said.

The coral-nubbins are grown in floating mid-water nurseries close to the shore. Rinkevich’s initial attempts to grow them on the ocean floor were unsuccessful as they were too vulnerable to weather disturbances and predation from starfish and certain fish. Nurseries suspended in the water turned out to be safer and more flexible; they also exposed the coral to more nutrients from passing currents. More than 100,000 colonies from 86 different coral species have been successfully farmed worldwide, according to Rinkevich’s study, a total that includes those grown by him and a handful of other scientists.

Ken Nedimyer has cultivated endangered corals as president of the non-profit Coral Restoration Foundation in the Florida Keys. In 2001, Nedimyer started a nursery for staghorn coral, which have seen their populations decrease by 98 percent in the last 30 years.

Now, there are about 40,000 staghorn and elkhorn coral in the Coral Restoration Foundation’s nurseries. Last year the group planted 10,000 coral after they spent eight months in the nurseries. Nidemyer said they plan to plant double the amount this year. The program’s success builds upon itself, he explained. “In two years you’re going to look around and say, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of coral out there,’” he said.

Rinkevich argues that restoration methods need to be more forward thinking, and the scientific community needs to accept that the reefs of tomorrow are not going to look like the reefs of yesterday. Gardening allows scientists to focus on corals that are better suited to future environmental conditions like warming waters and ocean acidification. “This is ecological engineering. You plan ahead of time, you put all the consideration into the cultivation, so you end up with a completely different type of [reef],” he said. For instance, Rinkevich found that Pocillopora damicornis, or cauliflower coral, is hardy and grows fast. Nidemyer said his team focuses on strains of coral that have advantageous genetic adaptations.

“You’re going to find some corals that are going to do well on the reefs and the reefs are going to be dominated by those corals,” Nidemyer explained.

But Tim McClanahan, senior zoologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, has doubts about just how helpful gardening going to be. McClanahan, who has worked with Rinkevich before, said that gardening is “a boutique solution.” In his opinion, it’s helpful for small-scale priority sites, but it can’t operate at a large enough scale to address the problems facing reefs worldwide.

There’s also cost to consider. Transplanting coral on a large enough scale to make an impact is an expensive endeavor. The Coral Restoration Foundation is a nonprofit, and Rinkevich depends on research grants. The comparison to silviculture can only go so far, as McClanahan noted that people earn money directly from the replanted forests. “The relationship between coral and fisheries is much less direct, and so the economic incentives to do it are not there [in] the same way,” he said.

McClanahan also notes that gardening fails to address the underlying problems that are causing the degradation in the first place. “We’ve got to deal with other issues like carbon emissions and overfishing on very large scales,” he said. “Those are sort of bigger problems in my opinion.”

Bill Precht was the program manager for the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary back when Nedimyer first began replanting coral, and he disagrees with McClanahan’s take. He recalled being skeptical himself, but after seeing the success of Nedimyer’s work he became much more optimistic. “Even if mortality is very high, at the number they’re planting them and the growth rate that they have, there’s a possibility to restore an entire reef,” he said.

Rinkevich said the next step is to restore a reef on a much grander scale, planting more than a million coral. He doesn’t have many details as of now, because he’s currently in the early stages of looking for a location and sponsors.

“Kudos to him for doing what he does,” McClanahan said, despite his skepticism. “I mean, we need to put more effort into coral reefs. They’re not doing well and they need people like him and me out there looking at [all] the options.”

“I really think we can buy some time and hopefully the world will wake up and realize they’re on a collision course with disaster and change things,” Nedimyer said. “And if we’ve done some of the work that we’re trying to do now, we’ll have something to look at in 50 years. And we’ll say, ‘Wow, we’re glad we did.’”

The True Cost of the Pelham Bay Landfill Case

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My Narrative Journalism Class wrote a series of longform profiles of the various plaintiffs, experts and lawyers involved in a toxic tort case in the Bronx that took 22 years to settle. The full website with all the stories can be found here

My article focused on the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses – their experiences and the debate over the science at the heart of the case. I’ve included it below, though I highly encourage everyone to visit the full site and read my classmates’ stories for a more complete understanding of this case. I  took the lead on creating the page for these stories, and made all the graphics in Photoshop. [Read more…]

In Rememberance of Bill Vitiello

Courtesy of DUMBO BID

Courtesy of DUMBO BID

On DUMBO’s Washington Street there is a recently-planted tree. In a planter surrounded by flowers, it makes the street a little brighter while remaining unassuming. It’s a fitting memorial for the kindhearted, no-nonsense and modest man who worked to better the neighborhood for over two decades.

Bill Vitiello spent more than half of his working life bettering DUMBO and the surrounding neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights and Vinegar Hill, first at the Department of Sanitation and later at the DUMBO Business Improvement District. Over two decades, Vitiello’s devotion and tireless work was instrumental in transforming DUMBO’s streets into what they are today.

“DUMBO for a long time was off the radar for city services and there wasn’t necessarily a lot of pride put in what our streets looked liked,” said Alexandria Sica, executive director of the DUMBO BID. Vitiello, Sica said, was instrumental in getting the neighborhoods’ cobblestone streets “shined up and ready for primetime.” [Read more…]

How Magicians Pull Rabbits Out of Hats

CH Rabbit Web Size

Originally published on CollegeHumor on February 22, 2014

What Should Politicians Be for Halloween 2013?

Originally published on CollegeHumor on October 25, 2013
Obama Political Halloween

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Photo-essay: A Bubbleologist on His Day Off

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“It’s too bad you couldn’t do this Wednesday,” said Jack Kocher, 48, as we walked through the pouring rain. “You can’t blow bubbles in the rain.”

Kocher is a bubbleologist, a title he came up with himself. “It took me, like, a half hour,” he said, adding that it took even more time to figure out what the correct spelling of “bubbleologist” ought to be. (It needed the “e” in order to make sense, he decided.)

On Wednesday, he was scheduled to bubble for a production company that would use the footage to show off the high quality of a new HD TV. On Tuesday, though, unable to bubble due to the downpour, Kocher ran errands, picking up the materials he would to blow massive bubbles the next day.

Kocher came to bubbles after living in Central Park for a year, after doing all sorts of odd jobs and activism. He soon became very good at it, drawing a small income from pleased park-goers as he improved his technique. He now makes a living mainly through bubbling. After a couple months bubbling, he realized he was a “homeless guy with $1,000 in my pocket,” and was able to rent a small apartment in rough part of Staten Island, though he intends to leave by the holiday season.

Kocher is taking classes to rebuild his credit score, hoping to move out and into a nice place closer to the park where he can try to be a writer, and hopefully become a grandfather. He has two 24-year-old twin daughters.

I Ate This

Dunkin-Donuts-756x250Recently, I did something extraordinary. On what to most people was just an average Tuesday, I looked death in the face and took a big bite out of life. I woke up and decided that I, like America, needed to run on Dunkin. Little did I know that I wasn’t just going to run, I was going to break a world record and win a gold meal at the Olympics. For Dunkin Donuts is now selling a glazed donut breakfast sandwich – a bacon and egg sandwich betwixt a glazed donut instead of a bagel. Yes, you read that right.

It called to me as soon as I walked through the doors. I approached the counter tentatively. I ordered a medium coffee, black, and the paused. I had a choice, to get a simple donut or bacon egg and cheese, or to carpe diem, and instead order a glazed donut breakfast sandwich? Was I content with just breaking my fast, or did I want to boldly, perhaps even dangerously, shatter my fast into a million pieces?

In that moment I thought about the future. I pictured myself an old man, with the vast majority of my life behind me. Did I want to look back and think about that time I almost accomplished something with my life? That time I almost lived?

No. I knew then what I had to do.

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Man of Steel: Independence Day starring Jesus

Before we talk about Man of Steel the movie, I’d first like to talk about Man of Steel the trailer. This trailer is amazing. It promised a Superman movie that was serious without being dark for dark’s sake, an action packed epic that’s thoughtful and hopeful.

Man of Steel is not like that trailer. The pacing is totally off, it’s five different genres smushed into one movie, the tone is all over the place, and I can’t remember the last time I was this disappointed by a movie.

It seems like the entire plot of Man of Steel takes place over the course of one afternoon, not counting a couple flashbacks. Superman learns how to fly, the world learns aliens exist, Superman goes public and then the Kryptonian aliens destroy a city before being stopped in the span of what appears to be maybe 14 hours.  None of these things are really treated as a being a big deal. The movie doesn’t give anything time to breathe once the plot involving the bad guy, an admittedly delightful Michael Shannon as General Zod, gets into motion.  Nothing gets a chance to feel as epic or important as it should because of how fast everything seems to be moving.

Superman himself seems way less important in this movie than the fact that a dozen or so super powered aliens a) exist and b) just destroyed most of a major American city, killed thousands of people, and almost destroyed the world. Superman’s origin story gets lost in the scope of the surrounding events. It’s an alien invasion flick that happens to feature Superman. Granted, he plays an important part in the invasion, but tonally the movie feels less like the rise of Superman and more like the arrival and defeat of General Zod.

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Ugh. Jodi Arias.

tumblr_lrdbivcDJ01qjzwu8o1_400I wrote this five days after the verdict of the Casey Anthony Jodi Arias murder trial was announced, and while on the one hand I’m a little worried that the lateness of the article makes it totally irrelevant, I also really, really hope that this article is totally irrelevant, because the trial certainly was.

There was never any reason anybody should have cared about this case. This was one woman accused of killing her boyfriend. There may have been some kinky sex involved. How this affects anyone not directly affiliated with the case or people involved is a mystery to me, yet it became a huge news story.

The weird thing is, I’m not exactly sure who cared in the first place. I do, however, know whose fault it is.

The common refrain about schlocky, exploitative stories like this is that the only people who care are in the media. Well, based off the reaction of the newsroom I was working in when they announced the verdict, that’s not entirely true. It’s not all of the media’s fault. On the contrary, a lot of the media hate hate hated this story.

Nobody in the newsroom I work in was happy to be reporting on the Arias case, and we hardly covered it. Everybody was complaining about how they didn’t care, nobody they knew cared, and that this was stupid. Yet we had to cover it, at least a little, because it was already a story. It was a self-perpetuating news story.

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