Montclair Sustainability Officer Gray Russell

Montclair Sustainability Officer Gray Russell traveled north to the Downeast coast of Maine in September, to volunteer on a climate science project directed by the Schoodic Institute Education and Research Center at Acadia National Park. The Schoodic Institute is the largest of 18 National Park Service Research Learning Centers in the United States and is a national leader in developing new methods to involve the public in science and conservation.

“Working with a collaborative team of forest and marine ecologists and other citizen-scientists like me was a truly valuable experience, helping monitor and measure changes caused by global warming, as well as other consequences of fossil fuel emissions,” said Gray. “And of course, I was fortunate to be able to do this in one of America’s most beautiful national parks.”

The primary aim of this Earthwatch expedition (www.earthwatch.org) was to document data points of two important northeast ecosystems: the effects of ocean warming and acidification on intertidal organisms; and, the interactions on land between birds, insects, flowers and fruits, to observe any mismatches between when each is most active and abundant.

“We identified and counted the diversity of plants and sea animals living in the zone between high and low tides and along with our field work in the forests, the research scientists compare these records to historical data from Acadia’s coastal ecosystem,” said Gray.

As an example, they saw was that the region’s wild blueberry, cranberry, and huckleberry bushes are producing their fruit sooner, due to warmer weather arriving earlier in spring and summer. At the same time, songbirds summering in the Arctic are lingering longer before flying south, due to the extended periods of warmth. Consequently, by the time the birds arrive in the Downeast region – a critical stop-off for millions of birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway each spring and fall – much or even most of the berries are past ripe, depriving the birds of a crucial food supply just as they need it the most, threatening their survival.

This wasn’t Gray’s first expedition as a citizen-scientist. In 2005, he traveled to northernmost Manitoba, Canada, near the edge of the Arctic Circle, to study the effects of climate change on the permafrost around Hudson Bay. In what is known as a positive feedback loop, thawing permafrost emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas, which then warms the planet further, thawing more permafrost, and then emitting more methane.

“As I continue learning more about the impacts of climate change, it informs our work here in our town, and our state,” said Gray. “For example, by doubling our renewably-generated electricity supply for all Montclair residents this year, we’ve lowered our community’s carbon footprint. And, by studying the feasibility of a high-efficiency microgrid for our town center, we’re looking for sustainable solutions to not only make our town a greener, healthier, more resilient place to live, but also to become a more responsible community of this planet,” he said. “As the saying goes: ‘We are thinking globally and acting locally.’