Exploring eco-science at the Cary Institute

The Cary Institute’s headquarters, the Tozer Ecosystem Science Building, at dawn.

Courtesy Cary Institute of Ecosystem studies/Photo by Seamus Payne

Exploring eco-science at the Cary Institute

Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies is well known in Millbrook and the area surrounding it for its 2,000 acres of nature walks, trails, ferns and plants as well as its many forums and presentations.

Over the past few years, the institute was completely renovated. There are new buildings clad in copper; a courtyard; and progressing nicely, a field of native pollinating plants.

What is most important about Cary, however, is what we don’t see: the work that goes on in labs, in fields and streams, not just in this area but across the world. President Joshua Ginsberg is justly proud that Cary is a force behind much of the research concerning important ecological issues of the day and how that research can impact local, state, federal and international laws and decisions.

It is difficult to prioritize Cary’s research and contributions to science and the environment; all of the projects are important.

Cary was founded in 1983 by Gene Likens, the co-discoverer of acid rain in North America. His research and experiments on precipitation and chemistry in streamwater, carried on in the 1960s at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, became the foundation in shaping environmental legislation. He was an advisor to governors in New York, New Hampshire and Connecticut as well as advisor to a U.S. president and the author of 26 books and more than 600 scientific papers, and was awarded the National Medal of Science by President George W. Bush in 2001

His research strongly influenced the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which greatly expanded federal control of toxic air pollutants. To this day, Cary is known for having the longest running continuous data set on acid rain.

Invasive insects

Cary was instrumental in taking the initiative on researching invasive forest pests that come into the U.S. by various means. The late Cary scientist Gary Lovett perceived the problem of invasive species early on; New York state had the more new invasive pests in their forests than any other — 62 types were discovered in the state. These pests, such as the Asian long-horned beetle, discovered in 1996 in Brooklyn, the hemlock woolly adelgid, the emerald ash borer and others, come in through international trade, in lumber and packaging and in live trees and plants.

Scientists sought to strengthen laws regarding the problem, and brought attention to it in highlighting the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018. Yet the problem persists; just recently in this area, there was a huge problem with the spongy moth and the spotted lanternfly.

Lovett was concerned that not enough was being done and a set of science-based policies were developed, and recommendations made, to block the importation of insects and diseases brought in through international trade systems. Cary scientists, along with others, continues to work with legislators and through partnership to implement Tree-SMART Trade legislation.

A petition was started April 8, 2022, to ask Congress to do something about it. With Lovett and Cary Institute spearheading the petition, it was delivered with over 1,700 signatures to the House and Senate agricultural committees, requesting action be taken in the form of a congressional hearing on these invasive forest pests. On April 4, 2023, a bill was introduced to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry for action by the Senate.

Foliage fans

Cary scientists understand the importance of trees in ecology. They are studying the impact of forest fires on our ecological system. They conduct research in the U.S. and around the world.

When rain forests below the equator are burned or plundered, we lose all the potential medicines and other undiscovered treasures that they’re hiding.

Trees produce shade, which cools temperatures, and they release water vapor through their leaves. This also helps cool the air. This has an effect on energy costs for the consumer. With three carefully placed trees, a homeowner can save $100-$250 yearly on energy costs, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Trees absorb carbon dioxide, releasing the oxygen back into the air and storing the carbon. This helps in reducing the effects of climate change. A mature tree can absorb 48 pounds of carbon dioxide and will provide oxygen in its place.

Animals also benefit from trees, as a source of both shelter and food. Trees produce fruits and nuts, as well as some spices, which we use daily, and provide lumber for building.

Water protection

Water is an element we can’t live without. Emma Rosi, recently retired from Cary, studied how failing wastewater infrastructure plays a part in polluting streams and creating antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.” Rosi’s research showed how prescription and illicit drugs that invade our waterways impact freshwater quality and the aquatic life it should support.

After earning her master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Georgia, Rosi took on a leading role in the area of freshwater science and researching how emerging contaminants shape these systems. She has served on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board.

Disease prediction

Joining the Cary Institute in 2014, Barbara Han got her doctorate in zoology from Oregon State University. Her research involves ecology, global health and computing, all of which she uses to predict outbreaks of new zoonotic diseases, the ones that jump from animals to humans. Of the many cases reported each year — over 1 billion — most can be attributed to zoonotic pathogens.

Han has partnered with collaborators at IBM and NASA on predicting global disease and has also helped the U.S. government and the World Health Organization to apply this specialized research to disease prevention.

Lyme prevention

Richard Ostfeld and Cary Institute partnered with Bard College, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the New York State Department of Health and the Dutchess County Department of Behavioral and Community Health on The Tick Project, a five-year study that began in 2016 to find out if neighborhood-based prevention would have an effect on the amount of cases of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases were contracted.

Simple methods believed to be safe for the environment were used on both humans and pets. Twenty-four neighborhoods were chosen to participate, each consisting of 6 to 10 blocks. They used bait boxes to catch rodents and MET52 insecticide spray. The number of ticks in the yards with bait boxes was reduced to about half the usual number, while the spray had no effect on the number of ticks found. Neither method had an effect on people’s incidences with ticks, but pets’ diseases from tick-borne infection was lower by about 50% in yards using either the traps or the spray.

Cary is a nonprofit. Its website at caryinstitute.org includes forums, scientific papers, biographies and notes on its scientists as well as a place to donate.

Courtesy Cary Institute of Ecosystem studies/Photo by Robin Moore

Researcher Richard Ostfeld ‘dragging for ticks’ at Cary.

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