NORTH KINGSTOWN — Scientists, students and members of the public packed the Quonset O Club in North Kingstown on Friday for the Rhode Island Natural History Survey’s 17th annual science conference.
What sets this conference apart, said David Gregg, the survey's executive director, is that it brings together scientists and the public.
“The Natural History Survey membership isn’t all academic scientists,” he said. “It’s also amateurs and dentists who also are interested in animals and plants and conservation, and if you went to a science conference, you wouldn’t see this mix of people. It only happens at this conference.”
The talks, which continued throughout the day and addressed such diverse subjects as the status of winter flounder and forest insects, focused on the effects of climate change on Rhode Island's ecosystems and on the efforts to understand and mitigate them.
Opening the conference was University of Rhode Island professor emeritus Peter August, who also serves as science adviser and member of the board at the Watch Hill Conservancy.
August described the historic and more recent changes that have occurred at the Napatree Point conservation area and the conservancy’s efforts to adapt to the effects of sea level rise, warmer ocean water and storms. The most important thing to understand about Napatree Point, he said, is that it’s a dynamic ecosystem that is constantly changing.
“Napatree is a storm-driven ecosystem,” he said. “…It’s a resilient ecosystem. It can come back. It’s always changing. The Napatree that you would see today is not the same place that you would see a year ago or a year from now, and it’s incredibly rich biologically. It’s also heavily valued by the community.”
August noted that the effects of climate change have become a logistical issue at Napatree.
“During our ever more frequent nuisance tides, there is no dry access to Napatree and these events are happening at the rate of five or six times a month,” he said. “…Watch Hill is Ground Zero for sea level rise, storm surge and nuisance tides. We have our hands full managing access to Napatree. Watch Hill has its hands full managing sea level rise and nuisance tides in a larger context.”
John Torgan, Rhode Island director of The Nature Conservancy, delivered the keynote address, which focused on conservation efforts in the context of climate change.
“Today, there is no greater systemic threat to nature in Rhode Island and anywhere than the manifestations of climate change,” he said. "It’s a fundamental factor. We can view it through the lens of almost everything we do in conservation. It is ubiquitous in all aspects of our work.”
On the issue of renewable energy, Torgan cited the success of the Block Island wind farm, but he also touched on the siting of solar energy facilities, an issue that has generated controversy in several Rhode Island municipalities, including Hopkinton and Richmond.
“I think that how we’re siting renewable energy, solar, wind, hydro, all of those are big decisions that could affect our climate future here in Rhode Island and also affect the path toward nature and conservation,” he said. “We want to make sure that when we’re siting solar on land, we’re avoiding intact forests and working farms and other areas where we’ve already made investments in conservation.”
Other talks focused on water quality, including the proliferation harmful blue green algae, which is exacerbated by water temperatures and longer growing seasons.
Fisheries scientists addressed changes in the populations of saltwater fish and invertebrate organisms, prompted by warmer ocean temperatures that drive many familiar species north to cooler water.
Conor McManus of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Marine Fisheries said winter flounder numbers, which have declined to the point where the population is no longer sustainable, decrease when the water warms.
“Where we’ve seen increases in temperature, we’ve seen a decrease in productivity in the winter flounder stock for southern New England,” he said. “Ultimately, what this means in more general terms is, in warmer waters, the ability for the stock to replenish itself through time has declined, not just in this period of high fishing, but also continued to low levels during this period of warming waters.”
Predators are also believed to be contributing to the winter flounder’s sharp decline. Some species, which used to enter Rhode Island waters only during the warmest months of the year, are spending longer periods here, eating winter flounder larvae and newly hatched fish.
“The earlier presence of predators or the increased activity of predators in warmer waters, such as the sand shrimp, also blood anemones, has increased and overlapped with the flounder’s early life stages, making it harder for them to survive,” he said.
Frances Topping, vice chair of the Charlestown Planning Commission, said the presentations provided the latest science and credible information that would inform her work for the town.
“There are so many various factors and they do apply when we’re looking at projects and applications, so the more we can learn about it the better,” she said. “Hopefully, I can bring some of that in. Also, knowing who to contact when you have a question, because obviously we can’t be all-knowing, but through this, we can say, ‘There’s a question with the marshes. Who should we contact?’”
Natural History Survey members Maija Lutz and Peter Tassia do not have science backgrounds, but they said they had wanted to attend the conference anyway.
“It’s enlightening,” Tassia said.
“We try to keep up with what’s going on,” Lutz added. “I think this puts it in a somewhat different context and approaches it from maybe a slightly different view. It’s scientific.”