The Catskills: An outdoor laboratory with abundant research opportunities
The Catskill Mountains are rich in resources, both ecological and cultural, with a strong history of environmental recovery and management, particularly related to forests, biodiversity, and water resources. Yet the Catskills region remains perhaps overlooked and under-studied in comparison to the other high peaks region in New York State. Protected lands and waters of the Catskills intersect with human use and experiments in public resource management, providing a unique opportunity for cross-disciplinary and original research and monitoring.
Provisioning of services
The Catskill Mountain region of southeastern New York State is an area of special ecological significance and great socioeconomic value. Public lands within the region were designated as a forest preserve in 1885, and the more inclusive Catskill Park, delineated by its “Blue Line,” was established by New York State law in 1904. Throughout its history, the area has served as a refuge for biodiversity and as a recreational resource accessible to the millions residing in the greater New York City metropolitan area. Of the many ecosystem services provided, none is of greater importance than the supply of clean drinking water. The Catskill/Delaware Watershed provides drinking water to over nine million residents of New York City and adjacent counties, and is one of the largest unfiltered public water supply system in the world.
In the Catskills region of New York, forest soils provide key provisioning services including timber production and the maintenance of excellent water quality. This high level of service persisted despite high inputs of acid deposition in the second half of the 20th century. In recent years, inputs of nitric and especially sulfuric acid have declined throughout the northeastern United States as a result of provisions in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. The response of soils and surface waters to these decreased acid inputs has been complex, yet is crucial to the sustainability of water quality and forest production in the region.
Repeated invasions of non-native insects and pathogens have altered the structure and function of forest ecosystems in the Catskills region, and will continue to do so in the future. Gypsy moth, beech bark disease, and hemlock woolly adelgid are among the insects and diseases currently established in the Catskills that are having significant effects on forests. Catskill forests at mid- to high- elevations, such as the New York State Forest Preserve lands, are dominated by sugar maple and are particularly vulnerable to pests that use maple as a host, including the Asian long-horned beetle. The simultaneous effects of multiple invading insects and pathogens, and their interactions with changing climate and air pollution regimes, make it very difficult to predict the future composition of Catskill forests.
Climate change is expected to affect biodiversity elements in the Catskill High Peaks subecoregion of New York State with effects that are difficult to predict. The Catskill High Peaks subecoregion includes the extensively forested hills and mountains encompassing the central core of the Catskill region. The topography exhibits stepped ridges and peaks, which result from the differential weathering of relatively weak shales and siltstones alternating with more resistant sandstones and conglomerates. Elevations of the 35 highest peaks range from 1070 m (3508 ft) to 1275 m (4180 ft) above mean sea level. The Catskill climate is changing, especially with reference to length of the growing season and frequency of extreme events, including flooding and prolonged drought. High-gradient rocky headwater streams flowing over bedrock or gravely substrates are prone to erosion during extreme weather events. Maintaining and restoring connectivity are key adaptation strategies for biodiversity conservation under climate change.
In recent years, the Catskills region has experienced a number of heavy rainfall events that have resulted in significant flooding effects. Areas of Greene County received over 25 cm of rainfall during one of the more recent events to affect the region. From August 26–29, 2011, Tropical Storm Irene affected the Catskills and a broader part of the northeastern United States. The orography of the Catskills region makes this area particularly vulnerable to heavy rainfall from tropical cyclones and their remnants. Often the precipitation received along windward-facing slopes exceeds that which falls closer to the coast or the storm’s center.
The information above was excerpted from articles published after the 2012 CERM Conference in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Effects of Climate Change and Invasive Species on Ecosystem Integrity and Water Quality, Volume 1298, Issues 1, Pages 1-119, September 2013: