Questions for Daniel Nidzgorski

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Learn more about my research Have a question for the urban ecologist?

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

What do you do? Is it a hard job? Is it fun?

posted on Mon, 02/14/2011 - 5:23pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

It seems like every day is different -- as a graduate student, I'm in a lot of different roles. Right now in February the ground is still snow-covered, so I'm not doing any active fieldwork. I'm taking classes, writing grant proposals for research funding, and testing out a few methods in lab. Last semester I was a teaching assistant for a freshman seminar, "Living Sustainably in Urban Ecosystems," that was a LOT of fun. We took the students on field trips to places like the High Bridge power plant, the Metro wastewater treatment plant, a local organic farm, to see behind the scenes of what keeps a city going. Our students also got to be the first users of the SMM's online Flux Calculator!

Once the ground thaws I'll be back out in the Saint Paul city parks doing fieldwork. I'm comparing different species of urban trees, as well as open grassy areas, to see how they affect the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that leaches down to groundwater. I'll be collecting soil and leaf samples, and hand-auguring some deeper holes to install equipment that lets me extract soil water from below the rooting zone. (collecting the samples is only half the job; I'll also be spending a good bit of time in lab analyzing the samples) Fieldwork can be physically exhausting, and it can also be mentally hard when I need to figure out how to take a method that sounded simple on paper and apply it to unexpected situations. But it's also fun, even in the rain.

I like that I get to be both a student and a teacher, a researcher, and a "science translator" explaining ecology to various people.

posted on Sat, 02/19/2011 - 5:34pm
Andy678's picture
Andy678 says:

Hi Daniel

Do houses and cities have any positive impact on ecosystems? Like, do the ways we process or emit nutrients help any other organisms out?

posted on Mon, 02/21/2011 - 11:35am
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

Andy,
This is a tricky question because it's not always easy to define what's a "positive" or "negative" effect. If we take the example of excess nitrogen and phosphorus causing an algae bloom in a lake, the algae certainly benefits from being fertilized! But the rest of the organisms in the lake suffer: for example, bottom-growing plants get shaded out by the algae, and large algae blooms can cause fish kills (when the algae dies and decomposes, it uses up the oxygen in the lake). People value clear water that's good for fishing, swimming, and drinking, so overall an algae bloom is a negative impact.

On land, the effects are more subtle than an algae bloom, but it’s still the same basic story. Some plants benefit more than others from added nutrients, or from climate change caused by carbon dioxide. Some animals thrive near human activity, while others can no longer find the food or habitat they need. As a result, new species move into an area and other species disappear from the community. People have very different opinions about what species they like and value, however, so it’s harder to label these changes as good or bad.

I’ll do some more reading and see if any ecologists have described general patterns in what kinds of species tend to benefit or suffer from added nutrients. I’ll post a follow-up if I find anything.

posted on Sat, 02/26/2011 - 12:58pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Are there ways to harvest the chemicals we release, so they could be used again instead of letting them become pollutants?

posted on Mon, 02/21/2011 - 11:38am
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

Absolutely! People are starting to think about ways to reclaim phosphorus, in particular. Some researchers estimate that our phosphorus mines could run out in thirty or forty years -- and without phosphorus fertilizer, we can't grow food and other crops.

Almost all of the phosphorus that comes into a household ends up in wastewater. Sewage sludge from septic tanks is sometimes treated and used as fertilizer, but large municipal wastewater treatment plants often incinerate the sludge and send the ash to a landfill. It would be possible to "mine" the phosphorus out of the ash, but I don't know of anywhere that is doing this yet.

posted on Wed, 02/23/2011 - 12:51pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Do any cities have a much bigger or smaller nutrient flow than others with the same population? Why?

posted on Tue, 02/22/2011 - 12:54pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

Unfortunately, we don't have enough information to compare different cities. There are only nitrogen or phosphorus budgets for a few cities so far.

There is more information for carbon, but it's still hard to make good comparisons because different researchers have used different methods and definitions. In the last few years there has been more work to develop a standard set of methods, so probably within the next five years we will see comparisons of greenhouse-gas emissions for cities across the globe.

posted on Sat, 02/26/2011 - 12:25pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

But, daniel what are nitrogyn budgets and phosphorus budgets, and why are they only for a few cities so far?

posted on Tue, 03/22/2011 - 1:04pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

It's only recently that people have started studying nutrient cycling in urban ecosystems. A nitrogen or phosphorus budget is a full accounting of all the nitrogen and phosphorus that enters a city, how they move around in the city, where they get stored (like in soil or wood), and how they exit the city. Putting together a complete budget like that requires a lot of information!

posted on Mon, 04/11/2011 - 11:09am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

What can we do to make urban ecosystems healthier? Is there anything we can do, individually, that actually makes an impact? The problems facing us seem so big; it's hard to imagine that there's anything I can do, myself, that could make a difference.

posted on Wed, 03/02/2011 - 12:27pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

Everything we do, each of our daily choices and actions, has an impact. The choice is whether we want our impacts to be part of the problems, or part of the solutions.

Even a big problem like an entire country's carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is really made up of millions of small individual decisions. In the U.S., almost half of all carbon dioxide emissions are from households -- and our individual actions also affect a lot of the commercial and industrial emissions, such as the energy required to manufacture and transport the products we use. Because the problem of carbon dioxide emissions is made up of many individual actions, the ONLY way we can create a solution is to change our individual actions.

We need a lot of people to make some new choices and become part of the solution. Never underestimate the power of a good example -- friends, family, coworkers, neighbors will see what you're doing and realize they can do it, too.

There are many different ways to have a positive impact on the environment -- take a look through these websites and see which ones are right for you:
www.metrotransit.org (public transportation in the Twin Cities metro area)
www.energy.gov and www.mnenergychallenge.org (lots of good tips for conserving energy)
http://sustainablechoices.stanford.edu (ideas for sustainable choices at the store, around the house, and on the road)

posted on Mon, 04/11/2011 - 11:39am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

What type of school do you have to go to to become an ecologist?

posted on Fri, 03/04/2011 - 12:51pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

Mark Twain once said, "I never let my schooling interfere with my education." And I have to agree -- it's a lot more about what you learn, much of which is outside any classroom. Many of our great historical naturalists and ecologists didn't have any formal ecological schooling, but they made careful observations and left great records of the world around them.

If you want to get *paid* to be an ecologist, however, schooling and degrees are very helpful. There are folks coming from a basic biology background, and others like me from a more interdisciplinary approach. And how far you go with schooling depends on what you want to do -- for policy and development sorts of work, a masters' degree is great. The same goes for ecological consulting. If you want to do research and really expand the frontiers of how we understand our ecosystem, a PhD is designed to train you in that kind of research.

Bottom line: figure out what you want to get out of any schooling (and don't forget your own development as a person and a thinker) and make sure you find a program that fits it. There's such a diversity of career paths in ecology, and one size doesn't fit all in terms of schooling.

posted on Tue, 09/20/2011 - 2:02pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

What does an 'urban ecologist' do? Why do we have them and do they help us with our resource problems?

posted on Mon, 03/07/2011 - 2:49pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

There isn't a clear definition of an "urban ecologist." Some people use the term to talk about an approach to urban planning (city design) that incorporates ecological ideas. In contrast, when I describe myself as an urban ecologist, I mean that I'm an ecologist who mostly studies cities and towns -- but I've also done research on forests, grasslands, lakes, and oceans. Whether I'm working to understand a city or a remote mountaintop, as an ecologist I study the interactions between different types of organisms (like plants, animals, soil microbes), and between organisms and their physical environment (like soils, water, air, light).

When we build cities and towns, we are creating ecosystems that are very different from the more "natural" systems that ecologists have traditionally studied. If we want to build more sustainable cities, it's important to understand how these ecosystems function -- basically, how all the different parts fit together. And that's where urban ecologists, like my coworkers and me, can help.

posted on Mon, 04/11/2011 - 3:28pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

what do you think is the most problematic gas being released into the ecosystem??

posted on Thu, 03/17/2011 - 2:57pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

This is definitely a question of comparing apples and oranges -- different gases affect such different parts of the ecosystem that there really isn't an objective way to measure which is worst. I can only give you my personal answer: carbon dioxide. Climate change is affecting every part of the globe, in so many different ways -- and with so much potential for major harm.

posted on Mon, 04/11/2011 - 11:01am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

what would you do for a Klondike bar????????

posted on Sat, 03/19/2011 - 10:57am
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

Not much -- I don't really like 'em.

posted on Thu, 07/14/2011 - 5:39pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

with the population set to increase to 9 billion people by 2050...what do you think will be the urban effect on the earth? and will the forward technilogical thinking of mankind slow down the process

posted on Sat, 03/19/2011 - 11:06am
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

Actually, I worry that our "technological thinking" is going to increase the rate at which we use up resources and produce pollution. Our environmental impact is determined not only by the number of people on the planet, but also by the amount of resources each person uses. A more technologically-based society needs more materials and energy to produce the devices and products we use, more energy to power them, and more landfill space to dispose of them. Even though our electronic devices have gotten more efficient in recent years, we're also using them more, so our per-person energy use hasn't decreased.

The urban population is growing faster than the total population as people migrate to cities. More than half of the world's people now live in cities, and that proportion is growing. I have a hard time picturing what the cities of 2050 might look like.

posted on Mon, 04/11/2011 - 3:12pm
daniel wee's picture
daniel wee says:

how do you become an urban ecologist?

posted on Sun, 03/20/2011 - 10:29am
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

Start by observing the ecosystem you live in: your household, your neighborhood, your city. What grabs your attention? What patterns do you see? I got fascinated by all the different types of trees that people plant in the city, and started walking around town looking at trees in yards, parks, and boulevards. You don't need a science degree to make careful observations and learn about urban ecosystems.

There are many different components of urban ecosystems (plants, animals, soils, water, people, governments...) so explore around. Learn a little bit about all these parts, and how they fit together.

If you're interested in urban ecology as a profession, though, you will want a science degree -- at least a bachelor's degree, maybe a master's or doctorate depending on what sort of work you want to do.

posted on Mon, 04/11/2011 - 3:03pm
Daniel  's picture
Daniel says:

Does your job concentrate on just the impact of society on the ecosystem or does it invovle the actual plant and wildlife as well.

posted on Sun, 03/20/2011 - 10:35am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Dear Daniel,

How do you think we are doing in taking care of our enviorment?

posted on Sun, 03/27/2011 - 2:00pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

How to put this politely.....I think we're doing a pretty lousy job. The environment seems to get relegated to "somebody else's problem" far too often. Environmental impacts aren't built into the costs of making products or doing business. We're not supporting developing countries in leapfrogging to sustainable practices. We do a lot of "greenwashing" but not much serious change.

Mainly, we don't have a deep, personal, gut-level connection to our environments.

posted on Thu, 07/14/2011 - 5:41pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

What's your favorite thing about your job?

posted on Sun, 03/27/2011 - 3:58pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

whats your favorite color?

posted on Mon, 03/28/2011 - 1:32pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

Cobalt blue.

posted on Mon, 04/11/2011 - 11:06am
`Nicholas's picture
`Nicholas says:

Are the caps on plastic bottles (water. soda. etc.) recyclable, or do they have to have a code on them? Do the pollutants released in the process of recycling (due to transportation, factories, etc) outweigh the positive effects of recycling?

posted on Thu, 03/31/2011 - 12:00pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

The caps are recyclable, though in many towns they can't be recycled through your normal curbside recycling. You can call your recycling company to ask. Some grocery stores, community centers, churches, etc. have put out special collection bins just for the caps.

Recycling does take energy, but it's less energy than is required to mine metal or drill for oil, process the raw materials into usable materials, and make the product. Overall, recycling saves energy and releases much less pollution than making a new product.

posted on Mon, 04/11/2011 - 3:29pm
Suh Koller's picture
Suh Koller says:

Hi Daniel.
I am in AP Environmental Science right now, and I have a question for you. Did you always want to become an urban ecologist when you were younger?
Thank you.

posted on Sun, 04/17/2011 - 4:47pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

Nope! I got here through a long and windy path. I've always been fascinated by the natural world and science. Like many kids, I went through my dinosaur phase and other similar fixations.

In high school I started to get drawn to ecology, trying to understand how the life around me works. I like that it's complex, with many interacting parts, and can't be boiled down to simple equations. I studied ecology in college and got completely hooked. But most of my work was in more remote areas -- Hawaii, Alaska, Siberia, nature preserves in California.

I didn't become an urban ecologist until grad school. In between college and grad school I started asking questions about these new ecosystems we humans are creating as we reshape a landscape. We're creating these systems, making major decisions that are going to affect the planet for a very long time, without really understanding how these systems work. So the urban questions are what have currently grabbed me and won't let go.

posted on Fri, 05/13/2011 - 1:22pm
martin beyer's picture
martin beyer says:

what is the most interesting thing that you have learned. what is your job like. do you like about your job. how many years of school do you have to go through to have your job.

posted on Sat, 04/30/2011 - 1:27pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

Most interesting: I never realized that about 80% of the phosphorus I use winds up in the landfill. Are we going to start mining them for the phosphorus?

What do I like about my job: I've gone into more detail in earlier posts, but really the fact that I'm always doing something different.

Years of school: I'm in grad school right now, but in the end it'll be five years of Ph.D. work plus four years of college.

posted on Fri, 05/13/2011 - 1:25pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

That is really interesting about the phosphorous in landfills. I would love to learn more! How could I do that?

posted on Mon, 05/23/2011 - 1:12pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

There's a really detailed study of Minnesota's municipal solid waste (aka the garbage that goes to landfills and incinerators) available at: http://people.engr.ncsu.edu/barlaz/resources/wastesort2000.pdf

posted on Thu, 07/14/2011 - 5:45pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

hi how are you what does your work have to do with the flux calculator

posted on Sat, 04/30/2011 - 2:07pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

I built the calculations for the "Outputs" section of the flux calculator, and I'm working on a project right now to figure out what happens to the carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus after it leaves our households.

posted on Fri, 05/13/2011 - 1:27pm
Alice's picture
Alice says:

Hello! I was wondering how possible it is to get many of our lakes and rivers back to "swimmable and fishable" conditions, namely the Minnesota River. I know much of the fertilizer and pesticide run-off from farms and lawns can contaminate our rivers and lakes with chemicals that change the natural balance of life in these ecosystems. What is being done now to mitigate this problem, and what more needs to be done? Also, how long would it realistically take to make the Minnesota River swimmable and fishable again?

posted on Fri, 06/17/2011 - 1:19pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

Alice,
I needed to do a bit of research on this one. Let's tackle swimming and fishing separately:

Swimming is mostly about the bacteria in the water that could make people sick. These bacteria can be carried by any warm-blooded animal, including wildlife (especially waterfowl and shorebirds), livestock, and humans. I looked through the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency data, and in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties only 18% of the lakes fully support swimming and other recreational use. Most of the lakes are OK for swimming part, but not all, of the summer. Bacteria levels can rise and fall very quickly.

Fishing is affected by a much larger range of pollutants, many of which can stick around in the environment for many years. Every single lake and river in Minnesota is affected by mercury pollution, for example, since mercury rains in from the air and builds up in the sediments. Fortunately, not all of the species of fish accumulate mercury in their tissues. To see which fish are safe to eat in any particular lake or river, check out http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/fish/

Some issues like mercury, PCB's, and other persistent pollutants will be with us for generations even if we completely stopped producing these pollutants overnight. Others, like the bacteria that can make swimmers sick, will go away within weeks or months once the sources are cleaned up.

posted on Sun, 08/21/2011 - 10:45pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

What type of music do you enjoy?

posted on Sat, 06/18/2011 - 1:21pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

I've got pretty eclectic tastes. My favorite composer is J.S. Bach and I've recently discovered his cello suites. I sing with an early-music choir that mainly does pieces from Medieval and Renaissance Europe. I also listen to a lot of jazz, American folk, Eastern European and Balkan music, and some really oddball stuff that I don't know how to describe.

posted on Thu, 07/14/2011 - 5:50pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

I've got pretty eclectic tastes. My favorite composer is J.S. Bach and I've recently discovered his cello suites. I sing with an early-music choir that mainly does pieces from Medieval and Renaissance Europe. I also listen to a lot of jazz, American folk, Eastern European and Balkan music, and some really oddball stuff that I don't know how to describe.

posted on Thu, 07/14/2011 - 5:50pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

How many households are using surface water "harvesting" nutrienients inthe water... are any muniipal parks or golf courses doing this.... I have seen It work in small scale curious to see large scale... nutrient recovery....

posted on Fri, 06/24/2011 - 3:20pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

I'm not aware of anyone doing this -- even a lake or river that has enough nitrogen and phosphorus to cause algae blooms is still pretty dilute in terms of applying it to grass like a fertilizer.

A high level of phosphorus for a lake is anything over 50 micrograms per liter, Let's say we've got a lake with twice that, or 100ug/L of P. Lawns in Minnesota mostly have enough P and don't need more P fertilizer, but some need up to 200g of P per hundred square meters. If your lawn needs half that amount, or 100g, you'd need to apply water to a depth of 10m (about 33ft) to get enough P to fertilize it. So from the fertilizing perspective, there's no real incentive. But this calculation absolutely shows that a lawn can use way more P than is found in lake water and would be able to filter it.

But do we want to use up our lakes and streams on lawns and golf courses? It's not like a water filter where all the water you put in runs neatly out the bottom. I would be concerned that we would cause more problems by lowering the water level than we'd solve by filtering out nutrients.

posted on Thu, 07/14/2011 - 6:09pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

what made you want to become an urban ecologist? if i wanted to be one would you have any tips for me

posted on Tue, 06/28/2011 - 9:43am
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

Figure out what about urban ecology fascinates you. For some people, it's the animals (especially birds) so they focus on wildlife habitat and conservation. For others, it's the plants, so they get involved with urban forestry and greenspace design. For me, it's about the ways nutrients (like carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus) and water flow through the urban ecosystem and link all the pieces together.

Research isn't easy. There's a lot of dead ends and mistakes because it's about exploring new ideas and trying things nobody's tried before. I find that it helps to remind myself of the big questions that fascinate me....this is why I'm doing the work. So my best advice is to figure out what part of urban ecology fascinates and motivates you, and it'll be much easier to do the coursework and the research and all if you can keep that in mind.

posted on Sun, 08/21/2011 - 10:52pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

how are the ash trees doing this summer?

posted on Tue, 07/19/2011 - 7:29pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

From what I've seen, they're generally doing well. On city land, like parks and boulevards, they've been proactive in cutting down ash that are diseased/damaged and likely to attract the borer. The U of M has also been taking down weaker ash trees on the Saint Paul campus. The State Fairgrounds has taken the opposite tactic -- they've been treating their ash trees to protect them (but unlike a vaccination, this is a chemical treatment that has to be re-applied every two years).

posted on Sun, 08/21/2011 - 10:07pm
kristyn's picture
kristyn says:

how did you first start to become an urban ecologist? also i live on the lake, what can i do to help?

posted on Thu, 07/21/2011 - 10:29am
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

Kristyn,
I've been interested in ecology since high school -- it's what comes of looking at the world around me and wondering how all the pieces fit together and influence one another. It's complex, it's crazy, and for me it's totally fascinating.

The urban part came later. I like doing science that not only satisfies my curiosity, but is also useful and helps address a real need. It turns out we really don't understand a lot about how urban ecosystems work -- and yet we're making decisions every day that affect them. I want to understand them so we can figure out better ways to have healthy, functional, sustainable ecosystems in our cities.

posted on Sun, 08/21/2011 - 10:33pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

Kristyn,
About living on a lake: how you take care of your lawn and garden can really help prevent nitrogen and phosphorus (and harmful pollutants) from washing into the lake. Don't let your grass clippings or leaves wash into the lake, and if you fertilize, only apply as much as your grass needs (the U of M Extension has some good recommendations at http://snipurl.com/n-fert )

posted on Sun, 08/21/2011 - 10:33pm
momfromIowa's picture
momfromIowa says:

How much impact do urban gardens/trees have on reducing harmful pollutants in the surface air which we breathe?

posted on Sat, 07/23/2011 - 11:39am
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

According to one study, the trees and shrubs in Minneapolis remove an estimated 384 tons of air pollutants each year. On average, this is one-half of one percent of the total pollutant load city-wide. But in places with 100% canopy cover, trees can improve air quality by 10-15% during certain peak pollution hours. And reducing the peak pollution is very important for human health!

As far as I know, no similar studies have been conducted for urban gardens.

If you're interested in reading the study, it's available online at http://www.sustainablecitiesinstitute.org/view/page.basic/casestudy/feat...

posted on Sun, 08/21/2011 - 10:22pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

If people use fertilizers and pesticides at a lake home, how will these chemicals effect the lake?

posted on Fri, 07/29/2011 - 5:11pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

What type of tree species are urban areas looking to plant with the ariival of new diseases, funguses, insects, severe weather and global warming?

posted on Mon, 08/01/2011 - 3:37pm
Daniel Nidzgorski's picture

Mainly, we're looking to dramatically increase the species diversity of the urban forest. Any one species is likely to be susceptible to something on your list -- we've seen disease problems with elms, and now insect issues with ash, and maples are struggling, and.... By planting many different species, our urban forest will be less vulnerable to future problems.

posted on Sun, 08/21/2011 - 10:26pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Why should we recycle? Why is recycling so expensive?

posted on Tue, 08/23/2011 - 12:53pm
NONEOFYOURBUZ!!!!!'s picture
NONEOFYOURBUZ!!!!! says:

What is your favorite thing about your job?
Do you like it?
Where did you go to school?
How many years were you in school?
How did you get interseted in things like that?
How many years have you been working?

posted on Sun, 08/28/2011 - 4:08pm