Learning From Nature How to Deal With Nature

As cities like New York prepare for what appears to be a future of more extreme weather, the focus increasingly is on following nature’s lead

The greening of Lower Manhattan
The greening of Lower Manhattan Image courtesy of Architecture Research Office and dlandstudio

During his inaugural speech Monday, President Barack Obama uttered a phrase that during last year’s presidential campaign were The-Words-That-Shall-Not-Be-Spoken.

He mentioned climate change.

In fact, President Obama didn’t just mention it, he declared that a failure to deal with climate change “would betray our children and future generations.”

But ask any Washington pundit if Congress will do anything meaningful on the subject and they’ll tell you that that’s as likely as D.C. freezing over in July.

Also this week, as it turns out, a study was released outlining the latest geoengineering idea for saving the planet in the event of an unstoppable downward spiral of the Earth’s climate.

This one would involve dumping billions of tons of dust of the mineral olivine into the oceans, a process that, in theory at least, could significantly reduce carbon dioxide levels and also slow the increasing acidification of the oceans.

But there’s a catch. Actually, there are many. For starters, the German scientists who did the study estimate that it would require an undertaking as large as the entire world’s coal industry to mine enough olivine, and then it would take at least 100 large ships working 24/7 for a year to spread enough of the mineral dust around to have an impact. Plus, all that olivine dust would undoubtedly change the biology of the oceans in ways no one can really predict.

Back to nature

Okay, back to reality. The only response to climate change that’s truly moving forward is what’s known as adaptation. Or, put more simply, preparing for the worst.

It’s not likely that there will be another Hurricane Sandy this year. Maybe not next year either. But no one running a city, particularly along a coastline, can dare to think that the next devastating superstorm won’t come along for another 50 years.

So their focus is on minimizing the damage when it does hit. And, perhaps not surprisingly, they’re increasingly looking to nature’s resiliency to help them deal with nature’s wrath.

Case in point: One proposal to reduce future flooding of Lower Manhattan is built around the idea of converting part of that section of the city into wetlands and salt marshes. That’s right, the concrete jungle, or at least the lower end of it, would get very squishy.

As architect Stephen Cassell envisions the transformation, the edge of low-lying neighborhoods, such as Battery Park, would become a patchwork of parks and marshes that could sop up future storm surges. And on the more vulnerable streets, asphalt would be replaced with porous concrete that could soak up excess water like a bed of sponges.

It’s just one of several ideas that have been floated, but its mimicking of natural wetlands has a simple, rugged appeal. As Cassell told the New York Times:

““We weren’t fully going back to nature with our plan. We thought of it more as engineered ecology. But if you look at the history of Manhattan, we have pushed nature off the island and replaced it with man-made infrastructure. What we can do is start to reintegrate things and make the city more durable.”

Know your roots

But that’s almost prosaic compared to Skygrove, the concept for a skyscraper inspired by the mangrove tree. Mangroves, which often grow in swamps or along rivers, are known for their gnarly network of roots that keep their trunks above the water.

Architects at the New York firm of HWKN copied that model for a building that could sit above rising water. Instead of having a single foundation, the Skygrove would rest on a base of “roots” extending outward like fingers spread under the water.

Each root of the building–which is meant to be a vertical office park for the City of New York–would be independent of the others and self-sufficient, able to provide its own energy. And each would be designed to survive whatever extreme weather may come its way.

To believe the designers, the Skygrove is a model for the kinds of buildings we may see more often in what they call the “newly nebulous coastal zone.”

It’s nature’s way

Here are other new inventions based on mimicking nature:

  • But do not try this on trees: A London industrial designer has created a super-strong bicycle helmet by modeling it after the heads of woodpeckers.
  • No word yet on how it may affect human mating: A team of researchers has found that LED lights that copy the structure of a firefly’s “lantern” are 55 percent brighter.
  • Okay, let’s clear the air: A Copenhagen chemist has invented an air-cleaning device that mimics the process through which the Earth’s atmosphere cleans itself. In response to sunlight, polluting gases rising into the sky form particles when they come across compounds such as ozone. And those newly formed particles are washed out of the atmosphere by rain. The invention, which removes industrial pollutants from the air, is now being tested at a Danish plant.
  • But do they ever tell dogs “You’ll just feel a little stick?”: One day we could have less painful hypodermic needles thanks to a group of scientists who studied porcupine quills. They determined that the backwards-facing barbs on a quill help it enter skin easily and then stay in place. The researchers learned this by measuring how much force it took to push in and pull out porcupine quills jabbed into pig skin and raw chicken meat.
  • Mussels and bodybuilding: A team of researchers from Penn State and the University of Texas, Arlington believe that a version of the powerful adhesive that allows mussels to stick stubbornly to underwater surfaces can be used in operating rooms to close and heal wounds.

Video bonus: An idea whose time, sadly, has come: robot cockroaches. It will creep you out.

More from Smithsonian.com

When Animals Inspire Inventions

How Biomimicry Is Inspiring Human Innovation

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.