Central Park is now a climate change laboratory

Central Park is now a climate change laboratory
More people visit Central Park every year than Disney’s Magic Kingdom

Central Park is many things: running track, ballpark, picnic spot, wildlife haven, theatre stage, birthday party site, wedding venue. To name a few.

Now, New York City’s most iconic green space will also function as a laboratory, providing what researchers hope to be valuable insights into adapting urban parks to the challenges of climate change.

Parks play a vital role in happiness and wellbeing, research shows, but New York parks are particularly important to the city’s population. Half of New Yorkers say that the only time they spend in nature is in city parks.

City parks also play a vital role in fighting climate change. By 2050, more than two-thirds of the global population is expected to live in urban areas and the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that making cities more green could have huge potential in reducing heat-trapping emissions.

But the million acres of urban parks in the US and their tree canopies, plants, and wildlife are facing increasing threats from hotter temperatures and more extreme weather including unprecedented rainfall and more powerful storms.

Central Park has been impacted by some of the more severe effects of climate change in the past ten years, so offers a unique place to study.

Last September 1, Hurricane Ida dropped a record 3.15 inches of rain on Central Park in one hour, beating a record set just 10 days prior. Areas of the park were left flooded including the Bethesda Fountain.

Harmful algal blooms have sprung up in the park’s water bodies due to a combination of hotter temperatures, a rise in pollution, and a build-up of nutrients in run-off.

The city experienced the hottest July on record in 2021. Three heat waves – including 17 days that exceeded 90 degrees Fahrenheit – showed why a healthy tree canopy was so important for providing much needed shade.

Currently, there’s no consolidated information or policy recommendations to help cities manage and protect their parks from climate-linked threats.

The Central Park Climate Lab, created by the park’s conservancy along with the Yale School of the Environment, and the Natural Areas Conservancy, aims to provide new research and adaptation tools.

The lab team will use satellite data and on-the-ground research to explore changes in seasonal patterns and how plant and animal life respond to shifting weather.

Researchers also want to better understand how effective city parks are at carbon sequestration – the process of capturing and storing planet-heating CO2 emissions from the atmosphere – and how much cooling the park has on the “urban heat island”, meaning how trees and plants can counter the absorbed heat of concrete, glass and stainless steel of buildings.

“Parks are essential for New Yorkers, as this last couple of years have proven, but flooding, high winds, and extreme temperatures pose a threat to their health,” said NYC Mayor Eric Adams. He added that the Central Park Climate Lab “ will be a model for urban parks across the country”.