Exploring the science of plants, from the field to the lab

Brian Boom

Amazonia Ablaze: A Record Year for Forest Fires in Brazil

Posted in Environment on August 23, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of Roberto Burle Marx
A photo of Roberto Burle Marx in Brazil, taken by his protegé, Raymond Jungles.

The recent report about the fires in the Brazilian Amazon compels us to reflect on how painful the Amazonian fires would have been to Roberto Burle Marx (1904–94), one of Brazil’s earliest and most important advocates for the rain forest and the subject of our current major exhibition, Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx.

A renowned landscape architect, Burle Marx was also a passionate, outspoken conservationist. His writings on environmental topics in Brazil—powerful when written a half-century ago—have a renewed, relevant resonance in 2019. For example, in Burle Marx: Homenagem à Natureza¹, he is quoted as saying, “You have to understand that it is my obligation to oppose everything that I consider an ecological crime … the sacrifice of nature is irreversible.” In 1969, he wrote: “This destruction [of forests] represents an attack on humanity, an affront to the sources of life, and an assured means of destroying future generations.”² A more powerful, fitting response to the news of the Amazonian fires could not be penned today.

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At a Crossroads: Plants and the Endangered Species Act

Posted in Environment on August 16, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


The federal government recently announced plans to significantly weaken the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the most important legislation ever enacted to protect threatened plants and animals in the United States. There are currently 947 plant species and 1,471 animal species listed through the ESA. The new rules, which will take effect next month, will curtail future listings and potentially reverse a half-century of salvation in the wild. An article in The New York Times outlines the plans; most of the response and commentary has focused on animals—for instance, Carl Safina’s compelling opinion piece with statistics about triumphant saves of condors, alligators, grey wolves, and pelicans since the act became law in 1973. 

However, the new rules also have grave implications for plants. 

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Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: A New Global Assessment by the United Nations

Posted in Environment on May 10, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Image of IPBES assessment
IPBES Global Assessment Summary for Policymakers, published May 6, 2019

Before this week, most readers probably had not heard of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), but they certainly will know of its existence now. This United Nations group made major news this week, as reported in The New York Times, with publication of its first official report, the IPBES Global Assessment Summary for Policymakers. Among its major findings was that about one million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history. The IPBES report makes an ironclad case for urgent global action to mitigate human-induced biodiversity loss before humanity crosses the fail-safe point.  

The breathtakingly dire findings of the IPBES report were captured in the title and content of an analysis by Thomas E. Lovejoy, Ph.D., “Eden No More,” published in Science Advances this week. Dr. Lovejoy, an NYBG Trustee and Gold Medal recipient, elegantly explains what is meant by ecosystem services: “those charities of nature, both nebulous and tangible, that serve as the backbone of human well-being: food, fresh water, clean air, wood, fiber, genetic resources, and medicine.”

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Predicting Nature’s Response to Climate Change: Extending U.S. Biodiversity Collections

Posted in Environment on April 22, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Red maple (Acer rubrum) herbarium specimen in flower, from a collection made on April 12, 1889, by John I. Northrop and Alice Belle Rich in Hunts Point, which is today in Bronx, New York. William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, Bar Code 2488195.

As we celebrate Earth Day, it seems especially appropriate to call attention to an important new initiative that NYBG is helping to lead that could dramatically improve our ability to use biodiversity collections to understand and predict how Earth’s plants and animals will respond to climate change.

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United Nations Declares 2021–2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration

Posted in Environment on April 8, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of coastal forest
Atlantic Coastal forest of Brazil, where 95% of the original forest has been destroyed or degraded.

Last month, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2021–2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. As the UN announcement emphasized, this declaration will provide unparalleled opportunities for job creation, food security, and addressing climate change, all of which are intertwined, vitally important concerns for the future of human society and of all life on our planet. In a recent post, I wrote about the notion of a botanical approach to mitigating global warming through a concerted, coordinated effort of ecosystem restoration, for which Dr. Thomas E. Lovejoy argued elegantly and persuasively in his recently published book Biodiversity and Climate Change: Transforming the Biosphere

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which the Society for Ecological Restoration applauded in a statement, will provide a multilateral framework to give a botanical approach to mitigating global warming a much-needed public boost and hopefully a substantial financial investment. But how much ecosystem restoration would it take to really make a difference in terms of mitigating global warming? An encouraging answer was provided in a recent research paper presented by global change ecologist Dr. Thomas Crowther at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

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The Botany Bill: Proposed Legislation Highlights Importance of Native Plants on Federal Lands

Posted in Environment on March 1, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of Dr. Rob Naczi
Dr. Rob Naczi in the field doing research for The New Manual of Vascular Plants.

Proposed legislation has been introduced in both the United States Senate and House of Representatives with the rather formidable title “Botanical Sciences and Native Plant Materials Research, Restoration, and Promotion Act.” Informally, it is known as “the Botany Bill.” If enacted, the Botany Bill could greatly support the safeguarding and promoting of native plants on federal lands and the increase the number of botanists who are dedicated to studying and protecting those plant species. NYBG is one of dozens of organizations that have endorsed the Botany Bill.

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Mitigating Global Warming: A Botanical Approach, Part 2

Posted in Environment on February 1, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


View of the Tapajos river
View overlooking the Tapajós River in Amazonia National Park. This botanically diverse area is slated to be impacted by hydroelectric development.

My recent post on Science Talk focused on the importance of planning and executing a coordinated, worldwide scaling-up of ecosystem restoration efforts in order to maximize the potential role of plants in mitigating global warming. At least as important as ecosystem restoration is the need to safeguard the quantity and quality of existing intact ecosystems. Indeed, in a recent report, larger trees were shown to be more efficient at capturing carbon than smaller trees, so mature trees in healthy ecosystems are essential to the efficacy of a botanical approach to mitigating global warming. Another recent report, suggesting that as the climate warms, plants will absorb less carbon dioxide, reinforces the urgency of restoring ecosystems and protecting natural areas.

NYBG scientists are helping to safeguard protected natural areas by documenting their plant diversity and sharing that information with land managers and policymakers. For example, Associate Curator Benjamin Torke, Ph.D., is leading one such research project in Brazil’s Tapajós National Forest and nearby Amazonia National Park, discussed in a previous post on Science Talk and profiled in greater depth here. NYBG has “boots on the ground” in six Areas of Botanical Concern (ABCs), which are regions where conservation action is urgent and NYBG is well positioned to have a major influence on conservation outcomes: North America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Pacific islands, the Atlantic Coastal Forest of Brazil, and Amazonia.

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Mitigating Global Warming: A Botanical Approach, Part 1

Posted in Books: Past and Present on January 7, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of the cover of Biodiversity and Climate ChangeThe convergence of two global environmental challenges—the growing number of endangered plant and animal species and the increasing impact of climate change—is the subject of an essential book that is being published on January 8, Biodiversity and Climate Change: Transforming the Biosphere. Edited by NYBG Trustee & Gold Medal Winner Thomas E. Lovejoy and Lee Hannah, it is a timely, seminal compilation of 28 articles written by renowned experts on diverse aspects of the complex interactions between these urgent problems. The publication “serves as a comprehensive account of this greatest of threats to humanity’s future,” writes eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson, a Distinguished Counsellor to the NYBG Board, in the book’s foreword. “It will serve both as a textbook and a call to action.”

“A call to action” on climate change was a central theme of my recent post on Science Talk, but there’s much more to say about this subject. Among the many recommendations for action in Biodiversity and Climate Change are ones that botanical gardens are uniquely positioned to lead, in what could be termed a botanical approach to mitigating global warming. The approach involves using the natural power of plants to capture a major greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.

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Climate Change Action, Post-Poland’s COP24

Posted in Environment on December 21, 2018 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy; Director, NYBG Press and Science Outreach; and Bassett Maguire Curator of Botany at NYBG.


We at NYBG welcome the positive news out of the climate change talks (COP24) in Poland over the past weekend of the agreement reached by the international community—more than 190 countries—to a set of rules for implementing the landmark 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. 

Less welcome was the news that the conference’s final communique did not endorse the findings of the Special Report Global Warming of 1.5°C of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but rather only “noted” the publication. The report’s findings pertain to the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, and it concluded that we could reach the 1.5°C threshold as early as 2030. Yes, in 12 years! This unfortunate outcome reinforced the rapidly growing realization that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) must play a central role in averting dire climate change outcomes.

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Paris Conference Concludes with Accord on Climate Change, Emphasizing a Huge Role for the World’s Forests

Posted in Environment on December 14, 2015 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy; Director, NYBG Press and Science Outreach; and Bassett Maguire Curator of Botany at NYBG.


Rio Falsino Brazil Rainforest
As noted in my most recent post, negotiators at the Paris climate conference, known as COP21, emphasized the importance of the role of forests in addressing global warming.

The big news in the resulting accord, signed by 195 countries on December 12, appeared in Article 2 on page 21, which calls for holding the increase in the global average temperature to “well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”

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