If you could time travel back 400 years to see the thick, green forests and clear streams of pre-urban New York City, would it change the way you feel about the environment today? Ecologist Eric Sanderson thinks so. In preparation for the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's arrival in New York's harbor, he's been putting together a series of computer-generated images of New York as it was four centuries ago, based on old maps and extrapolations from ecological data. He calls it Project Manhatta, and you can see an image from it above, showing Times Square 400 years ago and today. Why would an ecologist want to time travel rather than recycle?
Sanderson hopes that pictures like this, and one of Tribeca below, will inspire people to consider how much impact they've had on the natural environment — and perhaps give them pause when they think about intervening in it further.
According to Treehugger's Bonnie Hulkower, who recently saw Sanderson give a talk about his work:
Sanderson has been working on the Mannahatta Project for the last decade. He first became fascinated with his adopted city after he accepted a position here with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and began to study old maps. One map in particular, an 18th-century British Headquarters map, fascinated him. The map, made for British officers defending the island, details the contours of the island's topography, swamp, and river locations. Sanderson has been using this British map, Randel's Farm Maps, and a GPS system to create his own contour map of what Manhattan looked like in 1609, when Henry Hudson and his crew sailed into New York Harbor and the island was inhabited only by the Lenape. He has been able to produce an expansive vision of Mannahatta's ecologic richness through a computer program he created, named "Muir webs," after the famous naturalist John Muir.
Sanderson is using his program to map what would have existed on each city block in Mannahatta 400 years ago. The program works through a process of matching animals to their habitats and vice-versa. By knowing that a certain animal species existed in an area of Manhattan and knowing what that animal ate, Sanderson can predict through the Muir webs program what plants or soils would have been there as well, or conversely can use knowledge of plants and soils to discover what animals would have found a habitat in any specific area.
Next year, expect a book and a Museum of Natural History exhibit based on Sanderson's work.