Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sea Change for Jamaica Bay

February 1, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Jamaica Bay aerial by Jim Mobel

By Jim Mobel

Jamaica Bay has played many roles in the lively history of New York. The fertile marshes provided rich fishing grounds for Lenape Indians, and the tides gave power to the Dutch gristmills along its banks. The waters teemed with bass, weakfish, flounder, and oysters; migratory birds gathered to rest and recharge for their long journeys south.

The bay, with its fresh air and unspoiled seashore, was touted as an urban respite. “Jamaica Bay is one of the notable fishing, shooting and sailing grounds near New-York… [and] the bay is especially favorable for women and children who desire sailing and bathing,” The New York Times marveled in 1867. “It would seem that anyone who desired recreation at the sea-shore might manage to be pretty well satisfied.”

The 39 square miles of Jamaica Bay act as the principle buffer between Brooklyn, Queens, and the ocean. When hurricanes and nor’easters have hit the coast, Jamaica Bay softened the blow. In 1933, 1944, and 1962, gale-force storms battered seashore communities but spared the nucleus of New York City.

Nowadays, however, Jamaica Bay needs some sparing of its own. Climate scientists project that Earth’s warming atmosphere will lead to higher sea levels. Disruptions in normal weather patterns may become more frequent, turning average-sized hurricanes into superstorms every few years. How to save Jamaica Bay —and by extension, the United States’ biggest city— from climate change is the vital question scientists and urban planners are working to answer.

Sustainability experts convened for the “Urban Resilience in an Era of Climate Change” conference in Brooklyn in October 2013. Each presented suggestions for creating a new Science and Resilience Institute in Jamaica Bay, the region’s first think tank devoted to finding ways to mitigate the effects of climate change.

USACE marshgrass restoration by Ildiko Reisenbigler

By Ildiko Reisenbigler

Led by the City University of New York, the Science and Resilience Institute will act as an “intellectual link” between numerous groups and agencies, says John Waldman, Ph.D., a professor of biology at Queens College. “Resilience is the new sustainability — there is a lot of excitement about resilience now.”

By collecting research from New York’s brain trust— colleges and universities, municipal agencies, scientific organizations and community members— the Institute’s leaders aim to simultaneously restore the bay’s natural defenses and protect the city’s infrastructure.

That effort dovetails with the city’s completion of 73 percent of the short-term goals described in its climate change plan released last June. “The city has placed over 1.2 million cubic yards of sand on beaches in the Rockaways, Coney Island, and Staten Island, and is increasing the heights of its dunes to reduce wave action and storm surges,” said Daniel Zarrilli, New York City’s Director of Resiliency, in a recent statement. “We have modified current waterfront projects to add new resilience measures such as tide gates to reduce the risk of flooding along Beach Channel Drive.”

Establishing the Science and Resilience Institute is a big part of New York City’s long-term goals. “The Institute will serve the needs of the local community while working as a ‘resilience lab’ for implementing resilience strategies in New York City. And we want to make the center a world-class institute internationally,” Waldman says. He adds, “The center aims to be both local and international, with community outreach and involvement at its heart.”

Plumb Beach spartina seeds by Kat Long

By Kat Long

Dan Mundy, Jr. is vice president of the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers, a grassroots group based in Broad Channel. His group’s local environmental representatives sit on the Institute’s board of directors in order to receive regular progress reports and “allow for discussion of progress to date and future plans.”

Mundy voices a hope that the Institute will coordinate data and resources among all stakeholders, including the “environmental community that has been active in the bay for over 20 years. We would hope to see additional funding opportunities for ecological projects within the bay, such as wetland islands, oyster reefs, and upland maritime forests.”

Mundy wants the Institute to utilize a web platform and engage younger people via social media as well. “It would be great to see a web portal that would bring together all of the science conducted within the bay,” Mundy says. “The focus should be on science that will and can be enacted, as opposed to theoretical studies that only produce papers.”

Maintaining a hardy Jamaica Bay is indeed a practical matter, says Gillian Small, CUNY’s Vice Chancellor for Research. “The conference was just the start of the conversation,” she notes. With interim director William Solecki, Director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, at its helm, the planning committee will focus on finalizing the structure of the Institute, establishing a headquarters at Jamaica Bay, and appointing a director by the summer (until then, the group will be based at Brooklyn College).

Everyone at the Urban Resilience conference agreed on one thing: Superstorm Sandy presented a wake-up call to the immediate threats of climate change in the New York area — and the possible consequences of not taking action now.

By Kat Long


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