Jamaica Bay


by Imri Haggin, United World College Maastricht
13th November, 2019


New York City had reached a breaking point. The city’s historic and only source of long-distance travel, LaGuardia Airport, was in a state of critical overcrowding in 1939. Emerging from the Great Depression and benefitting from the War Economy, New York had experienced unforetold growth and unmanageable stress. Port Authority of New York, the governing body responsible for the region’s transport infrastructure, was desperate to find a way of relieving the pressure set on by years of urban growth, city sprawl, and some of the most densely packed neighborhoods in the world.
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Kennedy Airport (known as Idlewild airport at the time) was born in 1941 when Mayor LaGuardia had selected a marshy swampland located on the south shore of Queens to become the site of his new project. Spanning over 5,200 acres (8.1 sq mi), John F. Kennedy International Airport would become a major source of traffic, drawing the large populations of Manhattan island and its cravings for dense urban development into the region. The furtive actions of New York City’s leaders failed to attract much opposition, and the ubiquitous expansion of the city reached southern Queens without any regards to the impact it would have on the local environment.
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Jamaica Bay is an estuarine embayment, meaning that it is a body of water where freshwater streams and rivers meet the sea. The estuary is suffocated; it is surrounded by urban development that slowly expands southwards from Brooklyn, three major landfills, and Kennedy International Airport. The development of Brooklyn has cut off nearly all natural sources of fresh water to the estuary(1). All freshwater flowing into Jamaica Bay is of anthropogenic origin, usually originating from sewage treatment centers.
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Throughout the summer of 2019, researchers at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have conducted research that analyzed sediment cores through methods of geochemical, isotopic, and paleo-botanical analysis(2). It was found that starting from the 1800s, the damming of natural springs and urbanization on top of swampland dramatically reduced the amount of mineral matter that enters the bay, an effect that has compromised the security of Jamaica Bay’s salt marshes. As an inhabitant of New York, I felt compelled to join the efforts of the Earth Observatory and spent my summer as a high school research intern for a professor working in the field.
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Our work shows that low mineral flux is just one of the many detrimental situations that we have brought upon the estuary. Intense amounts of fertilizer-based nitrogen are present in effluent flowing into the bay, fueling the vertical accretion rate of vegetation that is attempting to outpace rising sea levels. The increase in organic matter and the rapid growth of plants is reducing mineral content and compromising the structure of most marshes. Salt marshes are critical to the wellbeing of an ecosystem; we depend on them for coastal protection, water filtration, toxin absorbance, and the promotion of biodiversity. As salt marshes begin to disappear from the urban environment, coastal neighborhoods will become more susceptible to flooding and much of the vegetation that is responsible for pollutant sequestering will no longer be present in our coasts, leading to the release of toxins that are currently stored and the prevention of pollutant uptake in the future.
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The loss of these wetlands is common worldwide and has devastated many communities. Edge failure of salt marshes is a common trend seen throughout most of the New England coast, and the Mississippi River Delta has lost nearly 2,000 ha of land since the 1930s(3), leaving many at the mercy of the encroaching water.
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The most disturbing trend, however, is the lack of understanding and response to the degradation of salt marshes. In full recognition of the importance of these systems and the research conducted by the LDEO, the Department of Environmental Protection of New York City has failed to take action to protect us from marsh failure. It has been argued that there are greater issues to be dealt with aside from the salt marshes, which is an understandable misconception when one compares the urgent threat of climate change to the modest heaps of mud and minerals that are drowning in Jamaica Bay.
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This, however, is no excuse. There are many issues in the world today, many of which receive significantly less attention and action than others. We must educate ourselves about the issues at hand and ensure that we take actions that tackle these overlooked threats to global security. If our society continues to recklessly urbanize environments and ignore the advice of scientific experts, the collapse of salt marshes will go on to be known as just one of the many factors that contributed to our self-inflicted grave.
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(1) Peteet, Dorothy M., et al. “Sediment starvation destroys New York City marshes’ resistance to sea level rise.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115.41 (2018): 10281-10286.
(2) Peteet, Dorothy M., et al. “Sediment starvation destroys New York City marshes’ resistance to sea level rise.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115.41 (2018): 10281-10286.
(3) http://mississippiriverdelta.org/our-coastal-crisis/land-loss/
IMAGE: Wetland survey of Brooklyn, belonging to Harvard College Library (1891). It can be seen that significant amounts of the salt marshes of 1891 have been destroyed in the urbanization of Brooklyn and the construction of JFK Airport. Kennedy airport was constructed on top of the marshes of the North-East corner of Jamaica bay and extends until Black Point and Joco’s Marsh.

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