Degrees of Concern - Part I

We are living in an era of extreme weather. The 1990's were the warmest decade of the 20th century, and by some estimates the warmest decade of the past one thousand years. In addition to warming many scientists believe human-made changes to the world's climate are promoting dramatic swings in the weather - more droughts and heat waves, but also more floods, hurricanes and tornadoes.

This week we present a series of reports "Degrees of Concern - Climate Change and New York City's Future." Producer John Rudolph went to Jamaica Bay in Queens to investigate what may be early warning signs of the changing climate.

Most people think of global warming as melting arctic glaciers. But New York is also affected by climate change. This week we present a series of reports "Degrees of Concern - Climate Change and New York City's Future." Producer John Rudolph went to Jamaica Bay in Queens to investigate what may be early warning signs of the changing climate.

"Now as we approach here, if you look out into the marsh, everyplace you see water out there is where a marsh used to be.

On a hazy afternoon Dan Mundy guides his boat through Jamaica Bay, a huge salt-water estuary on the western end of Long Island. If you've ever taken off or landed at Kennedy Airport, you've probably seen Jamaica Bay from the air.

Dan Mundy has lived near the bay all his life.

We're right now in the-, in the middle of Jamaica Bay, on the west side of Jamaica Bay. If we could see ahead of us, you d see the Empire State Building, if it was a clear day on the other side of the- Brooklyn, there. And we're now approaching what is known as Black Wall Marsh, on a navigational chart.

Mundy is a retired New York City firefighter. Since he left the Fire Department Mundy's been on a different kind of rescue mission. He's trying to save Jamaica Bay from an environmental disaster - the sudden disappearance of the bay's salt-marshes.

We ve lost over fifty percent of this marsh in a short period of time. Now, the ironic thing about this is, is that these marshes are a thousand years old. Now, you re looking at one of the oldest, largest, living organisms around the New York area! and in the last fifteen to twenty years - and even less than that - it s dying.The experts tell us that by the year 2022, all of these will be gone. All of the larger marsh islands, all thousand acres or more, will be gone.So, we re in a situation where we re running against time here.

Dan Mundy ties up his boat right outside the back door of his house. His home serves as unofficial headquarters for the Jamaica Bay Eco Watchers. That's the group Mundy and some of his neighbors formed a few years ago to put pressure on government agencies to do something about the deteriorating marshes.
Surrounded by navigational charts and aerial photographs, Mundy explains that if the marshes continue to disappear hundreds of species of birds and fish in the bay will suffer. The man-made environment around the bay is also at risk. Mundy says the marshes help dampen down waves that can cause erosion and damage structures on shore.

Your Belt Parkway right now at high tide is from 50 to 100 feet away from the waters edge. That infrastructure will be washed out. Your Independent subway line coming down here, the water's within 50 feet of it. There's no bulkhead, there's no wave attenuators, there's no nothing. The 1500 feet of marsh that used to go out there is gone. The MTA's gonna have to do something about shoring that up. Your three landfills, Edgemere, Pennsylvania and Fountain, have no bulkheads, they just go down into the bay with a 30 foot hole in the bottom of them. Wave actions starts hitting and eroding the end of them, the garbage that's in there is gonna come out into Jamaica Bay. This is a catastrophe waiting to happen here.

There's no question that if the marshes continue to disintegrate the impact on both the natural and man-made environment will be dramatic. The question is WHY are the marshes disappearing?
Why does a thousand year old organism suddenly start to die?

Five years ago scientists from Columbia University began searching for answers. They studied aerial photos of Jamaica Bay and measured the volume of its marsh grasses. Researcher Vivian Gornitz was a member of the Columbia team.

It started as an investigation into climate change impacts in the New York Metropolitan area and one of the things we wanted to see was if there was any evidence of sea level rise in the wetlands of New York City.

You probably weren't aware of this, but the East coast of North America is slowly sinking. The phenomenon is called subsidence, and it's a major cause of sea level rise along the Atlantic Coast. As the continent sank over the past 100 years the seas rose by about 1 foot.

In the next century scientists predict the ocean could rise by as much as three feet. Subsidence will continue, and global warming will magnify its impact.
Greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels are expected to increase global temperatures - glaciers will melt, the oceans will warm and expand, and coastal areas, including many parts of New York City, could end up under water.
Gornitz's colleague Ellen Hartig believes Jamaica Bay's marshes have already been damaged by rising seas.

When we first started studying we thought we would just make projections into the future, but having seen what's going on here we can say that there already has been some sea level rise that has been a contributing factor to marsh loss in this area.

While sea level rise undoubtedly is contributing to marsh loss it is part of the larger picture, because the rate of sea level rise in New York has remained fairly constant over the last 100 years or so, whereas the rates of marsh loss seems to have been accelerating in recent decades. And it s that acceleration of the loss that is hard to explain through sea level rise alone.

Normally, marshes adapt to rising sea levels by gradually migrating inland, over decades or centuries. But today in Jamaica Bay the marshes have nowhere to go. They are blocked by man-made structures - roads, airport runways, even a subway line. Pollution, too, could be a factor. This one-two punch of shoreline development combined with rising seas may be sending the marshes on a downward spiral.

I mean, if the change is slow and rather gentle I think we can adapt rather well. But if the change is more extreme then we are in trouble. And we cannot rule out that a more drastic change might be in the offing. (air plane)

People who live on Jamaica Bay aren't waiting around to find out what happens. They've already taken matters into their own hands.

Sound of guys taking their boat out of the water

On a sunny afternoon Ed Phillips hauls a wooden skiff out of Jamaica Bay.

Phillips lives in Broad Channel, a community located on an island in the bay. Take the A train to the Broad Channel station and you're in a neighborhood that has the look and feel of a New England fishing village. Boats are everywhere, moored in the bay, stored on trailers in backyards.

Many homes in Broad Channel are built on stilts over the water. In recent years Phillips and his neighbors have had to raise their houses to keep them out of harms way.

They'd get water on their houses in high tides and moon tides and especially in extreme high tides in hurricanes and nor'easters and stuff like that there.
Q: What kind of damage were people experiencing before they raised their houses?
A: You were getting water right through your house, in a Nor'easter I had 18 inches through my house right through the whole house.

Phillips says he spent thousands of dollars to jack up his house another three feet above the water to avoid more damage. But taking steps to adapt to rising seas is not typical. Most of New York is unprotected, even though in the future the city will increasingly be vulnerable to flooding.

The problems in Jamaica Bay and their implications for the city-at-large are just starting to get attention at City Hall.

Good Morning, My name is Jim Gennaro, chairman of the NYC Council Committee on environmental protection. Like to welcome you to this hearing. Today we're going to hear testimony on a very important matter, the future of Jamaica Bay.

Among those concerned about Jamaica Bay is Commissioner Christopher Ward, of the city's Department of Environmental Protection. He calls Jamaica Bay "the canary in the mineshaft" warning of changes that may affect the entire city in coming years.

We know, as a reality, climate change and sea level change are upon us so we should build that into our thinking when we think about ecological solutions. We really need to understand, are we spending our money for the next thirty years, let s say in the best way, given these changes. I think we're in a new phase now for evaluating and prioritizing just those sort of sets of issues.

Despite Commissioner Ward's comments, the city isn't doing much to prepare for rising seas and disruptions in climate. Attempts are being made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in New York, and throughout the Northeast. But no matter how deep the cuts, many scientists say some climate change is inevitable.
The question for New York is whether the warning signs from Jamaica Bay will lead to concrete measures to protect the city. For WNYC, I'm John Rudolph

More on the Degrees of Concern series by John Rudolph