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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Climate Change, part 1

Air Date: Week of

When most people think of global warming they picture melting arctic glaciers. But New York City is also affected by the warming of the world’s climate. Our hour long documentary uncovers emerging evidence that climate change is already having an impact on New York. Despite the early warning signs, the program shows that the city is unprepared for many widely predicted effects of global warming including rising seas, more intense storms, more frequent droughts and newly emerging diseases such as West Nile Virus. The program also explores specific measures the city could take to adapt to the effects of climate change, such as adding flood protection to new structures at the World Trade Center site. This week’s program is the first in a series of collaborations on environmental issues between Living on Earth and WNYC, New York Public Radio. Our producer is John Rudolph.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: Tornadoes hit Los Angeles. Snowstorms cover India. A tide of water floods Manhattan, which then rapidly falls into a deep freeze. These are the alarming weather events caused by abrupt climate change in the film “The Day After Tomorrow.”


MALE 1: [LIVE NEWSCAST] Car accidents, at least 200. And lower Manhattan, we’ve been told, is virtually inaccessible.

CURWOOD: “The Day After Tomorrow” is now running in theatres and, despite its scientific inaccuracies -- few scientists think much of the deep freeze scenario -- the film is already inspiring more public debate over climate change.

And adding to the debate is the recent announcement by Russia that it will in fact ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which could put it into effect as soon as this year. That leaves the United States and Australia as the only major industrialized powers who refuse to accept binding limits on the gases that promote climate change.

One thing beyond debate is that the Earth is heating up. The 1990’s were the warmest decade of the 20th century, and, by some estimates, the warmest decade of the past 1,000 years. The scientific consensus says the human impact on the climate is promoting dramatic swings in the weather—more droughts and heat waves, but also more storms and floods.

Cities like New York will be affected by these events and will have to adapt to them. But, how much and how soon? That’s the central question for the next hour as Living on Earth and WNYC present “Degrees of Concern: Climate Change and New York City’s Future,” a special report produced and narrated by John Rudolph.


MUNDY: 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.

RUDOLPH: 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.


RUDOLPH: Dan Mundy has lived near the bay all his life.

MUNDY: We’re right now in the middle 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.

RUDOLPH: 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.

MUNDY: We’ve lost over 50 percent of this marsh in a short period of time. Now, the ironic thing about this 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 15 to 20 years – and even less than that – it’s dying. The experts tell us that by the year 2022, all of these will be gone. So, we’re in a situation where we’re running against time here.


RUDOLPH: 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.

MUNDY: Your Belt Parkway right now at high tide is from 50 to 100 feet away from the water’ s edge. That infrastructure will be washed out. Your Independent subway line coming down here, the water's within 50 feet of it. There is no bulkhead, there's no wave attenuators, there's no nothing. The 1,500 feet of marsh that used to go out 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. When the wave action 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.

RUDOLPH: There’s no question that if the marshes continue to disintegrate the impact on both the natural and man-made environments will be dramatic. The question is – why are the marshes disappearing? Why does a 1,000-year-old organism suddenly start to die?


RUDOLPH: Five years ago, scientists from Columbia University and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies began searching for answers. They studied aerial photos of Jamaica Bay and measured the volume of its marsh grasses.

GORNITZ: It started as part of an investigation into climate change impacts in the New York metropolitan area.

RUDOLPH: Researcher Vivian Gornitz was a member of the scientific team.

GORNITZ: One of the things we wanted to look at was if there was any evidence or indication of sea-level rise in the wetlands of New York City.


RUDOLPH: 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 one foot. In the next century, subsidence will continue and global warming will magnify its impact. Scientists predict the ocean could rise by as much as three feet. 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.


HARTIG: When we first started the study, we were thinking that we would only make projections into the future. But having seen what was going on here we can say that there’s already been some sea-level rise that has been a contributing factor to marsh loss in this area.

GORNITZ: While sea-level rise undoubtedly is contributing to the marsh loss, it is only 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 by sea-level rise alone.

RUDOLPH: 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’re blocked by man-made structures – roads, airport runways, even a subway line. Pollution, too, could be playing a role. These factors, combined with rising seas, may be sending the marshes on a downward spiral.

GORNITZ: I mean, if the change is slow and rather gentle, I think we can adapt fairly well. But, on the other hand, if the change is going to be much more rapid and more extreme, then we are in trouble. And we cannot rule out completely that a more drastic change might be in the offing.

RUDOLPH: This summer, after several delays, the first experimental program to restore the marshes got under way.


RUDOLPH: A rickety-looking dredge sits on a barge in Jamaica Bay. The machine sucks up sediment from the bottom of a channel and shoots it into the air in a high arc. The muck lands 100 feet away on a damaged section of the marsh.


RUDOLPH: The dredge was brought up from Orlando, Florida to attempt a bit of marsh first aid. The National Park Service hired Dewayne Wingfield’s company to do the job. Wingfield says the goal of the experiment is to add 16 inches of new sediment to two acres of dying marsh. The area will be replanted with marsh grasses, and then, hopefully, nature will take over.

WINGFIELD: If they don’t start refurbishing it, rebuilding it, you’re not gonna have your marsh for your habitat, like your fish, your birds, wildlife. And not letting all our land go to water. I mean, if it eats all this it may start eating New York, too.

RUDOLPH: It’ll be at least a year before scientists know if this experiment is a success and whether the same technique should be tried on the other 12 hundred or so acres of threatened marshland in the bay. But people who live on Jamaica Bay aren’t waiting for the results. They’ve already taken matters into their own hands.


RUDOLPH: On a sunny afternoon, Ed Phillips hauls a wooden skiff out of Jamaica Bay. Phillips lives in Broad Channel, a neighborhood located on an island in the bay. Take the A train to the Broad Channel station and you’re in a community 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 harm’s way.

PHILLIPS: They'd get water on their houses in high tides and moon tides and especially in hurricanes and extreme high tides like the Nor'easters and stuff like that there.

RUDOLPH: What kind of damage were people experiencing before they raised their houses?

PHILLIPS: You were getting water right through your house. In a Nor'easter I had 18 inches through my house.

RUDOLPH: Phillips says he spent thousands of dollars to jack up his house another three feet above the water to avoid more damage. But this kind of a step 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.


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

GENNARO: Good Morning. My name is Jim Gennaro, chairman of the NYC Council Committee on Environmental Protection. I’d like to welcome you to this hearing. Today, the committee will hear testimony on a very important matter: the future of Jamaica Bay.

RUDOLPH: 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.

WARD: 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 30 years, let’s say in the best way, given these changes?

RUDOLPH: Sea-level rise is the number-one climate-related threat facing New York. And it’s not just Jamaica Bay and the surrounding area that’s at risk. In the coming decades many parts of the city will be increasingly vulnerable to flooding – the financial district, the subway system, tunnels under the rivers, and any building near the water’s edge. Despite efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gasses that cause global warming, many scientists now say that some change in the climate is inevitable and may already be taking place. The question for New York is whether the warning signs from Jamaica Bay, and the concerns of many citizens about global warming, will lead to concrete measures to protect the city in the future.

CURWOOD: When we return, how rising seas can swamp Ground Zero. You’re listening to "Degrees of Concern: Climate Change and New York City’s Future,” a special report from WNYC and Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Ry Cooder & Manuel Galban “Bolero Sonambulo” MAMBO SINUENDO ( Nonesuch - 2003)]



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