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Saving the Environment, One Bay at a Time

The Science and Resilience Institute is located on Brooklyn College, but it facilitates research and community-based change at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.
The Science and Resilience Institute is located on Brooklyn College, but it facilitates research and community-based change at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

By Radhika Viswanathan

Published: December 7th, 2016

The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is a haven of natural beauty and serenity, located in the wetlands of Jamaica Bay and straddling the border of Brooklyn and Queens. The region it covers looks small on a map, but the 18,000-acre estuary (a location where a river meets the sea) is larger than the entire island of Manhattan. Creating a home for over 325 species of birds, 35 species of butterflies, and 100 species of fish, it is the largest urban wildlife refuge in the country.

Despite the variety of life that abounds in the bay, its location—in the most densely populated city in the country—makes it especially susceptible to pollution. The Science and Resilience Institute (SRI) at Jamaica Bay, located on the Brooklyn College campus, started in 2013 by the National Park Service, the City of New York, and several universities as an effort to promote coastal resilience. After three years of researching, working with the community surrounding Jamaica Bay, and contributing to policy changes, the SRI released a book in November 2016: Prospects for Resilience: Insights from New York City’s Jamaica Bay.

“In the mid-90’s, people began noticing the marshlands were disappearing, there were changes to water quality,” said Adam Parris, director of the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay. “They sued the city for violating the Clean Water Act.”

Although this lawsuit did not directly lead to the formation of the SRI, it did bring to light that being so close to the city was negatively affecting the Jamaica Bay environment. For example, fumes from the Belt Parkway and JFK Airport, combined with sewage and chemicals from landfills leaking into the bay, led to high levels of pollution especially during the late twentieth century.

In 2013, the City of New York and the National Park Service were interested in forming a partnership with universities to promote coastal resilience. “CUNY answered this call,” said Parris. “Brooklyn College was keen to build up its environmental sustainability program in an interdisciplinary way.”

This interdisciplinary mindset is evident in the role that the SRI plays, which, according to the SRI website, is to “facilitate the exchange of information among scientists, managers, policymakers, and community leaders on issues of coastal and urban resil­iency.”

Such an exchange of information is important for environmental change to happen; scientists, policymakers, and community members must be in constant communication to understand what is truly best for the region. “Often, scientists do research and print papers in what becomes more of an echo chamber,” said Jessica Fain, the Program Director for Policy, Planning, and Engagement. “We create this science-policy interface, sort of like the glue.”

The institute has implemented several programs to create such an interface. For example, it held a climate forum for people who live in Jamaica Bay. At this gathering, climate scientists, a representative from the National Weather Service, researchers, and the emergency manager from the community discussed how people should best prepare for the transition from the hurricane season to the nor’easter season. “Having these different people in the same room, sharing ideas, talking to residents, we’re really putting science into action,” said Helen Cheng, the Coastal Resilience Expert at the SRI.

Cheng’s interest in science communication has inspired her to start a podcast series. “The goal is to interview people who work, live, and play in and around the bay,” she said. “We’re still in the very beginning phases, but the first season will be about the research at the bay.”

Much of the research at Jamaica Bay is enabled by the Institution’s affiliation with Brooklyn College. “It’s a two-way street. The Institute has access to students, and it gives students the opportunity to engage with hands-on research,” said Fain. For example, an experiential learning course, which was essentially an eight-week summer internship, allowed students to help with research on the bay as well as learn how to communicate science policy.

“They were such troopers,” said Fain with a laugh. “Working outside in the heat of the summer.”

Professor Brett Branco of the Earth and Environmental Science department is one of the people who conduct research on the bay. “I do research on eutrophication—studying waste water input, how it affects the ecosystem,” he said.

He also studies other phenomena associated with water pollution, such as seaweed blooms and microplastic contamination. Microplastics are small bits of plastic that are less than five millimeters in diameter. They can adsorb pollutants and get into the food web when animals ingest them.

Branco is also able to bring the work he does on the bay into the classroom: integrating research on the bay into lectures about climate change, sea level rising, coastal development, and the overall human impact on the environment. The example set by Jamaica Bay gives students a real-life model from which to learn.

The importance of the research done at the SRI is evident. Climate change is only growing as a threat to the Earth’s and its inhabitants’ futures, and few people have an inherent passion to preserve the environment. So it’s important for organizations such as the SRI to give people incentives to combat climate change. “Even in places where the politics aren’t receptive to the idea that humans caused climate change and need to do something about it,” said Branco, “they still don’t want their homes flooded.”

The larger goal of the SRI is to create a model of coastal resilience and compare Jamaica Bay to places in the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans, Miami, and San Francisco. “We want to partner with other coastal cities in the United States,” said Parris. “What’s the best way to build a dialogue with communities?”

The newly released book, Prospects for Resilience, is the result of a collaboration of over 50 people who have been working with the Institute. It compiles all that the Institute has learned over the past three years and gives an overview of past efforts. But it also asks questions: What needs to be learned? What does the future hold?

Perhaps these questions will be answered by the very students who have been working with the Institute and learning from its coastal preservation efforts. “Most important is our connection to students,” said Parris. “People who are going to be forming a more resilient future.”

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