The tens of millions of travelers flying each year into John F. Kennedy airport arrive not only at one of the world’s busiest transportation hubs but also arrive on the eastern shore of Jamaica Bay. From the air, Jamaica Bay is a stunning vista. One sees a large lagoon characterized by coastal ecosystems: beaches, dunes, salt marshes, upland fields and woods, fresh ponds, and penetrated by a dense matrix of urban infrastructure. One can see how the bay is physically separated from the Atlantic Ocean by the barrier beach that is home to the Rockaways. At its western end, the mouth of the bay connects with the sea through the Rockaway Inlet.

Most of the urban area that can be made out in detail from the air is part of the Jamaica Bay watershed, which includes all those areas that drain run-off water into the Bay. Most of the watershed is situated within the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, with portions in the east falling within Nassau County, New York. The heavily urbanized and densely populated watershed is one of the most complicated human landscapes in the world. The watershed houses nearly 3 million people in a diverse range of communities and the management jurisdiction of the watershed is divided among no less than 26 entities.

 A brief history of disturbances

The current condition of Jamaica Bay reflects a snapshot in time. The form of the physical-ecological-social system that is the Jamaica Bay watershed has taken thousands of years to form, with the most rapid changes in the last one-hundred years or so. Jamaica Bay and the surrounding communities in the watershed have been affected by urbanization, cycles of employment and investment, construction of major infrastructure, pollution, land-filling, dredging, as well as the long-term effects of climate change, sea level rise, other coastal storms, and the loss of species diversity and habitat.

Human development in the 20th century transformed the physical and natural systems of the estuary in profound ways. Landfilling of shallows, channel dredging, and the removal of sediments from “borrow” pits have increased the volume of the Bay and changed the circulation of water. The average low tide depth has increased from an original 3 feet to approximately 16 feet today. The average time a water molecule remains in the northern portion of the bay has extended from approximately 11 to 33 days.

A similar pace of transformation occurred along the shore. The shoreline drift that historically characterized wide variations in the location of barrier beaches such as the Rockaways has been stalled by a century of shoreline hardening. Major development projects such as Floyd Bennett Field, JFK airport, and the Belt Parkway have established high-value infrastructure along the shoreline. The interior of the watershed also was rapidly populated throughout the 20th century. Many of the freshwater and brackish creeks that drain into Jamaica Bay have been bulkheaded and channelized. Two-thirds of the freshwater runoff is now diverted through four sewage treatment facilities, which produce approximately 287 million gallons of treated effluent per day.

Changes in the form and use of ecosystems

Accompanying changes in the human and physical form of the Bay and its watershed are shifts in the way we interact with its natural ecosystems. As they always have, ecologically productive and diverse ecosystems such as those in Jamaica Bay provide home for many plant and animal communities. Habitat diversity makes Jamaica Bay one of the most biodiverse regions in the Northeastern United States: it is home to over 325 bird species such as the Osprey, the Barn Owl, and the Yellow-crowned Night Heron. Moreover, it contains 50 butterfly species, 100 finfish species, and several species of native reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals. Prior to the 1900s, the marine and terrestrial ecosystems of Jamaica Bay were resource for a range of productive activities, including finfish and shellfish for food, salt hay for livestock, and flowing freshwater for drinking. Over this century, other ecosystem values have increased in prominence. Today provisioning is primarily recreational, such as angling and crabbing. Large numbers of people experience Jamaica Bay best through the diversity of its recreational activities and natural amenities: its sprawling beaches, sporting facilities, and opportunities to hike, fish, or birdwatch. The Jamaica Bay unit of Gateway National Park alone draws millions of visitors each year.

In addition, some natural habitats also offer ecological services that have unique value to 21st century urban communities, including floodwater storage, carbon sequestration, and storm protection.Hundreds of thousands of people live in the low-lying areas along Jamaica Bay’s shore. During Hurricane Sandy, some of the worst building destruction in the city happened here. At the same time, the barrier islands, salt marshes, and historic shallows of the bay may offer protection from the worst of storm surges.

 The coming century

The Bay’s ecosystem diversity is at peril, as is the sustainability of its ecosystem services. Consider the salt marshes, for example. Studies conducted over the last 15 years show more than a 60 percent loss in salt marshes at Jamaica Bay since the 1950s.  There is much speculation about the causes, which are undoubtedly complex and include heightened nutrient inputs from sewage treatment, human changes to the channels and shoreline, sea level rise, and increased tidal range. The next century holds the promise of more profound changes, particularly as climate change and sea level rise continue to magnify the outcome of other stresses and shocks.

The central question for the region and the Institute is how to regain some of the values that have been lost (such as large populations of fish that are safe to eat) and conserve those values that remain. Part of the answer is to expand and deepen resilience practices. To stay with the example of salt marshes, in recent years local stewardship groups and the Army Corp of Engineers have mounted ambitious marsh restoration projects. But another part of the answer is expanding science efforts and new knowledge that can inform how these practices are designed, monitored, and tested. These principles of drawing on science and knowledge to inform adaptive management are at the heart of the Science and Resilience Institute’s mission.