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Measuring Reefs & Their Impact: New Research Dives Deep

By Susannah Black
March 9, 2016

Jon Woodruff and Christine Brandon on Site
Photo Credit: University of Massachusetts/Amherst

Like much good research, Jon Woodruff and Christine Brandon’s recently published investigation of the historical impacts of New York Harbor’s oyster reefs began with a mystery.  As reported in Science Daily, the researchers had been looking at the sediment deposited during Hurricane Sandy, and comparing that “event layer” to the traces left by previous floods.

In their analysis of the core samples they’d taken from ponds on Staten Island, however, Woodruff and his graduate student Brandon noticed something peculiar. “Prior to between 1600 and 1800,” said Woodruff, “these storm deposits went away. If it were just one site it would have been one thing, but at every site we saw the same: no storm deposits for thousands of years before European settlement and then after colonization, storm waves start to become more and more effective in transporting sand inland to our field sites. Something the early colonists did seemed to increase storm-induced overwash at the study sites. The million dollar question was what.”

And what did they find?

“We kept reaching dead ends,” said Woodruff, “until we considered one of the largest impacts European settlers had on New York Harbor, the decimation of its natural oyster beds.”  Modeling quantified this effect: the absence of oyster beds in the places where they had been present prior to European colonization increased the wave energy unleashed on Staten Island’s shore by between 30 and 200%.

“I’ve never seen any primary research that’s addressed this question,” says BOP Restoration Manager Katie Mosher-Smith; “–research that’s digging down that deep into the depths of New York Harbor’s muck to measure the level of protection offered by New York’s old reefs.  And what this research shows is that these reefs were even more significant in mitigating storm surges than we previously thought.”

This particular aspect of the results is significant for the Living Breakwaters project off Staten Island, led by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, managed by SCAPE Landscape Architecture in partnership with BOP; more than ever, the research makes it clear that investing in restoration is a wise use of resources as we seek to increase the resilience of urban waterfronts.