Most people are surprised an oceanographer would bother living in New York City.
Before I moved here, I was aware that the Hudson River typically runs brackish for at least its lower 20 miles, but I too failed to comprehend how amazing of a place this would turn out to be for an ocean scientist. Estuaries and tidal straits of every stripe run through or near New York City, from the Hudson to East River, Harlem River, Jamaica Bay, Long Island Sound, and dozens more out on Long Island. You can find mild currents or extreme currents, and heavily polluted waters or clean swimmable waters brimming with fish.
There are so many blue crabs here, that at least one supplier from the Chesapeake regularly looks to our region’s fishermen as a source. There is no shortage of ocean fish migrating through for city dwellers to snare along the banks of these waterways. Unfortunately, these people are taking chances due to pollution, particularly after rainfall “flushes” pollution into the system, so to speak.
Today I surveyed the view from the top of my apartment building on the east side of Manhattan. Down below are the turbulent currents of Hell Gate, where strong currents from East River, Harlem River and western Long Island Sound all swirl together and hundreds of ships sank through history. I can track the latter two waterways off toward the horizon, and looking across the island I can even see the cabled towers of George Washington Bridge, reminding me that the Hudson is just a few miles away.
A balance has finally been struck here between the needs of millions of people and these natural brackish waterways. In the past, the water suffered extreme degradation, but these days there is a revival due to reductions in pollution inputs. Moreover, the capacity of these waterways to absorb pollution is amazing. It all comes down to the strong dispersive currents that surround the city, which oceanographers measure with instrumentation we deploy on the seabed. If you’ve ever seen East River churning like water at a rolling boil, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
As an oceanographer, I seek to optimize this balance, studying the currents and water quality and improving our predictive capacity.
As an educator, I get excited about the aquatic educational possibilities for the dozens of schools that are built right alongside the water. Most the schools have the water at their backs, with no windows and no waterfront access because when they were built, the water was an eyesore.
Once upon a time, hundreds of years ago, this was an amazing natural fishery with abundant fish, oyster beds, birds, and who knows what more. The most exciting prospect is that our improved environmental regulations and gradual movement away from heavy industry makes at least a partial return to this natural state possible.
Remarkably, a famous developer recently published an editorial in the Sunday edition of the Times recommending that the Harlem River tidal strait be filled with dirt, to provide additional real estate and park land for the city. He argued that neighborhoods need to expand, and schools need football fields, and a very small percent of the people see value in the waterway.
As sure as these tides will always push and pull, I know there will always be room for an oceanographer in this vibrant ocean island city.