Recap: “Surge Barriers and the Ecology of Jamaica Bay”

We were excited to have such a great turnout (over 130 attendees!) for our first evening virtual “Breakfast” Talk! A warm thank you goes out to our fantastic moderator, Nathan Kensinger, and our outstanding speakers and panelists—Brett Branco, Bernice Rosenzweig, Don Riepe, Kyle McKay, Carissa Scarpa, Chester Zarnoch, and Patti Rafferty—for their enthusiastic participation in the discussion.

Please take a look at the recording of the event now on youtube!  highlights of the event are below!

Below are some key highlights from our latest Breakfast Talk! Click the links to learn more about the speakers and panelists, and to follow their ongoing work!

Brett Branco, Director of the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay (SRIJB), kicked off the event by framing this conversation as one of hopefully many discussions that will take place in the coming months and years to address sea level rise in Jamaica Bay. As Brett so eloquently put it, it is important to not think of issues like sea level rise and proposed solutions in isolation, but rather to begin thinking about them in a larger ecological and political context. SRIJB, along with Sea Grant, are committed to continuing to research, learn, and engage with the public as we embark on this journey.

Nathan Kensinger, our moderator and 2021-2022 Guest Research Fellow, discussed the pros and cons of possible solutions to sea level rise, including wetland restoration, managed retreat, and, of course, storm surge barriers. You can read Nathan’s white paper on “Sea Level Rise and Brooklyn’s Jamaica Bay Communities: Storm Surge Barriers and Managed Retreat,” which was the featured report at our 2022 annual conference. An original short film by Nathan, entitled “Managed Retreat,” is being exhibited at the Staten Island Museum until March 2023. View more of Nathan’s work on his website,

Carissa Scarpa and Kyle McKay of the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) presented the most recent study on the feasibility of building storm barriers in the Harbors and Tributaries (HATs) of New York City’s water ways. To date, a variety of water-based and land-based solutions have been proposed in places such as the North Atlantic Coast. The USACE encourages public participation via written comments and feedback on the proposals. Commentary can be submitted here before January 6, 2023.

Patti Rafferty of the National Park Service discussed a variety of legislative initiatives at the federal level that outline the fundamental resources and values needed to pursue a solution like storm surge barriers. Gateway Enabling legislation and the Organic Act of 1916 are just some of the ways in which the federal government has a stake in the implementation of storm surge barriers.

Don Riepe of the American Littoral Society focused on the ever-evolving ecology of Jamaica Bay and how sea level rise and interventions like storm surge barriers impact the estuary’s native plant and animal life—from menhaden to harbor seals and from horseshoe crabs to humpback whales. The American Littoral Society has been organizing youth volunteer groups to help clean up the Bay and support wildlife since 1986. To learn how you can get involved, visit their website and blog. Don and his associates at the American Littoral Society will be hosting several free events in the coming weeks: 

  • Family-friendly walk on “Winter Birds and Survival” at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge on Saturday, December 17th 2022 from 10am-1pm.  
  • Walk along the Beach at Fort Tilden to visit the hawk watch platform on top of Battery Harris East on Sunday, January 1st 2023 from 11am-1pm. The event will be followed by champagne, coffee, and cake. 
  • An end-of-year holiday party and fundraiser for NE American Littoral Society Chapter accompanied by a nature walk and informal Zoom session. Learn more about this event here
Click here to view more events in December/January and to RSVP. Follow Don and the American Littoral Society on social media! Instagram/Twitter: @littoralsociety |  Instagram/TikTok: @jamaicabayguardian | Facebook: @littoralsocietynyc

Bernice Rosenzweig, professor of Environmental Science at Sarah Lawrence College, posed the important question of “resilience from what to what” in thinking about how storm surge barriers will impact local ecosystems as well as communities in the Jamaica Bay area. By “quantifying resiliency” we can begin to measure the impacts of such interventions, but there are still a lot of information gaps in our understanding of how storm surge barriers will ultimately change the Bay’s physical urban and ecological design.

Chester Zarnoch, Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology at Baruch College City University of New York (CUNY), explored how ecological interventions can and should accompany the technological intervention of storm surge barriers. This can be done by harnessing and enhancing ecological processes in constructed (manmade) marshes. Using ecological modeling, we can artificially replicate mutualism between co-dependent species. The truth of the matter, however, is that it can take decades for constructed marshes to become as efficient at important ecological processes—such as nitrogen removal—as natural marshes. Research is underway to better understand the impact of surge barriers on water quality and on ecosystems and wildlife