Caitlin Zinsley (not pictured) and Isaac Santner (above right) have seen more of the Hudson River than the average New Yorker. They work for an environmental organization called Clearwater, meaning they get paid to sail up and down the river on a replica of a Hudson River sloop from the 1700’s. The sloop, also called the Clearwater, was built in the 70’s with funds raised by Pete Seeger and given the mission to connect residents of the valley to the then terribly polluted Hudson River. Today more than 10,000 people sail on the Hudson every year either on the Clearwater or it’s sister ship the Mystic Whaler. We were lucky enough to take a ride on the Clearwater upon reaching NYC, but first we sat down with Caitlin and Isaac to talk about climate change impacts they see each day in their work.
Most New Yorkers who take a ride on the Clearwater are painfully aware of the power of storm surges after surviving hurricane Sandy in 2012. I had to be reminded that a storm surge isn’t exactly a big wave coming onto shore, it’s more like an extra high tide that causes flooding in low lying areas. Sea level rise makes storm surges worse since the water level is already higher. The level of the Hudson River has already risen one foot in the last century, and continues to rise faster than the global average.
The tracks for the Metro-North train that carries more than 200,000 passengers to and from NYC each day lie just a few feet above sea level. But three years after super storm Sandy, Metro-North is still working to repair damaged train lines so it’s clear they have their hands full. The cost of moving or elevating tracks seems prohibitively high, particularly when compared to the short term cost of reacting storm by storm. However this reactive approach to climate change impacts will add up eventually.
Much of the water piping systems in towns like Beacon, Ossining, and New Paltz, NY date back to the 1800’s. Pipes that burst or leak pose expensive problems to fix in normal circumstances and have been out of sight and out of mind for many residents for some time. However larger storms made more common under climate change create a huge strain on storm drains and other water piping meaning repairs to pipes will demand more of a city’s budget. Larger storms also threaten water quality in these towns because of the outdated design of the storm and waste water systems. The two share many of the same pipes, meaning that a large amount of rain will flush not just storm water but also untreated sewage right into the Hudson!
One of the best ways to protect waterfront property from storm surges is to restore a marsh in front of it. Caitlin mentioned an awesome group called Hudson River Sustainable Shorelines Project that works to restore marshes and educate cities on how to do so. We took a field trip to a marsh under their jurisdiction called Piermont Marsh. The town of Piermont has a substantial buffer against flooding thanks to the marsh, but invasive phragmites reeds (below) have choked out most native plants.
Beacon NY, along with a few other small towns near by, hosts a young farmers initiative to encourage local food production. You can see the results just walking down the street in Beacon – every other restaurant boasts of some local dish. Growing food locally is not just good for the environment and farmers market shoppers, it’s also helpful in case of a major storm that could cause damage to the system that delivers food to the area. More food grown locally means a town is more prepared for big disruptions to transportation that could occur under climate change.