By: Colm Ashe
The tides are rising. Recent projections suggest that seas could rise as much as six feet by the turn of the century. For coastal communities like Long Island, these figures are more than abstract math - they are stark reality. Year by year, the Atlantic inches closer inland as bulldozers scramble for sand to dump in the way. Sea level rise and urbanization combined have exasperated natural disaster in recent times, hiking up flood insurance premiums and residential anxiety. Long Islanders are desperately seeking solutions, and luckily, some local experts have taken up the cause. These experts are part of a local renaissance in science - a movement in which Molloy College has become a central hub. On Earth Day this year, many of these local leaders gathered at Molloy to raise awareness about climate change and discuss solutions. Among them was Kevin McAllister of Defend H2O - an organization dedicated to water quality and coastal protection. During the colloquium, McAllister rang the alarm bell on Long Island's future. "I can tell you from my vision over four years of paying attention to [sea level rise] and the changes I've seen, it's about to get real in the next couple of decades," McAllister said. Each speaker approached the effects of climate change from a different angle. McAllister focused on the erosion eating away at LI's coastlines. According to him, not only have the current strategies used to combat erosion proved futile - they're making things worse. He pointed to a recent Montauk dune project as evidence. In 2015, the Army Corps of Engineers built a wall of sandbags as a bulwark against the surging seas, despite the objections of Defend H2O and other local residents. McAllister claimed that "walls erode the beaches." His predictions came true when Hurricane Hermine washed away the wall only a year later, thus accelerating the erosion.
He urges agencies to stop using short term engineering solutions and consider more progressive coastal management before our iconic beaches become nothing more than bouldered blockades. Unfortunately, Long Island's issues don't stop at the shoreline. "As much as we're talking about structures and fortifications to hold back surge, what we cannot control is that subterranean layer," McAllister said. He evoked the term "sunny day flooding"- a phrase used in Miami when water from the bay rises up through the city's drainage system. Chris Schubert, a hydrologist for the United States Geological Survey, pointed out that this is not just a problem in Miami. "Locally...we do have problems now with groundwater flooding and that is an early manifestation of sea level rise," Schubert said. Schubert demonstrated how saltwater is contaminating groundwater - a problem that goes beyond flooding when taking into consideration that Long Islanders get their drinking water from underground aquifers. From coastal erosion to inland flooding, the speakers presented some daunting issues facing Long Island, but not all was doom and gloom. David Manning, an environmental lawyer that works for Brookhaven National Lab, spoke of a generational shift that could save the planet. He referred to a 2012 Nielson Report which stated that 63% percent of participants from 56 countries preferred socially-conscious companies - most of them under the age of 40.
"My inspiration and my hope is that this generation... gets it," said Manning, addressing an audience comprised largely of the youth he proclaimed his faith in. Among the high school hopefuls and recent college grads in attendance was an Environmental Studies student named Melissa Fuerst. She says Molloy has given her the skills necessary to join the mission to save her home island. "Molloy's program helped me do what I can to help the pollution problems, sea level rise, and to help fix the coastlines." Melissa is a senior who gained hands on experience at Dr. John Tanacredi's research lab, CERCOM, Molloy's environmental research and data center. Dr. Tanacredi, who hosted the colloquium, has been sparking a local movement in science, connecting students with local and international causes. If Melissa stands as a reflection of her peers, Manning is right to be optimistic. "You only have one earth, so you've got to treat it with respect," said Melissa. "Do what you can while you're here and don't pass it on to the next generation"- an ideal that previous generations have been criticized for. Manning acknowledged this criticism, saying "this generation is not leaving the Earth in its best form." Although, it's thanks to the work of veterans like Manning, Schubert, McAllister and Tanacredi that there is momentum in environmental progress. Their efforts prove that our actions can have positive effects. Paul Sieswerda, CEO of local advocacy group Gotham Whale, came to the colloquium to shed light on some of these positive effects. In 2011, the CEO started getting reports from fellow citizen scientists that whales were returning to the area after a hiatus that's lasted more than half a century. There wasn't many at first but since then, "the numbers have increased exponentially," Sieswerda says. "We're limited now by just the number of times that we can get out there to see them, so, we're kind of plateaued at hundreds of whales."
Conservationists have credited cleaner waters for the return, saying that initiatives such as the Clean Water Act have revitalized the web of marine life off the coast. Whales are not the only ones thriving; seals and dolphins are also appearing in record numbers. This aquatic revitalization is a hopeful horizon for a generation bombarded by the negative effects of climate change. "I watch documentaries all the time about how the oceans are getting more acidic and the coral reefs are dying and it's always bad, bad, bad..." said Melissa, "But you have to have to have a positive attitude around it because if you don't, the negativity will weigh you down." Melissa is a part of a swelling generational wave - one that may be enough to fight back the rising tides.
For more information about CERCOM's efforts for environmental preservation, or to see how you can be involved, please visit their website, https://www.molloy.edu/academics/undergraduate-programs/biology/cercom