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An urban marsh’s unfinished saga

New York’s Jamaica Bay serves as a microcosm for the world’s wetland woes.

The Monitor's Melanie Stetson Freeman visits New York City's Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.
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If we view cities as densely populated areas surrounded by increasingly less populated and wilder land, then New York’s Jamaica Bay wetlands present this phenomenon in reverse. The 39-square-mile saltwater marsh at the far eastern edge of Queens and Brooklyn is a piece of nature engulfed by the country’s largest metropolitan area. Since the mid-1990s, the marsh, which hosts a multitude of fish and bird species, has been disappearing at an accelerating rate.

“Something has dramatically changed,” says Dan T. Mundy, a battalion leader for the New York City Fire Department and a lifelong resident of Broad Channel, Queens, an island community in the bay. “The marsh has lost its ability to hold itself together.”

Scientists have a list of possible culprits. None – excess nutrients and the hardening of the bay’s shoreline, for example – is mutually exclusive. Indeed, the combination of several factors – what one scientist calls “a destructive synergy” – is likely behind the marsh’s degradation.

“We don’t think there’s necessarily a [single] smoking gun,” says Kim Tripp, director of the National Park Service’s Jamaica Bay Institute. “There’s basically been a snowball rolling downhill, and now it’s an avalanche.”

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