John F. Kennedy International Airport used to be part of the massive wetland complex of Jamaica Bay before it was made into a hardened plane of tarmac. Likewise, thousands of additional acres encircling the Bay were soft and marshy before being filled in with an unknown tonnage of earthen and non-earthen materials, forming a variety of anthrosols recently categorized by the New York City Reconnaissance Soil Survey.
In contrast to the solid urban fill now encircling Jamaica Bay, we can see the remains of salt marsh islands scattered within it. Due to a combination of influences that include dredging and filling, upstream channelization, and torrents of treated wastewater and stormwater outflows, these islands are eroding at an ever-accelerating rate. Without additional acts of human intervention, such as remaking them with sand dredged from nearby shipping channels, the islands could completely disappear within a decade. Due in part to Post-Panamax channel deepening of the New York/New Jersey Harbor, an ambitious feat of logistical infrastructure networked from as far away as the Panamanian Isthmus, Jamaica Bay’s islands are now receiving a unique supply of restorative sand.
The “cosmopolitan ecology” of Jamaica Bay is a vast microcosm exemplifying the broader extent of human agency on geologic and hydrologic cycles. Text book diagrams of these material flows typically separate hydrological processes (evaporation, precipitation, surface runoff, and the like) from the geologic (weathering, sedimentation, uplift), while subtracting human agency from both. Such diagrams are incomplete depictions of the full range of forces at work here, failing to illustrate how these cycles are deeply enmeshed with a multitude of distortive alterations engendered by our designs.