Currents That Still Puzzle Ocean Scientists
On the Sound Vol. 1 No2, April 1971
One day last November, a man strolling on the beach at Point Pleasant, New Jersey – about 10 miles south of Asbury Park – spotted a watertight plastic bag that had been washed ashore with
a card addressed to the New York Ocean Science Laboratory at Montauk.
Thus, startled scientists at NYOSL discovered that their “surface drifter” dropped into the waters off Montauk on a day late in October had traveled down the entire length of Long Island, the Rockaways and Staten Island before washing up two weeks later on a New Jersey beach, 120 straight line miles from its source.
Some days are like that at NYOSL, where oceanographers are slowly putting together a new picture of the inner life of the Sound. For example, two “bottom drifters” – weighted to sink and
be carried by bottom currents – were dropped in the mouth of Long Island Sound two days apart, one at ebb tide, the other at flood. Logically, the first should be somewhere in the Atlantic by now, headed to Europe. But something strange happened. It showed up - along with the second one – at Guilford, Connecticut, 40 miles to the west.
As one after another of our great bodies of water are afflicted by creeping pollution, people are beginning to worry about Long Island Sound. The fact is, we know very little about it. The movement of currents – in effect, the way the Sound flushes itself – is still a mystery. Its been
20 years since anyone came up with reliable data on the chemistry and biology of the Sound,
20 years in which all kinds of materials have been pouring into those waters. But now new data
is emerging – mostly from the Ocean Science Laboratory.
NYOSL is the newest of all oceanographic research institutes, having been dedicated only last October. That formal act followed three years of cajolery and negotiation conducted mainly by
Dr. John Balardi, who was the laboratory’s evangelist while serving formally as vice chancellor of Long Island University. Now he is the laboratory’s president.
But NYOSL is established now and has money from New York State and Nassau and Suffolk Counties, plus $25,000 each pledged by eight Island colleges and universities which formed a consortium to get the laboratory going. Federal money may soon appear.
The laboratory has 36 acres on Fort Pond Bay – four miles west of Montauk Point – left idle by defunct Republic Aviation. Along with water frontage of 1,500 feet, Balardi inherited 300,000 square feet of floor space, a helicopter pad, a hangar, railroad sidings, and a 400 foot pier with
a 45 foot draft at mean low tide.
He also got from the Navy a 600 by 200-foot torpedo warehouse which he intends to fill with a working hydraulic model of the Sound from Block Island to Hell Gate. The model will be constructed on a scale of 1-to-100 on the vertical, but the movement of currents will be duplicated precisely. In fact, most of the model will be water, flowing exactly as it does in the Sound. Before future dredging is done, or any new sewage outfalls are opened, the changes will be tried on the model. It could prevent mistakes.
The model will take five years to build and cost $4 million. Balardi is optimistic that he’ll get the money from the Corps of Engineers which already has build models of San Francisco Bay and New York Harbor, among others.
According to Jim Hunt, who heads the hydraulic project, the model will have a useful life of 20 years, which means it should amortize out at $50,000 a year. “It ought to save several times that much every year,” he says. “Without this kind of model you’re shooting dice about the effect of waste dumping and dredge spoil. Some of these effects are irreversible – and some can be reversed only at greater cost than it would take to build the model.”
An interesting use of the hydraulic model could be to test several engineering proposals put forward for the Sound. One ambitious scheme would dam The Race, the inlet that separates Long Island Sound from Block Island Sound. The object would be to convert the Sound into a huge
fresh water lake. The dam, its proponents claim, could hold back the ocean while the fresh rivers of Connecticut feed the new Sound Lake.
That’s the theory. But what actually would happen if the Race were damned? The hydraulic model should give most of the answers. As Hunt explains - “It doesn’t matter whether the Sound is fresh or salt if it’s polluted. You can’t rule out the possibility that it may become dangerously polluted. All the dangers are there: pollution increase, recreation increase, more power plants pouring heated water into the Sound, more tankers with a threatened higher rate of oil spill.”
Scientists at NYOSL play it cool on the question of pollution. There simply hasn’t been sufficient research. Balardi himself is a little more outspoken on the subject than most of his colleagues.
“The Sound has become more polluted, there’s no question about it,” he says. “We’ve lost in “oyster production, shellfish production and we’re slowly losing finfish production.”
Balardi, discounting the hand-me-down appearance of his domain, believes the laboratory will “become to the ocean sciences what Brookhaven National Laboratory is to physics.”
Balardi divides the work into “worries” and “potentials”. Among the worries: treatment of dumped solid waste, pollution from electric generators, decline of the shellfish , metal deposit in the water and in fish, pollutants from rivers flowing into the Sound.
On the other hand he looks for breakthroughs in synthesizing drugs from the sea and in turning
sea plants such as Irish moss – now a nuisance – into high protein edible grasses. The amount
of food from the sea will multiply enormously in the years ahead, as he sees it.
NYOSL scientists also have access to two “natural laboratories” belonging to New York State. Oyster Pond in Montauk State Park has ideal ecological conditions for nurturing shellfish. Finding similarly favorable conditions in the Sound itself would be a mammoth job.
Balardi is even more optimistic about Hither Hills State Park – between Montauk and East Hampton – and its 60 acre fresh water pond surrounded by 1,100 acres of virgin soil. “The water is about the way it was when Columbus landed – no, before Columbus. Everything is the way it was – wildlife, plants, nothing harmed or changed by man.”
Balardi and his staff will use these natural laboratories – but most of their research will be done in what he calls “our real lab – the waters of the Sound.” NYOSL is only a little more than seven nautical miles from the sea (“actually, we’re 100 miles out to sea,” he says, figuring the distance from Montauk back to New York) and here the testing can extend in many directions.
To explore what is going on in the waters of the Sound the researchers use the Kyma, a 65-foot steel hulled cargo boat that once saw service in the Korean War. The hold of the Kyma is now a sea going lab.
The 65-foot steel-hulled Kyma, NYOSL’s floating lab, plows through heavy ice as it leaves
Fort Pond Bay at Montauk.
The Kyma fits the research needs of the laboratory. Her range enables the laboratory’s scientists to test the Sound over a broad area, and to make tests from surface to bottom. The Kyma also has a sophisticated navigation system, so that lab technicians always know exactly where the sample was taken.
NYOSL includes separate laboratories for chemical oceanography, marine physiology, physical oceanography, and phytoplankton, in addition to a department of engineering
research. Each lab is headed by a top-ranked scientist and backed by researchers and technicians.
The senior resident scientist is Dr. Jerome Alexander who heads the chemical oceanography laboratory. Because the laboratory’s work is new and “because we’re all alone in it”, Dr Alexander carefully avoids generalizing about conditions in the Sound. Does he expect to find the Sound more polluted than it was 20 years ago, when the last baseline data were produced? He can’t say, although it is known, he points out, that phosphates have increased considerably in the western Sound. His special interest is toxic metals in the water, and a large-scale testing program is in progress. Mercury? Six months ago an analysis showed very little. He’d be “upset” to find a higher level in the water now. But he would not be surprised to find a higher level in the fish themselves.
Most of Dr. Alexander’s samples are brought back by the Kyma. The vessel is also used to drop the “surface drifters” and the “bottom drifters” to give Dr. Rudolph Hollman’s Physical Oceanography lab some idea of current behavior.
Dr. Hollman feels that if a large number of his postcards packed with the drifters are returned, reliable conclusions can be drawn about currents. But short of tailing a drifter wherever it goes and for as long as it drifts (“an enormously expensive task”), there will always be nagging questions.
For example, the surface drifter that started at Montauk and wound up at Point Pleasant, New Jersey. Just what sort of journey did it take? “Maybe” says Hollman, “it went up to Cape Cod and then down to Point Pleasant? Or maybe it got to the Jersey Shore in one day and lay on the beach for 13 days until it was picked up. “Who knows?”
Or take the bottom drifter that was dropped into an outgoing eastbound tide but wound up west
of its starting point 48 days later. What happened in between? Were the bottom currents heading west while the surface currents were going east? “There is some oscillation we now think, we now think,” says Hollman. “It’s likely that the drifter did go out, and then came back in.” With clues like these, Hollman is now able to say that the “net flow” of water through The Race is “in” towards
the western Sound.
All the concern about the movement of currents, of course, has to do with the natural flushing of the Sound, the rate at which pollutants can move waste and pollutants out to sea, and just how the extra burden of nutrients in the Sound is being moved around.
Long Island has 1,200 miles of diversified and busy coastline. It coast $750,000 for the property just to get the site to launch the New Ocean Science Laboratory. It looks like one of the best investments Long Island ever made.
NYOSL Researchers James Hoffman (left) and Steven Fisher draw samples from bottles of Sound water for analysis
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