New York City's Physical Environment
The Greater New York City Metropolitan Area exists because of its unique geography and cultural history; underlying and influencing it all is its geology. The physical environment of New York City and the surrounding region reflects the culmination of geologic processes affecting the North American continental margin for over a billion years! Highlights of this geologic story include the formation and destruction of ancient mountain ranges and seaways created by the shifting and colliding of ancient land masses. Concurrent and subsequent to the formation of mountain ranges were extensive periods of erosion and sedimentation. Most recently, in geologic terms, there were episodes of continental glaciation when ice sheets spread southward from eastern Canada into the area that is now New York City. Much of the modern landscape owes its character to the sculpting forces of glacial ice and the erosion by rivers south of the ice front. Most recently, if not most significantly, are ongoing changes created by the region's rapidly-growing human population!
The New York Bight
A "bight" is a mariner's term for a bend or curve in the shoreline of an open coast. The name, New York Bight, refers to the great expanse of shallow ocean between Long Island (to the north and east) and the New Jersey Coast (to the south and west). Because Long Island trends generally east to west in relation to the mainland of New Jersey, it creates a great right angle in the geometry of the Atlantic coastline. The Hudson River's outer harbor and the Raritan Bay (shown in the image on the cover) constitute only a fraction of the greater New York Bight region. The New York Bight is a small reentrant within a much larger coastal bight, the Mid Atlantic Bight, extending from Cape Hatteras, NC northward to Cape Cod, MA (Figure 1).
Humans: a Geologic Force
To contrast the ongoing processes discussed previously, passage of our generations is an anomalous speck on the end of the geologic time scale. Figure 9 illustrates the human population density in the New York Metropolitan area. This map perhaps best demonstrates how our region is utilized by humans, and expresses the environmental character of our urbanized, coastal culture. Census data reported in the World Almanac for 1998 showed that there were nearly 20 million people in the New York metropolitan area with the population of New York City alone at around 7.3 million.
In contrast, when New Amsterdam became established in 1653 the transplanted European population was about 800 whereas the American Indian population was about 14,000. The ballooning population is the driving force behind environmental change. The most obvious changes we can directly observe are the cluttering of the landscape with residential housing, buildings and infrastructure (highways, reservoirs, airports, etc.), and the modifications to our shorelines. These changes come at great price - the loss of agricultural land, the accumulation of landfills (both onshore and offshore), the expansion of lands dedicated to watershed, essential aesthetic parklands, and nature preserves. Less obvious, but perhaps just as costly is the need to provide safe supplies of food, water, clean air, and living supplies while safely treating and expelling both domestic and industrial wastes for an ever expanding population.
As frightful as the real and perceived impact that humans generate on the environment, it is important to remember that nature can provide equally drastic changes. After all, only about 18,000 years ago most of the New York City Metropolitan Area was under thousands of feet of sterile ice. When the ice melted humans were perhaps among the first creatures to visit the area. Because of this human presence, the traditional concept of a "pristine natural environment without humans" is somewhat misleading. The pace of change, however, accelerated with the introduction of numerous plant and animal species (and the annihilation of others) as our modern population grew. In the future, short-term catastrophes including earthquakes, giant storm events, droughts, and other ecological and social catastrophes will no doubt occur. More subtle, longer-term effects influenced by human behavior include the on-going degradation of the biosphere (including popular concerns about the ozone layer, the accumulation of toxins in the environment, and possibly, global warming). Of more immediate concern, however, the topics that trouble everyone: the consequences of over-population, resource exhaustion, famine, and our recently self-endowed gifts: weapons of mass destruction. However, perhaps with a little optimism and planning, we will survive indefinitely.
Content last updated 12/25/2011