The Seas Are Rising. Could Oysters Protect Us?

Jerome Powell

Orff’s submission, called “Oyster-Tecture,” imagined a living reef in the canal made of tangles and webs of fuzzy rope that, by harnessing the filtration powers of shellfish and eelgrass, would help support a resurgence of aquatic biodiversity. On the banks of the canal, she designed a water park for families, with lots of places to sit and to stroll, and new channels that could flow out of the canal and feed into Brooklyn’s residential communities; the waterfront, treated as a dumping ground for decades, would become a gathering place.

In the past century and a half, overharvesting destroyed nearly every oyster colony in the New York Harbor region. Now the Billion Oyster Project is raising the bivalves in modified shipping containers, then introducing them into the environment.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

It was a utopian-sounding vision, and some people dismissed it. In the Times, the critic Nicolai Ouroussoff belittled what he called Orff’s “effort to turn back the clock to a time when New York was an oyster capital of the world”; he found it “slightly hokey,” which he ascribed to her being one of the show’s “young and relatively untested” contributors.

“I was so riled up when that came out!” Orff recalled. “He didn’t get it.” Other influential people in the design profession did, however, and the Army Corps of Engineers asked for a meeting. “It’s a beautiful idea,” said Guy Nordenson, a Princeton University engineering and architecture professor whose research helped inspire the “Rising Currents” exhibition. “It connects with things Europeans are doing, making room for the river instead of walling it off.” Orff delights in the popular appeal of Oyster-Tecture, convinced that ecological design should be an enticement to those who see climate change as cause for building a better world.

“The way we talk about global warming is usually dark and pessimistic,” she told me. “It can be stifling. Part of my job is showing people new ways to see things, to offer a vision of places we can live in, responsibly, and also enjoy.”

On a cold day this spring, Orff met me at Plumb Beach, a short, narrow stretch of shoreline at the southern edge of Brooklyn, and a nesting-and-breeding ground for horseshoe crabs. Right off the Belt Parkway, near Sheepshead Bay, the beach looks across to the Rockaway Peninsula, a natural barrier between it and the open ocean. It’s sometimes referred to as New York City’s “hidden beach,” accessible only via an eastbound exit, and invisible until you step out of the parking lot and onto the sand. Giving me directions on the phone, Orff warned that the beach was like the seventh-and-a-half floor in the movie “Being John Malkovich.” “It’s after Exit 9 and before Exit 11, but there is no Exit 10,” she told me. “It’s a warp in time and space. Just trust that it’s there.”

Plumb Beach, the site of a federally funded ecological restoration project, provided an early test case of whether Orff-style natural infrastructure projects can succeed. The push for this approach in the United States came after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, when some studies indicated that the disappearance of marshes and wetlands around the Gulf of Mexico had allowed storm waters to pick up force as they approached New Orleans, adding pressure on levees and seawalls. Calls to restore these ecological systems gained support from Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers. Today, the Corps has a team of nearly two hundred scientists, engineers, and resource managers, who are developing guidelines for the task. In the past dozen or so years, they have done small-scale wetland restoration in Lower Township, New Jersey; on beaches and dunes in Encinitas, California; and at Shoalwater Bay, in Washington. But, for Orff, the Corps’s work at Plumb Beach was particularly significant.

On the day I visited, the forecast was baffling: frigid conditions at the start of the day, howling winds later in the morning, and, by afternoon, record-high temperatures. The beach was desolate, with a lone dog walker, a young couple snuggling, and a long line of flowers that local residents had left near the water, seemingly as some kind of religious offering. The beach was sheltered by sloping dunes, covered in thick grasses and plants.

It hadn’t always been that way. When a powerful storm hit Plumb Beach in 2009, Orff explained, “this was basically flat landscape, and the bay came close to washing away the Belt Parkway.” The Corps built a beach berm, two jetties made of large rocks, and a substantial breakwater, to thicken the edge of the land and to shield developed areas inland from future storms.

In 2012, soon after the government had completed the first phase of the project—building the berm, with more than a hundred thousand cubic yards of sand from harbor-dredging work—Superstorm Sandy hit. Orff was living in Forest Hills at the time, with her husband and two young children. “Like most New Yorkers, I was watching the storm in real time,” she remembered. “It was like a comet on a direct path to New York and New Jersey. But I don’t think a lot of people here were thinking about the risk of mass deaths or major infrastructure failures. I was mainly concerned about trees falling on our house.” She experienced nothing worse than a brief power loss, and woke up the next day feeling relieved—until she realized the extent of the damage throughout the city. The East River had rushed into a Con Edison substation, plunging a quarter of a million households into darkness. Scores of large apartment buildings were inundated. “The tunnels had turned into rivers,” she said. “People were wading through the streets of Chelsea. And there were many deaths in Staten Island, including the Dresch family, in Tottenville, whose house got torn off its foundations by the waves. The father and daughter drowned in that water. Their story is burned in my memory.”

In Plumb Beach, however, the berm held, blocking the storm surge and largely protecting the Belt Parkway, along with the people directly behind it. For Orff, the performance of the nature-based infrastructure during Sandy was revelatory. It suggested that a scaled-up version of Oyster-Tecture could be immediately useful—not for provoking discussion but for preserving communities along the coast.

In Tottenville, Staten Island, drainage pipes, once buried, have been unearthed by coastal erosion. This summer, work will begin nearby for Living Breakwaters, among the most extensive nature-based infrastructure systems in urban America.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

As vulnerable as New York was, Orff knew that other population centers were still more so. Back in 2010, after the BP spill dumped nearly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and its neighboring waterways and wetlands, Orff made her first visit to the Lower Mississippi Valley, the nation’s largest floodplain, to begin a collaborative project with the photographer Richard Misrach. (It turned into the book “Petrochemical America.”) She wanted to see the Mississippi Flyway, where nearly half of North America’s waterfowl and sixty per cent of U.S. bird species migrate or winter, and where scores of fish and shellfish species make their home. Orff immediately took to the region, and SCAPE now runs a busy office in New Orleans. The entire city sits on one of Orff’s “edges”—a site of extraordinary natural peril and promise.

On a hot, humid morning in late spring, I joined Orff and her collaborator David Muth, who directs the National Wildlife Federation’s Gulf Program, on a skiff at the Pointe à la Hache Boat Harbor, elevation seven feet. We were about an hour’s drive south of New Orleans. Our captain, Richie Blink, grew up shrimping on the bayous of the Mississippi River Delta; he now represents his district in the parish government, runs an ecotourism business, and, in his spare time, plants as many bald-cypress and willow trees as he can. “I’ve done about twenty-five thousand so far,” he told me. “But we’re gonna need a whole lot more.”

Trees, as Blink sees it, are essential green infrastructure for shoring up one of the world’s most fragile landscapes—what locals call the Bird’s Foot. It’s a strip of small islands, narrow canals, and murky wetlands that juts out from the mouth of the Mississippi River and extends Louisiana into the ocean; from above, the spindly stretches of land look like a young root system or, indeed, the delicate footprint of a bird. In recent decades, the foot has been retracting, with land disappearing into the sea at the staggering pace of a football field’s worth every hundred minutes. If current trends continue, the remaining four-thousand-square-mile coastal area will become open water in about fifty years, leaving New Orleans and the towns around it even more vulnerable to catastrophic flooding. The land loss is not just a matter of rising sea levels; it’s also driven by the way we’ve pumped water, oil, and gas from the ground, causing the terrain to sink, and by the way we’ve lined the banks of the Mississippi River with hard, flat construction material—including more than two thousand miles of federal levees. Because these levees confine the flow of the river, they increase its speed; instead of depositing sediment in marshlands along the way, the current sends it past the delta and its historic floodplain, into the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, though, Orff had been brought out on the water by a positive development. A few years earlier, new crevasses had formed in the riverbanks that hold the Mississippi River in place, and began slowing the flow of sediment out to sea. The backwaters were filling up with soil again. Gradually, but wondrously, new land was forming.

Although those crevasses were accidental, they also provided proof of principle. This year, Muth and Orff have lent their support to the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, a $1.5-billion plan to tear open a great hole in the levee that lines the Mississippi River in lower Plaquemines Parish, sending some seventy-five thousand cubic feet of water and sediment per second into the West Bank wetlands.

“It’s the best chance we have to restore and protect the coast before it drowns forever,” Muth told me. “We have funding for it, from the BP settlement, and about seventy per cent of the state supports it.”

The main holdout is the fishing industry, for which brackish seawater breeds abundance, while the arrival of fresh river water is hostile to most shrimp and other valuable saltwater harvests. The proposal, scheduled for permitting next April, includes more than three hundred million dollars to compensate communities that suffer losses from the diversion.

“I understand why some people are worried about changes,” Orff said. “But change is coming no matter what happens, and this is the way we can help.”

Blink, whose round, youthful face was protected by a fraying baseball cap, steered the small, seafoam-green boat through a maze of tree-lined channels and canals. Every few minutes, Muth spotted a bird (“painted bunting!” “prothonotary warbler!” “roseate spoonbill!”), an alligator, feral cows, or, on one occasion, a pair of goats. Blink pulled the skiff up along a patch of earth that had surfaced recently, formed by sediment that would formerly have been swept out to sea. It was already thick with vegetation.

Sandbags on a Staten Island beach are remnants of previous makeshift flood-prevention efforts. Orff’s design for the South Shore of the island would be largely invisible to the area’s residents, but would help protect the coast in future hurricanes.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

“Baby land!” Orff exclaimed, reaching her hand out to touch it from the bow.

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