Navigating the Tipping Point: Climate Change and Its Impact on Long Island

Christopher Gobler, a distinguished professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and endowed chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation, recently served on a Newsday panel related to the impact of storms on Long Island and delivered a presentation June 13 entitled The State of the Bays & Water 2024.

In Newsday’s panel, entitled Paying the Price: Long Island’s Stormy Future, Gobler addressed how climate change will impact homes on Long Island, speaking to an audience which included some residents whose homes have been impacted by rising sea levels.

“This is all being driven by climate change. Rising sea levels because the oceans are warmer and expanding that polar ice caps are melting, and storms are more intense because of climate change,” said Gobler. “Attacking climate change is therefore priority number one, and making these connections will then motivate people to move faster towards addressing climate change.”

Gobler said Long Island homeowners can help to reverse damaging trends by upgrading their septic systems to a new, low nitrogen system (for those not connected to sewage treatments), and to consider reducing the amount of fertilizer they apply to their lawns.

The State of the Bays & Water 2024 presentation, held in Peconic on Long Island’s North Fork, included much of the information shared in Gobler’s State of the Bays, delivered in April at Stony Brook Southampton. The presentation raised crucial concerns about the health of marine ecosystems on Long Island, and was framed around the concept of a “tipping point,” which he described as a critical threshold where ecosystem changes become irreversible:

“You don’t know when you’ve reached or even passed this tipping point until you’re looking back in history,” said Gobler, emphasizing the importance of proactive environmental stewardship to prevent catastrophic changes.

Chrisgoblerheadshot
Christopher Gobler

One of the primary concerns discussed was the significant rise in nitrate levels in Suffolk County’s groundwater. Gobler highlighted a 60 percent increase since the 1980s. This rise is particularly worrisome because it places Suffolk County among areas with some of the highest nitrate levels in the United States, problematic not only for the environment but also for public health.

Gobler pointed out that while the current EPA standard for nitrate in drinking water is 10 milligrams per liter, recent research indicates other potential health risks at lower levels. He referenced studies showing that “nitrates can form carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines in our stomachs,” and noted that the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies nitrates and nitrites as “probably carcinogenic.” Gobler underscored the growing body of scientific literature on this topic, showing an increase in peer-reviewed studies linking nitrates in drinking water to cancer and negative health outcomes for babies during gestation.

The presentation also focused on the impact of nitrogen on marine and aquatic ecosystems, particularly through the lens of harmful algal blooms (HABs). Gobler presented a map showing water quality impairments observed in 2023, with more than two dozen locations failing to meet EPA oxygen standards or experiencing HABs. He explained that “more nitrogen can make these events either more intense or more toxic,” significantly disrupting ecosystems.

Gobler provided a stark example from Lake Agawam in Southampton, which has experienced severe blue-green algal blooms. These blooms, primarily caused by cyanobacteria such as microcystis, produce microcystin, a potent gastrointestinal toxin. He noted that these toxins were so lethal that they were initially named “fast death factor” by early 20th-century scientists. The presence of such toxins poses severe risks to both human health and wildlife, as they have been linked to the deaths of large mammals even in small amounts.

Given these significant challenges, Gobler emphasized the need for immediate and effective action. He mentioned that the EPA recently began reassessing nitrate through its Integrated Risk Information System, which is a promising step. However, he stressed that “we want nitrogen and nitrate in our drinking water as low as possible” to protect both human health and the environment. This comprehensive approach is vital to mitigate the adverse effects of nitrogen pollution on surface waters, marine ecosystems, and aquatic habitats.

Gobler noted that successful mitigation of nitrogen levels, crucial for improving water quality, has precedent. The Long Island Sound study, as an example, reduced nitrogen by 60 percent since 2000, significantly lowering hypoxic zones. However, Suffolk County faces challenges with more than 400,000 septic tanks contributing to groundwater contamination. The county’s watershed plan prioritizes vulnerable areas, especially the shallow South Shore waters with low tidal flushing, to upgrade these systems. Gobler mentioned innovative solutions like nitrogen-removing biofilters, which are septic systems that effectively reduce nitrogen output. These systems have shown high removal rates for emerging contaminants and have been provisionally approved for installation.

He emphasized the adverse impact of rising temperatures on cold-adapted species like blue mussels and scallops, linking global emissions to potential outcomes in local ecosystems. Gobler also discussed immediate solutions like restoring filter-feeding bivalves, such as the successful Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program, which has planted more than five million adult clams. This program has led to a significant increase in clam populations and improved water clarity, showcasing how bivalves can positively transform ecosystems.

Additionally, Gobler explored the potential of seaweeds, particularly kelp, in mitigating water quality issues. Kelp farms, which absorb CO2 and nitrogen while producing oxygen, have shown promise in reducing harmful algal blooms and mitigating ocean acidification. Gobler’s research indicated that kelp can significantly raise pH levels, benefiting shellfish growth. He also highlighted experimental work with red seaweeds like Gracilaria, which grow in warmer months and offer similar benefits.

Gobler emphasized that while global climate change and excessive nitrogen are significant threats, upgrading septic systems and leveraging natural solutions like bivalves and seaweeds can regionally mitigate these impacts and improve water quality on Long Island.

Gobler’s presentations serve as a crucial call to action for Long Island and emphasize the urgent need to address environmental pollutants. By recognizing and responding to these early warning signs, there is hope for reversing the damaging trends and safeguarding the water resources on Long Island.

— Beth Squire

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