The Rockaway Naturalist By Mickey Cohen And Don Riepe
This is the first of a series of monthly columns to be alternately written by two of Rockaway’s premier environmentalists. Mickey Maxwell Cohen, who wrote this first column, is the former Chairman of Science & Oceanography at Beach Channel High School. Cohen is a naturalist with the American Littoral Society (ALS). He will share this column with Don Riepe, Director of the Northeast Chapter of the Society and Jamaica Bay Guardian. Mickey will lead a field trip along the winter beach at Rockaway’s Fort Tilden Area of Gateway National Recreation Area on Saturday, January 17th at10:30 AM. Don will lead a "Winter Waterfowl" walk on Sunday, January 18 at 11am at the Jamaica Bay Refuge in Broad Channel.
January is a fine time to explore our winter beach. If you carry with you a mental image of last summer’s seascape, you’ll notice a major change. Last July’s gentle slope from the water’s edge to the top of the beach is now just a memory, having been replaced by a series of sand steps or berms — the classic sign of a winter beach. A glance at the surf will reveal the wild, white-tipped waves crashing into the sandy edge of the beach. You surely brought along a hat for protection against the subzero wind chill, but hold on tight for the winds of January can, without warning, turn a hat into a kite. Those three winter features: high winds, mean surf, and step-like beach profile are closely related and interdependent. You can’t have one without the others. Another characteristic of the winter beach is the bits of shell and small stones that are scattered on the surface of the sand. Many of them will be perched at the tops of tiny mounds of sand, like small statues atop diminutive pedestals.
Obviously, the sleeping sands of summer are being stirred by winter winds and, except for the small piles of sand kept in place by the weight of a pebble or shell, form an interesting seascape termed "desert pavement." Most of the surface sand has become airborne and has taken off for other places, steered by the wind. The windblown sand is carried to the upper beach where it settles into dunes, often acting as protective barricades against subsequent bitter days. Our neighbors residing on beach streets know firsthand that at least some of the sand is blown inland, forming miniature curbside dunes.
To understand the process that leads to the formation of the step-like berms of the winter beach, it is best to again think about those halcyon days of summer at the beach. Recall that on most summer days the wind was gentle and the wind-generated waves were equally friendly. As a summer wave breaks, just offshore, it spills its load of water and suspended sand upon the beach. The water filters down into the sand (percolation) and the newly-arrived sand rests softly on the surface. The process repeats itself day after day and by the time the summer draws close to its end, an enormous amount of uniformly distributed sand is neatly deposited on the beach. Behold the summer beach! However, a few months later the angry winter winds produce giant waves that tear into the sandy shore and dig out great troughs of bottom sand that mix with the water and spill out across the beach. So much sand-saturated water is spilled on shore that the percolation process is not fast enough to allow the sand to settle on the beaches as it did during the days of gentle summer breezes. Instead, the winter wave rushes down the beach in its hasty retreat to the ocean and carries along with it even more sand than it brought ashore. Net result: withdrawal of sand from the beach with every receding wave. The scars of such injury are real and stark and plain to see — a series of raw newly-wrought steps or small cliffs that characterize the winter beach. Summertime is the season of sand build-up or accretion and winter is the season of depletion, better known as erosion.
Our winter beach is narrow; of course, much of the sand is gone. It has been carried to gentler water offshore, where it settles to the bottom to form shallow areas call bars. Sand bars do not last forever. Usually, they’re gone by the following summer when their substance is once again distributed across the beach. Occasionally, however, unusual winter weather creates sand bars that are so formidable that they rise above sea level and become permanent fixtures. Take, for example, the famous sand bar that formerly existed off the shore of Far Rockaway, back in the middle to late 1800’s. The bar made its first appearance in 1861, near Beach 37th Street. Within a few years it grew large enough to support hotels, bathhouses, and even its own official name — Hog Island. Hog Island had a long life as sand bars go. It’s history is beautifully recalled in a Wave article of January 31, 1987 by Rockaway historian, Emil R. Lucev, worthy enough for a timely reprint. Emil informs us that Hog Island served as an offshore recreation center until a series of severe storms, during the winter of 1893, destroyed it forever, that is, except for bits and pieces of old Hog Island wreckage that are occasionally washed up on today’s Far Rockaway’s beaches.
The story of the alternating glory and disruption of Rockaway’s shore is a long and complicated one and efforts to control the whims of nature often lead to controversy, but we’ll continue to explore the beach — in all of its seasonal vagaries as this column continues. Meanwhile, the beach is there for all of us to explore and enjoy, so partake of it when you can