New Mountain Bike Trails Highlight Long Island’s Glacier Remnants

In the hamlet of North Hempstead, New York, a new mountain bike path is being cut in the footprint of an abandoned sand mine. A local non-profit, the Concerned Long Island Mountain Bicyclists, or CLIMB, is creating up to seven miles of paths, creatively integrating glacier-formed features into a trail network, and cleaning up decades of accumulated industrial waste in the process.

During the last glacial maximum, about 18,000 thousand years ago, the Laurentide ice sheet covered much of North America including present day New York City. Long Island, which extends 118 miles into the Atlantic Ocean eastward from Manhattan, was created by two glacial advances, the Illinoisian and the Wisconsin glaciations. Long Island was the eastern terminus of a massive glacial moraine, which spanned the entire North American continent. 

Exit glaciers from the Laurentide ice sheet formed the greater New York region’s landscape. The glaciers pushed sand and gravel into piles, or moraines, which, thousands of years later, provided a bountiful sand deposit from which to mine.   

JB Bennington is a professor of geology at Hofstra University on Long Island, whose research activities include the glacial history and glacial geomorphology of Long Island. “There are very thick deposits of well-sorted glacial outwash sands that built up at the margin of the ice and in many cases were subsequently ice-thrusted and piled up by readvances of the glacier,” Bennington told GlacierHub. “These moraine deposits are thick and well above sea level, which makes mining a lot easier because you don’t have to pump groundwater out of the hole you create.”

Much of New York City’s present day skyline is owed to its glacial history.

The bygone Port Washington sand mine is located less than 18 miles from Manhattan, whose skyscrapers, bridges, and sidewalks were built from the extracted sand and gravel. The materials removed from the ground in Port Washington—140 million tons of it—made up an estimated 90 percent of the concrete used to construct the city during the mine’s operation. An estimated 50 barges of sand and gravel were shipped daily to Manhattan between the 1880’s and 1989, when the mine closed.   

George Williams is the former chairman of the North Hempstead Historic Landmark Preservation Commission. Sand mining was “such a vital industry, so important to the community, and nothing remains,” Williams noted to The New York Times in 2008. “It was almost like it was wiped off the face of the earth.”

Wiped off the face of the earth—except for the debris that was left behind.

Thirty years after the mine ceased operations, piles of ravaged earth and industrial equipment remain. While glacier-deposited resources first drew the extractive mining industry to North Hempstead 140 years ago, today a glacier-inspired mountain bicycle trail is cleaning up after them.

CLIMB, which was founded in 1990, is headed by lifelong Long Island resident Michael Vitti. His group has built and maintains 175 miles of sustainable cycling trails from Manhattan to Montauk, at the eastern end of the island.

A sustainable trail resists the forces of use and erosion, minimally impacts the natural ecosystem, and creates a cadre of people who care for the trail. Vitti’s method aims to endear the community to the area through enjoyment of the outdoors. “They’ll come to love the trails,” he told GlacierHub, “and they’ll come to love and steward the area and clean it up and it’ll become much better.”

Vitti and his volunteers, braving poison ivy, mosquitoes, and deer ticks, have painstakingly mapped and marked the 200-acre plot. “Most people come once and they don’t come back because of the poison ivy,” said Vitti, who is this author’s uncle. “In urban areas where there are lots of greenhouse gases, poison ivy grows mutantly fast. And tall. And big.” The poison ivy immunity of several CLIMB volunteers makes trail construction by hand tool possible. Though it is slow going, 20-30 hours of labor per mile just to flag a viable route for cycling. They’ve done so while complying with the state’s stringent Department of Environmental Conservation requirements, which limits the removal of plant species and constrains the method of trail construction.

They carefully marked a path through the dense vegetation, much of it invasive plant species, without removing a single tree. Routes follow the natural contour of the land and soil disturbance is kept to a bare minimum. Only hand tools are used to blaze the trail. Even the bridges they’ll construct will be fabricated off site to keep sawdust out of the area.

They have removed, however, several tons of industrial detritus.

Braided steel cables and rusted 55-gallon drums, car parts, hot water heaters, truck tires, railcar axles, are among the debris. “Everywhere you look there’s garbage,” Vitti told GlacierHub.

Doing something about the fouled site has been on his mind for a long time.

In 1998, Vitti submitted a request to the town of North Hempstead to repurpose the neglected land for community enjoyment. Every few years Vitti inquired about his request. It was not until 2018, however, that he found a receptive ear in the town through councilwoman Dina DeGiorgio and partnered with local environmental action non-profit PWGreen.

Judi Bosworth is the town supervisor of North Hempstead and a champion of the project. “The Town is looking forward to the opening of the CLIMB bike trail,” she told GlacierHub. “We are so impressed with the quality of work and commitment by the members of CLIMB. The trail system is certainly going to be a wonderful addition to the recreational offerings here in the Town of North Hempstead.”

At the time of writing, Vitti’s group has completed 1.65 miles of the planned five to seven-mile trail network, which he anticipates completing by the end of the summer. The new trail contains many glacial features including thousands of erratics, bluffs of white cretaceous clay, and black clay. Some trails ramp into hump-shaped glacial erratics that allow advanced cyclists to ride up and over. A meander in the path was going to take riders past a rare hoodoo—a ten-story sedimentary spire eroded over the millennia. The impressive natural feature, and the planned path around its perimeter, however, is threatened by a grading project to prevent sediment from running off into a nearby golf course.

While some glacier-created topographical features remain, many of the hills on the trail are mining spoils—giant piles of discarded earth material from a century of extracting sand.

“When we’re digging into it, it’s like digging into cookie dough ice cream,” said Vitti of the challenge of building in the sand and clay-mounded ruins of the mine.

Two other Long Island mountain biking trails bear glacial names. CLIMB  created “Glacier 8,” which has one of the best views and terrain, according to Vitti. The trail runs along the edge of the Ronkonkoma glacial moraine, a feature of the Wisconsin glaciation 85,000-11,000 years ago. Another CLIMB  trail, “Glacier Ridge” in Farmingville, located farther East on the same moraine, is one of Long Island’s most popular mountain biking routes and contains many glacial features.

Most New Yorkers are unaware “that they are living in the middle of a glacial event park,” Joerg Schaefer, a researcher at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, told The New York Times in 2005.  

It might just take a bike trail to allow people to realize it.

Public Event On The Anthropocene In New York On Thursday

Glacial moraines, which permit the dating of glacier retreat, in Alberta, Canada (Source: Mark Wilson/Wikipedia)
Glacial moraines, which permit the dating of glacier retreat, in Alberta, Canada (Source: Mark Wilson/Wikipedia)

GlacierHub’s editor Ben Orlove and two other anthropologists will be speaking this Thursday at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. This event is a roundtable on the Anthropocene, the term describing the new epoch that has just begun, one where humans have major impacts on the planet’s ecosystems.

SIte of last underground nuclear test in the United States, conducted in 1992 (Source: National Nuclear Safety Administration)
SIte of last underground nuclear test in the United States, conducted in 1992 (Source: National Nuclear Safety Administration)

Geologists can observe the traces of human activities in the geological record, much as they observe other changes that serve to mark off other geological time units, such as the Pleistocene and the Jurassic Period, to name two familiar ones. These traces include moraines which mark the retreat of glaciers, as well as other features such as numerous deep tunnels that form parts of mines, urban infrastructure and underground nuclear test sites, and plastiglomerates or fused bits of plastic waste, sand, rock and organic debris found on beaches around the world. The term Anthropocene is now widely discussed by social scientists and in the media.

This event is a public lecture and discussion and will take place on Thursday, December 18, 2014 at 2:00 p.m. in the Kaufmann Theater. Attendees can use the West 77th Street entrance to the museum, located between Central Park West and Columbus Ave.

Plastiglomerates from Kamilo Beach, Hawaii (source: Geological Society of America)
Plastiglomerates from Kamilo Beach, Hawaii (source: Geological Society of America)

The short presentations will focus on the social aspects of anthropogenic climate change, and consider the role of anthropologists in addressing these issues. It will consider the ways that discussions of the Anthropocene can focus public attention and serve to support positive ways of responding to human transformations of our planet. Their comments will serve as a springboard for discussions with the audience. All three speakers are from Columbia University; their experience with the Anthropocene stretches from biodiversity to migration to adaptation.

Paige West of the Department of Anthropology, Barnard College and Columbia University, conducts research on the linkages between environmental conservation and international development, the material and symbolic ways in which the natural world is understood and produced, and the creation of commodities and practices of consumption. She has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Australia, Germany, England, and the United States. She is the co-founder of the PNG Institute of Biological Research, a small NGO dedicated to building academic opportunities for research in PNG among Papua New Guineans.

The Economist magazine's 2011 cover "Welcome to the Anthropocene. (Source: The Economist)
The Economist magazine’s cover “Welcome to the Anthropocene”. (Source: The Economist)

J.C. Salyer of the Department of Sociology, Barnard College, is a lawyer and an anthropologist whose work focuses on law and society, immigration law, and social justice. He is the staff attorney for the Arab-American Family Support Center, a community-based organization in Brooklyn, and runs the organization’s immigration clinic. His research focuses on the legal formalism of deportation decisions and how the exclusion of social factors and personal history effect determinations of immigration status. In addition to his work on immigration, he received the William J. Brennan First Amendment Fellowship to work at the American Civil Liberties Union national legal department and was a staff attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey. His teaching focuses on the relationship between social science, law, and public policy.

Ben Orlove of the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, has conducted extensive research on agriculture, pastoralism, fisheries and mining in the Andes, and has recently begun fieldwork in Bhutan. At Columbia, he directs the MA Program in Climate and Society and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. He is also affiliated with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. Recent posts in GlacierHub have described his participation in the People’s Climate March last September and in international organizations.

Anthropocene event poster (Source: American Museum of Natural History)
Anthropocene event poster (Source: American Museum of Natural History)

 

Photo Friday: NYC Climate March

Last weekend, ahead of the United Nations Climate Summit, three hundred thousand people gathered on New York City streets in solidarity with similar marches across the globe in order to send a clear message to policy makers around the world that people are invested in their environment, and they are paying attention to what their governments are doing about our changing climate. The September 21 People’s Climate March kicking off Climate Week drew more than 300,000 participants.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com.

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Climate change worsens gender inequality in the Himalayas

A woman in Pothala, Nepal, enjoys the view of terraced rice fields, whose potential ecosystem services include groundwater recharge and flood and erosion mitigation.  Climate change in the Himalayas has affected women more disproportionally than men. (Bas Bouman/IRRI Photos/Flickr)BAS BOUMAN
A woman in Pothala, Nepal, enjoys the view of terraced rice fields, whose potential ecosystem services include groundwater recharge and flood and erosion mitigation. Climate change in the Himalayas has affected women more disproportionally than men. (Bas Bouman/IRRI Photos/Flickr)BAS BOUMAN

In the Himalayas, when a flash flood rips through a village or when a glacial lake flood outburst wipes one out entirely, surviving families relocate to new settlements, where women are often burdened with more labor and kept away from school, or sent off to an early marriage. Climate impacts have made gender and ethnic inequality more acute in terms of access to education, health care and food security.

Men have more opportunities for wage labor and better access to government services. Some women can obtain resources for themselves and for their children through the men they have ties to, but that dependence can leave them in an unfavorable position. Other women are left with little or no possibility of mobilizing ties to men to obtain resources.

Activists with the ACHA Himalayan Sisterhood walk in the People's Climate March on September 21 in New York City. (photo: Tsechu Dolma)
Activists with the ACHA Himalayan Sisterhood walk in the People’s Climate March on September 21 in New York City. (photo: Tsechu Dolma)

At the People’s Climate March on Sunday, the Himalayan women of New York marched in solidarity with women who are affected by climate change. Himalayan communities from the Tibetan Plateau to the South Asian plains have firsthand experience of the adverse impact of climate change, including flash floods, reduced water access and erratic weather patterns.

ACHA Himalayan Sisterhood, an emerging international network of Himalayan women working towards women empowering women in creating safe, supportive space for all, presented demands for climate justice. The Himalayan women called for immediate expansion of resources to build climate resilience through domestic and international policies that rest on local control of land and other resources.

Woman farmer gathering harvested rice after drying in the field for three days. (Sajal Sthapit/Flickr)
Woman farmer gathering harvested rice after drying in the field for three days. (Sajal Sthapit/Flickr)

Women are at the center of climate change impact as they are disproportionally impacted. In mountain communities and rural villages around the world, women are the ones who collect water, firewood and other resources to feed families. This August, torrential rainfall in Nepal led to flash floods and mudslides which claimed more than 180 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands. Events such as this recur often, and are becoming more frequent as climate change progresses.

Himalayan communities must deal with flash floods, reduced water access and erratic weather patterns as a result of climate change. (Tsechu Dolma)
Himalayan communities must deal with flash floods, reduced water access and erratic weather patterns as a result of climate change. (Tsechu Dolma)