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Scientists Hunt for Sewage in New York City’s Harbors

After Sandy, researchers are heading out to sea for a forensic look at the storm’s impacts.

For most people affected by Superstorm Sandy, the damage was plain to see: Devastated homes, impossible traffic, even lost lives. But for Bruce Brownawell, the storm’s biggest consequences are buried under several meters of seawater. Brownawell is a marine scientist at SUNY-Stony Brook who has spent the last several years becoming intimately acquainted with the chemical makeup of mud on the floor of various bays, harbors, and inlets in the New York City area.

When Sandy hit, several local scientists saw opportunity: For Bruce, it was a chance to return to these areas and investigate how strong storm tides shifted mud around—particularly in areas close to several low-lying sewage treatment plants that were knocked out during the storm and dumped raw sewage into the water for days. To do that, he and colleague Jessica Dutton of Adelphi University strapped on mud-proof waders and headed out to Hempstead Bay off the south shore of Long Island.

Climate Desk crammed onto the boat for the inside dirt.

About the Authors

  • James West is the editor and producer of The Climate Desk, a collaboration among The Atlantic, the Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, Slate, Wired, and PBS. He is the author of Beijing Blur.
  • Tim McDonnell is a senior fellow on the Climate Desk, where he covers national energy policy.