City at the Water's Edge: A Natural History of New York

By Betsy McCully | Go to book overview

3
At the Glacier's Edge

Following a winter snowstorm, I set out to walk the beach. A bitterly cold wind burns my face. My boots crunch through a knee-high crust of ice that looks like a miniature glacier, reminding me of a not-so-distant time when much of the New York region was buried under ice. Twenty-two thousand years ago, in the deep freeze of the last ice age, the shoreline was seventy miles distant, and the place where I now stand was part of a vast outwash plain at the glacier's edge. A massive river of ice ground over the land, carved out valleys, and plucked boulders from bedrock to scatter like calling cards. Moving like a conveyor belt, the ice sheet ferried thousands of tons of debris, which melted out at the glacier's margin to form towering moraines. Torrents of meltwater dissected the plain, depositing layers of sand and gravel as outwash. Now, as I stand on the outwash plain, waves crashing on the beach, I can almost hear the thundering crack of an ice lobe as the glacier gives way and surges forward, crushing forests in its path. The glacial episode is a recent event—a mere microsecond on the geological timescale—yet our human existence may ultimately prove less durable than the glacier's scratches on a boulder.

During the Wisconsin ice age, which lasted 140,000 years, successive ice sheets flowed southward from Canada into the United States. Several of these reached New York, as ice lobes surged down the Connecticut and Hudson river valleys. Between twenty thousand and thirteen thousand years ago, the most recent glacier, known as the Woodfordian, completely mantled Manhattan Island and the Upper New York Bay, and covered the northern tip of Staten Island and parts of Queens and Brooklyn in Long Island. Sea level was 350 feet lower than today, and from Cape Cod southward, the coastal plain jutted out fifty to one hundred miles farther than the present-day shoreline, almost to the edge of the continental shelf. Draining the waters of the Connecticut, Housatonic, Passaic, and Hackensack rivers, the Hudson cut a deep gorge through the coastal plain and emptied into the waters of the Atlantic.1

-32-

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City at the Water's Edge: A Natural History of New York
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Introduction - Coming Home ix
  • 1: Bedrock New York 1
  • 2: The Teeming Shore 16
  • 3: At the Glacier's Edge 32
  • 4: Land of the Lenapes 45
  • 5: Staking Claim 62
  • 6: Muddied Waters 76
  • 7: Footprints 96
  • 8: Forests for Trees 111
  • 9: Urban Flyway 127
  • 10: Weathering 146
  • Notes 161
  • Index 177
  • About the Author 186
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