On a beautiful 50-degree day in early January, Board Member and environmental consultant Richard Kampf and The Conservancy’s Director of Special Projects, Hans Hesselein, led local planners, scientists, and members of the community  on a tour of the Canal to explore the potential effects of climate change on the neighborhood. We were joined by Dr. Klaus Jacob, a professor at Columbia University, and Paul Reale, a presenter from Al Gore’s The Climate Reality Project. This is one of eight world-wide Expeditions being coordinated by Climate Reality.

During the tour we discussed the local threats associated with the potential for sea level rise and more severe storms. We also examined the ways in which that the community and the City may work together to adapt to a changing climate as part of the ongoing planning and remediation initiatives that are presently underway. We are confident that with proper planning and communication we may ensure that Gowanus remains resilient.

We began the tour at the Union Street Bridge where we discussed how severe weather impacts the canal.We could hear the hoo-ing of an owl located somewhere under the bridge and were reminded that the canal is home to a unique ecosystem even today.


To donate to the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, please follow this link. Your donations will help support our green infrastructure, composting, and community art and education programs.

At 10:30 a.m., we gathered on the Union Street Bridge (Stop 1).

Living on Thin Ice Expedition Map

The expedition started on the Union Street Bridge (Photo by Richard Kampf)

(L to R) Katia Kelly, Hans Hesselein, Ryan Kovonowski, Brooke Bohnet, Annika Arnold, Richard Kampf (Photo by Benjamin Aufill)

The local threats that are posed by climate change include the potential for increased frequency and severity of storms, which could result in an increase in the frequency and duration of CSO events and urban flash flooding. On top of that, scientists expect a rise in sea level of up to four feet over the next century, which would flood parts of the New York metro and be compounded by coastal storm surges during storm events.

(L to R) Klaus Jacob, Richard Kampf, Paul Reale

Flooding on 4th Avenue at Carroll St

Dr. Jacob, a geophysicist by training and a local climate adaptation expert , is frequently called upon to assess the impacts of climate change on New York State  and has participated in the New York City Panel on Climate Change.

Dr. Jacob pointed out there are significant limitations in the maps that FEMA prepares to project the impacts of severe flooding. Current flood maps do not take into account the infrastructure limitations that result in urban flash flooding outside of the 100- and 500-year flood zones that are depicted in FEMA maps. Also, later this century, one-in-100 year storm events are likely to take place once every 10 to 25 years as a result of climate change.  The graphic below shows how the 100 year flood zone may affect the community in the future based on sea level rise predictions that assume rapid glacial ice melt.

In this video, Dr. Jacob talks more about the impacts of sea level rise:


To donate to the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, please follow this link.

We proceeded south to the historic Carroll Street Bridge (Stop 2),  built in 1888-89. The bridges and bulkhead of the Gowanus Canal are key components of the infrastructure that may be affected by sea level rise. As part of a pilot study, the city plans to install to High Level Storm Sewers to capture 50% of the rainfall before it enters the sewer pipes, and instead divert it directly into the Canal to reduce CSOs and street flooding.

The Union Street Bridge Looking North (Photo by Richard Kampf)

The Combined Sewer Outfall at Carroll Street (Photo by Richard Kampf)

The Conservancy encourages students from local primary and secondary schools and colleges to use the canal as a laboratory for studying the natural environment. Here, at the end of Second Street (Stop 3), the Gowanus Dredgers Boat Launch provides the community with the recreational resources to directly experience the ecosystem of the canal.

The Living on Thin Ice Expedition at Second Street (photo by Benjamin Aufill)

At the Third Street Bridge (Stop 4) we discussed a proposed waterfront development within the 100-year flood zone and note the variety of concrete, wooden, and sheet pile bulkheads that are common along the Canal. Ecologists, landscape architects and engineers envision opportunities for creating softer shorelines and constructed wetlands in an effort to provide public access, improve water quality, and adapt to sea level rise.

Canal Edge Possibilities

The Conservancy is working to implement a waterfront “SpongePark”™ that will help the City achieve its goals for increasing public access, improving water quality, restoring ecological habitats, and promoting climate resilience and adaptability.

Next, we entered the 6th Street Corridor (Stop 5). As part of its Green Infrastructure Plan, the city is overseeing the installation of permeable pavement, tree pits, rain gardens, and green roofs rather than costly pipes and tanks, in an effort to reduce runoff, urban street flooding and CSOs. As part of the Conservancy’s 6th Street Corridor Pilot Study, we are installing a series of rain gardens that will line the sidewalks and reduce the number of CSO events at the Second Avenue outfall.

Bioswales will be constructed along the 6th Street Green Corridor

We concluded our tour at 1 p.m. at the Second Avenue Salt Lot (Stop 6), the Conservancy’s staging area for community engagement, where we observed a street-end rain garden created during one of our “clean & green” volunteer events. From here, the Conservancy coordinates its watershed stewardship activities, which include raising awareness to help ensure that ongoing and future planning initiatives consider the potential effects of climate change. This is also the location of our growing composting and urban agriculture program.

Hans Hesselein of the Conservancy discussing the Second Street Rain Garden (photo by Benjamin Aufill)

The Conservancy believes that a community-based watershed planning perspective will be a key to proper long-term stewardship. We are promoting integrated decision-making to support incremental, flexible, and robust solutions that do not preclude adaptability, and we are working to establish the link between the watershed, CSOs, and climate change through long-term data collection, management, and analysis that is needed to properly plan for the future.

To donate to the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, please follow this link.