Visitors might focus on Governors Island's hiking trails, enormous slides and...

Visitors might focus on Governors Island's hiking trails, enormous slides and beautiful views, but scientists see a model from which other communities should learn. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

Stepping off the ferry onto Governors Island, visitors often feel as if they've entered a different world — a grand oasis, a destination for residents and tourists who can bike along its paths, play on its playgrounds, relax on its ample green space, and enjoy its (relative) quiet.

It's a gem for New York City and even for the surrounding suburbs, an escape just 800 yards from lower Manhattan.

But the island also stands as a symbol of the region's vulnerability. 

When Superstorm Sandy hit Governors Island more than a decade ago, a 13.8-foot storm surge roared more than four feet above the sea wall, flooding the island. Wind and water damaged buildings, barges, piers and trees and knocked out electricity and utilities. Three feet of water rushed into Castle Williams, a circular fortification that dates back to the early 19th century.

Since then, the Trust for Governors Island repaired and upgraded the sea wall, structures and utilities. A later, larger remodeling redeveloped the southern area of the island with more natural buffers. Now known as The Hills, it features a rolling landscape that reaches as high as 70 feet, designed in reaction to a rising tide and the need to make the island more sustainable.

Visitors might focus on the hiking trails, enormous slides and beautiful views, but scientists see a model from which other communities should learn.

Still, the threat remains of rising sea levels, harsher storms and resulting devastation.

It may seem odd — foolish even — for New York City to establish a center dedicated to climate change solutions, education and research on such an imperiled spot.

But that's what the city is doing. This week, city officials chose Stony Brook University to anchor what will be known as the New York Climate Exchange, a partnership of academic institutions, private companies and local community groups that will develop a $700 million campus on three acres of Governors Island land.

And to the researchers at Stony Brook, it's the risk surrounding Governors Island that makes it the right location for their work.

"To some extent, it makes sense to use the island as a living laboratory, as a demonstration of ways of building and making the coastline more resilient to climate change," said Kevin Reed, Stony Brook's associate dean for research, who specializes in climate science and the impacts of extreme weather. "I think it's a strength of the New York Climate Exchange to use Governors Island to demonstrate those technologies."

Stony Brook and its partners are thinking a lot about the physical facilities they're going to build and how to make them resilient, Reed said. What and how they build could serve as a blueprint for other communities, including those on Long Island.

But just as others will learn from the work Stony Brook does on Governors Island, researchers hope to learn from their new backyard as well.

"The more and more we can directly interface with those who are being most impacted by climate change, the sooner we can actually change the way we do science to better inform decisions that need to be made," Reed said.

Those decisions might just save threatened communities on Long Island and beyond — including Governors Island itself. 

Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.

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