Study Shows Rockaway is Just 400 Years Old


Rockaway may be younger than thought. A new study by Ecologist Eric Sanderson in the Northeastern Naturalist, shows that Rockaway once didn’t exist and may have started to form just 400 years ago.

Sanderson, a WCS Senior Conservation Ecologist, researched  about 100 historical maps of New York City, dating back as far as 1501 to investigate the changing shape of Jamaica Bay and its surrounding marshlands.  “Jamaica Bay marsh islands are of undoubted importance to the ecology of the city today, because we have lost so much already,” Sanderson said in a press release.  “But it is unlikely they have always been there.  Looking into the past helps us see how nature shapes New York City and understand the enormous and often expensive efforts required to hold back natural forces.”

The study shows that the peninsula didn’t always exist and it formed as part of the barrier island system on the south shore of Long Island, growing in fits and starts over the last 400 years, as the result of wave and storm action.  In the historical map series, the peninsula can be clearly seeing elongating and changing shape over time, forming islands and new inlets.

Sanderson hypothesizes that the Rockaway Peninsula created a protective environment that allowed salt marsh islands to form within Jamaica Bay, in the late eighteenth – early nineteenth century.  Changes in the Rockaways were caused by sand moved by a combination of tides, currents, wind, and storms.  These dynamics are common to barrier island systems around the world.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, some people began to live on the marshes, creating the community of Broad Channel, Queens, and a former community on Ruffle Bar.  After World War II, the Rockaway Peninsula was extensively developed, including housing projects, which were extensively damaged during Hurricane Sandy.