Protecting the delicate balance of nature through our studies of the meadowlands
The Meadowlands is a complex, urban ecological system, and our scientists work daily to better understand the components of this system and to "protect the delicate balance of nature" as is stated in our State mandate. The work we’ve been undertaking over the past 50 years to monitor and document the changing conditions in the Meadowlands have provided us with a clear picture of improving conditions – improved water quality, diversification of habitats, and the protection of the remaining open space and wetlands.
We use many technologies to track these changes – drones to create habitat maps that can be compared annually to document changes, Surface Elevation Tables to compare changing marsh elevations with rising sea levels, acoustic Doppler current profilers to measure changing velocities over the marsh, tide gages and water quality monitors to measure air and water quality, and monitors to determine how much carbon we are sequestering in different habitats.
Water samples are collected seasonally at 14 sites along the Lower Hackensack River and its tributaries to provide more information about water quality in the region. The information developed from this data indicates that the Meadowlands is a cleaner and healthier system than it was 50 years ago when the then "Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission" (now the NJSEA) was first established likely due to tighter environmental regulations and improved water and land management practices.
MRRI also monitors water elevations from a network of ten distributed sensor locations, providing real time data to surrounding communities, including flood warnings when needed. Sensors at the tide gates are connected to a warning system that sends text messages to nearby town officials when water elevations reach critical levels.
To better understand how the marshes of the Meadowlands are keeping pace with climate change and rising sea levels, MRRI has placed 15 Surface Elevation Tables across the District. We take annual inventories of the accretion levels and share our results with others working in New Jersey through the NJ Tidal Wetland Monitoring Network.
MRRI also closely monitors the various habitats found within the Meadowlands, as well as the fish and wildlife that depend on these habitats.
Avian studies include monthly avian point counts at 15 sites, a Meadowlands bird banding station operated from April through October each year, a Motus Tower to track migratory songbirds, and the development of the first-ever Meadowlands Breeding Bird Atlas. Our data indicate that birds are successfully using the Meadowlands to refuel during migration, and to breed in habitats as varied as restored marshes, coastal grasslands and closed landfills.
In 2009, MRRI partnered with scientists from the Wetlands Institute (WI) to begin a mark and recapture study of the northern diamondback terrapin found in the Sawmill Creek Wildlife Management Area. Since that time, we’ve tagged over 1,300 terrapin, and in 2021, we recaptured 12 that were initially tagged back in 2009.
We’ve conducted three fish surveys and two benthic surveys over the past 30 years. A comparison of the results indicates a growing diversity of species – when the study began back in the 1980s, the catch was primarily menhaden. These results are a direct effect of closing landfills, tighter air and water regulations, and improved land uses adjacent to the waterways including 1000’s of acres of marsh restoration and preservation.