Extreme Weather Wreaks Havoc on Palisades Bike Mecca

River_Road_Cyclist_Ducking_Downed_Tree.jpgRecent storms have uprooted hundreds of mature trees on New Jersey’s "River Road."

Work crews will soon start clearing dozens of downed trees from Henry Hudson Drive, the New Jersey road whose spectacular vistas and challenging hills have made it a prime destination for New York-area cyclists. If all goes well, it may re-open as early as next month. But the scale of the devastation along the eight-mile route from Edgewater to Alpine, just across the George Washington Bridge, is adding weight to concerns over the impact of climate change on landscape and infrastructure.

The drive, known colloquially as River Road, was constructed in the 1920s and 1930s but was only opened officially to full-time cycling in 1989, after a two-year advocacy campaign led by Transportation Alternatives. Winter or early-spring rockslides have closed the road a handful of times since then, but in specific locations that were repaired within weeks.

The situation this year is far different. According to Chris Szeglin, a spokesperson for the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, "two big storms, back to back, a huge snowstorm in late February and the ‘silent hurricane’ in March," weakened and ultimately uprooted hundreds of trees. One cyclist who skirted a barrier at the Englewood Cliffs entrance on Sunday and made it to the north exit at Alpine reported having to carry his bike over fallen trees "20 to 30 times."

The rugged topography that makes River Road so spectacular obviously leaves it vulnerable to erosion and rockslides. Here is where global climate change may be coming into play.

Climate models predict that the increased thermal energy in a warming atmosphere and warmer oceans should produce more violent storms. And sure enough, "extreme weather events" — defined as an inch or more of rainfall (or equivalent snow) within a 24-hour period — are growing more common.

A University of New Hampshire study released last week [PDF] found that over the past 60 years such events have become more frequent at 92 percent of Northeast U.S. weather stations. With runoff rates also rising as natural areas are paved over, trees are being inundated with more water than they have evolved to withstand.

Just as most individual instances of cancer can’t be tied directly to exposure to a particular air toxin or water pollutant, the current devastation on River Road can’t be definitively linked to global warming. Nevertheless, at least in statistical terms, the closure of the road and the loss of so many beautiful trees can probably be taken as yet another consequence of the unchecked buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels.

  • here are some more pictures from river road after the storm. i lost count after 20+ downed trees: http://drp.ly/O7O8I

  • Steven Levine

    I was on River Road this weekend and found the same conditions. I elected not to lift my bicycle 20 to 30 times and went up to 9W. I hope the Palisades Park Commission opens it soon. It seems they moved quickly to open the boat basins, but are moving more slowly to connect the whole road, which is, coincedentally or not, of greatest interest to bicyclists.

    Good analysis. The question is when are there enough events like this that can to prove a connection to global warming.

  • This place looks nice. I’ve been trying to seek out more naturalistic weekend excursions lately, and this Henry Hudson Drive seems to fit the bill.

    The only problem is that from my home in Williamsburg to the end of the Henry Hudson Dr is about 25 miles, and 50 miles round trip is a little more than I’m looking for, and definitely more than I could convince my weekend cycling companions to join me on!

    Does anyone know of transit options to get from the end of the Henry Hudson Dr back into the city? My Google searches are coming up dry.

    Thanks for excusing my off-topic curiosities!

  • Jeff, the nearest train to the Alpine end of River Road is the NJ Transit Spring Valley line. But it’s several miles away and does not have frequent service.

    The simplest thing to do is to take the subway to the GWB in the morning, do the River Road loop, then either take the subway back or ride back if you’re still feeling frisky.

  • Charlie, what about River Road’s location alongside and below a cliff that is naturally eroding and crumbling regardless of the climate? I suspect that exacerbates the tree damage problem. Also, my impression is that the rockslides have been an annual event for the last ten years or so.

    This is not to minimize or wave away the climate change issue – James Hansen of NASA/GISS has been talking about the increased climate instability due to the greater amount of available moisture caused by climate change since at least 1995. As I understand it, it makes storms and hurricanes not necessarily more frequent but definitely more intense.

  • Ed, did you read my post a bit too quickly? I pointed out both River Road’s topographical vulnerability to rockslides and the greater energy available to storms due to global warming. As for the frequency of rockslides, my memory tells me there were more in the 00’s than in the 90’s and more in the 90’s than in the 80’s, but I’ve not kept records.

  • Trees are boulders relatively cheap to clear out of the way but repaving Henry Hudson Drive is where the real money will need to be spent. Currently the road conditions are so bad that much of the Drive is only suited for those wising to train for the Paris-Roubaix.

  • Hilary Kitasei

    While you’re over there, take a moment to observe NYS DOT’s treatment of the Palisades parkway. It’s a great example of what state parkways in NYC could look like. Carol Ash, Commissioner of the NYS Parks and Historic Preservation Office, used to be head of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, and “gets” parkways. She has been a strong supporter of our efforts to preserve the Henry Hudson Parkway. Her office found the HHP eligible for listing in the National Historic Register, is hoping for support from NYC DOT to proceed with full nomination. If designated, it would join other parkways like Eastern, Ocean, Merritt, Palisades — and like them, be eligible for new sources of funding for landscaping, bridge restoration, bicycle paths and walking trails. If, like the Palisades and the Merritt, it were then to be designated a Scenic Byway, NYC could be eligible for even more money for park and greenway enhancements.

  • And just out of curiosity, is it open to motor traffic? I assume that, at least for the time being, not many autos are getting through with those trees down (can we lay trees across Second Ave?), but on the other hand, it does have the word “Drive” in the name.

  • Lisa

    Careful accessing River Road – keep your eyes peeled for those No Bikes icons and signs. If the cops find you on your bike on the hills between 9W and river road, you’re out $85. (As I well know weekend before last.)

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