Glacier Helped Form Strange Alley Pond Vistas

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By Alexander Dworkowitz

About 120,000 years ago a glacier descended on what is today Queens.

For the next hundred centuries, it sat on the north shore of Long Island, sometimes shrinking, sometimes growing. When the glacier finally began to retreat about 20,000 years ago, it left a dramatic mark on the borough.

But in 2003, that mark can be difficult to see. With development enveloping Queens, much of the landscape has been altered, leaving little sign of the trail left by the giant sheet of ice.

Alley Pond Park, however, stands as a reminder of the glacier. With its lush plant life, marshes, hills and valleys, the park shows the role the glacier played in shaping the borough.

“I think some people know about the idea of it, but most people don’t really appreciate that the whole landscape was actually shaped and formulated by glaciers,” said William Nieter, director of the Environmental Studies Program at St. John’s University and board member of the Alley Pond Environmental Center. “Even though we actually teach it in school, people don’t realize how significant that kind of idea really is.”

During the last ice age, the glacier stretched across the continent.

At the time, Long Island existed, but it did not resemble its current formation. It was a ridge of soft sedimentary materials known as cuesta, Nieter said.

The ice completely changed its shape.

“When the glaciers came, they brought down with them much, much more material,” Nieter said.

The glacier divided Long Island, with the northern half covered in ice and the southern half virtually untouched. Long Island was a terminal marine, a location where the glacier came to a stop for an extended period of time.

Acting like a bulldozer, the glacier pushed sediment into the middle of the island. It also acted like a conveyor belt, dumping material at its edge, Nieter said.

The end result was a ridge in the middle of the island, which is still visible today. Hillside Avenue sits at the bottom of that ridge with Hillcrest at its top.

At the same time, the glacier also helped deepen areas of low elevation.

“It fills the valleys with ice and basically excavates them as the ice moves forward with them,” Nieter said.

As northern Queens has been developed, many hills and valleys created by the glacier have been destroyed.

But Alley Pond Park as well as other unspoiled areas, such as Cunningham Park, stand as a memorial to the ice.

Its bodies of water, from Cattail Pond to Oakland Lake, were carved by the ice. The effects, however, were not limited to hills and valleys.

The parts of Long Island touched by the glacier have a different soil than what sits on the south shore of the land mass, said Aline Euler, education director of APEC.

“If you look at the north shore, you see much larger trees going,” she said. “That’s because the glacier brought glacier till ... If you look towards the south, the soil is different. It’s more sandy.”

As a result of having the rich soil, Alley Pond has a large array of plant life, Euler said.

“You can see this rich vegetation, tulip trees, oak trees, maple, sweet gum, and sassafras,” Euler said.

The diverse plant life, in turn, attracted many different animal species to the area.

APEC offers tours on the plant and animal life of the park, and sometimes the leader of the walk focuses on the geology of the area, Euler said.

Nieter, however, said Queens residents do not need to take a long tour of the park to get a sense of the glacier’s impact.

“If you are driving eastbound on Northern Boulevard, and you stop for the light just before you get to the Cross Island Parkway, you have this huge expansive valley,” he said. “Those marshes, those right down in the valley, were filled with hundreds if not thousands of feet of ice.”

Euler said her organization strived to make sure such views into the past do not disappear.

“We are always striving to preserve it as it is,” she said. “It is important for future generations to see what it was like here through time.”

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

Posted 7:16 pm, October 10, 2011
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