From Commutes to Corals: Reincarnating New York’s Subway Cars

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David Jones
Retired New York City subway cars are stacked on a barge in preparation for dumping into the Atlantic Ocean, where they will be repurposed on the seafloor as foundations for vibrant new coral reefs.

The secret is out: New York City has been quietly dumping its retired and decrepit subway cars into the ocean for years. But before you accuse the city of gross environmental crimes and large-scale pollution, consider that their unusual method of disposing of the cars actually serves a beneficial ecological purpose, but one not apparent to the eye.

Once settled on the ocean floor, the sunken subway cars are assimilated into the local ecosystem. The bare metal surfaces attract corals, eventually acting as frames and foundations for new coral reefs. Over time, the cars are overtaken by coral growth, creating artificial but substantial reefs. After ten years, the structures are nearly unrecognizable as the cars that once carried millions of New Yorkers, having traded crowds of commuters for schools of fish, with colorful corals bursting forth from the metal seats and hand rails.

At a time when coral reef ecosystems have been greatly threatened and diminished by human activity, these subway car reefs act as restorative hubs, supporting coral regrowth. This method is not unique to New York City; on one occasion, engineers sunk an entire aircraft carrier for the purpose of regenerating a coral reef system.

Photographer Stephen Mallon has captured the intriguing process in a series of pictures taken over the course of three years. His collection slowly brings the viewer from indignation at the sight of apparent mass pollution to awestruck at the realization of the recycled purpose of subway cars, with the culmination of beautiful coral structures. His photos can be viewed at www.stephenmallon.com/photography/next-stop-atlantic.