New York City is Sinking, and No One Knows What to Do
New York City was proactive on tackling climate change risks long before Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc across the boroughs in autumn 2012. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his successor, Bill De Blasio, have shown leadership on climate change resilience that inspired other cities to launch similar long-term plans.
Nevertheless, the evidence suggests the city will become more submerged as this century progresses, and city leaders and citizens are still unprepared for this eventuality.
Part of the challenge is that New York City is at the convergence of where geology meets climate change reality. Over the past couple of years, more studies were released suggesting that the Antarctic ice is melting faster than scientists had previously thought. Meanwhile, much of the eastern seaboard is slowly sinking, due to natural subsidence. New Yorkers (at least the wealthy ones) have a predilection for living along the waterfront in Manhattan, Brooklyn and even Queens. And the result is that massive investments and planning are needed if the Big Apple is to avoid becoming a Big Atlantis.
Human behavior is another barrier to long term planning. Anyone who has ever had to spend money on their house for a retaining wall or a more secure foundation can relate: no one wants to shell out copious amounts of cash on something that you either cannot see or just sits there and “does nothing.” Whatever the plans may be – massive sea walls, expensive water pumping systems, requiring future homes and office buildings to be built on stilts – citizens do not want to pay for them and politicians are loathe to suggest them.
The same goes for the real estate industry. Even Zillow, the popular app that allows users to gauge real estate values, has warned that up to $1 trillion in property losses by the end of this century will be caused by sea level rise. But developers, banks and city permit offices are generally not thinking about the years 2099 or 2100. And even if problems related to climate change start mounting in 2050, that is still 35 years away. As long as those 30-year mortgages for those riverfront condos can be sold, builders can wipe their hands clean and are absolved of any future problems.
Hence, New York City, and other cities worldwide, are picking their battles. And they are not bad ideas. Home rebuilding programs that make homes more climate-change ready are one tool in this kit. Architectural features such as green roofs or even designs that are more energy-efficient, or even net-zero, are an option. Wetlands restoration, berms comprising a planned “dry-line” and oyster beds are ideas that have gained traction over time. But to some observers, these are akin to taking a few pocketknives into an AK-47 fight.
One of the voices urging New York City to take more aggressive action is Klaus Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. His views are dystopian to some, visionary to others, but the fact is that if future sea level rise projections hold, we can peg him as a realist. Recently profiled in New York Magazine, he has long been a thorn in the side of city planners, warning the city that it needs bolder climate change defenses. In 2008, he led a study that warned the city’s labyrinth subway system could be flooded after an extreme weather event such as a hurricane. The 48-page report also suggested that the city find a way to transition away from underground transport, because of both the flooding threat and that the demands for pumping and air conditioning make them more energy intensive. The report mostly fell on deaf ears, but after Hurricane Sandy, Jacob was praised by many as a Nostradamus.
Jacob, whose home was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, is quick to challenge the short-term thinking of his city’s leaders and citizens. His constant argument is that all the massive sea walls and the oyster beds planned will not be enough to preserve the New York City that residents have known for over 400 years.
Tough choices need to be made. When it comes to future development, Jacob has pointed out that the highest points in the city are often the location of cemeteries. And his reality for a 22nd century NYC is one of canals, like a modern Venice. “New York needs to make, at least in current and future flood-prone areas, its infrastructure submersible,” he wrote.
Critical building systems need to be moved to higher floors, and skyscrapers need to be connected with elevated walkways currently seen in cold weather cities such as Calgary and Minneapolis. The water taxis that are currently the playthings of tourists will eventually become the preferred mode of transport if businesses, and residential communities, are going to survive. Otherwise, New York City could be a future Kiribati, as in the South Pacific island nation that is already planning to relocate many of its citizens to avoid rising seas.