KSJ Tracker November 13, 2012

Should New York begin building a wall against the sea?

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I'm wondering how long it will be before those of us who ramble (or run) along the Hudson River will lose the dreamy view of the Emerald Cities of New Jersey, to be replaced by megalithic walls of concrete holding back the sea.

Jeff Tollefson has a nice piece in this week's Nature exploring the possibility of a massive engineering project to protect New York from hurricanes "that are demonstrably increasing in power," he reports. He begins with a disturbing accounting of whether the disaster predictions of Malcolm Bowman of Stony Brook University came true with Sandy:

As Hurricane Sandy drove a 4.2-metre-high wall of salt water into the heart of New York city and the surrounding coast late on the evening of 29 October, scientists and engineers ticked through a nightmare checklist of predicted storm-surge effects that they had been drafting for more than a decade. Catastrophic flooding in low-lying areas? Check. Submerged tunnels and subway lines in lower Manhattan? Check. Damaged electricity substations and widespread power outages? Check.

Bowman, Tollefson reports, has argued for more than a decade that it's time for the construction of storm-surge barriers around New York. Sandy proves that "current policies are woefully inadequate." Tollefson does a good job summing up the threat and the efforts under way, by Bowman and others, to encourage New York to take a serious look at adapting to the threats. I don't think anyone is talking about concrete walls along the Hudson, but barriers in New York Harbor and Long Island Sound are increasingly being discussed. While that solution might sound rather straightforward, Tollefson notes that it is expensive, and that such barriers would alter ecosystems and possibly worsen flooding in areas that are not protected. 

At Scientific AmericanDavid Biello has a helpful Q&A with Cynthia Rosenzweig, a climate scientist who was part of a group that looked at New York's risks in 2001, and she was also helped chair the New York City Panel on Climate Change, which updated the science and explored what city agencies would have to do to adapt. Much of the damage that Sandy caused was predicted in the 2001 report, Rosenzweig tells Biello.

A few others published pieces on climate adaptation last week, but serious discussion of storm-surge barriers and other preparations (such as getting generators, and backup generators, out of the basement--an idea I came up with on my own) hasn't risen to the level I would have expected by now. I suspect there are many more stories waiting to be written.

-Paul Raeburn


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