The Sloshy, Scary Future of New York City

Robert Lee Hotz has been writing about science for thirty years for various American newspapers, has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize twice and won it once, and these days works for the Wall Street Journal.

He writes big, thoughtful pieces about cutting-edge science. This is good, but it means he doesn't publish often, so when it does, it's an event. (At least for those of us who care about science reporting and climate change.) So it's worth ten or fifteen minutes of your life to read his latest on climate change and New York City, which comes with a remarkably extensive list of linked sources, graphics, and a video.  The story is called, bluntly, New York Braces for Risk of Higher Seas. Here's the lede:

When major ice sheets thaw, they release enough fresh water to
disrupt ocean currents world-wide and make the planet wobble with the
uneven weight of so much meltwater on the move. Studying these effects
more closely, scientists are discovering local variations in rising sea
levels — and some signs pointing to higher seas around metropolitan
New York.

Sea level may rise faster near New York than at most other densely
populated ports due to local effects of gravity, water density and
ocean currents, according to four new forecasts of melting ice sheets.
The forecasts are the work of international research teams that
included the University of Toronto, the National Center for Atmospheric
Research in Boulder, Colo., Florida State University and the University
of Bristol in the U.K., among others.

So the headlight and the lede are sharp, to the point, and new.

What follows — at least to this outsider — seems to have been hedged, perhaps in the editing. Might the paper have pressured Hotz to keep bringing up the resistance of landlords and city planners to mandating infrastructure change? Because if you read the numbers, it's pretty clear what the writer thinks.

To be fair, this debate — how much of a crisis does NYC face? — is taking place within the city itself. One can see that in this report published by a panel of experts assembled by Mayor Bloomberg, who published a report (New York City Report on Climate Change) that describes in alarming terms what will happen to the climate in New York in the next fifty years. Having done that, the experts then don't bother to say what the city should do about it. So Hotz has company. No one wants to freak out. 

Unfortunately, the facts seemingly do calling for freaking out. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but definitely before buying any property in the city. For instance, Hotz quotes a consulting engineer:

"If you have 20 inches of sea level rise, the edges of lower Manhattan
would flood 20 times a year," says Douglas Hill, a consulting engineer
at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook
University. "It would look like Venice."

Later in the story, Hotz reveals that one of the studies above predicts exactly this scenario:

…melting Greenland glaciers could shift ocean currents enough to make
sea level along New York's 570 miles of shoreline an additional 20
inches higher than seas elsewhere. "It will cause the sea level along
the coastal region of the Northeast U.S. to rise faster," says climate
modeler Aixue Hu at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in
Boulder, Colo.

And, entirely separately, the aforementioned NYC panel on climate change estimates that under a slow-but-steady sea level rise scenario, as we have witnessed over the past century, the SLR by 2050 would be in the range of 7-12 inches. So NYC would look like a shallower Venice, but still — Venice.

New Yorkers are notoriously resistant to panic. Which is generally admirable. After all, the city has been around for hundreds of years…but this century, panic may actually be the rational response.

Below is a graphic from the NYC panel on climate change, charting the slow but steady sea level rise at the Battery. For a more dramatic rendering, take a look at this graphic/webcast from Pew Charitable Trusts, visualizing what NYC will look like when hit by a storm surge driven by a Category II hurricane. 

The webcast has everything you would expect from a full-on disaster movie except the toppling buildings, the people running panicked through the flooding streets, and the screaming…

SLR in the Battery, according to NYC Panel 

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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