- The Energy Mix - https://www.theenergymix.com -

Will the Big Apple Survive the Great Big Sea?

David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons
David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons

Located on land that is sinking, and on an ocean that is rising, there are questions about whether New York City can adapt to the worst effects of climate change, Rolling Stone writes in a detailed examination of the city’s future.

“The New York metropolitan area is responsible for almost 10% of the U.S. gross domestic product,” the paper observes, “and is the largest financial hub in the world.” But much of it is also less than a metre above today’s sea level. Large parts of lower Manhattan and other boroughs are built on landfill.

The megalopolis that some might see as the “heart of the developed world” also sits at the mouth of a large river, and on the receiving end of fierce winter storms, where land and see are shifting at twice the global average. So even though city, state, and federal governments have spent US$60 billion rebuilding since Hurricane Sandy flooded more than 88,000 buildings and killed 44 people in 2012, “the city’s infrastructure is still hugely vulnerable.”

Forecasts suggest that the water in New York Harbor could rise by a third of a metre by 2030, and by six times as much by the end of the century. Even at the lower estimate, Rolling Stone writes, “71,500 buildings worth more than $100 billion stand in high-risk flood zones, with thousands more at risk with each foot of sea-level rise. Even with a foot or two of rise, streets will become impassable at high tide, snarling traffic.

“In addition, New York has a lot of industrial waterfront, where toxic materials and poor communities live in close proximity, as well as a huge amount of underground infrastructure—subways, tunnels, electrical systems. The cost of flood insurance will skyrocket, causing home prices in risky neighbourhoods to decline. People with money will begin moving to higher ground, leaving the poor behind in polluted swamps of abandoned buildings along the waterfront.”

Earlier this year, a study in the journal Nature Climate Change forecast that rising oceans could displace more than 13 million people in the United States by 2100, incurring US$14 trillion in relocation costs.

Next year, New York hopes to break ground on a US$3 billion steel, concrete, and earth berm that will eventually loop around the bottom end of Manhattan Island to protect the city’s most valuable real estate: its financial district. Other seawall enhancements are planned elsewhere in the five boroughs, but experts say it will be nearly impossible to shelter the city’s entire 837-kilometre coastline from the rising ocean.

“The problem for New York is, climate science is getting better and better, and storm intensity and sea level rise projections are getting more and more alarming,” said Chris Ward, former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which manages airports, tunnels, and other climate-vulnerable infrastructure. “It fundamentally calls into question New York’s existence. The water is coming, and the long-term implications are gigantic.”

On the other hand, “New York City is the heart of the developed world,” countered Henk Ovink, a Dutch water envoy who helped New York rebuild after Sandy. “If it does things right, it can radiate inspiration to other places.”