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Global Warming

Bobbing in the Big Apple

Global warming could flood New York City’s tunnels and swamp its streets. What’s the official reaction? "Fuhgeddaboudit."

by Ingrid Eisenstadter

We Manhattanites occupy the most important piece of real estate in the world. This entitles us to look down on tourists. People from out of town are dismissed as "BNTs"–bridge and tunnel users–and that desolate expanse between here and Hollywood as "fly-over states."

Alas, we may have fewer tourists to make fun of in the future, and the BNTs that do show up may be arriving by boat. Like many other coastal cities around the world, New York is at risk from global warming. The Big Apple lies at sea level, and the sea is rising, increasing the risk of storm surges pouring into the city. Flooding would quickly knock out transportation, threaten drinking-water and sewage systems, airports, food delivery, power–everything. If the precipitation were intense enough, water would back up through street drains and cause flooding deep inside the city, even on high ground. If we remain as unprepared as we are now, New York, New York, really will be a hell of a town.

Changing sea levels are nothing new. The seas have been generally rising for about 20,000 years, since the height of the last major ice age. In the recent past the ocean has been reaching up for Gotham at a rate higher than global averages, almost a foot a century. This is because of the continuing continental readjustment to the end of the Ice Age: Released from the weight of a mile-thick ice cap, Canada is rising, while the East Coast of the United States is sinking.

But global warming is speeding that advancing waterline. The Metropolitan East Coast Assessment, a study by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, estimates on the high side that the sea around New York City could rise as much as two feet by midcentury, and up to three and a half feet by 2080.

These are, however, worst-case scenarios. The huge number of variables governing climate change–almost all of them poorly understood–make accurate prediction impossible. "The bottom line," says Tony Barnston, head of forecast operations at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, "is that in day-to-day weather predictions we are pretty good. In very long range climate change, we are in the realm of speculation."

We do know, however, that increasing temperatures are causing glaciers to melt, and the upper layers of the ocean to heat and expand. Global warming also brings unpredictable shifts in familiar weather patterns. Last year, Maryland, Delaware, and the Southwest had their hottest summers on record, Louisiana its wettest autumn, and the western United States its most severe wildfire season. Drought left New York City with drinking water in short supply. We may have to get used to such droughts, because global warming will likely bring them on more frequently.

For all the noise it makes in the world, New York City is just four little islands and a bit of mainland laced together by 80 bridges and tunnels–the entries to many of which are barely above sea level, if at all. Their inundation would reinforce our famous insularity in a hurry. Even if storms are no more frequent or intense than they are today, flooding could increase simply because the sea will be higher.

A possible taste of the future arrived in the form of a nor’easter that struck during the full moon in December 1992. Winds lifted the high tides nine feet above normal peak levels at the Battery, the southernmost tip of Manhattan, and floodwaters surged onto highways and streets. The entire city was paralyzed, disrupting the lives of the 21 million people who live in the tristate metro area–about 7 percent of the U.S. population. Downtown, Battery Park Tunnel filled with six feet of water.

Uptown, drivers were left standing on the hoods of their submerged cars as the East River stormed its barricades. The Hudson River swamped westside parkways, where motorists whose cars were bobbing in the floodwaters had to be rescued by police officers on rafts. As for the trains and subways, fuhgeddit–passengers had to be guided from flooded tunnels, and parts of the system remained down for a week. It was the worst storm in 40 years.

That record may not last long. Klaus Jacob is an engineer who works on the infrastructure implications of global warming at the Earth Institute. Today, he says, it would take a 50-year storm with an eight-foot surge to flood the Holland Tunnel, which connects New York to New Jersey. By the year 2100, the Holland Tunnel could be flooded under the "best case" sea-level-rise scenarios by a 25-year storm; in the worst case (and if the Port Authority doesn’t make any changes to the entrance levels), every 5 years.

Clearly, planning for the inevitability of rising seas and changing weather patterns requires extraordinary financial and political commitment, foresight, cooperation, and brain power. The City will need to elevate its bulkheads (retaining walls, backed by landfill, that anchor the shoreline), raise low-lying highways and streets, increase pumping capacity in the subways, elevate bridge and tunnel entrances, and maybe plant a couple floodgates here and there.

So, are city managers huddled in frequent, well-planned conferences of all relevant city agencies, in concert with academic experts and appropriate federal agencies, to analyze probabilities and make plans for the future?

Not so’s you’d notice. There’s no way of knowing what the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is doing because they did not return calls. At least that’s better than City Planning, where no one answers the phone at all, and callers are left to voice-mail hell. The mayor’s office, Parks and Recreation Department, and Landmarks Preservation Commission all say to call the Department of Environmental Protection to get information about the city’s global-warming plans, but the DEP seems to be mostly worried about whether toilets will continue to flush in the future. "I can say the department’s 14 wastewater-treatment plants are all at sea level and were built many years ago, and we are looking at the future of the infrastructure and taking into account global warming," said a spokesperson. "As far as anything specific, I have nothing to add. Our commissioner has told us to think about it. I have no other information. I have nothing else to add. I have to go."

By contrast, Wall Street is a beehive of activity, buying and selling weather bonds, precipitation collars, and degree-day swaps, all hedging positions businesses can use to insure themselves against an ugly weather future. These imaginative products were invented in no small part by–would you believe?–Enron.

The same rising tides, of course, lap at all shores. According to Jim Titus, project manager for sea-level rise at the EPA, "Manhattan’s problems are trivial compared to the consequences for low cities like New Orleans, Charleston, and Miami." Yet given their voter clout, when disaster strikes these coastal cities, money will inevitably surge in along with the seawater. Titus says he worries more about the one-third of the nation’s coastal wetlands and two-thirds of the estuarine beaches that are at risk from global warming. Without major federal policy changes, they may be doomed to abandonment.

But back here in the bobbing Apple, if we don’t get with it soon, Wall Street could end up looking like Venice’s Piazza San Marco; even the BBQs (people from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens) won’t be able to get into town; and those dockside condos won’t seem like such a smart investment anymore.

On the upside, the seafood in Chinatown will be even fresher.


Ingrid Eisenstadter lives in Manhattan. She was the author of "Abbey’s Picnic" in the September/October 2002 Sierra

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