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Sandy Was New York Climate Adaptation Wake-Up Call: What Can Be Done?

Thames River flood barrier

As Superstorm Sandy ripped through the East Coast, scientists and engineers watched their prediction checklist come to fruition as water poured into New York City, causing nearly the exact effects they have been warning about for more than 10 years.

Serious flooding, damaged electricity substations, power outages, and submerged tunnels and subway systems are just a few of the predictions scientists had for New York City if significant changes were not made to prepare for rising sea levels and the effects of climate change.

Malcolm Bowman, a storm-surge modelling specialist at Stony Brook University in New York has been in favor of building storm-surge barriers around the city for more than a decade. He said the arrival of Sandy is proof that the current policies are “woefully inadequate.”

Two studies, published this year in the journal Nature, suggest that warming due to an increase in melting ice in the Arctic Ocean could alter regional air circulation, causing an inconsistent jet stream that would increase the likelihood of extreme weather events. This is still a controversial idea, but some scientists are wondering whether this could lead to an increase in hurricanes as severe as Sandy and Irene.

Another study published in February says that New York is at risk for large storm surge events during years that are considerably warmer than average. By 2100, intense storms and rising sea levels could cause regular flooding in the city.

Sandy has added a new level of urgency to discussions of how to adapt and prepare, including sea barriers or dykes, such as those used in London, the Netherlands, and Russia. These barriers would have caused “no significant damage” if they had been put in place prior to Sandy.

Bowman’s ideal system would include an 8-kilometer barrier about 6 meters high that would open and close at the entrance of New York’s harbor. A second barrier would go up at the entrance to Long Island Sound. This would cost about $15 billion. Sandy caused damage estimated at $30 to $50 billion.

New York has already made some small changes, such as moving electrical equipment out of basements and adopting urban seashore designs that can handle more flooding, but these measures were obviously not enough during Sandy. What scientists do know is that the government needs to start listening to research and making significant changes. Even if another storm doesn’t come around for quite some time, there may be no such thing as too much preparation for climate change.

Image CC licensed by Metro Centric: River Thames flood barrier, London

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