Superstorm Sandy – A Climate Change Reality Check

By Jessie Feller Hahn, Executive Director, Meeting of the Minds

Jessie Feller Hahn is the Executive Director of Meeting of the Minds where she is responsible for identifying global urban sustainability, innovation, technology best practices and thought leadership, developing platforms for city leaders to share lessons learned, and building alliances and partnerships across and within sectors.

Oct 30, 2012 | Announcements | 1 comment


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Superstorm Sandy brought both devastation and a climate change reality check when she hit the Eastern Seaboard last night. Social media feeds, including Twitter and Facebook, are full of climate change discussions, yet climate change has been largely absent from our national dialogue – both in the media and in this year’s Presidential election season.

This point was highlighted today in a Washington Post piece. In it, reporter Brad Plumer writes:

  • [Climate change] didn’t come up once in the three presidential debates. President Obama later said he was “surprised” by the omission, though we’re not aware of any rules that prevented him from bringing up the topic himself.
  • In a major shift from 2008, the Republican party platform no longer even mentions climate change — except to criticize the Pentagon for “elevat[ing] ‘climate change’ to the level of a ‘severe threat’ equivalent to foreign aggression.”
  • Even the Democratic party platform is quieter about global warming than it was last time around, although there’s at least some discussion.

Sandy was not even a hurricane, at least not according to meteorologists. It was, in fact, comprised of three distinct systems coming into contact with one another – one from the Caribbean, a second from the Arctic, and a third from the West. Three air masses colliding at the same time is unprecedented. The energy of the storm was fed by these three jet streams, creating an 800-mile wide storm – the largest one ever recorded. It seems to be so new, in fact, that computer simulations couldn’t quite handle the challenges associated with modeling all three air masses at the same time.

Or, perhaps, said another way: Things have changed.

New reports show a warming of both the Artic and the Caribbean, which fueled Sandy’s surge of the East Coast. Climate scientists have been predicting the increasing frequency of extreme weather and Hurricane Sandy is proof of this. So where is the climate change angle, media?

I wrote an op-ed for the Spotlight after Hurricane Irene hit New York City in October, 2011. In it I called for new strategies to build resiliency into the energy infrastructure of the tri-state region in order to prepare for power outages due to extreme weather events.Safeguarding the country’s coastline against future extreme weather is both a national security and economic competitiveness imperative.

Power outages have an impact beyond being an inconvenience. They directly impact the ability for business to function. A look at the United States’ economic powerhouse – New York City – gives us a snapshot of the economic impact of the storm we might be facing as the weeks unfold. With the Stock Exchange closed for two days, the transit system closed for an undetermined amount of time (possibly days or even weeks), and expected power outages for 3-10 days in some parts of New York City and the tri-state region, the economic impact of the storm will be enormous.

Initial numbers say that New York City’s economic loss could be upwards of $7 billion. National estimates are putting the number between $10-20 billion dollars for the country. We have to consider not only the lost economic revenue from closing the Stock Exchange and businesses, but also the cost to cleanup and rebuild. In addition, there will be the long-term loss for communities like Atlantic City, which depend almost exclusively on tourism dollars.

The seas are rising, storms are worsening, and former worst-case scenarios for rising waters need to be recalculated. For example, ConEdison’s worst-case scenario for the water level at their 14th street substation (which exploded) was 12.6 feet yet the water came in higher than 13.5 feet, far exceeding their top predictions.

The good news is that, as the climate changes, there are measures we can put in place to help our cities change with it.

There are numerous climate adaptation strategies to cope and prepare for storm surges and flooding. Much of Europe, and parts of the United States such as Portland and Seattle, have already implemented many of these strategies. SPUR, a policy and planning organization in the San Francisco Bay Area, wrote a great piece in December 2009 entitled “Strategies for Managing Sea Level Rise” which we can also extrapolate for cases like Superstorm Sandy. I’ve summarized some of the climate adaptation strategies in SPUR’s article which cities and regions can implement and must become a more central part of the national dialogue:

  • Tidal barriers – a large dam, gate or lock that allows for managed flow of water during a storm surge. London has a Thames barrier to protect itself and the Maeslant barrier protects Rotterdam.
  • Coastal armoring – seawalls and bulkheads protect the shore from water and/or enlarging sand dunes. Other examples are offshore beakwaters, double dikes (an interior leveee and a higher exterior levee a few hundred meters apart), and super levees which are so large they can accommodate development on top of it. Japan is building super-levees now.
  • Raising buildings or land – elevating existing land or buildings such as airports, roads and railways that are subject to flooding to the base flood elevation of the area.
  • Floating buildings – houseboats and and other floatable buildings are able to rise and fall with changing tides and sea levels.
  • Floodable developments – buildings are designed to resist damage and water retention areas are built to rainfall and ocean surges. Examples include: rain gardens, trees, constructed wetlands, green roofs, permeable pavement, swales and contoured ground. Large underground parking garages in Europe are built to hold water instead of cars during peak floods.
  • Restoring and rebuilding wetlands – wetlands provide a natural protective barrier that absorb floods and slow the flow of water and storm surges.
  • Relocating development – removing settlement from shorelines so water can flood inland without impacting buildings.

Safeguarding the country’s coastline against future extreme weather is both a national security and economic competitiveness imperative. Federal, state and local government cannot wait any longer in implementing climate adaptation strategies. It is now time to speed up the efforts of this task force and invest in the resources needed to prepare the country for increasing climate threats. The same goes for local and state governments.

It’s time to draw a harder line because Superstorm Sandy may have been just one of many superstorms.

Discussion

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1 Comment

  1. Great summary of the issues and the options. We need to make sure these conversations continue to happen even as the memories of the storm fade. (Un)fortunately, the new normal may just mean another unforgettable storm is not that far away.

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