New Yorkers should prepare for heat waves, floods, and natural disasters.
Illustration by Corey Brickley
This story is part of VICE's ongoing look at how climate change will have changed the world by the year 2050. Read more about the project here.
Climate change will come to New York the same way water boils around one of those mythical frogs. The city will be the same old New York in 2050; people won't be frying eggs on the manhole covers in the summer, or riding gondolas around Times Square. But by then winter will have fewer than 50 days of freezing cold, instead of the average of 72 that was the norm in the late 20th century. There will be less shivering agony on train platforms, plus less salting and shoveling. But the summers will be harsher—half a dozen heat waves instead of the usual two, and those heat waves will be even longer and more sweltering than usual; there will be twice as many plus-90-degree days as there once were. In 2006, a brutal summer led to 140 people dying of heat-related causes; it's safe to say that that sort of death toll will be routine by 2050.
All of that is according to the estimates in the 2013 Climate Risk Information report from the New York City Panel on Climate Change (I'm using that report's low or median estimates). As one of America's wealthiest and most liberal big cities—where even some prominent Republicans are staunch climate hawks—it's not surprising that New York would commission a report like that, or take other steps toward fighting the effects of climate change. But even with all the resources of the five boroughs, that's a tall order.
Maybe more serious than the general problem of rising temperature is the increase in what would currently call "freak" events. According to Ben Horton, who researches sea level and environmental change at Rutgers University, New York might face more major storms, but it will almost certainly have to deal with floods. "Different models show different trends," he said, pointing out that hurricane-force wind speeds and and increases thunderstorms are tough to estimate, but "we're locked in on sea level rise," he told me.
That means those scary photoshopped images of New York with flooded streets are real. Over the next 33 years, New York will either be reshaped by flooding, or repeatedly brought to its knees by flooding.
What New Yorkers urgently need to understand, according to Horton, is that "rates of sea level rise in New York are greater than the global average." For one thing, New York happens to be sinking for mostly unrelated geological reasons; for another, said Horton, "gravitational attraction between water and large ice sheets" means that "what's happening thousands of kilometers away, in Antarctica will have the greatest impact along the Atlantic seaboard."
When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, it killed 52 New Yorkers, devastated the Sandy Point neighborhood of Queens, flooded the region's coastal areas, and brought widespread power outages—a once-in-a-lifetime weather event. But those sorts of disasters are going to be increasingly common by 2050. "A 2.25-meter flood prior to the 1850s occurred once every 500 years," Horton told me. For most of history, New Yorkers could live their whole lives without seeing that kind of flooding, but those days are over. "The change in that event will decrease to one in five years by 2050."
When the ocean starts to encroach, will the city protect its residents? Not as much as you might think.
"By 2050, there won't be that many barriers in place," said Karen O'Neill, a Rutgers sociologist who studies land and water policy. "It's not very far from now. It takes a long time to build these things, and where the heck does the money come from?"
New York City is trying to adapt to the realities of flooding. For instance, the city plans to spend $2.5 billion over two decades on "green infrastructure"—meaning the creation of permeable surfaces like patches of grass and green roofs that absorb rain, as opposed to sidewalks and roads that (obviously) don't. But that plan would only ease one inch of flooding on 10 percent of the city's non-permeable surfaces, according to a report by WNYC. Also, new residential buildings in New York City are now legally required to be built with up to two feet of "freeboard" that places them two feet above flood level, the same principle that results in those houses on stilts you see elsewhere in the country.
Unavoidably, some New Yorkers will drown as a result of climate change, and others will be have their belongings destroyed by flooding, because some parts of the New York metro area simply will not be ready to handle the rising water. "What happens after storms is that people actually pretty quickly discount the event—by that I mean about five years or so—in terms of if influencing their behavior," O'Neill told me. Specifically, she explained, developers don't do things like reconsider the wisdom of building on land in a flood-prone area like the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens.
John Weber, mid-Atlantic regional manager of the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit working to protect coastal areas, said narrow stretches of land like the Rockaways "get pinched on both sides," meaning the smart thing to do is "figure out where it's safe—what's not going to be underwater—and build more densely there." But while it's s good time to think this way currently, it takes a crisis to actually make cities rethink their urban planning, and "nobody makes good decisions in a crisis."
O'Neill said places like the Rockaways are vulnerable because "there's a lot of exposed public housing." And flood areas might be covered with even more public housing in 33 years. "It's low-value land. It's just sitting there," she told me.
If sea level rise brings flooding comparable to Sandy to New York's public housing projects in 2050, we can expect these buildings to be hit in much the same way as it did in 2012—when in some buildings there were no lights for weeks, people used their stoves for warmth, and plumbing completely failed, forcing residents to drink and bathe in fire hydrant water.
But there's also good news, O'Neill said: "No matter what happens, lower Manhattan will be protected." Plans like the $100 million barriers that have been in the works since 2015 will keep the island relatively dry. But she noted that the barriers will strand some businesses on the wet side. "Whenever you draw a line, someone's on the inside, and someone's out. So we're looking at the creation of winners and losers here," O'Neill said.
"Let's be honest about it. None of us really ultimately wins, but some are going to lose worse than others," she added.Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.
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