New York Launches Survival Strategy For Climate Change

August 18, 2008

Much of New York City’s waterfront is projected to be vulnerable to flooding in coming decades.

CREDIT: Courtesy NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection

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Task Force, Advised by Columbia Scientists, Will Draw Plans to Battle Rising Seas, Strains on Water and Electricity

New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has launched a Climate Change Adaptation Task Force aimed at securing the city’s critical infrastructure against rising seas, higher temperatures and fluctuating water supplies water supplies projected to result from climate change. Researchers at Columbia University’s Earth Institute will play key roles in a new scientific panel advising the effort.

The task force, part of PlaNYC, the city’s long-term sustainability plan, is composed of city and state agencies, public authorities and companies that operate the roads, bridges, tunnels, mass transit, and the water, sewer, energy and telecommunications systems--all of them thought to be vulnerable. It will be one of the world’s first, and most comprehensive, such efforts.

“We face two urgent challenges,” said Bloomberg. “First, we have to shrink our carbon footprint to slow climate change. Second, we have to adapt to the environmental changes already beginning to take place.” For instance, said Bloomberg, some structures such as backup generators will have to be raised or moved to higher ground to avoid flooding. “Changes in the way we maintain and operate our infrastructure can also help secure our city,” he said.

To guide the effort, Bloomberg has formed the New York City Panel on Climate Change, modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Cynthia Rosenzweig , a coauthor of the IPCC’s globally influential 2007 report and a researcher at the Earth Institute’s Center for Climate Systems Research (CCSR) will act as the panel’s chief research scientist and co-chair. “Experts at the Earth Institute are pleased to offer scientific and technical expertise to assist the city of New York with its climate adaptation plans,” said Rosenzweig. “It is our hope that cities in the United States and around the world will use New York City’s planning process as a model to respond effectively to climate-change challenges.” Others on the panel include CCSR scientist Vivien Gornitz and Klaus Jacob , a seismologist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory . The panel is co-chaired by William Solecki of Hunter College.

This May, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which manages the water and sewer systems, issued an assessment and action plan on climate threats coauthored by Rosenzweig and others at CCSR. The report projects that by 2080, New York and its watershed will likely see a 7.5 to 8-degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature and sea-level rise of about a foot and half; in addition, precipitation increases of up to 10% may come in the form of more frequent and intense rainstorms. The volatile weather and rising waters could bring storm surges that periodically put roads, tunnels, sewage systems and subways underwater. Rising temperatures could intensify the severity of droughts and heat waves, straining the water supply and, in hot weather, overloading the electrical grid and causing heat-related health problems. The report says some changes are already underway; between 1900 and 2005, temperatures went up by about 1.9 degrees, and sea level by a foot. Some agencies are already thinking about taking action, such as building berms around low-lying tunnel entrances, and developing a more flexible energy distribution infrastructure.

The task force plans to build on the Department of Environmental Protection initiative. The advisory panel will supply it with further climate-change projections; help it identify at-risk infrastructure; develop adaptation strategies and draft guidelines for design of new structures. It will also issue one or more reports on the ongoing regional effects of climate change, similar to the IPCC’s landmark 2007 report on global effects.

The initial work of the new advisory panel is funded by a $350,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, as part of a $70 million commitment to strengthen global resilience to climate change.