With Hurricane Sandy, Climate Change Is Back on the Agenda

President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney didn’t discuss climate change once during the three presidential debates. However, Hurricane Sandy, with the immense loss of life and $50 billion in damages it caused, seemed to once again raise the specter of climate change, at least for Americans. With the storm and Mayor Bloomberg’s last-minute endorsement of President Obama — largely because he felt Obama would better address climate change — the issue was put back on the national agenda. In fact, the deadly storm, along with Bloomberg’s endorsement, seemed to single handedly raise the profile of the climate, at least in political circles, after it had taken a back-seat for many years.

Following Bloomberg, Governor Cuomo then quickly made the following statement: “climate change is a reality. Given the frequency of these extreme weather situations we have had, for us to sit here today and say this is once in a generation and it’s not going to happen again, I think would be shortsighted.” Then, just a few days ago, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid also noted that Americans want Congress to focus on climate change legislation again.

So, did climate change actually contribute to the ferocity of Hurricane Sandy? According to The New York Times‘ well-respected Green blog, climate scientists won’t know exactly if that’s the case for a few months, but initial signs point to yes. Interviewing a few leading climate scientists, the blog writes: “A likely contributor to the intensity of Sandy, they said, was that surface temperatures in the western Atlantic Ocean were remarkably high just ahead of the storm — in places, about five degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal for this time of year. In fact, part of the ocean was warmer than it would normally be in September, when accumulated summer heat tends to peak.”

The Atlantic came out with an even bolder statement, arguing that “there’s no question that climate change made Sandy stronger.” This is because climate change has led to rising sea levels, so even more damaging waves when the ocean hit the land. They write: “According to sea level expert Ben Strauss of Climate Central, the sea level in the New York harbor today is 15 inches higher than it was in 1880. Now, to be sure, not all of that is due global warming—land has also been subsiding. Strauss estimates that climate change—which causes sea level rise both through the melting of land-based ice, and through thermal expansion of warm ocean water—is responsible for just over half, or eight inches, of the total.” Still, those 8 inches caused a lot more damage.

With the incredible destruction in New Jersey and New York, talk is now heating up about how to invest billions to make cities and coastal communities climate resilient and protect them from future storms. The innovative ideas of Dland studio to create wetlands around the city and landscape architect Kate Orff, ASLA, SCAPE, to mitigate storms with man-made oyster reefs were even just featured in a cover story in The New York Times, while the case for using green infrastructure to deal with heavy rain has now gotten more attention thanks to Kaid Benfield’s excellent piece. However, will policymakers now see the value of putting natural systems in place to address flooding and storm risks, or will New York City and others invest in expensive, “hard” infrastructure like sea walls that often fail to do the job of protecting people and property?

A 2009 report by the Army Corps of Engineer and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey looked at the feasibility of recreating 18,000 acres of tidal wetlands “on the margins of the islands and the coastline, [which] act like sponges, slowing and baffling tidal forces,” to replace the massive sea walls, which had actually taken the place of the original 300,000-acre wetlands in the outer boroughs of New York City. The problem the engineers were looking at: sea walls don’t actually function that well when protecting areas below sea level (see New Orleans and Katrina). The original perceived benefit of the sea walls was that they would enable more land to be developed closer to the water.

A proposal by Dland Studio and Architecture Research Office would put a set of wetlands around lower Manhattan and we would hope all the other boroughs. The New York Times writes: “To prevent incursions by water, Mr. Cassell and his planners imagined ringing Lower Manhattan with a grassy network of land-based parks accompanied by watery patches of wetlands and tidal salt marshes. At Battery Park, for instance, the marshes would weave through a series of breakwater islands made of geo-textile tubes and covered with marine plantings. On the Lower East Side of the island, Mr. Cassell and his team envisioned extending Manhattan by a block or two — with additional landfill — to create space for another new park and a salt marsh.” A complementary set of green streets would also boost absorptive capacity within the city.

Another exciting proposal by Orff would use oysters to create decentralized storm mitigation infrastructure in the low-lying Buttermilk Channel and Gowanus Bay that swelled and severely flooded some neighborhoods during the storm. Orff’s argument is that “the era of big infrastructure is over” and needs to be neighborhood-centric and actually embedded into daily life. The New York Times writes: “Ms. Orff’s proposal […] envisions a system of artificial reefs in the channel and the bay built out of rocks, shells and fuzzy rope that is intended to nurture the growth of oysters (she calls them ‘nature’s wave attenuators’).” The reefs would also help clean the water: each oyster purifies an amazing 50 gallons of water a day. Students at a local NYC school have also picked up on the oysters idea and area doing their own experiments to see how they would work.

Any of the nature-based solutions outlined seem as worthy of future study as multibillion dollar sea walls. New York City and other communities may even be able to leverage existing green infrastructure programs, ramping them up to deal with heavier water flow, while becoming more resilient across the board. All that added green space would improve other critical environment, social, and health outcomes.

In a New York Daily News op-ed, noted writer on cities Richard Florida, argues that resiliency needs to be built into all systems in New York City, New Jersey, and elsewhere by decentralizing and naturalizing infrastructure. To protect themselves from extreme weather events, New York City “must bolster its resiliency by creating a less centralized power grid with more built-in redundancy, passing regulations that discourage development on floodplains and encourage the restoration of barrier islands and wetlands that can buffer surges and developing technology that facilitates crowdsourcing of critical information.”

The New York Times recently hosted a comprehensive online debate on whether New York City should really invest the billions needed to build sea walls like London has. Apparently, Mayor Bloomberg argues that the investment will not be worth it, as it will not protect the whole city, while Governor Cuomo is pushing for a sea wall-based solution. What’s important is that all areas of NYC, rich and poor, benefit equally from any protection measures. Beyond New York City, smaller coastal cities like Atlantic City, which got hit very hard, must also invest in climate adaptation measures that benefit all in the community.

Hopefully, landscape architects will be part of the ongoing debate about how to adapt in a socially-sustainable manner and develop the out-of-the-box solutions that may prove to be the most sensible.

To learn more about how green and other “soft” natural infrastructure could work, check out ASLA’s animation, Leveraging the Landscape to Manage Water, and resource guides on green infrastructure and climate change adaptation.

Image credit: Dland Studio and Architecture Research Office

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