Thursday, November 8, 2012

Hurricane sweeps US into climate-adaptation debate

A little disclosure -- I served as a consulting editor to the New York City Panel on Climate Change, on which Malcolm Bowman served as a valuable and highly entertaining member. From a piece by Jeff Tollefson in Nature: As Hurricane Sandy drove a 4.2-metre-high wall of salt water into the heart of New York city and the surrounding coast late on the evening of 29 October, scientists and engineers ticked through a nightmare checklist of predicted storm-surge effects that they had been drafting for more than a decade. Catastrophic flooding in low-lying areas? Check. Submerged tunnels and subway lines in lower Manhattan? Check. Damaged electricity substations and widespread power outages? Check.

“All of our predictions came true,” says Malcolm Bowman, who specializes in storm-surge modelling at Stony Brook University in New York. Bowman has argued for building storm-surge barriers around New York for more than a decade. Sandy’s arrival, Bowman says, stands as sad proof that current policies are woefully inadequate.

In a single night, the massive storm dealt a crippling blow to one of the world’s foremost economic and industrial hubs, destroying thousands of homes and leaving millions of people without electricity or reliable access to food, water and petrol. A week later, outlying neighbourhoods were still in crisis. Like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Sandy quickly came to embody the nebulous threat of global warming while reviving discussions about how best to prepare New York and other coastal areas for a future of rising sea levels and a more volatile climate. And a topic largely ignored by both major political parties throughout a long and combative presidential campaign suddenly took centre stage just days before the election.

Sobered by climate scientists’ predictions that a warming atmosphere and rising sea levels are likely to bring large storms to the US east coast with increasing frequency, political leaders in the region raised the alarm about the long-term threat. On 31 October, New York governor Andrew Cuomo called for “fundamental rethinking of our built environment”. A day later, New York city mayor Michael Bloomberg cited the storm as he offered a surprise endorsement of President Barack Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Bloomberg, who had previously expressed disappointment in both candidates, now praised Obama’s efforts to lower carbon emissions with tighter regulations on coal plants and higher fuel-economy standards for vehicles. He also praised Romney’s role in developing a regional cap-and-trade scheme as governor of Massachusetts, but then blasted him for reversing course on climate during his presidential run. “I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics,” Bloomberg wrote....

A pump train struggles to drain a flooded subway tunnel under the East River, shot by Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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