Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call for New York City: flooded subways, loss of power, and dozens of drownings in low-lying Staten Island.
But after the wake-up call, has the city rolled over and gone back to sleep? New York magazine's Andrew Rice took an extended look at the city's soggy future in a long article on September 7th (see: "This is New York in the not-so-distant future," by Andrew Rice). As author Rice notes, there's some uncertainty about how fast, and how far, sea level will rise where the Atlantic Ocean laps against the New York waterfront. But there's no ambiguity about the direction of the change: The water will be rising. New Yorkers, however, are having trouble wrapping their heads around that fact.
"The deluge will begin slowly, and irregularly, and so it will confound human perceptions of change," the magazine reported. "Areas that never had flash floods will start to experience them, in part because global warming will also increase precipitation. High tides will spill over old bulkheads when there is a full moon. People will start carrying galoshes to work. All the commercial skyscrapers, housing, cultural institutions that currently sit near the waterline will be forced to contend with routine inundation. And cataclysmic floods will become more common, because, to put it simply, if the baseline water level is higher, every storm surge will be that much stronger."
Columbia University scientist Klaus Jacob has been warning about rising water for years, dating back to long before Sandy struck the city. But even Jacob, New York magazine reported, chose to live in a house at risk of storm surge flood. His wife loved the house, Jacob explained to writer Andrew Rice: "I tried to convince her as a scientist, but I'm married to her." In Sandy, sure enough, Jacob's house flooded—although only a little bit. "My wife was sitting on the stairs, watching the water coming under the door and up through the floorboards,” Jacob told Rice. “I was sleeping, because I knew within half a foot where the water would go.”
Long run, rising waters will likely cover large chunks of the city—in the extreme scenarios, most of all of it. But in the short run—that is, on the scale of 30, 40, or 50 years — there is still money to be made, and city property remains astronomically valuable. "And so," writes Rice, "billions in private and public money are being spent to develop more housing that will move more New Yorkers into places that may not withstand the next Sandy. The short-term incentives create situations like the one now happening around the polluted Gowanus Canal, where local bloggers recently posted pictures of high tides swelling disconcertingly close to a new 700-unit apartment complex offering two-bedroom rental units for $7,000 a month. If the buildings generate that kind of money for 30 years, maybe the owners don’t care if the complex doesn’t make it to 40."
(Note: for an earlier overview of New York's and the nation's response to rising seas, see: "Can Cities Adjust to a Retreating Coastline?" by Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times 8/22/13.)