New York City Could Face Damaging Floods ‘Every Five Years’ in a Warmer Climate
By Daisy Dunne
Floods that reach more than 2.25 meters (approximately 7.4 feet) in height—enough to inundate the first story of a building—could dramatically increase in frequency as a result of future sea level rise and bigger storm surges, the study suggests. Such severe floods would be expected only around once in every 25 years from 1970 to 2005.
The findings make it clear that "[flood] adaptation measures are critical to protect lives and infrastructure in a changing climate," the lead author told Carbon Brief.
Like many coastal cities in the U.S., New York is vulnerable to flooding driven by storm surges from tropical cyclones, as well as sea level rise. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy overwhelmed the city with floodwater, killing 43 people and causing close to $50 billion in damages.
Storm surges occur when a storm weather system moves from the sea to the land. As the weather system moves over the sea surface, its low pressure center pulls up the surface of the water. Then, as the storm blows towards land, wind pushes the sea towards the coast, hitting the shore with large waves.
The height of these waves is dependent on the underlying sea level, the tide, and the size of the tropical cyclone. As sea levels rise, a storm surge has more chance of breaching coastal flood defenses.
During Hurricane Sandy, the combined impact of the storm surge and a high tide saw sea levels reach a record height of 3.44 meters (approximately 11.3 feet).
Flooded Battery Park Tunnel after Hurricane SandyTimothy Krause / Flickr
To understand how climate change could affect the future risk of coastal flooding in New York, researchers used models to simulate the behavior of future tropical storms, as well as sea level rise in its surrounding waters.
Using a collection of global climate models,, the researchers gathered information about factors that impact the behavior of tropical storms. These factors include air temperature, humidity, sea surface temperature and wind speed.
The researchers used this information to create "synthetic storms," or the storms that are likely to exist in a warmer climate, explained Dr. Andra Garner, a scientist from Rutgers University in New Jersey and lead author of the new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She told Carbon Brief:
"Using this information, we can generate a set of storms whose behavior is consistent with a range of different climates. Each of these storms has their own unique set of characteristics, such as wind speed and pressure field."
The researchers then used a storm surge model (known as ADCIRC) to generate the expected surge that each synthetic storm could create at The Battery, a public park located at the southern tip of Manhattan Island.
The results suggest that storms are likely to become larger and more powerful in the coming decades. (Carbon Brief has previously explored the link between climate change and tropical storms.)
However, a rise in storm intensity may not necessarily affect the size of storm surges, said Garner. This is because changes in ocean conditions in a warmer climate could cause tropical storms to shift eastwards, away from New York City. She said:
"As we move from the modern time period into the future, we find that storms tend to become more intense, while simultaneously shifting somewhat eastward, away from New York City. The increase in storm intensity is compensated by the shift in storm tracks. That is, changing storm surge heights alone do not have a great impact on increasing the future flood risk for the city."
Sea level rise
However, sea level rise is likely to affect the size of future storm surges, the results suggest. Gardner said:
"The bad news is that when sea level rise is added into the picture, it becomes clear that overall flood heights will become drastically worse in New York City in coming years."
The chart below shows projected sea level rise in New York from 2010 to 2300. Yellow shows projected sea level rise under an intermediate emissions scenario (RCP4.5), while orange shows projected sea level rise under a high emissions scenario where global greenhouse gas emissions aren't curbed (RCP8.5).
In addition, the researchers used existing scenarios that considered the potential impact of changes to the Antarctic ice sheet (AIS) (red, maroon).
The latest assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated the contribution of the AIS to sea level rise could be -8 to 15cm under RCP8.5 by 2100 (pdf).
However, the authors of the new study noted that recent research using "a coupled ice sheet and climate dynamics model that includes marine ice sheet instability, ice shelf hydrofracturing, and marine ice-cliff collapse mechanisms suggests that the AIS could contribute more than 1m by 2100, and more than 10m by 2300, under RCP8.5."
Although there is "deep uncertainty" around the contributions of the Antarctic ice sheet to sea level rise, the authors wrote, "the potential for large contributions should not be neglected in risk assessments."
Projected sea level rise in New York City from 2010 to 2300. Yellow shows projected sea level rise under an intermediate emissions scenario (RCP4.5), while orange shows projected sea level rise under a high emissions scenario (RCP8.5).Garner et al. (2017)
The results suggest that, under the high emissions scenario, sea levels close to New York are likely to rise by 0.55 to 1.4 meters (approximately 1.8 to 4.6 feet) between 2010 and 2100. If the possible effects of Antarctic ice melt are considered, sea levels could rise by 0.88 to 2.5 meters (approximately 2.9 to 8.2 feet) by 2100.
The researchers combined their measurements of projected sea level rise and projected storm surge heights in order to estimate the total height of floods in New York in the coming decades.
The results showed that flood heights in New York from 2080 to 2100 could be 1.4 meters (approximately 4.6 feet) above the average flood heights witnessed from 1970 to 2005, when an average is taken from all the scenarios of future sea level rise.
And serious floods, which exceed more than 2.25 meters (approximately 7.4 feet) in height, could dramatically increase in frequency over the coming decades, Garner explained:
"When rising sea-levels combine with storm surge heights, flooding becomes much worse over time. For example, a 2.25 meter flood height, which occurred on average once every 500 years before 1800 in our work, and occurred once every 25 years on average from 1970 to 2005 in our study, could occur once every five years by 2030 to 2045 according to our results."
Such floods could pose a significant risk to human safety, she added.
"A flood height of 2.25 meters is a significant enough flood to potentially inundate the first story of many buildings. Post-Sandy, some infrastructure and planning is almost certainly trying to account for future flooding situations, but a flood of this magnitude in New York would certainly still have significant impacts for many aspects of the city."
Preparing the floodgates
The findings should prompt city planners to face up to the challenges posed by climate change, said Garner:
"Studies like this make it clear that adaptation measures are critical to protect lives and infrastructure in a changing climate. We can't pretend that these kinds of risks aren't growing in our changing climate, because studies such as this make it poignantly clear that they are."
The study is "very useful" said professor Kevin Trenberth, distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who was not involved in the study, but it doesn't include "some things of importance" such as the added impact of high tides and the risk of mid-latitude storms.
Also, looking as far out into the future as 2300 means the study relies on uncertain assumptions about factors such as future greenhouse gas emissions, he told Carbon Brief:
"The paper assesses coastal flood risk over the next three centuries, but these risks depend hugely on scenarios as to how factors such as emissions and population size change. This makes me quite uncomfortable: the assumptions are huge and understated."
It's also worth noting that other nearby cities, such as Hoboken in New Jersey, are "every bit or more vulnerable" than New York City, Trenberth added.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Carbon Brief.
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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Towards the end of the final presidential debate of the 2020 election season, the moderator asked both candidates how they would address both the climate crisis and job growth, leading to a nearly 12-minute discussion where Donald Trump did not acknowledge that the climate is changing and Joe Biden called the climate crisis an existential threat.
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By Zheng Chen and Darren H. S. Tan
As concern mounts over the impacts of climate change, many experts are calling for greater use of electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels. Powered by advancements in battery technology, the number of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on U.S. roads is increasing. And utilities are generating a growing share of their power from renewable fuels, supported by large-scale battery storage systems.