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Sandy raises concerns on climate change

Posted on November 6, 2012 | by Tony Chau

Roughly a mile away from the coastline and outside of the mandatory evacuation Zone A on Staten Island, Steinhardt senior Nicolette Ursini and her family were confident they were far enough away from Hurricane Sandy’s wrath.

But Sandy unabashedly exerted its record-breaking storm surge, flooding Ursini’s six-foot high basement almost to the very top.

Ursini, a New York City resident, recalled images of her family’s couches, tables, computer screens and other furniture just floating around the basement-turned-pool.

“The damage [Sandy] has caused my community is unlike anything I have ever witnessed firsthand before,” she said.

But many environmentalists and climatologists argue that natural disasters like Sandy, which has been widely labeled as a once-in-a-century storm, will occur much more frequently with climate change.

Jerry Brotzge, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and managing director of the Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms, said the once-in-a-century label was actually used properly in this case.

“The term once-in-a-century is vastly overused, but may well be true in regards to Sandy’s meteorological character,” Brotzge said.

Nicole Heller, an ecologist at Duke University who has researched climate change, said an accurate use of the term would become more frequent as a result of climate change.

“Climate change is causing more extreme weather,” Heller said. “There is no doubt that increased carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases in the atmosphere are making our weather more extreme, like more intense rainfall events and stronger hurricanes.”

Jessica Rennells, a climatologist at Cornell University, echoed the statement.

“Global temperatures are warming and will continue to warm because of greenhouse gasses such as CO2. This does affect our atmosphere and weather patterns,” Rennells said. “This doesn’t mean we should expect storms like these every year but it is likely that they will continue to occur more often.”

But Brotzge disputed the role of climate change in contributing to catastrophes like Sandy.

“Hurricanes hitting [New York City] are not that unusual, and we can expect more in the future, with or without global warming,” Brotzge said.

Edwin Gerber, an assistant professor at the Center for Atmosphere Ocean Science at NYU,  said there are effects of climate change, even if they are not stronger hurricanes.

“Climate change will make us more vulnerable to storms in the future, due to sea level rise,” Gerber said. “This means that an equivalent hurricane in a few decades will cause more damage than today.”

What will we do?

The power loss for lower Manhattan and the major disruption of the New York City transit syst

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em were embedded in Sandy’s destruction. With the future of New York increasingly vulnerable to destruction by natural disaster, the city is short on time to come up with a game plan to combat that potential doomsday.

“Let’s assume that we decide that we’re not damaging our planet and later on find out that we were. It literally could be too late,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a press conference  last Wednesday. “The consequences of making a mistake in one direction is pretty severe and I think what we have to do is learn from this and protect our infrastructure the extent possible.”

Rae Zimmerman, NYU Urban Planning professor and director for the Institute for Civil Infrastructure System,  emphasized one major aspect of protecting the city.

“The most important thing is to prevent the flooding,” she said. “There’s got to be some way of sealing or elevating the system.”

Zimmerman’s colleague Carlos Restrepo suggested an environmental approach.

“This approach should include restoring natural ecosystem services that have been compromised as part of urban development, including tidal marshes, wetlands and oyster populations, as well as the use of technologies aimed at reducing the impact of flooding such as levees, water control systems and sea walls,” Restrepo said.

Beyond environmental restoration, Christopher Earls, a professor of Civil Engineering at Cornell University, argues for the implementation of newer infrastructure.

“We can do better, but we need to be motivated to implement more modern technological approaches,” he said. “For instance, before a disaster hits, we could build a computational model of a vital infrastructure asset and validate its predictions using service conditions pre-disaster.”

However, such a redesign would face numerous obstacles.

“Investment in climate change adaptation will be substantial and is unlikely to be successful if pursued only at the local level,” Restrespo said.

Zimmerman also cited the potential cost of such an infrastructure overhaul.

“Either you put the money in the redesign and the reconstruction and that’ll be very, very expensive and difficult and take a very long time,” Zimmerman said. “Or you’re going to have to acknowledge that you’re going to have very expensive recovery and preemptive actions.”

Without the infrastructure improvements, those who suffered from Sandy — like Ursini — are left to wonder what is in store for them.

“If they become more frequent and stronger, I can only imagine what New York, especially Staten Island, is going to look like,” Ursini said.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Nov. 6 print edition. Tony Chau is city/state editor. Email him at 



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