Threats and Responses Associated with Rapid Climate Change in Metropolitan New York

Malcolm Bowman, Douglas Hill, Frank Buonaiuto, Brian Colle, Roger Flood, Robert Wilson, Robert Hunter and Jindong Wang

Metropolitan New York is vulnerable to coastal flooding and widespread damage to urban infrastructure, commercial structures and residential neighborhoods from both seasonal hurricanes and extra-tropical storms. A significant portion of the metropolitan area lies less than 3 m above mean sea level; in total covering an area of about 260 km2 (see Figure 9.1). Many types of structures are located within this low-lying region, including commercial properties and financial institutions, apartment buildings and private dwellings, hospitals, police and fire stations, marine transportation terminals, three major airports, heliports, numerous underground railroad and subway lines (with associated station entrances and ventilation shafts), highways, bridge access roads, tunnels, power plants, the underground steam district heating system, electrical and communication networks, landfills, 14 waste water treatment facilities and 770 combined sewer overflows with their tide gate regulators discharging near or at sea level (Zimmerman, 1996).

Recent storms have already revealed the intrinsic potential for disaster in this region. For example, the nor'easter of December 1992 flooded the entrance of the Hoboken train station with seawater, short-circuiting the electric trains and city subways and shutting down the underground public transportation system for up to ten days. The Brooklyn-Battery tunnel experienced serious flooding as did the FDR Highway on Manhattan's east side. Fortunately, no lives were lost, but there would have been fatalities if the sea had risen another 30 cm (US Army Corps of Engineers et al, 1995). During the 21st century, rising sea level will aggravate the effects of storm surges and wave damage along the Metropolitan New York, Long Island and northern New Jersey coastlines, leading to more severe and more frequent flooding. An abrupt acceleration in the pace of climate change would accelerate sea level rise and make infrastructure protection measures and emergency planning imperatives even more urgent.

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Figure 9.1 Map of Metropolitan New York showing inundation predictions for a 100-year flood at present mean sea level

Note: The proposed locations for storm surge barriers discussed in this chapter are shown as dark gray bars.

Source: adapted from Gornitz, 2001.

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