New York City is Sinking, and No One Knows What to Do

New York, New York City, climate change, sea level rise, Hurricane Sandy, resilience, adaptation, Leon Kaye, mitigation, Klaus Jacob
Lower Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy.

New York City was proactive on tackling climate change risks long before Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc across the boroughs in autumn 2012. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his successor, Bill De Blasio, have shown leadership on climate change resilience that inspired other cities to launch similar long-term plans.

Nevertheless, the evidence suggests the city will become more submerged as this century progresses, and city leaders and citizens are still unprepared for this eventuality.

Part of the challenge is that New York City is at the convergence of where geology meets climate change reality. Over the past couple of years, more studies were released suggesting that the Antarctic ice is melting faster than scientists had previously thought. Meanwhile, much of the eastern seaboard is slowly sinking, due to natural subsidence. New Yorkers (at least the wealthy ones) have a predilection for living along the waterfront in Manhattan, Brooklyn and even Queens. And the result is that massive investments and planning are needed if the Big Apple is to avoid becoming a Big Atlantis.

Human behavior is another barrier to long term planning. Anyone who has ever had to spend money on their house for a retaining wall or a more secure foundation can relate: no one wants to shell out copious amounts of cash on something that you either cannot see or just sits there and “does nothing.” Whatever the plans may be – massive sea walls, expensive water pumping systems, requiring future homes and office buildings to be built on stilts – citizens do not want to pay for them and politicians are loathe to suggest them.

The same goes for the real estate industry. Even Zillow, the popular app that allows users to gauge real estate values, has warned that up to $1 trillion in property losses by the end of this century will be caused by sea level rise. But developers, banks and city permit offices are generally not thinking about the years 2099 or 2100. And even if problems related to climate change start mounting in 2050, that is still 35 years away. As long as those 30-year mortgages for those riverfront condos can be sold, builders can wipe their hands clean and are absolved of any future problems.

Hence, New York City, and other cities worldwide, are picking their battles. And they are not bad ideas. Home rebuilding programs that make homes more climate-change ready are one tool in this kit. Architectural features such as green roofs or even designs that are more energy-efficient, or even net-zero, are an option. Wetlands restoration, berms comprising a planned “dry-line” and oyster beds are ideas that have gained traction over time. But to some observers, these are akin to taking a few pocketknives into an AK-47 fight.

One of the voices urging New York City to take more aggressive action is Klaus Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. His views are dystopian to some, visionary to others, but the fact is that if future sea level rise projections hold, we can peg him as a realist. Recently profiled in New York Magazine, he has long been a thorn in the side of city planners, warning the city that it needs bolder climate change defenses. In 2008, he led a study that warned the city’s labyrinth subway system could be flooded after an extreme weather event such as a hurricane. The 48-page report also suggested that the city find a way to transition away from underground transport, because of both the flooding threat and that the demands for pumping and air conditioning make them more energy intensive. The report mostly fell on deaf ears, but after Hurricane Sandy, Jacob was praised by many as a Nostradamus.

Jacob, whose home was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, is quick to challenge the short-term thinking of his city’s leaders and citizens. His constant argument is that all the massive sea walls and the oyster beds planned will not be enough to preserve the New York City that residents have known for over 400 years.

Tough choices need to be made. When it comes to future development, Jacob has pointed out that the highest points in the city are often the location of cemeteries. And his reality for a 22nd century NYC is one of canals, like a modern Venice. “New York needs to make, at least in current and future flood-prone areas, its infrastructure submersible,” he wrote.

Critical building systems need to be moved to higher floors, and skyscrapers need to be connected with elevated walkways currently seen in cold weather cities such as Calgary and Minneapolis. The water taxis that are currently the playthings of tourists will eventually become the preferred mode of transport if businesses, and residential communities, are going to survive. Otherwise, New York City could be a future Kiribati, as in the South Pacific island nation that is already planning to relocate many of its citizens to avoid rising seas.

Image credit: Chris Ford/Flickr

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Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

20 responses

  1. It should be noted that during the peak of the last interglacial period, oceans were as much as 18 m higher than today.
    Human exacerbated climate change is speeding up the process and presents dramatic change in 2 or 3 generations rather than a few thousand years

    1. No , it should be pointed out that people of your mindset have been using that sorry, piss poor, talking point every time Scientists [ not laymen like you ] provide evidence of Global warming and/or climate change in addition to rising sea levels . Currently the Larcen-C Ice shelf , a chunk of ice the size of Scotland has been displaying an ever widening fracture , and is slowly slipping , due to warmer ocean temperatures which are undermining [ melting ] this Antarctic Ice shelf . Yes it’s a fact that ocean water runs underneath the Antarctic Ice shelves , and when this piece breaks off , it will mean a rise in se level of 4 inches . So go ahead and be a Koch Bros. parrot and deny , deny , deny .

  2. New York City is not sinking, at least not at a rate that will present any hazards to the population within the next several centuries. The metropolitan New York area is extraordinarily stable from a geologic point of view. Manhattan island is underlain with solid bedrock are much of the nearby geologic features. Long Island is most made up of unconsilidated glacial till, gravel, sand and silt. Long Island is one of the youngest geologic features on Earth as it was created from the retreat of the Laurentian Ice Sheet just 24,000 years ago.

    Sea level has not risen appreciably in centuries. It is normal for sea level to rise and fall over time. During the retreat of the last continental glaciers i.e. the ones that formed Long Island, Cape Code and the Laurentian Great Lakes, sea level actually rose some 30 feet over 2,000 years! However, this is not likely to happen over the next 2,000 years and certainly not over the next century or two.

    By the way, we keep hearing about the Pacific Island of Kirabati and the fact that it is “sinking.” That’s true, it is sinking. However, it is not because sea level is rising, it is because the island itself is anchored to a sea floor plate that is heading toward a subduction zone in the western Pacific. Therefore, the entire place is being pulled under another plate, and will eventially form yet another island arc system like the Phillipines or Japan. Kiribati is only about six to ten feet above sea level at its highest now but it is heading down and something like a centimeter per decade. This single anamoly is the basis for the entire myth of global climate change causing a worldwide, rapid increase in sea level. It is NOT happening. People in New York City, fear not, it will be centuries before any sea level change is evident and it could be that sea level goes down as we approach another glacial age. However, human populations will have plenty of time to move out of the way of whatever happens!

    1. Thank you! I left a much more simple comment before I actually read yours. This is exactly the case, yet it seems like those championing the myth that climate change is to blame for everything can’t follow a long with a bit of middle school science to understand what really is taking place.

  3. It’s the weight of all those skyscrapers and big Bill De Blasio. LOL. This article is pure fantasy. NYC sits on solid rock, when will these jokers study some geology and learn that nothing about the Earth remains the same; the planet is in constant change. Man always has, and always will, have to migrate to accommodate an ever changing climate. I also like the way the article conveniently leaves out the fact that the Northeast is geologically unstable and will be rocked by a massive earthquake at some time in the future and that nearly all of the buildings in Manhattan will suffer severe damage and loss of life.

    1. Uh, look at the oldest maps of lower Manhattan , and you will discover that most of lower Manhattan is LANDFILL . If you had been around when the WTC was being built , you could have observed how deep a pit had to be dug before reaching “the solid bedrock ” in addition the huge retaining walls that had to be constructed to keep out the Hudson River . Sea level rise is overtaking the rate of any ‘sinking ‘ of Lower Manhattan . You can attribute that rise to anything you prefer , but sea level rise is real , and the warmer ocean temperatures that are undermining the Antarctic Ice shelves which will assuredly break off , especially the [ Larsen C Ice Shelf about the size of Scotland ] and when that does , ocean levels will rise 4 inches . In addition , it is unknown what the infusion of so much fresh water will do to affect the Ocean Currents . You do know what the Trans-Oceanic Conveyors are ……right ?

  4. Climate Change – A Realist View
    A. History – The Last Ice Age
    1. 22,000 years ago 2 mile thick Ice Sheets covered much of the northern hemisphere. These advancing ice sheets destroyed everything in their path literally scrapping the earth down to bed rock in most areas. They dug out the holes that became the great Lakes.
    a) 22,000 years ago the great ice sheets that buried much of Asia, Europe and North America stopped their creeping advance.
    b) The North American ice sheets covered all of Canada and into the United States including; Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Montana and North & South Dakota, the terminal line of these sheets are shown in many reference books..
    2. 10,000 years ago Ice Sheet has retreated to the above the current US border.
    3. 5,000 years ago Ice Sheet has retreated into northern Canada.
    4. 1,000 years ago Ice Sheet has retreated to individual glaciers and small ice sheets in Alaska and all of Greenland. Written records of early explorers show the retreat was a fact before the industrial revolution and was the continuation of a process that have been going on from time before man’s written records.
    B. Last 200 years – The remaining glacier ice in Alaska and mountainous areas of North America has continued to retreat. Since the earliest written records starting over 300 years ago in Alaska, Europe and in Glacier National Park in Montana the retreat of the Glaciers has been well documented. So this process has been continuing for all of man’s recorded history and well before the dawn of the industrial revolution.
    C. Man’s production and use of hydrocarbons may be somewhat accelerating the buildup of CO2 but that is a minor increase in the natural occurring environmental conditions as volcanic eruptions, naturally occurring cyclic changing sea currents and temperatures can all affect CO2 levels more than human CO2 production.
    D. Current Conditions –
    1. 2015 According to Tom Wagner, the Cryosphere program scientist at NASA, the paleo-climate record shows that sea levels can rise as much as 10 feet (three meters) in a century or two, if the ice sheets fall apart rapidly. As have happened in the past geological history and will happen again.
    2. Sea levels are rising and ice sheets are shrinking. We can do nothing to stop this. We must accept that and plan accordingly. It will change the way we look at the coast lines. It should change the way governments allow building in the low lying areas of the coasts.
    Source References:
    http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/glaciation
    http://www.esd.ornl.gov/projects/qen/nercNORTHAMERICA.htm
    http://www.mountainnature.com/geology/Glaciers.htm

  5. For the uninformed, NYC is sinking. It doesn’t matter if there is some bedrock below the city. What do you morons think is below the bedrock? Do you morons think the bedrock extends vertically down to the center of the planet? Think about it. The Earth is constantly in motion laterally and vertically – over long periods of time. That motion be very slow and not notice by you during YOUR fast lifetime, or suddenly quick in an earthquake.
    As for the climate change fraud: Pay attention to the words of the scammers who were part of its creation.

    “Make the lie big, make it SIMPLE, KEEP SAYING IT, and eventually they will believe it.” “By the skillful and SUSTAINED USE of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise.” “Let me control the textbooks and I will control the state.” “How fortunate for governments that the people they administer don’t think.” “It is not truth that matters, but victory.” – Adolf Hitler.

    “We have to offer up scary scenarios, make SIMPLIFIED, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” – Stephen Schneider, leading advocate of the global warming theory, in interview for Discover Magazine, Oct 1989.

    “No matter if the science is all phony, there are collateral environmental benefits. Climate change is the greatest chance to bring about justice and equality in the world.” – Christine Stewart, former Minister of the Environment of Canada, quote from the Calgary Herald, 1999.

    “We are dealing with pure political propaganda that has nothing to do with science”. – Greenpeace Co-Founder Dr. Patrick Moore.

    What a great scam. The Club of Rome and the Royal Institute for International Affairs came up with this clever little ruse back in the 1970’s. They even told us they were planning it back in the 1990’s in a book called ‘The First Global Revolution’. It is a phony tax about World Wealth Redistribution, using the Climate Change story. 99% of the Carbon Credit Tax Scam $$$ will go to the UN scammers bank accounts. The world is full of low IQ sheep for the political wolves to consume.

  6. There are two things to consider: (1) sea level rise, and (2) actual crustal subsidence.
    The first (1) in large part is due to ice melt due to global climate change. The second (2) is due to tectonism of one sort or another. There is not much that the average NYC resident can due to mitigate climate change brought about from greenhouse gases. New Yorker are filled with a great deal of hot air, a euphemism for CO2, and they also fart a lot. The average New Yorker is an Underground Mutant Dweller who relies greatly on CO2 generating mechanisms for their survival. So submergence due to (1) is hopelessly inevitable. The second cause, (2) subsidence may have intervention possibilities. NYC is under the strain of a great deal of mass load. Many New Yorker’s walk around under the needless weight of swelled Big Giant Heads. Big Giant Heads (BGH) are pretty weighty things. There are about 8.5 million people in NYC. The average NYC resident is physically fit enough to support a BGH that doubles their weight. That is almost 3 billion pounds of biomass concentrated on one small island. If New Yorker’s would shed their ego’s medical research has shown that the BGH syndrome will diminish with time. Such mass reduction could save their city.

  7. Simple science. Over time, the ground sinks as plates shift, and it lifts in other areas. It’s a matter of plate techtonics. This isn’t a matter of ocean levels rising due to climate change. This is the completely natural motion of a very living planet. People are idiots to think that nothing will ever happen in their lifetimes. In their arrogance, they try to attribute great changes to humans, when in reality, we have no control.

  8. They have been told endless times What to DO! o.O Clean up your mess, start spending the money and fix this. Listen to Science! Why don’t you ask EXXON what to do? ;) They have been told too many times what NEEDS to be done. —–“I’m often asked whether I believe in global warming. I now just reply with the question: ‘Do you believe in gravity? ‘” –Neil deGrasse Tyson

  9. Need to look no further than the multiple groups the author is a member, to know he benefits from the continued harassment we get regarding this topic. ‘The sky is falling’– we need more of YOUR money to stop it!!

  10. It’s refreshing to read an article that considers land subsidence as well as ocean rising as the cause of coastal problems. Using satellite technology we may be able in the future to determine the extent of each. The core/mantle/crust of the Earth is not rigidly fixed. It has changed shape over the history of the Earth, causing continents to move and change shape and new islands(future continents?) to form/disappear. It is admirable that some people are able to look at all the factors involved in change. My hope is that climate change will also be looked at in depth and not just focus on CO2/GHGs as the cause. I suspect as temperature probes become available to look at the ocean depths, the Earth itself will be implicated as playing a large role in climate change.

  11. New York is not sinking enough to worry about in upper Manhattan, that part sits on bedrock far above sea level. Lower Manhattan along the water front used to be a salt water marsh that was filled in and built on. That is the reason the sky scrapers are all up town as they need rock to build on. The current ocean rise is 3 inches in 100 trend. All the flooding of New York in the Sandy hurricane was from ares that should not have been built on in the first place. The early 1800’s hurricane which raised 14 foot tides in New York city did very little damage as nobody was living on what was a beach and salt water marsh back then. If the low dwelling people want to stay were they are let them tax themselves to build dikes, one about 5 inches high should suffice for a very long time.

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