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‘This is a wake-up call – don’t hit the snooze button’

“We have to stop thinking in terms of ‘100-year events.’ It’s not going to be another 100 years before we see another extreme storm such as Sandy.”
Art Lerner-Lam, deputy director, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Hurricane Sandy, Hudson River, New York City
Adam Sobel: “I was inside all day Monday, watching the tide gauge data at the Battery along with all the other observations. At 10:30 p.m., I couldn’t stand it anymore and went down to the Hudson, down by Fairway, to see the historic storm surge, just a couple hours after high tide.” This is his photo, looking under the elevated Riverside drive towards the river.

For years before Hurricane Sandy charged ashore on Monday, researchers from the Earth Institute knew what was coming. In a rapidly urbanizing world, where hundreds of millions of people now live in low-lying coastal areas, those scientists have been urging policymakers to appreciate the threats posed by such natural disasters and find ways to make our cities more resilient.

As the region struggles to recover from this “superstorm,” we asked several experts from the Earth Institute to consider the lessons we can learn as we move forward.

Art Lerner-Lam
Art Lerner-Lam

Art Lerner-Lam watched the storm surge lap at the front door of his apartment building in Hell’s Kitchen on Monday, at the boundary of the evacuation zone. Lerner-Lam serves as deputy director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and also directs the Earth Institute’s Center for Hazards and Risk Research.

“We have to stop thinking in terms of ‘100-year events.’ It’s not going to be another 100 years before we see another extreme storm such as Sandy,” he said. “The statements by Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg affirming the need to address the long-term trends in storm severity are welcome and politically courageous; but the true test will be whether we can muster the popular will to do something about it. …

“We need to think about hardening our infrastructure, about strengthening our preparedness and response, about adaptation and mitigation in response to predicted impacts.

“But we should also double down on the discussion about reducing our use of fossil fuels [to mitigate climate change]. On the other hand, we’ve lived this lesson before. My colleagues and I have a saying: ‘This is a wake-up call. Don’t hit the snooze button.’”

Adam Sobel
Adam Sobel

Adam Sobel began looking closely at Hurricane Sandy a week before landfall. An expert in the physics of weather, he works at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and in the Columbia University Department of Applied Physics and Mathematics. He and colleagues started closely examining the forecasts and observations rolling in, and met as a group on Friday to talk about it.

“The MTA head had stated the day before that the event would be less severe than Irene and the
subways would not be shut down,” he recalled. “It was clear to us that his statement
was premature at best, though the city didn’t change its position until later.

“We learned that the worst-case scenario for storm impact on our region could really happen. Of course, we had known that already—including the potential for subway flooding, due to Klaus Jacobs’ work—but it’s hard to grasp the risk of something that has never happened. There have been very few storms comparable to this here since European settlement. …

“If the factors that made Sandy so extremely unusual—the hybridization at such high intensity, but most of all, the track—will be made more likely by warming, it will be via mechanisms that we don’t understand yet beyond a speculative level. It may be that warming was not a factor in this scenario, but there are other possible scenarios that will be influenced by warming. We have a strong research effort in tropical cyclones and climate change here, led by Suzana Camargo. Sandy just gives this effort greater urgency and focus.”

Scientist Klaus Jacob of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory has been predicting for a decade that New York could suffer severe flooding from a major storm such as Sandy. And he knew within inches just how high the storm surge would come at his house, in the Piermont section of Orangeburg, NY. But despite his efforts over the past decade to literally lift up and armor his home against flooding, Sandy hit him and the surrounding community on the Hudson River hard.

It did a lot of damage,” he said. “It was about 1 to 2 feet above the FEMA 100-year flood zone, and therefore it affected a lot more people than those that normally get flood insurance, including myself, and it created havoc in this little village. … We are on our hands and knees to get the mud out of all the houses and doors, the armoires and the hutches. It’s a lot of work! …

“The MTA and the Port Authority … knew the results of our forecast for roughly two years now,” Jacob said. But, “we were still in the study stage rather than in the action stage. So, what can be done? … I think we have to spend engineering time to allow them to think about the best solutions and then discuss them in the public, which ones we are willing to pay for. With enough money you can be as secure as we want. But we are all short of money, therefore there is a trade-off between costs versus benefits. …

“It’s a social issue too, there are winners and losers. And so one hears … shouting matches between potential winners and potential losers. … We have to overcome that dissent and work towards a consensus. We are all sitting in the same boat, and it doesn’t help that we shout at each other. …

“I think certainly the victims of such events understand that sea level rise and climate change is a reality. It behooves the electorate to make a decision whether they want to [elect] people … who are climate deniers, and we will continue to suffer the consequences. I wonder how long we as voters allow for us to have representatives in the government that [don’t] take threats of national importance [seriously]. I think it is inexcusable, it is irresponsible and it will have fatal and economic and livelihood consequences.” (You can watch a full interview with Jacob in the video above.)

Lisa Goddard, International Research Institute for Climate and Society
Lisa Goddard

Lisa Goddard, a climate scientist and director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, sees in the storm’s aftermath an opportunity to change course.

“I think the key lesson is that affluence gives no protection from Nature,” she said. “The weather predictions were good; the warnings were appropriate. Most people responded to the warnings and understood the uncertainties that were communicated, which is a strong testament to how far the climate community has come in building a climate-literate (or at least weather-literate) public.

“But that only goes so far in the face of an extremely extreme event. And while the contribution made from anthropogenic climate change is estimated to be very small in comparison to the freakish confluence of several severe weather threats, the fact is that things will trend in this direction (increased sea levels, warmer waters to fuel hurricane strength, etc.) rather than oppositely. Therefore this is the time—the opportunity—to plan accordingly. This applies to energy systems, transportation systems, coastal communities, and even landscaping in tree-rich neighborhoods. …

“Why are so many power lines still above ground and winding through big old trees? You don’t think about it until the electricity is out, but then you look up and realize that your town is powered on 19th century technology. And similarly, in a place like New York City that is susceptible to storm surge and flooding, why are so many power systems below ground?

“My personal experience from the storm was quite a wake-up call. We lost power the day the storm hit, and it is still not restored. … I had not fully appreciated how dependent we are on electricity and fossil fuel, not just the economy but for everyday decisions. The positive thing is that you are forced to slow down—go to bed earlier, wake up later, spend more time with your family. …

“In my network of friends and family no one was hurt or suffered major property loss, so we are lucky. However, I would not want to go through this again.”

Radley Horton
Radley Horton

Radley Horton worked on a 2011 report that advised New York City on climate and weather resilience. He is a research scientist with the NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Center for Climate Systems Research.

The storm taught an important lesson “about our vulnerability to coastal storms,” he said. “We were also reminded how much we rely on infrastructure, and how interdependent infrastructure networks are. To pick one example in what is really a system: With electricity out, the transportation sector suffered as less gasoline could be distributed, and the telecommunications sector suffered as cell phones failed.

“As a society I think we need to consider a suite of adaptation strategies, and we need to invite everyone to the table, from local community groups to the private sector. And we might expand the discussion beyond storm surge, to 21st century visions of the region more generally.”

Elliott Sclar
Elliott Sclar

Elliott Sclar, a professor of urban planning, also considers himself lucky: A resident of Larchmont, he lost power, heat and his landline phone during the storm. But damage at his home was minor, and, he said, “we do have hot water, an operative cooktop and a fireplace with a reasonable supply of wood.

Sclar directs the Earth Institute Center for Sustainable Urban Development.

“The hardest part of our work (both as researchers and as teachers) has always been making the longer term impacts of decisions sufficiently plausible that they became part of the everyday awareness of a general public that does not think in these terms,” he said. “The experienced reality of Sandy has a strong possibility of changing thinking about the need for concerted public action. This is in part the case because Sandy was reasonably democratic in the distribution of its devastation. For many of the problems that confront society, it is often easy for elites to find ways to insulate themselves from the consequences; but not this time.

“There are two paths forward for us in terms of our research efforts. The first is to continue doing the important work that we do, as much of it directly relates to the challenges of a changing climate. But I think we need to add more focus on looking at the specific ways in which theses climate events impact the infrastructure and shelter requirements of the metropolitan regions of the world.

“By mid-century, three of every four people will be living in these places. We need to focus much more of our research on the challenges of adaptation. Mitigation is important, but even if all greenhouse gases ceased entering the atmosphere tomorrow, we would still be faced with the legacy impacts [on the climate] of the present accumulation of these gases.”

John Mutter
John Mutter

John Mutter was “still in the cold and dark,” as he wrote us on Friday about the storm’s longer-term impacts.

“One [lesson] is that a city as large as New York can do well. The mortality figures are very low” —officially 40 in the city, 106 throughout the United States, the New York Times reported Monday. “Remember that Katrina was nearly 2,000 by comparison. So the city did a good job at saving lives.”

(Mutter, a researcher at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and a colleague worked on a study several years ago of deaths tied to Hurricane Katrina, many of them outside the official counts, and at how those deaths were related to policy decisions and the victims’ social standing.)

But aside from Sandy’s casualties, he said, the city did not do so well with infrastructure, as has been painfully obvious to so many people.

“Most of what is needed is not scientific research, but engineering,” Mutter said. “It should not be a massive task to seal off subway entrances—ships have water-tight doors, why not subway entrances? That’s very old technology that is known to work.

“And of course, [we should] start to seriously design a storm barrier. Engineers know how to build these barriers. The question is more a social one—given that not every inch of the flood prone areas can be protected, what should be protected; how do we decide what to protect?”

Ben Orlove
Ben Orlove

These kinds of social questions are right up Ben Orlove’s alley. He works at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions studying people’s perceptions and how they respond to such crises.

“Preparedness and recovery are linked and overlap,” he said. “The people who took more steps before the storm (supplies at home, protecting the home, staying in) are recovering more quickly after the storm and are contributing to recovery for others—since they don’t need as many services, and they don’t need to be cleaned up afterwards as much.

“People are more likely to take preparedness steps if they are given multiple motivations to do so,” Orlove added. “Bloomberg emphasized that residents should remain inside not only to protect themselves, but to protect the firefighters, police, etc., who were out on the streets. By standing inside, they allowed these emergency service providers to get to the necessary cases.”

Early results from a survey Orlove and colleagues did in the days leading up to the storm suggest many people in the region were under-prepared. “Less than a third of coastal New Jersey residents expected a power outage of two days or more,” Orlove said. “And of the people living very close to the coast (within one block of the ocean or bays), less than half had flood insurance.”

Some infrastructure fixes are relatively easy, if perhaps expensive, he said—for instance, moving power stations away from the shoreline. Others involve harder choices: “We won’t move the subway tunnels under the East River; but there are seven of them, so we could choose a few to reinforce. And, we could promote better coordination with buses, cars and bikes.”

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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11 years ago

[…] climate change? I have my doubts. It’s depressing to think about how badly we have behaved as stewards of this planet. However if President Obama is looking for a legacy, this is it. Or not and we can just ride out […]