State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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What We Learned From Hurricane Sandy


Roger N. Anderson, Senior research scientist, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

From a building perspective, do not put your electric switchgear and other vulnerable infrastructure in the basement–second floor or higher!


Steven Cohen, Executive director, The Earth Institute

We learned that while we have the capacity for first response and are able to help get people out of harm’s way, we have not developed the organizational capacity or revenue stream needed to rapidly reconstruct communities that have been damaged by severe weather. Since we eventually come up with the resources for reconstruction, people are made to suffer for no reason, while the political and bureaucratic processes slowly figure out how to respond. We need to learn how to build stronger and rebuild faster.

Michael Gerrard, Director, Center for Climate Change Law

We learned that our crucial infrastructure — electricity, water, trains, roads, much else — and many of our buildings were designed and built to operate within a particular range of physical conditions. We are now moving into a world that will increasingly lie outside that range. Therefore we must systematically examine our built environment and plan for how it (or what replaces it) can cope with the changing climate.


jacobKlaus Jacob, Special research scientist, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

The mud of Sandy is gone. The mood of Sandy has stayed. Those living near Sandy tides throwing the dice whether to leave or to stay,

To raise a home, or to raze it and run. Only if they could sell. There is much talking and planning, at best confused action — so far. And confusion abounds: flood maps that ignore the rise of the seas, made for today, not for tomorrow.  But which tomorrow?

How high to build when the target moves with no upper end in sight, towed up by puffing SUVs. Give or take, the country is (still) in denial of seas rising, and Sandy’s younger sisters to come will have their work cut out to shake us from our slumber. For good, no, for better, but at an ever higher price yet to be paid.

Andrew Juhl, Research scientist, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

From the perspective of water quality, Superstorm Sandy did not worry me as much as the chronic sewage spills in the Hudson River almost every time it rains. It would be a shame if efforts to harden the system for a future storm came at the expense of dealing with the day-to-day problems that pose a far greater public health risk. I would recommend prioritizing those projects that make the system more resilient to big events and help it deal with everyday challenges so that the volume of untreated sewage getting into New York and New Jersey waters declines.

Arthur Lerner-Lam, Deputy director, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; Director, Center for Hazards and Risk Research

The modern city is not invulnerable; we are not “stronger than the storm.” Amplified by rising seas, severe storms can render our urban infrastructure useless and punish some of our most vulnerable citizens. We won’t be able to stop severe weather or sea level rise, at least not in our lifetimes, but we can pull together and adapt if we have effective government, an engaged citizenry, and the civic will to act. We are smart enough as a society to understand the consequences of inaction.

Are we smart enough to act?

Irwin Redlener, Director, National Center for Disaster Preparedness

Time will tell if there are actual lessons learned from the experience with Superstorm Sandy, but there are at least two big challenges we face right now:  First, are we doing what’s needed to prevent or mitigate impact of future disasters? And second, are we doing everything possible to accelerate recovery from a community and family perspective?  Unfortunately, on both counts, the jury is still out.

Adam Sobel, Research scientist. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Our infrastructure wasn’t ready for Sandy, and it’s even less ready for the future. Because global warming leads to sea-level rise, we’ll become more and more vulnerable to Sandy-like events. Looking
beyond Sandy to the broader impacts of warming, we’re in trouble. In terms of adaptation locally, the Bloomberg plan is a big step forward, but we’ll see how much of it happens. In terms of mitigation – slowing the long-term warming down, since it’s too late to stop it – we’re going nowhere.  We urgently need a price on carbon.

Cynthia Rosenzweig, Head of Columbia University Climate Impacts Group; director, Center for Climate Systems Research; co-chair, New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC).

We’ve seen that tipping points in response to climate change can be reached, and this was one. The upside: the city has long recognized the potential threat, and therefore, the risks of climate change are already being incorporated into the rebuilding process. If you have “science in place and science in time,” it can be the foundation for adding resilience in a smart way.  It’s an example for New York as well as other cities in the U.S. and globally.


Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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10 years ago

[…] can render our urban infrastructure useless and punish some of our most vulnerable citizens,” Arthur Lerner-Lam, deputy director of Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the director of Center […]