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New Study Forecasts Rising Sea Level Impacts on New York

Kim Knowlton

Posted December 15, 2010

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Not long ago, NRDC received a call from a reporter wanting to know what New York will look like in 50 years. She wasn't talking about the skyline or whether cars will be obsolete; she wanted to know how the city's 578-mile coast would be affected once climate change has forced sea levels to rise. Thanks to a new report from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, we now have a better idea.

In 2007, the State Legislature directed DEC to study the state's vulnerability to sea level rise and coastal flooding, and the Sea Level Rise Task Force was born. The study’s results, released last month, are the culmination of years of work by about 100 scientists, policy experts, and other stakeholders charged with addressing how rising seas will affect our communities, natural resources, and infrastructure. The report – the first of its kind in the state – widens the scope of what sea level rise means for New York, and provides fourteen specific recommendations for how we might adapt.

Its bottom line is that every coastal community in New York will be affected by rising sea levels, including those along the 315-mile Hudson River, the Long Island Sound, and the Atlantic Coast. If you couple that with the fact that more than 60 percent of New Yorkers live in homes on or near a waterfront, the implications for New York's coastal communities are profound.

The report also rightfully included a section on public health impacts, since sea level rise has the potential to significantly affect community health. It warns that storm surges and coastal flooding can introduce a host of environmental hazards, including: contaminated drinking water, disrupted sewage and solid waste systems, hazardous material spills, increased or displaced populations of disease-carrying insects and rodents, and moldy houses. It also has the potential to lower quality of life. What would happen if a storm collapsed a community's only hospital or ruined someone's small business?

There’s no doubt that we will need to make significant investments over the next few decades in our infrastructure to cope with these changes. This means our state and local governments will make hefty decisions – likely guided by this report – to ensure that we adapt to the changes in the best way possible, while protecting the health and livelihoods of New York's coast-dwellers.

Last week, NRDC submitted comments for the next iteration of the report. Here are a few of the public health-relevant observations that we believe the task force should take into account:

  • Impacts to public health, infrastructure, and natural resources must be fully integrated. Again, we welcomed the inclusion of a section on public health. The report should highlight the importance of integrating infrastructure damage, natural resource/ecosystem disruption, and the associated harmful effects on public health from sea level rise. Too often, these three communities operate separately in framing adaptation policies.
  • Leaders from community groups are vital to the adaptation planning process. Those best equipped to inform adaptation plans are the ones dealing with climate impacts every day – i.e., families who regularly experience flooding in and near their homes. The report recommends funding and guidance for community-based vulnerability assessments, and high levels of community participation in post-storm recovery and adaptation planning processes – steps that can help protect our most vulnerable neighborhoods. 
  • Local public health officials must have a strong presence in climate-health preparedness planning. Other states have suffered from scant public health expertise to inform their climate change adaptation planning process; New York State could learn from others’ mistakes and add more local public health expertise as our process continues.

Of course, these comments could (and should) apply to local panels across the nation addressing the impacts of sea level rise on their cities, but the reality is that too few have the resources available. New York is lucky to be a hotbed of activity for climate modelers who are creating state-of-the-science local projections of New York in the near future under a changing climate.  At the very least, this new study gives us the opportunity to lead the way in preparedness and show other states how to do it right.

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Tom MoriartyDec 16 2010 01:02 AM

Sea level rise is one of the pillars upon which the concern over global warming is built. One of the most commonly reported projections of sea level rise for the 21st century comes from a Proceedings of the December 2009 National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) article "Global Sea level linked to Global Temperatures" by Vermeer and Rahmstorf.

Two profound problems with the Vermeer and Rahmstorf article are the fact that they used out-dated sea level data and did not incorporate a vital correction for water that is added to the oceans through depletion of groundwater aquifers.

Their source for sea level data, Church and White, updated their data at about the same time that the PNAS article was published. A Geophysical Research Letters article this year has provided very good information on the effect of the groundwater depletion. When the updated Church and White data and the groundwater depletion are accounted for, Vermeer's and Rahmstorf's model yields sea level rise projections for the 21st century that are only half of what they reported in the PNAS.

As far as I can tell, Vermeer and Rahmstorf have never acknowledged the updated Church and White data. They have not published new calculations or a retraction of their projections. Their extreme projection of 1.8 meters for the 21st century still finds its way into various official documents and is widely echoed on the internet.

The concept of their model was bogus to start with. But even their bogus model yields sea level rises half of what they reported when proper data is input.

I have written a variety of posts concerning what I see as very serious flaws in this widely read article. Here is a URL to an index of those posts...

I suggest you read parts 9 & 10 first.

Parts 8, 9 & 10 cover the effect of using the updated Church and White sea level data and the groundwater depletion correction. If you feel so inclined, please have a look. I would appreciate any criticisms.

Best Regards,
Tom Moriarty

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