New York will be one of the five U.S. cities most affected by climate change, according to Heidi Cullen of Climate Central, author of The Weather of the Future. The island of Manhattan, with its large population and extensive coasts, is highly vulnerable to flooding from storm surges, as well as from rising sea levels, which are “expected to be about one foot higher by 2050,” Cullen told Fresh Air this weekend.
What we historically call “100-year floods” will be more frequent. As an older city, New York has an outdated sewer system that isn’t prepared for the higher levels of precipitation we’ll be seeing. Airport runways are too close to sea level. The list goes on.
However, cities like New York are taking some steps to prepare. “Ultimately [adapting to] climate change is going to be dealt with at the local level,” says Cullen. “A lot of the energy and passion to solve this problem is in our cities.” She points to the a new power plant in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn being built four feet higher to address the expected sea level rise. However, the political will can also be shaky. “The coasts are incredibly vulnerable [and] we are going to have to move inland,” says Cullen, yet if you talk to a Miami city planner, that’s a topic that’s “off-limits.”
Miami, another especially vulnerable city, is susceptible to salt water intrusion and increased threats of mosquito-borne disease such as West Nile Virus. California’s Central Valley, an area that provides water for two-thirds of the state’s citizens, depends on an “incredibly vulnerable levee-based system.” Fairbanks, Alaska, like most of that state, is built on permafrost which is melting, and it will see increased exposure to wildfires. Alaska’s average temperature has increased 3.4 degrees and average winter temperature 6.3 degrees since 1950. That’s as expected, says Cullen; higher latitudes warm up the most, with the increase concentrated in winter and spring. In the Southwest, temperature increases will severely impact the water supply of cities like Las Vegas.
I’ve already checked my block against the scary maps of impending sea level rise around Manhattan. Since I live towards the center of the island, I’m safe. As for you folks who live closer to the rivers—I’ll throw you a line. Below is a graphic representation of Manhattan under extreme rising sea levels, the kind that might occur under the worst scenarios of melting Arctic ice sheets.