COVER STORY

Sandy’s Wake

Columbia scientists have long been sounding the climate-change alarm. Will we listen now?

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2012-13
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The remains of the boardwalk at Rockaway Beach, New York / Photographs by Jörg Meyer

Watch video of a November 19 Columbia forum on Sandy here. 
 

The storm made landfall. The Hudson rose and rose. Klaus Jacob went to bed.

“I knew what was going to happen,” he says with a shrug in his voice.

Of course he did.

On the evening of October 29, Superstorm Sandy, a weather event so gigantic and freakish that the word “hurricane” was insufficient, whipped the New York area, which lay to the right of that gargantuan white spiral in the satellite picture, the windier side. The Atlantic, plowed by winds, piled up high and rushed toward the coastline.

At around 9:00 p.m., New York harbor was a churning, brimming tub. Waves heaved and crashed. One wave measured thirty-two feet.

At 9:24, a storm surge of 13.88 feet, breaking the record of 10.2 feet set by Hurricane Donna in 1960, breached the seawalls of Lower Manhattan, flooding subway tunnels and knocking out power. Twelve miles north of the city, up the wooded banks of the Hudson River, on a swollen tributary in Piermont, New York, behind a stand of marsh grass, in an old Dutch settlement, inside a white clapboard house, Jacob, a seismologist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, climbed the steep wooden staircase.

The Awakening

Klaus Jacob / The BatterySea level rise will eventually inundate low-lying areas permanently if no mitigation or adaptation measures are taken, and may also accelerate saltwater intrusion in some areas.

So it had come, the Big One that Jacob and his colleagues had imagined when they produced the now-famous 2011 report Responding to Climate Change in New York State, known as the ClimAID study. Chapter 9, written by Jacob and civil-engineering professor George Deodatis ’87SEAS, focused on transportation, and what the city could expect from a hundred-year storm — what the authors likened to “a non-direct but nearby hit of a category 1 or category 2 hurricane.”

For most transportation facilities, the increased coastal storm surge hazard will dominate over these permanent inundation hazards for most of this century.

The state-funded study was led by Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia; William Solecki ’84CC, director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities; and Art DeGaetano of Cornell.

If existing infrastructure is not upgraded and adapted to the new demands posed by climate change, it will put the neglected regions, their economies, and, in the worst cases, lives in jeopardy.

Jacob awoke at dawn. The winds that had rocked him to sleep still rattled the dark house. The night before, Jacob had shut off the circuit breakers and disconnected the gas. Now he smelled the usual ocean smell that comes with living by a tidal river, only maybe it was nearer than usual. He knew, lying there, that the water had entered during the night, risen, and receded with the tide.

He knew, too, that the press would want to talk to him about all the things he knew. In September, the New York Times had published an article by Mireya Navarro ’04JRN titled “New York Is Lagging as Seas and Risks Rise, Critics Warn.” In the article, Jacob, noting how the storm surge of Hurricane Irene a year before had come within one foot of flooding New York subway tunnels and highways and knocking out power to commuter rail lines, said, “We’ve been extremely lucky. I’m disappointed that the political process hasn’t recognized that we’re playing Russian roulette.”

That quote got picked up as Sandy approached.

Now they’d be calling him “prescient.” They’d get mileage out of that word. New York magazine would ask, “Is Dr. Klaus H. Jacob the Cassandra of New York City Subway Flooding?” A rhetorical question, presumably. Still, any of the study’s authors would say that it was a straightforward analysis that hardly required powers of prophecy.

Jacob, white-bearded and nimble, got out of bed and went down the stairs to deal with the inevitable.

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