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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At 2:07 p.m. on August 10, 1884, an earthquake struck off Coney Island. The shocks toppled chimneys in New York and New Jersey, knocked dishes off shelves, swayed chandeliers in Midtown hotels. Seismologists place that pre–Richter scale event at a 5.5.

In the early 1990s, Klaus Jacob, more conversant than most in the fault lines beneath New York City and near the Indian Point nuclear power plant, was chair of the scientific advisory committee to the New York State Office of Emergency Management.

“I always said, ‘Look. We have to find out what happens during an earthquake,’” Jacob says. A Columbia-led group of investigators persuaded FEMA to fund a study.

“Using computer models, we placed a magnitude 5, 6, and 7 in the location of the 1884 earthquake in Brooklyn,” Jacob says. One of his coauthors was George Deodatis.

In the late 1990s, Jacob presented their results at an Earth Institute event at Columbia. The audience included some “climate people,” Jacob says, who approached him and asked if similar loss estimations could be made for climate-related events. “We don’t know,” Jacob told them, “but we can try.” Those trials were incorporated into what became Climate Change and a Global City: An Assessment of the Metropolitan East Coast Region, known as the MEC study, published in 2000. Jacob covered infrastructure, anticipating, just as he would do in the 2011 ClimAID report, the vulnerabilities exposed by a catastrophic storm surge.

In August 2001, Jacob went to Seven World Trade Center — the forty-seven-story building that would collapse hours after the fall of the Twin Towers — to share the earthquake findings with the mayor’s Office of Emergency Management.

What really impressed the audience that day, Jacob recalls, was the amount of debris that a magnitude 6 or 6.5 would produce. In that scenario, Jacob told his listeners, New York’s brownstones would crumble throughout the city. Brownstone was a poor earthquake performer.

“Then 9/11 occurred,” says Jacob, “and you couldn’t talk about earthquakes, hurricanes, or anything about natural disaster. For five years it was all terrorism. We lost ten years of preparedness for natural disasters in this country.”

The A-Word

Cynthia Rosenzweig / Upper West SideIt’s hard to catch up to Cynthia Rosenzweig. She moves fast. She’s co-chair of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, convened by Mayor Bloomberg, she develops and designs major climate-change assessments, she organizes and leads, she runs and runs. Maybe you’ve seen her on TV, in a dark-blue North Face fleece pullover, saying, in her soft voice, “We have to learn how to be more resilient, because climate change is already occurring, and is projected to continue to worsen,” a message she’s been evolving since her first peer-reviewed paper, “Potential CO2-Induced Climate Effects on North American Wheat-Producing Regions,” was published in 1985.

Today, twenty-seven years and billions of tons of carbon dioxide later, and a week after Sandy, Rosenzweig is in Philadelphia, at Drexel University, leading the second annual meeting of the Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast (CCRUN). The consortium, one of eleven regional research units established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study climate risks, includes Drexel, the University of Massachusetts, Stevens Institute of Technology, and the City College of the City University of New York.

“We have this group of researchers who are already in place and have been studying these exact risks of climate extremes,” Rosenzweig says during a break. “Now we’re organizing to do the research needed to understand the problems and create the best solutions.”

Rosenzweig is joined by Robert Chen, director of the Earth Institute’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network. Chen, who studies the interaction between human and environmental systems, promptly drops the A-word.

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