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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“As for the jet stream, the issue is this: if, in the fall, you’re warming the polar regions by a lot and you’re only warming the equator a small amount (about one degree), you’re making the temperature gradient — the difference between the equator and the pole — a lot less. The jet stream is to some degree driven by that temperature gradient. If we’re warming the polar regions a lot, the pressure gradient high in the atmosphere isn’t going to be as strong, the deflective force is not as strong, and you end up with a weaker jet stream. And a weaker jet, the reasoning goes, will meander, just like a weak-flowing river. You’re prone to getting those north–south dips.

“It’s early research, and if we try to link all this to Sandy it’s even more challenging, because this is one storm, and we’ve only had the sea ice really being dramatically reduced for five or six years. So it’s early.

“But we did have a very wavy jet stream at the time of Sandy.”

Building To Flood

When Sandy hit New York, Vishaan Chakrabarti was with his students in a city where the canals are higher than the street. He was in Rotterdam.

“The Dutch learned long ago that you don’t fight the water, you learn to live with the water,” says Chakrabarti, the Marc Holliday Associate Professor of Real Estate Development at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and former director of the Manhattan office of the New York City Department of City Planning. “They have parks designed to flood and hold water, parking garages designed to flood and hold millions of gallons of water. You can build parts of the city so that they flood. It’s not just a question of building those giant sea gates. It’s going to be a mix of solutions that include the capacity of the city to flood.”

Chakrabarti, who lives in Lower Manhattan, looks around his neighborhood and sees lessons. “Some buildings are OK, some buildings are out for months,” he says. “What that tells me is that there’s a way to retrofit these buildings so that they’re more flood-proof and flood-resistant. We can move critical building systems well above a newly established flood plain, improve pumping systems, waterproof the fuel tanks of backup generators. I don’t think that’s rocket science.”

Cliff Notes

The MTA got hit for an estimated $5 billion of damage. In December, Governor Cuomo went to Washington to request $42 billion in aid, while New Jersey governor Chris Christie said that his state, its battered coastline changed forever, would need $36.8 billion. President Obama, in a budget battle with Republicans, has asked Congress for $60 billion, about a quarter of which — $13 billion — would go toward mitigation projects.

You Don't Need A Weatherman

It’s a week after Sandy, and Jacob is still stranded in boat-tossed, waterlogged Piermont, in his white clapboard house, cleaning mud from his furniture. Both of his cars were destroyed in the flood. Jacob is among the fortunate.

Living by the water, he says, was his wife’s idea. He had agreed to buy the house on the condition that he could raise it. When he sought to raise it higher than the FEMA flood zone — which was based on data that didn’t take into account rising seas and climate change — he ran into local zoning laws limiting the houses height. So he remained at the FEMA threshold. Sandy’s waters exceeded that by almost two feet.

Up the wooden stairs, in Jacob’s office, on his desk, lies the FEMA-funded earthquake study from the 1990s, with its own ominous predictions. Nearby is the eerily accurate 2011 ClimAID study.

As for prophecy? You might say that a prophet came fourteen months before Sandy. Jacob isn’t very impressed, then, when he hears politicians, post-Sandy, talking about the “new reality” of severe weather and rising seas.

“They should have woken up after Irene,” he says. “How many wake-up calls do we need?”

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