Several years ago, I taught a geology course at Tufts University. I was discussing the issue of climate change with one of the students and she asked me when we would get serious about addressing it.
I told her that the powers-that-be would not take the problem seriously until society collectively got dope slapped up the side of the head by some catastrophe which could not be ignored.
We may have had such a moment on Monday, October 26th, 2012, when a major storm made its way up the east coast and turned west directly into one of the largest metropolitan areas in the Western World. The impacts of such a storm were long predicted – including a storm surge high enough to flood lower Manhattan and submerge the subway and highway tunnel systems.
Before I go further, I want to step back a bit and discuss how science works. Scientists make observations, and then come up with an idea, also known as a hypothesis or model to explain the observations. This hypothesis will also predict the probability that future observations or experiments will confirm the hypothesis. This hypothesis can then be modified or thrown out as new observations come along. If the hypothesis continues to be confirmed, then it will rise to the level of scientific theory.
Far from being some hazy notion – a scientific theory is an idea, supported by a wealth of facts, which describes and predicts conditions in nature. The acid test of a scientific theory is its ability to make accurate predictions.
So why were oceanographers and climatologists able to predict what would happen to New York last week? Well, global average temperatures have been increasing substantially since the middle of the 20th century. Predictably, sea level has started to rise as continental glaciers melt and the ocean warms as well. Warm water expands so the volume of the oceans increases as well. The sea level is up at least a foot and the rate of increase shows no sign of slowing down.
Combine higher sea levels with a storm surge pushed ahead of hurricane, and the storm surge will predictably be higher.
Now, was Hurricane Sandy caused by climate change? The evidence is at best equivocal on that score because climatologists cannot predict specific weather events.
What they can predict are trends. Predicted trends include:
- An increase in sea level;
- an increase in ocean acidity (as the oceans absorb increased CO2 in the atmosphere);
- A substantial temperature increases, starting in the Arctic;
- A decrease in Arctic ice extent and volume;
- Changes in the character of the jet stream which can cause stagnant persistent weather patterns, such as the high pressure system over the North Atlantic which served to steer Sandy away from New England and right into the northern Mid-Atlantic states;
- An increase in severe regional weather events such as storms and droughts.
Does any of this sound familiar? It should because all these things are occuring.
Could an event like Sandy happen again? Yes and actually, it could have happened last year if Hurricane Irene had been a tad bit stronger and taken a slightly different course. As it was, damage from that storm was nothing to sneeze at, topping out at $20 Billion whereas Sandy is going to exceed $50 Billion. From what I read, many climatologists think such storms will start coming not once a century, but once per decade.
So, here we are. The predictions match the trends. It’s tempting for the scientists who have been warning about where we were headed to engage in a bit of Schadenfreude (a fancy German word for “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others”) and shout from the roof tops “WE TOLD YOU SO!” but I doubt most of them feel this way. Instead, I'd bet they feel like Cassandra of Greek myth, gifted with the ability to see the future but cursed so that none would believe her.
I have written before about the reality of climate change and my own frustration at the collective shortsightedness of our political leaders to address it. Given that we have already put enough CO2 into the atmosphere in less than 200 years to equal the amount of CO2 increase since the depths of the last ice age – we will not turn around a substantial amount of the projected “baked-in” temperature increase, with its consequent impacts on climate, even if we could switch away from fossil fuels tomorrow.
We are left now with only one path to take and that is to prepare for what is coming and plan accordingly. Suddenly, no one is laughing at the idea of storm surge barriers around New York City. The $5 to $10 Billion cost is a bargain compared to the physical and economic damage to the city from just one storm. Such systems already exist in London and Rotterdam.
So where will the money come from? It’s going to have to come from us, or more specifically, the municipalities in these areas and if there is no political will to spend that kind of money then the impetus will come from the insurance industry – yes, the insurance industry.
Most insurance companies already will not insure properties in coastal areas or flood zones, leaving the Federal Flood Insurance program as the insurer of last resort (and guess who pays for that). When, not if, but when large insurance companies step in and raise insurance premiums so high for businesses and residents in major coastal cities, or just flat out not write policies at all, then governments will have to act, because businesses will say, “Either you do something about it or we are leaving for higher ground and taking your tax revenues with us.”
We also have to face the fact that we cannot turn back the tide everywhere. People are going to have to move to higher ground and some coastal areas, as well as low lying areas in river floodplains will simply have to be abandoned to the waters. The federal flood insurance program will have to be changed to pay out for losses only under the condition that the owners leave the property and not rebuild.
Welcome to the future. Consider yourself dope slapped.
Postscript – Here in our tiny little cocoon of Westborough, we are not immune to extreme weather events. However, our town does something unprecedented in the rest of Massachusetts: inspecting and requiring the maintenance of all its private and public stormwater management systems (catch basins, storm sewers and detention basins). Many of the inspected systems had not been cleaned in decades and thus Westborough is now better prepared for large rain events than surrounding towns because working stormwater management systems reduce or eliminate local flooding in many cases (100-year events not withstanding and we have had more than one of those in the last decade).
In addition, through a cooperative relationship with CSX, antiquated and blocked drainage systems under the main rail right-of-way bisecting the town have been repaired and improved, which is now preventing backups of stormwater that formerly could not drain south into Cedar Swamp. A prime example is the rebuilt Transflow rail yard at the end of Walkup Drive. Two crumbling 40-inch metal drain pipes running north-south under the site were replaced with 48-inch diameter concrete pipes and the water level in the swamp between the rail yard and Flanders Road dropped several feet, back to the level it was in 1970.
Credit for this program goes strictly to Derek Saari, the Assistant Town Planner and Conservation Officer, who saw the need for this program and took ownership of it.