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Queens Chronicle

Climate change could put city underwater

Panel warns Sandy-like floods could be a common occurrence in Queens

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Posted: Thursday, March 5, 2015 10:30 am

When Superstorm Sandy hit Queens on Oct. 29, 2012, it caused historic floods and damage from which many communities are still recovering.

But a recent report by the New York City Panel on Climate Change, published last month, predicts that the kind of extreme weather seen during Sandy could become more common across parts of the borough in the coming decades. The report takes into account recent climate trends and projects what will happen through the 2020s, 2050s, 2080s and for years beyond 2100. It found that heat waves are “very likely” to increase, as are the number of intense rainstorms and the amount of yearly precipitation. It also projected rising water levels in the region.

The panel presented three kinds of predictions for each weather behavior: low estimates, indicating a cautious prediction; estimates in the middle range; and high estimates in the 90th percentile, representing a kind of worst-case scenario.

Area elected officials and climate change experts sounded off on how the predicted changes in climate would impact Queens.

Extreme weather

“It’s going to take what we used to call a 100-year event and turn it into a near-eight-year event,” said state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) of the projected increase of superstorms.

Addabbo, a member of the Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee and representative of Southern Queens communities still reeling from Sandy’s impact, added that one of the insights gleaned from the superstorm was that on the Old Side of Howard Beach, there was coastal flooding, but not as much on the new side.

“These are issues that we’ve been working on a long time to be recognized,” City Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria) said. “We’re seeing more extreme weather in the summer and winter months. We’re seeing a large swing of the pendulum due to climate change and we need to combat it.”

Days of “extreme precipitation” are also predicted to increase, according to the report, with around 1.5 times more per year by the 2080s and with the number of the most volatile types of hurricanes more likely to increase. The report said it isn’t known how common nor’easters will be in coming decades.

The panel’s findings highlighted the health impacts of storms, including contaminated drinking water, mental health stressors, mold caused by moisture in homes and population displacement.

Heat waves are another concern; there are expected to be longer and hotter summer heat waves, which spur a host of health issues, particularly for the elderly and very young.

“Morbidity and mortality effects of heat may be especially severe if a blackout occurs during an extreme heat event,” the report says. “When blackouts occur, exposure to heat increases, with a corresponding increase in health risks. Blackouts can also increase risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from improper use of generators and cooking equipment.”

City Councilman Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton), chairman of the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection, likened the effects of climate change to the movie “The Day After Tomorrow,” which depicts New York City entrenched in hundreds of feet of snow. While the blockbuster illustrates a landscape ravaged by extreme cold — not heat — the idea that weather will grow more powerful aligns with what many believe will occur in the future.

“That’s where we’re headed,” said Richards, who said humans are going to have to change their behavior. “New York City has to divorce with its love affair with fossil fuels.”

Rising sea level

Many factors contribute to sea level rise, the report’s authors explained, and as the geography of the coastlines of the five boroughs vary, any projected increase would not be completely uniform throughout the city or in Queens. The panel created a model of future flooding based on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood-mapping framework, the authors explained.

The panel’s report said the average rise in sea level in New York City since 1990 has been about 1.2 inches per decade, which is already twice the global rate. But the panel predicted an increase in sea level of four to eight inches in the 2020s, 11 to 21 inches in the 2050s, 18 to 39 inches in the 2080s and 22 to 50 inches by 2100. Under the panel’s high estimate, the New York metropolitan region could experience an increase of as much as 75 inches by 2100.

“The range of projected sea level rise grows as the century progresses, primarily because of uncertainties about how much ice sheets will melt as temperatures rise,” the report reads. It adds that there must be more investigation into how ice sheets — the greatest source of uncertainty — will behave in coming years.

According to a map projecting a “100-Year Flood” within the New York City region, some parts of Western Queens, Northern Queens, Southeastern Queens and southwestern Queens along the Brooklyn border could see a 75-inch sea level rise by the year 2100. Concentrated sections of Southeast Queens, including the area encompassing JFK Airport, are projected to see a 10-to-30 inch rise from the 2020s to the 2050s. The map also takes into account flood insurance boundaries determined by the FEMA, indicated with the color purple, which show many parts of southern Queens, including the Rockaway Peninsula and Broad Channel, as well as Northern Queens’ LaGuardia Airport and Flushing Meadows Corona Park, are vulnerable. Parts of Astoria, such as Hallets Point — the site of proposed housing developments — and Long Island City are also included.

The report also said strong coastal storms, such as Hurricane Sandy, may be more prevalent in the region as time goes on, which could also contribute to sea level rise in the long term. But, they said, it’s difficult to accurately predict because storms themselves are hard to predict.

“The report was very, very scary. But for families in southern Queens and Rockaways, it wasn’t a surprise. We’ve seen the impacts of Mother Nature first-hand,” said Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Park).

He added that the city and residents need to take better care of the environment.

“We’ve got to be more resilient. I don’t think there’s a way to stop it but I think there’s a way to slow it down,” Goldfeder said. “I think we’re more ready today than we were before Sandy; however, I don’t think we’re prepared for another storm.”

George Hendrey, chairman of the School of Earth and Environmental Studies at Queens College, said the report’s predictions echo what has been said before about the future climate. He said weather phenomena New York has seen in recent years will continue to happen, but will perhaps unfold much quicker than previously thought.

“We’re absolutely certain that we’re going to see a rising sea level of many inches,” Hendrey said. “We don’t know if it’s going to be as bad as several meters, but we buy insurance.”

Hendrey, who teaches courses in global climate change and science and technology in New York City, and whose research revolves around green infrastructure and urban watersheds, said the idea of developing strategies so communities can be more resilient when big disasters come along is what people who are interested in the topic of climate change are advocating for. He said sustainable infrastructure is like buying car insurance — you hope you don’t need to rely on it, but in the event of something dire, you’ll be glad you took the time to invest.

“We’re looking into the future at which some extremely difficult times are not just conceivable but have a probability,” he said.

Will residents be forced out of Queens?

“No parent should put their children to bed feeling they’re going to lose their homes to rising rents and rising seas,” Constantinides said, adding he hopes no one will be forced out of the district due to climate change-caused phenomena. He added that former Mayor Mike Bloomberg championed the idea of bringing a flood barrier to areas along the East River, and that he’s open to ideas.

Goldfeder noted many families in Staten Island are moving out of the area, but the same is not happening in his district.

“In Southern Queens and the Rockaways we are strong and we are resilient and we are going to do everything we can to stay in the communities we love and that our children and grandchildren can stay in the places that we love,” he said.

“This report raises serious alarms about the climate realities facing our city,” said City Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park). “It is crucial that New York City continues to pioneer its own efforts to address climate change and resiliency issues.”

Climate education

Constantinides introduced a resolution last year asking the state Department of Education to incorporate climate change education into the public school curriculum.

“We don’t have time to have this debate,” he said. “At this point, there is a way we can build a green economy, there is a way we can build green jobs, there is a way we can make our homes safer and more resilient if we just move forward on green technology in New York City.”

Richards said to slow down the effects of climate change, the nation needs to move to “100 percent renewable energy.” He also said he’s working on a number of initiatives on the citywide level, including placing solar panels on public buildings to harness solar energy.

To people who completely deny the existence of climate change in the city, Goldfeder says, “Come visit the struggling families in South Queens and the Rockaways, who know all about the effects of Mother Nature.”

Hendrey said he thinks there will be a lot of new experimentation in finding sustainable ways to insulate, cool down and protect homes. He said one thing is to look at rooftops, which can be painted white or fitted with green roofs that collect sunlight and create electrical energy, but also cast a shadow on the roof, making the building cooler.

Hendrey referenced how Al Gore once said that if the United States really wanted to, it could get all of its power from renewable sources, switching completely over a 10-year period. Hendrey had his students look at the feasibility of the idea within the context of New York City. They concluded an “obvious yes,” but found it would be too expensive.

Hendrey said people are still reluctant to buy that “insurance.”

“People don’t want to see a 10 percent increase in electrical rates,” Hendrey said.

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