Climate change is already impacting New York City with rising temperatures and sea levels, which will only worsen as the century continues, according to a report released Tuesday from a panel of scientific experts.
In its 2015 report, the New York City Panel on Climate Change found that the most populous city in the United States is expected to see more frequent heat waves and extreme precipitation events. This is in line with the national and international trends other leading scientific bodies have observed.
The city’s average annual temperatures, measured from Central Park, have risen about 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900. From 1971 to 2000, the average annual temperature in the city was 54 degrees, and models predict a a 4.1- to 5.7-degree increase by the middle of the century. Temperatures are projected to rise 5.3 to 8.8 degrees Fahrenheit by the 2080s.
Sea level rise, however, may pose an even greater challenge for coastal New York. Average sea levels have risen about 1.2 inches per decade in the city since 1900, or about 1.1 feet overall, according to the new report. This is almost twice the average global rate of 0.5 to 0.7 inches per decade.
This trend is expected to accelerate in the coming decades as greenhouse gas emissions generated by human activity continue to trap more of the sun’s heat, warming and expanding the oceans and melting land-based glaciers and ice caps, among other contributions.
“The task at hand is daunting — and that is why we’re making an unprecedented commitment, with a sweeping plan to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050, and a comprehensive, multi-layered resiliency plan that is already making neighborhoods safer,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.
Flood-zone areas projected to double in size within the century
The report’s authors project sea levels around New York City will rise 11 to 21 inches by the middle of the century, 18 to 39 inches by the 2080s, and up to 6 feet by 2100. The researchers noted that their projections are specific to New York City, but “projections based on similar methods would not differ greatly throughout the coastal corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C.”
“It is virtually certain that sea level rise alone will lead to an increased frequency and intensity of coastal flooding as the century progresses,” they wrote. If sea levels rise to the higher end of current projections, twice as much of New York City will lie within the 100-year flood plain in 2100, as compared to 2013.
New York’s infrastructure has much to lose if the report’s prediction comes to fruition. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s 2014 National Assessment, even just a 2-foot rise in sea level would render 212 miles of roads, 77 miles of rail, 3,647 acres of airport facilities and 539 acres of runway useless if flooded.
At 6 feet of sea level rise in 2100, nearly 20 percent of New York City’s 469-square-mile land area would have a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year. A little under 11 percent of the city’s area is currently included in the 100-year flood plain, according to a preliminary FEMA assessment released in December 2013. While all five major boroughs are at risk, the report says low-lying Queens and Brooklyn are poised to receive the brunt of the flooding.
Hurricane Sandy in 2012 demonstrated some of the challenges New York will face this century, particularly when it comes to adapting the city’s aging infrastructure and transportation network. Flooding from Sandy knocked out power for part of Manhattan and the storm caused unprecedented flooding in the city’s train and vehicular tunnels under the Hudson and East rivers. The storm also killed several people, leveled homes, and caused an estimated $60 to $80 billion worth of damage in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, according to the National Climate Assessment.
Health-related impacts on New York City residents
Beyond the economic- and infrastructure-related damage, the report also warns that New York City residents face potentially severe health risks stemming from increasing temperatures and extreme weather, as well as a range of secondary hazards linked to climate change and pollution.
Health effects of rising temperatures increased incidences of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, allergies, heat-stroke, and heat-related deaths. In moderate climates (like New York), even small increases in temperature can also vastly expand the geographic distribution of disease-carrying insects, raising the risk of vector-borne infections. The risk of these impacts is projected to increase in the future, the report says.
Extreme weather and flooding can also lead to a variety of adverse health effects. For example, floods can contaminate freshwater supplies, damage or destroy sewage pipes, wipe out crops, heighten the risk of water-borne diseases, and create breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes. After Hurricane Sandy, residents of New York were horrified to see rats flocking to the streets to escape the high water. Of course, floods can also cause drownings and physical injuries, damage homes, and disrupt the supply of medical and health services. They are also associated with significant psychological distress, often leading to mental illness and even suicide.
While all New York City residents are at risk, some groups are more vulnerable to the health effects of rising temperatures and sea levels. These include the old and the very young; women; those with preexisting physical, mental, or substance-abuse disorders; residents of low-income households; members of disadvantaged racial/ethnic groups; workers engaged in recovery efforts; and those with weak social networks.
The health impacts could also vary across the city, as they did during Hurricane Sandy, the report notes. Mitigating factors include local effects of storm and tidal surges, differing housing types, the degree to which energy, water, and/or transportation infrastructure is disrupted, and the underlying health and resilience factors of the affected population.
Preparing for ‘one of the great challenges of our time’
This week’s report recommends that the city consider both mitigating climate change, through reducing emissions, and adapting to it. The authors advocate a multifaceted adaptation approach that uses engineering and existing ecosystems. Experts have previously cautioned that manmade “gray” infrastructure alone cannot solve New York City’s resiliency challenges.
“The science is clear—our actions since the Industrial Revolution have changed our climate and changed our planet,” Nilda Mesa, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, said in a statement. “Adapting the city for the risks of climate change is one of the great challenges of our time, but we know there’s no choice but to take bold action to reduce our contributions to climate change, as well as to protect our city from what lies ahead that we cannot prevent.”
Along with Tuesday’s report, city leaders also announced progress on efforts to make New York more sustainable and improve resiliency. Measures include design work on a flood protection system for Manhattan’s Lower East Side and investments to protect vulnerable waterfront communities, among other programs. The city has also coated over 6 million square feet of roofs with reflective paint to cool buildings and combat urban heat island effect.