New York City Faces a Sweaty, Flooded Future—and That Matters to Everyone

With sea levels predicted to inundate the metropolis, Gotham is getting ready for the day after tomorrow.

(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Feb 18, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

In less than 100 years, New York City will be even hotter, wetter, and stormier than it is today and contending with dramatically higher sea levels.

That’s the forecast from an expert panel on how New York’s environment, weather, and climate will change between now and the end of the century, owing to the global impact of burning fossil fuels.

New York’s success or failure at adapting to these climate changes will reverberate far beyond Gotham. New York is the world’s leading financial center and a media and cultural powerhouse. The region has the largest urban economy—$1.5 trillion—in the United States and the nation’s third-largest economy overall, after California and Texas. The metro area’s three major airports combined handle more than 105 million passengers a year, with 56 million of them arriving on vacations to take in New York’s scores of world-ranking art and cultural institutions.

“Climate change is an existential threat to New Yorkers and the world,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “Together, we are rising to the challenge by dramatically reducing our contributions to its causes while protecting ourselves against its risks.”

(Map: Courtesy The Institute for Sustainable Cities)

The city has begun adapting to changing temperature, precipitation, and coastline conditions. But the panel has called for more efforts to better assess and predict risks from flooding, heat waves, and worsening air quality, as well as the costs of adapting to and recovering from severe weather.

The report, released Tuesday, is the first to project climate change impacts on New York to 2100.

According to the New York City Panel on Climate Change, sea levels around the city’s five boroughs will swell another 18 inches to 39 inches by the 2080s and as much as six feet by 2100. Sea levels around the city have already risen by 1.1 feet since 1900, nearly twice as fast as the global rate.

These rising waters will extend the city’s floodplain farther inland, doubling the area that would be affected by a once-in-a-century flood. As a result, the city’s coastal neighborhoods will flood up to 15 times more frequently toward the end of the century.

Manhattan’s shoreline would be the least impacted, while the borough of Queens, bordered to the north by the East River, a tidal strait between Long Island Sound and New York Bay, and to the south by the Atlantic Ocean, would be hardest hit.

Rainfall patterns in the city also will continue to change over the 21st century, the panel found. Rainfall currently averages 43 to 50 inches a year; by the 2080s, it will rise by 5 percent to 13 percent, with brief, heavy rainfalls of one or more inches happening about one and a half times more often. These extreme rain bursts have already increased about 70 percent in New York over the past 50 years; the four years with the greatest number of storms dropping two or more inches all have occurred since 1980. (The last was in 2011.)

Heat waves will occur three times more often by the 2080s, with yearly mean temperatures climbing by 5.3 degrees to 8.8 degrees Fahrenheit by the 2080s—on top of the 3.4-degree rise the city has experienced since 1900.

Long-term adaptation projects around the city include a $450 million plan for armored levees and other protective structures off the east shore of Staten Island, $15 million in “natural infrastructure,” and a $335 million “Big U” storm barrier planned for Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

To cut New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions, the de Blasio administration recently unveiled a 10-year plan to retrofit existing smaller buildings such as homes, schools, businesses, and public institutions to use cleaner power and be more energy efficient. According to city hall, New York is the largest city in the world with a target of cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.

City hall has already approved the creation of the panel’s next climate report, which, in addition to updating climate forecasts, will analyze how class, race, and other social factors are affecting the climate risks faced by New York residents.