Pictures and video are just beginning to show the true extent of the devastating storm “Sandy” that arrived at the shores of New Jersey, but which has also markedly had immediate and marked effects from storm surge on both New York and Connecticut shores. Major sections of low-lying shoreline were flooded. Water also moved inland with significant damage done in those locations. New York City subways and tunnels were flooded. Significant power outages occurred leaving millions without power. Over 80 percent of Long Island is without power. Overall, eight million people are without power and that number is expected to rise. A major fire occurred in Queens in a low-lying flooded area where fire-fighters were unable to contain the blaze. About 80 homes were burned down to the water-line. Of course, this represents only a small list of the most obvious areas damaged. We can expect many more reports of serious damage to come.
We all know that much of America’s infrastructure was rebuilt in the 1930-1950s. We have ancient water and sewer systems, old and inefficient electrical grids , as well as many roads and bridges in various stages of collapse. These structures seem to be repaired or rebuilt only when there is no other option. We’re now about to see how our ancient infrastructures in New York and New Jersey have stood up to the challenge of Hurricane Sandy. For example, the New York City subway system by all accounts is a good one, but it has never been quite challenged the way Hurricane Sandy has challenged it.
In the days and weeks to come we will see a continuing discussion and review about emergency preparedness actions in the states affected by Hurricane Sandy as well as the roles taken by FEMA and the federal government. The more relevant issue may be whether we can continue to rebuild in low-lying areas that are always at increased risk when extremely dangerous storms make landfall. We have this discussion every time something like this happens, yet we rebuild and go back into the same areas.
Of course, emergency preparedness improves each time. Communications and early warning improve. Evacuations are instituted earlier and both guided and assisted by government personnel. This certainly improves preparedness and probably significantly reduces loss of life. Sandbags and boarding up windows probably helps in some cases, but in a really powerful storm like Hurricane Sandy there is little that can be done to stop serious property damage to these low-lying at risk areas.
Another issue that arises is whether such serious weather events are occurring more regularly and in connection with the warming of the Earth. We know that significant warming of the Arctic has produced more and more open water during summer months and as a result is producing early indications of altered weather patterns in the northern regions of Russia, Scandinavia, Greenland, Canada and Alaska. Eventually these changes will affect the hydrological cycle as well as other ways the Earth moves heat off the equator. This may already be happening and may be affecting storm-related intensity and frequency. Storm patterns will be clearly affected, although we don’t understand how that will occur.
Warming in the polar regions is slowly increasing ocean levels and those levels may increase still further and unexpectedly as large above the ground glaciers melt and in some cases slide into the sea. No really rapid increases in glacial melting in to the sea are expected unless there is a precipitous loss of the Greenland glacier and/or the West Antarctic glacier shelf. Even with continued warming these events are not expected before the end of the century. They are wildcards in anticipated additions to sea level. Without loss of either of these two extremely large sources of above-ground ice, the seas may rise less than a meter by the end of the century, but should we lose both the Greenland glacier and the West Antarctic ice shelf to the sea then sea levels could rise 4-6 feet or more. Clearly, as sea levels rise, the seriousness of storms like Hurricane Sandy would increase. A nine foot surge starting with a sea level 6 feet higher than it is currently would mean a 15 foot surge. Indeed, a 4-6 foot increase in sea level would make some of the areas evacuated during during Hurricane Sandy to be uninhabitable in normal circumstances. Nevertheless, a 15 foot surge would have produced a much greater area of immediate damage over a wider area of the coastline. Thus, we should be not only concerned about whether these major storms are occurring more frequently but also whether or not they can be expected to be more and more damaging to life and coastal infrastructure. In either case if we are going to continue to live on our coasts, particularly where they are low-lying, we will minimally have to protect them from significant damage with improved infrastructure.