Layers: New York City Metropolitan Area

LayersNYCManhatNightInfrastructure is the glue that holds modern urban society together. Hazards attack people and infrastructure both; if the infrastructure becomes unusable, the toll of the hazard can be much greater and the time to recovery longer. The New York City Metropolitan area is vulnerable to a variety of hazards. The concentration of people and the modern infrastructure they depend upon is greater here than perhaps anywhere in the world. Most of the people live vertically, stacked in high-rise buildings, requiring elevators for people and belongings, and pumps for water and sewage. In the dense footprint of New York City, most of the infrastructure to support these high-rise dwellers and the city’s offices hides underground. Flooding from a powerful hurricane, a rare tsunami or a long-lived thunderstorm could send cascades of water into the tunnels, vaults and underground galleries where this vulnerable infrastructure resides. The results would be catastrophic. Resilience is the capability to rebuild infrastructure and people’s lives after disaster strikes. New York would probably be resilient. But one flooding threat brings danger that would not be easy to come back from, even in vibrant New York.

The threat of global sea level rise could turn New York into another Venice, with water-filled canals superimposed on the city’s streets, first after large storms and over time, all the time. In their 2007 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change viewed collapse of the world’s ice sheets resulting in rapid, catastrophic sea level rise as not a great threat this century. However, continuing research shows that glaciers show signs that they are far less stable than previously thought. The Greenland ice sheet is losing mass at a rapid rate, helped by surface ice melt and flowing water that enlarges crevasses and carries relatively warm water to the interior and base of the glacier. Water at the glacier’s base allows for more rapid outward flow of the ice resting on it. The edge of the ice sheet and the smaller glaciers it feeds are receding at an alarming rate and the demise of the sea ice surrounding the world’s largest island creates even warmer conditions conducive to melting. In Antarctica, ice shelves that hold back the West Antarctic Ice Sheet are breaking up, removing barriers that kept the main sheet in the deep freeze nearer to the poles. This is happening because the Southern Ocean is warmer and water level is higher. Unknown to most New Yorkers, what is happening to the world’s great ice sheets will determine how “severe” future hurricanes will be, and ultimately how “livable” their city can be.

Unlike Venice, where adaptation to water was built with the city, a sudden rise in sea level would drown New York’s infrastructure. Water supply, electricity, sewer, transportation and communications would all be gone, leaving 17 million people without a lifeline. Paying for the transfer of now below-ground utilities, transport and communication is a vexing problem. Certain infrastructure, such as the rail and subway system, would be difficult to duplicate above ground, especially on flooded streets. The people who work in the city and depend on the commuting links will have to get there some other way, and boat transfer seems almost impossible for the millions. Will the city that never sleeps come to a halt?

Text prepared by Dr. James Brey

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Layers: Places in Peril

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