Princeton researchers help protect New York from climate change

Four Princeton University researchers took part in the June 11 report, "A Stronger, More Resilient New York," a comprehensive analysis of New York City's climate risks and proposed steps for preparing for future climate events. The report stems from the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency that Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched last year in response to the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy.

Using updated climate models and flood maps, the report projects a hotter, wetter New York City on the edge of an ever-rising ocean. By the 2050s, the city could experience three times as many 90-degree days; experience at least five days of 2-inch-plus rainfall every 100 years (as opposed to three during the 20th century); and border a sea that could potentially rise by more than 2.5 feet.

The report offers more than 250 specific recommendations totaling $20 billion to defend the low-lying city against the flooding these conditions could bring. Steps include constructing floodwalls and storm-surge barriers, restoring local beaches and sand dunes, and considering a man-made elevated levee known as "Seaport City" that would also contain residential and commercial areas.

The New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), which Bloomberg established in 2008, provided technical guidance for the report. NPCC members include Princeton faculty members Ning Lin, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; Guy Nordenson, a professor of architecture; and Michael Oppenheimer, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs and director of Princeton's Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy (STEP) in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Christopher Little, an associate research scholar in STEP, provided guidance as a member of the multi-institutional Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast technical team.

The Princeton researchers took part in projecting the future sea-level rise and flood plain of the New York City area, as well as designing flood and storm-surge preparations. Oppenheimer and Lin were co-authors of a related and much-cited 2012 study that suggested that New York could be at greater risk for catastrophic flooding as the Earth's climate changes.

Climate change will sculpt the next chapter in the New York's ongoing story of survival, Oppenheimer said.

"Over the course of 350 years, New York City has adjusted to the risk of living by the sea but now the risk is increasing markedly," Oppenheimer said. "While the prospect of higher sea level presents daunting challenges, it's encouraging to see policymakers undertake a process of hard-headed evaluation of the risk and begin to plan to increase the city's resilience in the face of the multiple threats posed by climate change."

Nordenson, who also is commissioner of the New York City Public Design Commission, said that the report pools a variety of infrastructure ideas.

"There have been a lot of ideas about how to better protect the city from coastal flooding and the related consequences of climate change," Nordenson said. "What came out of Sandy was the sense that there are diverse strategies that are available and that need to be developed in parallel. I think that now everybody has come together in favor of a balanced set of strategies, and that is exactly what the city has put forward."

The NPCC was among the first city government-organized groups charged with developing local climate-change projections. Their initial findings were released in 2009 and predicted more heat, rain and flooding. After Hurricane Sandy, Bloomberg reconvened the NPCC to update its projections.

The report's recommendations draw on those projections.

"We can't completely climate-proof our city, but we can make it stronger and safer — and we can start today," Bloomberg said. "We're proposing a plan that doesn't rely on one technology or strategy — there are no magic bullets. Instead, it takes a tailored, multi-layered approach that prioritizes the areas most at risk, with the most vulnerable populations and most vulnerable infrastructures."

The full report is available on the New York City government website.