By Lauren Frisch and Danielle Bissett, Bard CEP MS ’14
On March 6, 2013 the National Climate Seminar hosted a conversation on “After Sandy, What’s Next?” with Brenda Ekwurzel, a Climate Scientist and Assistant Director of Climate Research and Analysis at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Using Hurricane Sandy as a case study, Ekwurzel explained how coastal communities are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the combined effects of both sea level rise and extreme weather events. Ekwurzel also explained the possible solutions that coastal communities can implement to better prepare themselves for the next big storm.
Ekwurzel first discussed the rising threats of extreme weather to coastal communities. Not only is global climate change increasing the intensity of extreme weather events, but sea level rise is further weakening coastal communities from withstanding these intense storms.
Climate change refers to the effects that increase atmospheric carbon dioxide, which lead to warming global temperatures. A warming of global temperatures also leads to a number of effects like the melting of glaciers and ice sheets that directly affect sea level rise and warming oceans. Warmer oceans foster extreme weather and allow storms like Hurricane Sandy to grow and remain powerful. Further, it is anticipated that by 2100 sea level may rise between 1-4 feet, and maybe up to 6 feet under worst-case scenarios! Taking into account these combined threats, it is important to evaluate how coastal communities can make sure their infrastructure is capable of withstanding forceful winds and inundation.
Ekwurzel stressed that the need for natural and built barriers, including wetlands, mangroves, coral reefs, levees, and seawalls, are the key factors to protecting coastal communities. Elected officials, city planners, insurance companies and business leaders who work together with local sustainability departments are instrumental in increasing the resiliency of coastal communities to extreme weather.
Since communities are dynamic and environmentally diverse, a one-size fits all approach to managing these threats should not be taken. Rather, a case-by-case approach will best address which type of natural and built barriers should be implemented, and how to maintain the resiliency of these barriers. Environmental knowledge of the area will be needed to maximize the effectiveness of these barriers. This knowledge will include variables such as soil types and samples, data on sea level rise and future projections within a given area, and present natural barriers and how they managed surviving Hurricane Sandy. This data can assist with deciding on what type of barrier would be more effective protecting a shoreline and ultimately a community.
Coastal communities may also choose to redesign buildings and transportation systems to maximize protection from powerful storms. Standards for buildings can be improved to make roofs and other features more capable of withstanding powerful winds and flooding associated with extreme weather events. Further, private insurance companies and the federal government can help highlight risky areas by offering different insurance rates or none at all as these high-risk areas can be too costly to repair and therefore not economical for insurance companies to cover.
In the end, Ekwurzel was optimistic that the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy would encourage coastal communities to reevaluate the combined risks of extreme weather and sea level rise and be more prepared for the next big storm. Though it is hard to think of a city as powerful and indestructible as New York City as being vulnerable, Hurricane Sandy highlighted the danger of ignoring the threats of global environmental changes like sea level rise.
The damages caused by Hurricane Sandy cannot be taken lightly. Extreme weather events such as these show how important it is for coastal communities to prepare. Ekwurzel stressed the need to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions through national and international agreements. This is crucial because increases in carbon dioxide emissions drive climate change, and therefore drives sea level rise and extreme weather events through warmer ocean temperatures. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions is the best way to slow global climate change and sea level rise since these two variables are directly linked. Through this action, we may delay the negative impacts of global climate change, which may give coastal communities a longer period to respond and adapt to our changing environment.
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Missed the conversation with Brenda Ekwurzel? Listen here.
The National Climate Seminar takes place on the first and third Wednesday of every month. Connect with top scientists, analysts, and political leaders to talk about climate change.