New York, climate change, and sea level rise

A prescient 2008 lecture by climate scientist Klaus Jacob.

November 12, 2012

Recorded on January 7, 2008.

In 2007, the Architectural League launched a year-long series of programs entitled “Reimagining Risk” that brought together leading thinkers in architecture, environment, economics, and other disciplines to explore how the idea of risk was affecting the design of cities and buildings.

As part of the series, the League presented this lecture by Dr. Klaus Jacob on “New York, Climate Change, and Sea Level Rise: New Demands on Urban Planning and Architecture.” Jacob, a climate scientist who is now at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, discussed New York City’s extreme vulnerability to increasingly stronger storms and sea level rise.  In the announcement for his 2008 lecture, Jacob wrote that his presentation:

…Will outline features of climate change expected for this century that will affect the built environment of New York City. Adaptation to a new climate will require innovative ideas for how to (re)plan and (re)build the city, from the underground infrastructure to the above-ground building stock. Apart from new demands on the built environment from more extreme wind, temperature, precipitation, and other extreme events, probably the greatest challenge will come from sea-level rise. In conjunction with Nor’easter storms and more frequent and stronger hurricanes, sea level rise will produce ever more frequent storm surge inundations of the city’s low-lying waterfront and underground structures. Changes in zoning and/or building codes will be one way to respond, but until implemented, voluntary measures may be used by foresighted owners.

In the longer run (especially beyond this century) the following options, all “inconvenient,” present themselves: Retreat from the waterfront to higher ground and/or install defensive “hard” engineering solutions, such as storm barriers and levees, that might protect properties ranging from the local block- or neighborhood-scale to the entire inner NY/NJ harbor estuary. The latter “solution,” however, carries ultimately catastrophic risks, since there is no foreseeable upper level for sea-level rise. Whatever the future costly adaptation measures may be, climate change and sea-level rise are inevitable, and early anticipation seems prudent.

Please note: The compression settings render this video slightly pixelated. We apologize for the image quality.


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