Climate Crisis Threatens Largest U.S. Cities

statue of liberty global warming

Largest cities in the U.S. are at the forefront of climate change.

An ABC News report (Climate Week NYC: Large cities are at the forefront of climate change, experts say, said:

About 80% of the U.S. population lives in urban settings, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Some of the country’s most densely populated cities, like New York City, are already at the frontlines of global warming, according to experts.

“This particular section of the population is very vulnerable to a range of climate impacts,” Rachel Cleetus, policy director for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told ABC News.

Hotter Temperatures Threaten City Dwellers

Heat is one of the two major impacts expected to plague cities as climate change continues to worsen, the experts told ABC News.

“Extreme heat is one of the most clearly recognized signals of climate change,” Cleetus said.

Heat Waves Are Greater Danger

The report said:

Not only are residents and infrastructure experiencing a steady rise in average temperatures, but when the extreme heat waves come, they pose an even greater danger, Malgosia Madajewicz, an associate research scientist for Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems Research, told ABC News.

Vulnerable And Disadvantaged

One of the biggest concerns for residents of large cities when a heat wave arrives are for those living in disadvantaged communities who do not have access to air conditioning or cannot afford to run it all the time, Madajewicz said.

Extreme summertime heat overburdens vulnerable populations, especially communities of color living with low incomes, Cleetus said, citing mapping research the Union of Concerned Scientists has done to show the inequities of keeping cool in cities.

Heat illness is the number one weather-related killer in the world, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while cooling centers are available during business hours, they do not help people stay cool at night, which tends to be the most dangerous time for people in vulnerable populations or with preexisting conditions to succumb to heat illness, Madajewicz said.

Abundance Of Concrete

It said:

Urban environments are prone to overheating because of the lack of greenery and abundance of concrete, which absorbs the heat and does not release it easily, creating the phenomenon known as an urban heat island. Heavy traffic also contributes to air pollution, which helps to trap the heat even more.

“There is a very inequitable impact of extreme heat and cities because of these urban heat islands,” Cleetus said.

Increased Flooding In Cities

The ABC News report added:

Historically, large cities all over the world have been built on coasts, which allowed for easy access to transportation and trade. But the convenience of location has also left these cities vulnerable to sea level rise and high tide flooding, the experts said.

As sea levels continue to rise about 3.5 millimeters per year, mostly due to melting in the Arctic, the additional water is contributing to chronic flooding in metropolitan regions, Cleetus said.

High-tide flooding, or “sunny day flooding,” is becoming increasingly common due to decades of sea level rise, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a report released last year.

Changing storm patterns, with an increase of stronger storms that contain more moisture, are also partly responsible for increased flooding. In 2021, more than 50 people in the Northeast died after the remnants of Hurricane Ida caused flash flooding in major cities along the East Coast.

Chronic Flooding

The report added:

In some New York City neighborhoods, the chronic flooding has become so regular that it is occurring on a weekly basis, Madajewicz said.

“There are areas in New York City that are going to be difficult to sustain neighborhoods in in the long term,” she said.

No Soil

It said:

The prevalence of concrete also contributes to the flooding, as there is no soil to help absorb the excess water, Madajewicz said. The lack of wetlands and dunes in coastal areas that have been heavily developed, such as the Rockaways in Queens, make those neighborhoods more susceptible to flooding, especially when a major storm comes in, like Tropical Storm Sandy in 2012.

About 1.3 million residents of New York City live within or directly adjacent to the floodplain, according to Rebuild by Design, a climate research and development group. As sea levels continue to rise, that number could increase to 2.2 million New Yorkers.

Health And Economy

It said:

Both heat waves and flooding can have an impact on people’s health, their livelihoods as well as the economy, Madajewicz said. They can also have these impacts of various channels like water quality, air quality and infrastructure, such as roads and the power grid, Cleetus said.

Once that infrastructure starts to get affected, a domino affect of threats to public health ensues, which includes a potential rise in energy and food prices, Cleetus said.

Food Supply

The ABC News report said:

The food supply could even be interrupted because there are only so many access points in which sustenance can be shipped in, Madajewicz said.

“If those access points are disrupted, with flooding or effects of heat, that affects a very large population,” she said.

Rising groundwater is also being pushed to the surface — both due to rising sea levels, but also due to human consumption and waste, Madajewicz said. Then, when the rain and storm surge comes, there’s nowhere for the extra water to go, and there is potential for polluted water or raw sewage to also rise to the surface.

Suburbs Also Face Danger

The report said:

People living in the suburbs will also acutely feel the effects of climate change, according to a new study by JW Surety Bonds, an insurance brokerage and consulting firm.

The paper, which used artificial intelligence to project climate change effects on major U.S. cities by 2123, found that homes in cities like New York City, Oakland, California, Miami and Cape Coral, Florida would be underwater in 100 years.

Drier And Deserted

The report said:

Conversely, places like Phoenix will be even more dry and deserted, due to an increase of drought, the researchers found.

People who live in the suburbs are more likely to settle there with a family and therefore pure for permanent solutions to create environmentally friendly homes and infrastructure that will withstand future threats from climate change, including green spacing, urban farming and sustainable water management, James Campigotto, a data journalist for JW Surety Bonds and researcher for the study, told ABC News.

Cities’ Need

It said:

Big cities are “engines of solutions,” and are tasked with implementing climate resiliency strategies to protect its citizens from future threats, Cleetus said.

The Big Apple has already started implementing infrastructure improvements that will protect its residents from future extreme events, but the work is nowhere near finished, Madajewicz said.

New York City enacted new building regulations in 2021 that take climate change into account, such as requiring all new construction to be above base flood elevation and take various other flood considerations into account.

There are also efforts being made to raise subway entrances, make the electricity grid and telecommunications more resilient and improve the infrastructure for public transportation, which can shut down when inundated with water — especially certain subway and train lines as well as New York City’s airports, which are located right on the coast in extremely flood-prone areas, Madajewicz said. After Superstorm Sandy, Con Edison, the utility company that serves that majority of New Yorkers, upgraded the infrastructure to the power grid.

“Right now, even a city like New York, which has considerable resources, does not have enough for the scale of investments that are needed,” Cleetus said.

Lack Of Resources

It said:

Other large cities may not have the same resources or as sizeable a budget as New York, and the challenge will be to prioritize those transformations before it’s too late, Madajewicz said. In Miami and other coastal cities in Florida, city planners have prioritized the installation of stormwater pumps, for instance.

“There is more to be done, and it is important to recognize the gaps as well as the need for more funding going forward to fill those gaps,” Cleetus said.

If not, people may need to move further inland — a budding trend of climate migration that experts expect to see more often in the coming years.

“There is going to be huge issue with availability of housing for the people who need to live,” Madajewicz said.

More Than A Million In NYC Are Vulnerable

Another ABC News report (How rising sea levels will affect New York City, America’s most populous city, April 19, 2023) said:

More than 1 million people are living in or near a flood plain in New York City.

New York City is among the most densely populated coastal communities in the world preparing for an inevitable rise in sea levels, which scientists said will amplify flooding crises from events such as thunderstorms, high tides and hurricanes.

The report said:

Sea levels in New York City are expected to rise between 8 inches and 30 inches by the 2050s and as much as 15 inches to 75 inches by the end of the century, according to The NYC Panel on Climate Change.

It said:

The consequences of sea level rise were displayed in 2012, when Superstorm Sandy, a Category 3 storm at its peak intensity, hit New York City as a tropical storm. The system, coupled with high tide, sent a storm surge from the East River into lower Manhattan — more than 9 feet above normal tide levels in Battery Park, while the depth of floodwaters measured at 14 feet in Staten Island, according to a report by the city.

Forty-four residents of New York City died as a result of the storm, officials said.

Since Sandy, the city has moved to flood-proof critical infrastructures, such as hospitals, power plants and major tunnels, which were impassable for both drivers and subways after the storm.

Giant Sea Gates: Proposal

The report said:

The Army Corps of Engineers has proposed the construction of giant sea gates across New York Harbor. The $52 billion proposal would involve building 12 movable sea gates across the mouths of major bays and inlets along the harbor.

Even with those massive flood barriers, smaller floods will still be able to seep in, Malgosia Madajewicz, an associate research scientist for Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems Research, told ABC News.

“There is no single factor [that] can eliminate all of the flood risks,” she said, adding that other interventions will need to be utilized, such as smaller infrastructure along the shore and homeowners investing in retrofitting their homes and filling in their basements.

These types of preventative measures could save homeowners hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next decades, said Madajewicz, who researched the cost of damage to homes from Sandy.

However, many New Yorkers struggle to afford the investment necessary to flood-proof their homes, Madajewicz said.

More than half of the New York City residents in the floodplain zone live in areas with a median income of less than $75,120, which is considered low income for New York City for a family of three, according to Rebuild by Design.

In addition, many homeowners may rely on the economic benefits from their basements, which may not be feasible to eliminate from their budget, Madajewicz said.

Basements Turn Death Traps

The report said:

Those basements turned into death traps in 2021, when the remnants of Hurricane Ida caused devastating flooding in New York City and killed at least 13 people.

While much of the attention around coastal flooding has been around investment in physical infrastructure, social infrastructure is just as important to prepare for the next big storm, Alana Tornello, director of resilience for the Human Services Council and former emergency preparedness lead for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, told ABC News.

“There needs to be significant reform and how we get out resources to community partners and to human services organizations,” which includes more voices being brought into adaption planning, Tornello said.

The rate of sea level rise has doubled since 1993, when researchers began taking measurements from satellite images, according to NASA. Anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change has caused about 270 billion tons of ice mass loss in Greenland per year and about 150 billion tons of ice mass loss in Antarctica per year, according to NASA.

Tokyo Mumbai Kolkata

Eight of the top 10 largest cities in the world — Tokyo, Mumbai, New York City, Shanghai, Lagos, Los Angeles, Kolkata and Buenos Aires — are adjacent to the coast, according to the U.N. Nearly 40% of Americans — about 94.7 million people — live in coastal areas, despite those regions accounting for less than 10% of the total land in the contiguous U.S., according to NOAA and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Sea level rise is not just a threat in itself — it is a “threat-multiplier,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said during the Security Council meeting on sea level rise in February.

Rising seas threaten lives and jeopardize access to water, food and healthcare, Guterres said. He said it could also damage or destroy vital infrastructure, such as transportation systems, hospitals and schools, especially when combined with extreme weather events linked to rising global temperatures.

High-tide flooding, or “sunny day flooding,” is becoming increasingly common due to decades of sea level rise, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in its 2022 sea level rise report. Rising sea levels are making storm surge brought on by hurricanes more destructive. And 1-in-100-year floods are now happening so often, the term may change, experts told ABC News in 2021.

As a result, coastlines are changing all over the U.S.

Coastlines Around The World

Another ABC News report (How climate change, rising sea levels are transforming coastlines around the world, November 7, 2022) said:

Communities have gravitated toward the shore for thousands of years, building their lives in proximity to major waterways for easy access to trade, seafood and recreation.

But those who reside near coastlines will need to learn to adjust as climate change continues to create conditions that chip away at these malleable geological structures, according to experts.

One of the recurring topics of the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cairo, Egypt, was how climate change is currently affecting people around the world. As coastlines change and become battered by an increase in the number of severe weather events, homes — and, in some cases, entire communities — are being condemned as they become inundated with seawater the more the natural barriers are broken down.

The transformation of coastlines is constant. Coastal erosion is a natural part of the Earth’s cycle as strong waves continually crash against the shore. But as global temperatures warm and sea levels rise, the damage to the coast’s natural barriers is being exacerbated with each subsequent monster storm with tropical force winds or higher — which typically causes the most damaging events of erosion, scientists say.

Erosion is a huge issue in the U.S., and it is made worse by sea level rise which increases the distance the wave energy moves inland, Dr. Ken Miller, Geologist at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey told ABC News.

As melting glaciers and ice sheets cause sea levels to rise, the ocean waves around the coast become more intense, Raphael Crowley, associate professor at the University of North Florida’s Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure and Environment, told ABC News.

In addition, gradual effects from day-to-day erosion reaching farther inland, such as land that was previously above sea level being underwater more, will weaken the structure of the coastlines even more — allowing for strong storms to do more damage when they pass through, Ronadh Cox, a professor of geology and mineralogy at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, told ABC News. Each high tide that reaches previously dry land has a cumulative effect on shoreline retreat and the associated erosion.

“So, everything from nuisance flooding associated with tides rising higher, to storm surges penetrating farther inland, all contribute to these effects of the coast,” Cox said.

The types of natural infrastructures that can be destroyed are sand dunes, cliffs and even living shorelines, such as plants, marshes and oyster reefs — all of which can act as barriers to an influx of ocean water. A marsh measuring 15 feet deep can absorb about 50% of incoming wave energy, but these living barriers continue to dwindle, as well.

Lost Coastal Wetland

The report said:

More than 80,000 acres of coastal wetlands are lost every year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The deterioration of coastlines can also be impacted by the human tendency to develop right on top of them, according to experts.

As populations increase and more housing is built near the coast, oftentimes the coastal wetlands are drained to make room for development, Cox said.

When the barriers along the coastlines fail to keep ocean water out, it wreaks havoc on communities, Crowley said. Roads become impassable. Homes become at risk of being destroyed or even swept away in some cases of extreme storm surge — like what happened in parts of southwest Florida due to Hurricane Ian.

“The combined effect of all of these things, of course, is increased erosion, land loss and infrastructure loss,” Cox said.

Coastal erosion is already tallying up to about $500 million annually in property damage, according to the U.S. Climate Resiliency Toolkit, an online resource that compiles data from the U.S. federal government.

“The problem with coastal engineering is that coasts are constantly evolving,” Crowley said.

If people want to live near the ocean, protection measures such as ensuring a high enough elevation and that there is a barrier between the structure and the water — such as a sand dune — should be implemented, Crowley said.

Severe storms can remove wide beaches in a single event. Following the passing of Hurricane Irma in 2017, Crowley witnessed what was previously a sand dune in north Florida’s Vilano Beach transformed into “a 40-foot cliff with a house hanging off of it,” he said. That structure was one of several dozen that Crowley knew would never be livable again, he said.

The research is suggesting that what was previously considered a once-in-a-generation storm, such as Ian, could start to occur more frequently, Crowley said.

In addition, Cox has witnessed famed coastal towns such as Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, both in Massachusetts, lose measurable levels of cliff retreat of several meters per year in some places, she said.

In Pinellas County, Florida, a half-foot of sea level rise in the past 50 years has led to the loss of 120 feet of beach, John Bishop, coastal management coordinator for the Pinellas County Government, told ABC News.

Sea levels have been rising about 3.5 millimeters per year since the early 1900s, Crowley said.

“It does not sound like a lot, but then if you add that up over 100 years — that’s quite a bit of rise,” he said, adding that the rate of rise has since accelerated.

In the next 30 years, sea level along the U.S. coastline is projected to rise, on average, 10 to 12 inches — the same amount it rose in the past century, according to a new report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report. Experts believe the drastic rise will continue to exacerbate coastal erosion and the problems people living near the ocean will face.

About 2 feet of sea level rise along the U.S. coastline is increasingly likely between 2020 and 2100 because of emissions to date, according to the NOAA report. An additional 1.5 to 5 feet of sea level rise is possible by the end of the century should countries around the world fail to curb emissions, the report predicted.


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