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Climate Change

Columbia Earth Institute Holds Conference

On New Report Outlining Problems for New York Region

Land use map, 1999, New York Metropolitan Region

Map shows land uses for much of the New York Metropolitan Region in 1999, "Climate Change and a Global City, The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability andChange, Metro East Coast, A Report of the Columbia Earth Institute for the U. S. Global Change Research Program

By Carter B. Horsley and Michele Leight

The 2001-2 winter has been one of the mildest in the history of the New York metropolitan region. Blossoms were very early in Central Park and in mid-April the temperature there soared to a record 96 degrees. Meanwhile, rainfall in March was only half what it was a year ago and the city's reservoirs are at 50 percent when they should be at about 90 percent.

The area's seasons were routinely consistent throughout much of the 20th Century, but for the past 20 years or so there has been a marked difference in the weather and the alarmist cries of some environmentalists about "global warming" are increasingly hard to ignore.

In March, 2002, a large section, about the size of the state of Rhode Island, of Antarctica broke off.

While climatologists point out that seasonal variations are not unusual and every grammar school student is aware of past "ice ages," there can be little doubt that human civilization on the planet is experiencing a lot of strange and extreme weather in a relatively short period of time. To their great credit, the environmentalists have greatly heightened public awareness about many of the problems and some progress has been made, belatedly, in dealing with air and water pollution.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan and the Pentagon near Washington, moreover, greatly heightened public sensitivity about potential catastrophes.

On March 1, 2002, the Columbia Earth Institute of Columbia University held a one-day conference on "Climate Extremes and Change: Decision-Making in the New York Metropolitan Region" at which numerous speakers addressed the findings of a major recent report entitled the Metro East Coast (MEC) Report Climate Change and a Global City: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change." The 210-page report, crammed with many interesting charts, tables and statistics, might not thrill those who lust after tsunami and cataclysms and is somewhat reassuring about New York City's water supply and many health issues, but it does present some rather sobering scenarios about infrastructure and environmental concerns as a result of sea level changes and rising temperatures. Such concerns, the report's authors argue, should not be ignored or put off and need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Map from the Columbia Earth Institute Metro East Coast report shows areas in Lower Manhattan that would be inundated in worst-case storms that might occur more often because of changes in global climate

Dr. John C. Mutter, associate vice provost of the Columbia Earth Institute and a member of Governor Pataki's Greenhouse Gas and Climate Change Task Force, told the gathering that while long-range solutions to the many problems are expensive they will only become more expensive if they are delayed being implemented. "At some point there is going to be too much carbon dioxide in the air and we have to reduce emissions," he said. Furthermore, he cautioned that the impacts of such changes is felt more keenly by the poor, "the lower echelon of society," than the rich and that climate changes will "exaggerate differences between the rich and poor."

Dr. Cynthia Rosensweig of the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies at the university was a co-leader of the study and a host of the event and said that the conference was "about scientists working together with stakeholders to bring climate change into the decision-making process." "We want New Yorkers to address climate variability and change in ways that will benefit the present as well as the future and that other cities can follow," she said. William Solecki of Montclair State University, a co-leader of the MEC Assessment added that the study "was designed to be a template that other cities can follow as well."

"Climate Change and a Global City" was part of a national study commissioned by Congress and carried out by the U. S. Global Change Research Program, called the National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change for the United States. It was the only part of the national assessment focusing on a primarily urban location, and as several speakers noted because of its size and coastal location New York's problems are of relevance to many other urban areas around the nation and the world. The report was published in July 2001 by the Columbia Earth Institute and details are available at

Hilary Brown, the founding director of the Mayor's Office of Sustainable Design, told the gathering that "high-performance" buildings designed with sustainable development in mind can mitigate some climate changes through masures such as using light colored paving and roofing to reflect the sun's light. She produced the 1999 City of New York High Performance Building Guidelines that seek to maximize operational energy savings while minimizing detrimental environmental impacts of building construction and operation. A key feature of high-performance buildings is the reduction of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emisions by decreasing energy use. http:.//

New York State Assemblyman Alexander B. Grannis said that the private sector and especially the insurance industry need to get more involved in such studies.

Michael Alderstein, the director of the U. S. National Park Service told the conference that the country's more than 400 national parks could provide important research "grounds" for new studies and encouraged the conference participants to contact the service about possible studies, adding that "I don't think the American public is quite up to speed as the persons in the room" on the urgency of the problems.

Michael M. Crow, executive vice provost and professor of science policy at Columbia University and executive chair of the Columbia Earth Institute, urged the conference to recognize that action on these issues cannot await a full understanding of all the variables.

In June 2002, the New York City Council passed a resolution making New York a "Climate Protection City" that supports the initiation of plans that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions based on principles developed by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI)( )

The Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University has received a grant to lead a multi-university study of future scenarios of global climate change and regional land-use change as drivers of changing local climate and air quality and it hopes to develop tools for assesssing urban health risks due to heat stress and air quality changes. Contact Joyce Rosenthal at for further information.

For information about a two-year study of the hydrologic feasibility of storm surge bariers to protect the central part of the region from flooding being conducting by the Marine Sciences Research Center at Stony Brook University, contact Douglas Hill at .

The report has three themes: people, place, pulse.


The Metro East Study covers the 31 counties of the New York Metropolitan Region, an area of about 13,000 square miles with 1,600 cities, towns and villages in the states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and a total regional population of about 21.5 million people. About 30 percent of the region's land area has been "fully converted to urban uses," the study said, adding that "with close to 1,500 miles of coastline, the region's development has been intimately connected to the ocean." In 1950, New York made up 56.6 percent of the region's 13.9 million people but by 2000 the city's population represented only 37.2 percent of the region's population of 21.5 million, according to the report, which also noted that "urban counties lost 307,000 jobs from 1970 to 1995; suburban counties gained 2,018,400."


"Vulnerable habitants in the region have been heavily degraded. The vast majority of the region's wetlands have been lost. Buffer areas around wetlands or rivers typically are not present. In many areas, smaller rivers and streams have been filled, channelized, or diverted into culverts. Surface water and groundwater supplies, particularly in the more heavily urbanized areas, have been compromised and typically exceed federal water pollution standards. In the region, there are more than 100,000 leaking underground fuel tanks, spill sites, or former industrial sites included on the federal governments' register of known or potential toxic sites. Many are located in lowland locations where coastal wetlands were used as landfill sites. There are 131 active Superfund hazardous waste sites in the region. As of 2000, the region maintained 8.3 million housing units, and current estimates include approximately 2,000 miles of major highway, and 1,250 miles of railway. Much of the built environment in New York City itself and adjacent older urban and suburban areas pre-dates 1950"


"The region is highly dynamic.The region is organized around high-volume inflows as well as outflows and intraregional flows. As a largely urban site almost all of the food supply has to be imported into the region, and increasingly much of the solid and hazardous waste is exported out. In the case of the New York City water supply fresh water is also brought into the region. Energy is imported into the region via the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic grid."

"The tremendous infrastructure that has been developed is now aging, in need of significant redevelopment, inadequate to handle the current demand, or otherwise under threat. For example, the regional water supply systems will have to adapt to the changing patterns of development. The integrity of the New York City water quality is being challenged by increasing development around its upstate New York water supply areas, while in northwestern New Jersey new water supplies need to be developed as populations in the area grow. The most critical environmental issues for the region include air and water pollution, and suburban sprawl. The regional air quality still exceeds federal mandates for several pollutants. Surface and ground water supplies, and coastal waters face constant threat. Recent years have seen much of the remaining open space and farmland present at the distant edges of the region became sites for significant land speculation and conversion. These sites include northwestern New Jersey, the farthest eastern edges of the North and South Forks of Long Island, the lower Hudson River Valley and southwestern Connecticut."

Temperature and precipitation forecasts for the New York metropolitan area for the 21st Century

Charts show forecasts of temperature and precipitation changes for the Metropolitan East Coast Region for the 21st Century, from the report of the Columbia Earth Institute

The study found that "over the past 100 years, temperature in the region has warmed nearly 2 F", as compared to a rise of about 0.7F for the nation as a whole, and there are indications that "the biophysical and societal impacts of projected climate change will be primarily negative over the long term." "The impacts of climate change throughout the region and on its people will be widespread yet uneven.Substantial uncertainties about climate change remain, including the rate and magnitude of projected regional changes...The rate and amount of temperature rise is projected to increase over the 21st century, due to anthropogenic greenhouse warming. The global climate models (GCMs) utilized in the U. S. National assessment of the potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change project warming for the New York Metropolitan Region, ranging from 1.7-3.5 ° F in the 2020s, 2.6-6.5 ° F in the 2050s, and 4.4-10.2° by the 2080s. In the 2050s, the range of winter temperature rise is 3.3 to 5.65° F. In the 2050s, summer temperature rise is projected to range between 2.7 and 7.6 ° F. Global climate models project that the number of days with the National Weather Service Heat Index (a combined index of temperature and relative humidity used as a proxy for the discomfort caused by heat waves) above 90 ° F will increase from 14 days (1997-1998 base) to a range of 24-40 days in the 2020s, 30 to 62 days in the 2050s, and 40 to 89 days in the 2080s."

The study analyzed sea-level rise and coasts, infrastructure, wetlands, water supply, public health, energy demand, and institutional decision-making. The following quotations are from the report.

Sea-Level Rise and Coasts

"Sea level has risen 0.09 to 0.15 inches per year in the Metro East Coast Region over the last 100 years. About half the observed rise is related to ongoing geologic subsidence following the end of the last glacial period and about half is relating to the warming trend of the 20th Century. With projected climate change, sea level in the MEC Region may rise 4.3-11.7 inches by the 2020s, 6.9 to 23.7 inches by the 2050s, and 9.5 to 42.5 inches by the 2080s. Future sea-level rise would lead to more damaging storm floods and a marked reduction in the flood return period in coastal regions. In the MEC Region, the 100-year-flood would have a probability of occurrence, on average, once in 80 to 43 years by the 2020s, once in 68 to 19 years in the 2050s, and one in 60 to as often as every 4 years by the 2080s. Rates of beach erosion would double at sites within the region by the 2020s, increasing 3 to 6 times by the 2050s, and 4 to 10 times by the 2080s, relative to the 2000s."

The report's initial recommendations in this area include limiting development in high coastal hazard zones, purchase remaining open coastal space for future recreational needs, and requiring notification of coastal hazard conditions including sea-level rise, in the sale or purchase of coastal property.


"Most of the region's low-elevation transportation infrastructure will be at risk to flooding in the 21st Century.By the end of this century, for two-thirds of facilities with elevations at or below 10 feet above sea level, flooding may occur at least once every decade and at some facilities it will occur every few years. While annualized losses from storms in the region are estimated to be only $100-300 million per year, losses from a single, devastating storm may be up to $100 billion, about 10 percent of the almost $1 trillion gross regional product."

"The region is already in the process of rebuilding its basic infrastructure at costs approaching about $100 billion per decade. Therefore, the most cost-effective way to protect the infrastructure against future coastal storm surge losses would be built into the capital projects protection against the increased flood potentials. A coherent policy is needed that should be based on technical input. Uncertainties exist and will persist. However, these uncertainties must not be used to justify inaction since it is inevitable that the losses will accelerate just from the sheer growth of built and newly exposed assets alone. The most effective mitigation is to avoid placing new or refurbished assets at low elevations. This requires an innovative land use plan, zoning enforcement, and would be best be combined with new engineering codes that place all critical components at sufficiently high elevations. The problem of sea-level rise that New York City and the MEC region face will be shared by coastal cities and populations all around the U.S. and around the globe, in rich and poor countries alike. New York City and the surrounding MEC region are in the position to provide financial and intellectual resources to set a world-class example for home to prepare for the climate change issue."


"Studies of selected salt-marsh islands in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuse indicate that they have lost roughly 12 percent in area since 1959, with sea-level rise a possible causative factor."

"Given limited potential for retreat inland, the remaining fringe of coastal wetlands may decline, causing a ripple of other ecological effects, including the loss of critical bird and aquatic habitats."

Water Supply

"Climate change projections indicate that the variability of the hydrological systems in the region will increase, with more frequent droughts and flood. Current fish populations and other ecosystem functions linked to watersheds are likely to be affected."

Public Health

"The most direct health effect to be associated with warming and more variable climate is an increase in summer-seasonheat stress morbidity and mortality, particularly among the elderly poor. Climate change in the MEC Region will contribute to at least three classes of indirect health outcomes: incidence of certain vector-borne diseases may arise; waterborne disease organisms may become more prevalent; and increased formation of photochemical air pollutants may be fostered. By the year 2100, asthma-related hospital admissions are expected to rise slightly."

Energy Demand

Urban Heat Island effect

The "Urban Heat Island Effect" is shown in this graphic the Metro East Coast report of the Columbia Earth Institute

"A warming climate will raise the demand for electricity because the increase in summer cooling outweighs the decrease in winter needs. Because peak summer electricity loads already far exceed winter peaks, the electric system will be increasingly stressed during summer heat waves. The urban heat island effect already causes cities to be warmer than the surrounding countryside due to the absorption of heat by buildings during the day and reradiation at night. Under a warming climate, the urban heat island effect will increasingly beco`me an issue of regional concern in regard to energy demand and air quality.The emphasis on adapting to climate change should be on improved energy efficiency, particularly to reduce summer peak electricity loads, and enhanced passive cooling in buildings and communities. Local lines that distribute electricity to customers need to be upgraded, and the adequacy of transmission lines to bring more power into the metropolitan area should be assured. The 'weatherization' program that exists to save energy costs in housing for low-income people should be extended to provide summer cooling in urban areas as well as winter heating."

Institutional Decision-making

"A regional Climate Inter-Agency Task Force should be formed to identify potential climate-related events and conditions (e.g., coastal infrastructure at risk, disease outbreaks, water supply vulnerabilities) and proactively propose responses. The task force should also consider events that would require emergency actions and/or large-scale societal responses."

The Assessment, the report continued, "illustrates that the future environmental conditions of the Metro East Coast Region will be much more dynamic than in the recent past. The environmental management and responsive strategies that evolved during the 20th century were based largely on the idea that the ecological and environmental baselines were static, although ranging within the conditions of dynamic equilibrium. Local environmental change was seen as being brought about largely through direct human action. Global climate change forces a fundamental reassessment of those assumptions. In the 21st century, the baselines will change and local decision-makers will have limited ability to control the face of this transformation. The gases already emitted into the global atmosphere are projected to cause some degree of warming and environmental change regardless of the implementation of any comprehensive policy design to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (the root cause of projected climate change)."

Panelists at the conference included Bruce Swiren, Regional Program Manager for Hurricane and Earthquake Programs, FEMA Region II, Christopher Zeppie Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Edward Linky, Senior Policy Advisor for the US EPA Region 2.


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