Reimagining New York

  • Posted 11.21.13
  • NOVA

Disaster risk management expert Klaus Jacob speaks candidly about the effects of climate change and sea level rise on New York City. He says we need to think ahead to what New York will look like 400 years from now in order to plan effectively.

Running Time: 04:36


Reimagining New York

November 21, 2013

KLAUS JACOB: I am Klaus Jacob. I’m a Special Research Scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and I’m also teaching at the SIPA, that’s the School of International and Public Affairs of Columbia University in Disaster Risk Management.

One weather event like Sandy does not make climate change, but it’s a symptom together with many of the other events that will show, “Yes, there is something going and we call it climate change.”

The weather event in the atmosphere is not exactly predictable related to climate change but what is predictable is the flooding because climate change will raise the sea level, and sea level will contribute to the power of flooding. And therefore, the flooding event that was associated with Sandy is definitely something that will increase and we’ll see more and more in the future in a very easily predictable way.

So the real effect is not how high the water goes, but at a given elevation, how frequently it will reach or exceed that elevation that’s critical for the functioning of the subway or anything else. And so the hundred-year storm will become essentially a two-year storm—two to five-year storm—by the end of the century with that kind of sea level rise.

The first one that everybody jumps on is protection, protection, protection. Build barriers like New Orleans, like London, like St. Petersburg. Well, think about it. But before I go there, the second one is not protect yourself from the water, but invite the water in, live with the water. Move all the critical facilities out of the lower floors. Put them at the tenth floor of skyscrapers or on the roof and let the water come in. It goes out, you clean up, and you’re done, if your house is what’s called “wet-proofed.”

I’m not saying we should have no barriers. All I am saying is if we have barriers, use the time wisely to plan for a retreat when those barriers become dysfunctional, which will be in a 100,150 years.

We have the wrong development policies in this city. This has to be reversed and we have to start gradually, not everywhere, to retreat from the most exposed waterfront.  Having said that, Manhattan is probably, particularly down in the Wall Street area, the least likely to retreat. Why? Because we have invested so much, both in buildings, in institutions, and in infrastructure.

The entire city—and for that matter, the entire nation—is essentially hung up with short-term, at best, midterm planning. We see that in politics. We see that in the financial sector. It’s not surprising that we see it in the public when it comes to dealing with flooding and disaster risk management.

Look, New York City has evolved over 400 years. If you look at it 400 years ago, it certainly didn’t look like now and it will not look the same 400 years from now. So think a little bit what it might look 400 years from now with 20 whatever feet of sea level rise. It will not look the same, so don’t kid yourself. The question is how do we get to where we know it will have to go in our day-to-day decisions today? 



Produced, Written, and Directed by
Miles O'Brien
Additional Producing
Cameron Hickey and Suzi Tobias
Cameron Hickey
Associate Producer
Will Toubman
Cameron Hickey
Original Footage
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2013


(flooding of lower Manhattan at night)
Courtesy Casey Neistat
(water lapping over the dock during the daytime)
Courtesy Con Edison
(flooded subway shots)
Courtesy MTA


(main image: Klaus Jacob)
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2013

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