2013-07-03 / News

Increasingly intense storms like Sandy worry scientists

Professor stresses need to build resilient cities
By Ken Shane

Dr. William Solecki of the City University of New York gave a lecture last month at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography on the importance of building resilient cities and towns on the lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy.

Solecki is co-chairman of the New York City Panel of Climate Change. While he used the Big Apple as the primary example in his seminar, his overall message was applicable to any city or town in the path of rising waters caused by increasingly intense storms.

Jamestown is among the places where storm surges can be disastrous.

Solecki, who has a Ph.D. in geography from Rutgers, was invited to speak by the Metcalf Institute as part of its annual public lecture series. The five lectures covered topics including water quality, the fisheries crisis and ocean acidification.

According to Solecki, no specific event can be attributed to climate change. However, the fact remains that sea level has been rising at a rate of about 1 inch per decade, he said.. Solecki believes that 60 percent of that growth is anthropogenic, meaning it’s caused by humans.

Previously, scientists thought climate change was primarily caused by discrete events, but that train of thought has shifted. According to Solecki, they are beginning to believe the problem is part of a chronic process.

The response to Hurricane Sandy is often discussed in the context of climate change. Solecki said there has been a change in thinking from disaster recovery to disaster rebuilding. As an example, he cited a press conference held by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg in June where he announced plans for a multibillion-dollar adaptation plan for the city of 8 million. Many of the recommendations given by Solecki’s panel were incorporated into those plans.

Another climate concern is the increase in the number of heat waves, which are defined as three days in a row with temperatures 90 degrees and above – if it lasts longer than three days, Solecki calls them super heat waves.

There were 18 such days in the New York area last year, but Solecki expects that number to increase threefold by the 2050s. One of the critical problems is that HVAC systems begin to fail after about 10 days of intense heat. He says failures can lead to a public health emergency, since heat is responsible for the most climaterelated deaths. (A heat wave that struck the Southwest over the weekend was blamed for the death of an elderly man who was found dead in his air-conditionless Las Vegas apartment.)

Solecki provided data linked to a possible increase in air temperature. The average temp baseline from 1971 to 2000 was 54 degrees. In a best-case scenario, the baseline is expected to increase 1.5 degrees by the 2020s. In a worstcase scenario, average temps could jump 3 degrees. By the 2050s, according to Solecki, a 3-degree rise is optimistic, with a pessimistic scenario being a 6.5-degree in- crease on average.

“In all cases we see a slight acceleration of the process,” he said.

Solecki, who is the director of the CUNY Institute of Sustainable Cities, also demonstrated the potential for sea-level rise for New York City in the coming years. In the most likely scenario, sea level is expected to rise 4 to 8 inches by the 2020s, and 11 to 24 inches by 2050. These projections are markedly higher than projections made in 2009. He said a worst-case scenario could make them even higher.

On the issue of storm frequency, he said it is unclear whether or not the amount of storms will increase, although they will get more intense. According to Solecki, Hurricane Sandy seems to have ushered in an era where open dialog is taking place on how to reduce the risk. He said it’s time to adapt to these powerful storms.

“Many challenges lie ahead for a nonstationary climate policy,” he said.

This is the 16th year the Metcalf Institute has held the lecture series. Executive Director Sunshine Menezes said the lectures build on a common theme: global change in coastal ecosystems.

“We hold these lectures to share timely environmental science and policy issues with Rhode Islanders,” she said.

The mission of the Metcalf Institute is to promote accurate scientific and environmental reporting. It helps build working relationships between members of the scientific community and media. Menezes said the lectures were well attended this year, with an average of more than 80 people per talk. The best attended was the one given by Solecki.

“I’m not surprised that this lecture had the largest audience, since many people in Rhode Island were affected by Hurricane Sandy,” she said. “They are wondering what steps can be taken on a personal, local or state level to improve our ability to bounce back from this type of massive storm in the future.”

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