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New York releases climate assessment and a plan for urban adaptation

Shortly after Hurricane Sandy hammered the eastern seaboard last October, more than a dozen scientists on the New York City Panel on Climate Change reconvened to begin work on a new assessment. The results were released today by Michael Bloomberg, New York’s mayor, and they served as the basis for a US$20-billion urban-planning initiative that seeks to prepare the city for extreme weather and rising tides in the decades to come.

The science panel’s assessment is based on the latest modelling for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and suggests that average temperatures could rise 1.7–3.6 degrees Celsius by 2050 (compared to a baseline from 1971–2000). Precipitation could increase by 5–10%, and the number of days with temperatures reaching at least 32 °C could triple. The panel’s projections suggest that local sea level could rise 18–79 centimetres, increasing the frequency of significant flooding events. The city has expanded its 100-year flood areas (currently populated by some 400,000 people, a number that could rise to 800,000 by mid-century) and is bracing for rising storm damage in the decades to come.

The Bloomberg administration’s report is in line with a range of ideas and issues discussed in earlier coverage, from new sea walls and insurance programmes to stricter building and industrial codes (see Natural Hazards: New York vs the sea’). They also include new urban approaches intended to better integrate the city with the ocean, allowing for occasional saltwater incursions (to get a taste of things, check out the architectural renderings, along with damage assessments and new flood maps, in Bloomberg’s presentation).

The city has already begun expanding protective dune systems in some areas, Bloomberg said. Having ruled out a single surge barrier across the New York Harbor as impractical, the city is beginning work on the development of a series of smaller barrier systems and sea walls that will protect specific neighborhoods. Acknowledging that much of the work will depend on budgets and future administrations, Bloomberg said he will do what he can during his final 203 days in office.

“I strongly believe we have to prepare for what the scientists say is a likely scenario,” Bloomberg said. “Whether you believe climate change is real or not is beside the point — we can’t run the risk.”

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