Hindsight Plus Foresight for a Future Requiring Insight

Klaus Jacob understands flooding on a personal level. He lives near the Hudson River in Piermont, NY, in what he calls “a nuisance flooding zone. I live it day by day…. I put boots in my car, because I don’t know that, when I come back from a movie, I can come back to my house. I’m the living example of living with risk.” Having studied the likely extent of sea-level rise (SLR) over the coming decades, he foresees increasingly drastic adaptations affecting not just structures, but daily life: “Do we drive amphibian cars, or what?… Maybe we want to know whether we all learn to swim 20, 40, 50 generations down the line.”

The inaugural presentation of the AIANY Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee (DfRR) in 2011 featured discussions of long-range hazards by Columbia Earth Institute geophysicist Jacob, a nationally influential researcher on both seismic hazards and SLR. Looking beyond planners’ customary target dates (e.g., 2030) to speculate about conditions that may appear any time up through the later 21st century, he offered recommendations that proved prescient when Superstorm Sandy struck a year later; responses to his predictions by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), as DfRR Co-chair Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, DPACSA, noted in his introduction, mitigated the flood damage to the transit system (which Jacob terms “the city’s Achilles heel”), saving lives and billions of dollars. Last month’s presentation and panel offered a follow-up five years further into DfRR’s activities and Jacob’s research, illuminating scenarios that are not just conceivable, but inescapable.

Jacob is skilled at presenting alarming information accessibly, often drolly, spurring his listeners not to cower before “the doom and gloom, which he’s a little bit too well known for,” as Brown noted, but to take action. Speaking on his own behalf rather than for any of his professional organizations, Jacob challenged every citizen – not just the politicians – to respond to the facts at hand. New York is not adequately prepared for serious SLR, he finds, but it is preparing, armed with three essential elements: long-term climate projections, awareness of the history of coastal flooding, and a repertoire of basic options guiding current and future adaptation measures. “Hindsight is easier than foresight,” he acknowledged, “but together they provide insight.”

Five long-term SLR forecasts since 2001 culminate in the 2015 report by the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC3), which presents probabilistic estimates: given a range of different calculations, there is a 90th-percentile risk of a six-foot SLR by 2100, with only the 25th- and 10th-percentile risks suggesting less than a two-foot increase by that date. “For planning purposes,” he said, “it would be wise to use the 90th percentile.” Even drastic geoengineering to remove CO2 from the atmosphere will not keep SLR from accelerating; recent maps of ice-sheet melting in Greenland show the process already well underway. Historical data on warming cycles 125,000 and 400,000 years ago are associated with temperature rises of 1°C and 1-2°C, and SLR of 6-9 and 6-13 meters, respectively. The sharp spike in CO2 from the approximate 280-ppm level to nearly 400 ppm during the far briefer industrial era (1890-2014), compared with stable levels over 13,000-year and 30,000-year periods, makes today’s trends particularly alarming – and from Pliocene data about 3 million years ago, when CO2 was in that comparable 400-ppm range, sea levels may have been as much as 30 meters higher. Given the New York City region’s topography, substantial waterfront land will be inundated, he demonstrated, displaying maps of six-foot or 10-foot coverage – practically the entire south shore of Long Island on the map of 10-foot SLR. Even if buildings endure these floods, such conditions will mean property losses and infrastructure failure for generations.

Sandy, he noted, “eerily verified” the impact and cost projections that he, Cynthia Rosenzweig, and other colleagues had developed for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s 2010 ClimAID project, with two important exceptions that he termed “untold success stories.” A barrier at the 144th Street Harlem River Tunnel prevented flooding of subway lines between Manhattan and the Bronx, and the MTA’s aggressive removal of signal and control systems saved two weeks of downtime and some $10-20 billion in citywide economic losses. (He observed that the local media, always fond of MTA horror stories, missed the good news here.) Adaptation is feasible, he contends, if the city relies on three basic modes: physical protection by fixed-height structures; accommodation through submersible or floating structures (“Invite the water and make it such that we can live with it”); and strategic relocation (“The only truly sustainable solution, [yet] a tough pill to swallow,” dismissed as politically toxic by Mayor Bloomberg, but a measure for future mayors to rethink). All three are urgent, Jacob believes, particularly because protection alone has limited effectiveness and “residual, potentially catastrophic risk.” Since SLR exacerbates the effects of severe storms, by century’s end a much weaker (“10-year”) storm will produce the same elevation Sandy did; current risks, without new transformations, will be amplified at least tenfold by then; worse storms, he calculates, could be 70 times as destructive.

Public and private waterfront developments currently under way have a mixed prognosis, Jacob contends. The Rebuild by Design competition’s “Big U,” renamed the Dryline, “if built as planned, will do a very good job for at least half a century, maybe for the rest of the century.” The Domino Sugar Factory appears resilient to SLR below 10 meters; the Red Hook Innovation District, on the other hand, will be soggy if SLR exceeds six feet – and that’s under routine daily tidal levels, not storm effects. Mayor De Blasio’s Brooklyn-Queens Connector trolley will likewise be vulnerable if built at street level, and Jacob recommends considering elevated alternatives resembling Germany’s Wuppertal Schwebebahn. Ground Zero’s vulnerability, he adds, raises obvious questions about the new Santiago Calatrava-designed transit hub and the web of underground structures. Proposed Dutch-style barriers protect against rising oceans, but create problems as river water, also elevated, tries to escape to the ocean and piles up inside the barriers, creating a bowl effect like New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina or Hoboken during Sandy.

More sustainable solutions, Jacob suggests, might resemble Hamburg’s HafenCity, combining elevated buildings, piles, floating structures, and flood accommodation. Jacob sees a future New York with multiple High Lines, allowing movement between buildings even under flood conditions, and believes we must reverse the trend of densification at vulnerable sites. He hails a proposal by dlandstudio’s Susannah Drake, AIA, FASLA, RLA, RA, to raise floor area ratios and increase density in non-flood zones, using proceeds from development rights to buy out low-lying landowners. Perhaps even a return of 17th-century New Amsterdam’s canals – with amphibian water taxis cruising a Canal Street and Water Street that recover their literal meanings – would be preferable to barrier defenses. Whatever measures the city implements, he implores its leaders to involve communities in ways that minimize dislocations and injustices.

The respondents connected Jacob’s observations to professional procedures and imperatives. Rosenzweig, emphasizing both mitigation and adaptation as “intertwined pathways,” linked Jacob’s comments to the Paris Conference of the Parties (COP21) agreement to set, at most, a 2°C (ideally 1.5°C) limit on further global warming through reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions. Donald Watson, FAIA, observing that drastic losses tend to cloud human rationality, urged everyone aware of the implications of climate change to maintain a first responder’s levelheaded vision, and argued that the combination of SLR, flooding, heat, disease, and “failing governance structures” calls for systems thinking, particularly on the part of the design professions. His own OARS list (Organizations Addressing Resilience and Sustainability) provides a portal to hundreds of entities dedicated to this work.

Deborah Gans, FAIA, who has worked with the city’s federally-supported Build It Back program on a one-house-at-a-time level, pointed out the program’s limitations, but suggested that “a way to be at least half-Klausian” exists on intermediate scales. Dan Zarrilli, accentuating the positive while acknowledging scientific uncertainty and bureaucratic or budgetary constraints on civic preparation, noted that because Sandy “happened in the media capital of the world, it really changed the conversation,” marshaling resources to translate planning into long-term adaptive mitigation. The city’s $20 billion resiliency effort, he noted, is addressing vulnerabilities in residences and infrastructure, “not in a one-and-done way” or simply rebuilding what the storm has destroyed, but in programs that retrofit municipal and private buildings to reduce greenhouse gases and mitigate conditions while adapting to the ones already locked in.

“Every architect has a challenge; we face it every day we pick up a pencil,” Watson observed. “The line you draw has global consequence. Every building that we design that’s going to last 100 years has to have net-zero energy performance… and when you build, you have to add back better the ecosystem functions of water, soil, temperature gradients – the complexity of biology that has been taken away by sea-level rise. You want a challenge? Go scratch your head on that one.” Yet a precedent exists for coordinated activity to remedy one form of anthropogenic environmental damage: Brown and Rosenzweig cited the ozone hole, produced by chlorofluorocarbons, and addressed by the 1989 Montreal Protocol and the development of less damaging chemicals to replace them. “This is a kind of a prequel for very large human-made global problems,” Rosenzweig noted, “dealing with the Earth’s atmospheric system, that the countries of the world came together to solve.” Humanity has not yet induced the hole to close, but we have stopped damaging it further. Changing global energy systems to apply brakes to SLR will take far more complex coordination, all panelists acknowledged, while emphasizing that a glass-half-full activism on this front is the only responsible option.

Event: VisioNYC 2080 – Is New York City Prepared for Serious Sea Level Rise?
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.08.2016
Speakers: Klaus Jacob, Geophysicist, Urban Environmental Disaster Expert, Columbia University; Deborah Gans, FAIA, Principal, GansStudio; Donald Watson, FAIA, CIP, Principal, EarthRise Design, and Professor of Architecture, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Dan Zarrilli, Senior Director, Climate Policy and Programs, NYC Office of the Mayor; Cynthia Rosenzweig, Senior Research Scientist, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies; Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, DPACSA, Founding Co-chair, AIANY Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee (moderator)
Organizers: AIANY Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee and ASLA-NY