Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Hot, Wet, and Nasty (But Not in a Good Way): Superstorm Sandy and the New York of Tomorrow

Posted By on Tue, Sep 3, 2013 at 9:45 AM

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An obvious point of reference when assessing the report is the deadliest extreme weather event to have bubbled out of our new climate—not Sandy, but the European heat wave of 2003. If nothing else, this should make environmentally aware New Yorkers feel much better about their nation’s political inertia. Sandy killed 285 people all told, 43 of whom lived in New York City. In contrast, the 2003 heat wave claimed more than 70,000 European lives. You read that right. If you don’t believe me, look it up. People were dropping so fast in Paris some ended up in unmarked graves. And what was the European reaction to this sign of what’s to come? It was pretty much Congress’s response to the message conveyed by Hurricane Sandy. Nada. But at least the US disaster was graced with an actual name, not just a date.

The Bloomberg report concentrates on infrastructure. Were it to focus on people, it might have given greater consideration to how to keep the city cool. As you’ve probably noticed, cities are hotter than the countryside around them. It’s a consequence of the heat absorbent, mineral-rich materials of the streets and buildings; the ambient heat produced by a density of cars, heating, air conditioners and simple bodies; the lack of greenery; and possibly certain other factors. This is the urban heat island effect, and it operates in a way that’s one of those grim little bonuses greenhouse gases never stop pulling out the hat. An urban environment doesn’t just turn up the thermostat a fraction; it doubles any increase in temperature. According to The City and the Coming Climate, by Brian Stone, a professor at Georgia Tech, “urban temperatures are growing at an average rate of .56 Fahrenheit per decade, compared to a rural rate of .28 Fahrenheit per decade.” To put it another way, as he explains, a city like New York is already living in the hotter world predicted by those mid-century figures from the NPCC, because those figures are global averages, making no allowance for the special conditions within the city.

The Bloomberg report predicts the number of days per year when temperatures go above 90 degrees will increase from 18 at the start of the century to between 45 and 57 by 2050.

“Three out of four of those days will be a heat wave day,” says Brian. “Those are days when people die. That’s how we define what a heat wave day is. That’s just taking figures from one table in this report.”

Working with the report’s forecasts, Brian also predicted a figure for the average peak temperature on a July afternoon in New York 2100, a miserable 98 degrees Fahrenheit. It’ll be a terrible blow to al fresco dining.

In person, Brian is boyish and rather upbeat. In fact, this father of three has written one of the more optimistic books on climate change. What he has found is that cities can substantially reduce their temperatures by using reflective surfaces and increasing the density of vegetation. It sounds absurdly sandals-and-granola, but these techniques, tested on residential parcels in 240 regions in the United States, reduced the demand for cooling energy by between 8 and 25 percent. A study in Toronto showed that developing just 5 percent of the area available into roof gardens lowered temperatures by one degree. This is important stuff, because anything done to cool the city in summer results in less energy being expended on air conditioning, cutting down on carbon emissions, which are, after all, the root of the problem. In New York, this would be especially effective. New Yorkers are responsible for fewer carbon emissions per person than residents of any other US city. At the same time, no other American city produces as much carbon per square foot. If you’re going to cool down 100 square feet anywhere, you’d best do it right here. New York offers the best real estate in the nation for the budding urban environmentalist.

But, in person, Brian can’t keep the conversation positive indefinitely.

“A six-degree-Celsius rise is looking possible,” he says, looking anxious and a touch embarrassed. “At those temperatures, you can’t feed yourself, you can’t grow food. I’ve got a three-year-old son. It’s astounding to me how little we’re doing. We’re not talking about being inconvenienced; we’re talking about not being able to feed our species.” Brian’s a trusting man, like most instinctively decent individuals, and lives to a standard I perhaps can’t match. I suspect that because it doesn’t even occur to me to comply with the request that follows: “Don’t put that in print though. That’s the sad part. If you talk about your research and you conclude with a statement like that, no one will pay attention to you because they’ll think you’re totally off your rocker.”

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