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How to keep New York afloat

With sea levels rising, once-a-century floods may become once-in-20-years events. One solution: huge storm-surge barriers.

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Like many New Yorkers, Radley Horton often frets about tomorrow's weather. Unlike many, it's his job. A scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) and coauthor of a forthcoming study on the effects of climate change in New York City, he is particularly concerned about an often-overlooked aspect of global warming: bigger, stronger storms.

"It's not a linear relationship," he says on a subway ride to Manhattan's South Ferry station, which would be mostly underwater in a Category 2 hurricane. "A little bit warmer sea surface equals the potential for a lot stronger storm." And feeding off the greater ocean warmth, full-blown hurricanes may arrive at New York City with increasing regularity.

By 2050, stronger storms and rising sea levels may make the flood that previously hit once every 100 years a once-in-20-years event, according to GISS. With a possible three-foot sea level rise by 2100, flooding could occur every four years. "Our old ideas about climate may have to change," he says. "We need to be open to all possibilities."

Even as high-profile politicians like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York Gov. George Pataki pledge to reduce their states' carbon "footprint," cities like New York and London – and entire countries like the Netherlands – are moving to adapt to long-term climate change.

With slogans like, "Why should you worry about a hurricane? It's not like you live on an island" and a tripling of storm shelters since Katrina, New York City's Office of Emergency Management has prepared for at least some of the short-term possibilities.

But even before Katrina, the city's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which manages the city's freshwater supply and wastewater – 13,000 miles of pipe, total – formed a task force with GISS to look at the long-term effects of climate change.


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