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22 November 2010

Saving NYC: $11 Billion Flood Barriers Approved

Image Source: Adapted from NJ.com

Today federal officials will join the New York City Mayor's Office to announce groundbreaking on what is being billed by insiders as one of the largest and most expensive public works project in U.S. history. The project is dubbed "The Hudson Barriers." The mammoth engineering project consists of a series of 100-foot tall movable gates, navigational locks, and solid above-grade flood barriers to be constructed simultaneously in the waterways surrounding Manhattan, Eastern Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens. With a planned cost of nearly $11 billion, the project dwarfs any other system in operation in the world today.  Many U.S. coastal cities already use flood control systems to guard against everyday tidal variations and the occasional storm surge.  The Hudson Barriers are a defensive measure designed to save thousands of lives and prevent billions of dollars in property damage that would occur if New York City received a direct hit from a powerful hurricane.  Secondarily, average sea levels are expected to rise significantly over the next 50 years.  Even low-end scenarios place much of Manhattan and low-lying areas in surrounding boroughs underwater.  Despite the political risk, officials decided it was unwise to wait before starting construction on a project that could take three decades or more to complete. 

Large portions of the structure in the Upper New York Harbor at the Verrazano Narrows will sweep open, allowing ship traffic to enter the harbor and navigate existing channels under normal conditions. During storm conditions or as sea levels rise in coming years, gates can be closed and raised as much as 35 feet out of the water.  The barrier will stave off a storm surge that would wash up the Hudson River.  In a major storm event such as a category three hurricane, or higher, thousands of people would lose their lives.  After the waters recede, the region would be racked by human health hazards, transit disruptions, and ruined subterranean infrastructure. Eventually, as sea level rise becomes permanent, the gates may need to be deployed full-time.  The plan calls for a second set of gates to be constructed nearby to serve as a gigantic navigational lock. 

In addition to the moveable barriers, a ten foot impermeable seawall will be constructed around Lower Manhattan from the Battery as high as Canal Street to accommodate for overall rising sea levels and normal weather events that are certain to wreak havoc on city infrastructure with increasing regularity as sea levels continue to rise past safe levels. Officials agree the measure is the only way to secure the region from what New York City climatologists call
"the inevitability of certain disaster." Any preventative action against climate change is too little, too late.

The decision to move the project forward comes after years of failed negotiations and counterproductive political posturing. The flood control system has been an unpopular election topic since it was first proposed in 2009, principally because it is designed to guard against future events which may or may not transpire during current budget periods and political terms.  The cost of the project will be amassed immediately and is only partially offset by federal funding. New York City fielded a variety of alternative proposals over the past five years, including plans for a complex levee system. The Hudson Barriers are the first viable solution promising relative status quo for inhabitants of low lying areas on both sides of the Hudson, save for the $11 billion price tag.

"Except for the portions of seawall in some places, you won't even know [the barriers] are there until we need to use them," said Goddil Helpas, a spokesperson for the engineering firm behind the concept for the Hudson Barriers, "In this way, the underwater barrier system is representative of the very issue of climate change, a problem that was largely invisible to New Yorkers and to much of the developed world, until now."

Note to readers: The aforementioned text is entirely fictional, however, it is not at all improbable (except maybe for the perceived ease of funding such a large project).  The basis for this article is very real.  Described in this article published just days ago, New York City is reportedly including flood barrier engineering plans in its "Vision 2020 Comprehensive Waterfront Plan" alongside more familiar issues such as sewage treatment and waterfront recreation.  Given our limited understanding of the earth's full climatological complexities, we must entertain a variety of scenarios, both realistic and futuristic, on how our population centers will be affected by climate change.  It is a gurantee that the largely invisible effects of climate change taking hold today will become tomorrow's highly visible engineering projects. Even if sea level rise occurs at the low end of scientific projections, we will have to engineer the survival of our way of life with mega projects such as the now fictional Hudson Barriers described above. Similar work has already begun worldwide in many places where water meets urban pavement.


Image Source.  Image Credit: Alex Mintz
 In London, the sci-fi looking Thames River Barrier keeps the tidal river at bay and has allowed the city of London to develop right up to the riverbanks. Like New York, London is awash with vital underground infrastructure including one of the world's largest and oldest subway systems. London's barrier has been raised over 100 times in its 25 year history and is deployed with increasing frequency as sea levels trend higher and the shifting geology of the UK affects tidal flows. As far as New York City is concerned, residents live in a bubble of complacency. This artistic rendering (above) shows what a structure like the Thames River barrier would look like, underneath the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in New York Harbor.
Few residents realize just how sensitive the city truly is. Ride the subway during a heavy rainstorm and you get a taste of the chaos that would ensue during a major storm event just half the magnitude of Katrina. Switches fail, tunnels flood, track shorts out, and travelers experience utter misery. Overloaded sewers dump millions of gallons of runoff water and raw sewage into the Husdon River and New York Harbor. The city so nice they named it twice is hell when it rains. On the upside, there's no shortage of people willing to sell you a $1 umbrella for $5.

"The city has been hit before, including by a September 1821 hurricane that raised tides by 13 feet in an hour and flooded all of Manhattan south of Canal Street -- an area that now includes the nation's financial capital.

Depending on its track, a Category 3 storm -- with sustained winds of 111 to 130 mph, akin to an infamous 1938 hurricane that swept through nearby Long Island -- could produce a storm surge as high as 25 feet in some parts of the city. Officials estimate as many as 600,000 people's homes could be flooded, and 3 million would have to evacuate because of flooding and other perils; economic loss estimates top $100 billion." --CBS/AP http://cbs4.com/national/hurricane.barrier.nyc.2.1024860.html

Image Source: Adam Freedgood
In an effort to illustrate the effects of climate change on New York in more palpable ways, a group of environmental nonprofits organized a stunt in 2008 that I had the curious pleasure of participating in. It was called "the Sea of People." When I showed up, all I knew was to wear blue and meet thousands of others in Battery Park (a park built on fill from the original world trade center construction excavation, located at the very southern tip of Manhattan). Now, Manhattan has its share of odd stunts on a weekly basis.  This one dealt with climate change and saving the city from destruction so it seemed worth my time. After the crowd of thousands had gathered, some wearing flambouyant costumes complete with blue streamers and roller skates (see picture), it began to organize. We formed a long blue chain of people, marching up into the financial district led by the organizers. The sea of people surged northward and snaked through the cross streets of TriBeCa, encompassing the New York Stock Exchange, Trinity Church, and many noteworthy low-lying landmarks. Our path followed the waterline of storm surge or projected rise in sea level and visually illustrated which parts of our beloved city would be underwater.  Chains of people often mark demonstrations of the extreme environmental left.  In the case of the Sea of People, I feel the point of the demonstration was centered and logical. It said very clearly that climate change affects sea levels and sea levels affect people -- a whole lot of them. It is happening slowly enough that we don't notice it coming. And if the voices of short-term political posturing are louder than the voices of logic calling for investments in preventative infrastructure, the sea of people will not be a blue line weaving its way through New York's streets. The next demonstration will be based from rowboats and we'll be towing a line through downtown scooping up drowning victims. No one wants to see that day. 


NYC Flood rendering from:  http://www.stevens.edu/ses/cms/fileadmin/cms/pdf/Malcolm_Bowman.pdf


$11 billion flood barriers are not part of the future of sophisticated urban development that most of us envision. We live in a time when even basic infrastructure projects such as bridge and tunnel maintenance, new subway lines, and modern airports are protracted, highly politicized battles. New York City is a perfect example of the global interconnectivity of the climate change issue and illustrates the massive scale of the strategies that societies all over the world will embark on just to preserve the status quo.

Cities like New York boast a relatively low carbon lifestyle thanks to high population density and the subsequent development of mass transit and dense vertical living. Unfortunately the planet as a whole does not bank the carbon savings of city dwellers. Carbon output that began during the peak of industrialization in the UK and the U.S. continues today and is rapidly accelerating in more populous developing countries. Our great cities worldwide must be engineered to be efficient but will soon also have be built to the exacting specifications of a volatile climate.

Buildings such as the Empire State Building that were constructed decades ago face similar environmental load factors (wind, rain, heat, cold) today as when they were first built. The same cannot be said for infrastructure that we build today. The next century will be marked by many new climate milestones. This is a fact. Whether you believe that climate change is liberal drivel or a real manmade mess, take the safe bet and don't buy beachfront property with the idea of keeping in the family for the grandkids to enjoy.  By 2050, if it's still standing, you won't be able to afford the insurance.

To end on a positive note, the mega engineering that we will embark on to continue living life close to the way we enjoyed it pre-climate-change will give a boost to employment worldwide.  Economic growth loves infrastructure almost as much as it loves war (especially unprecentededly large infrastructure like giant flood barriers).  There are boundless industrial opportunities on the horizon as we must increasingly construct physical cures for the symptoms of climate change. Beyond physical infrastructure, geoengineering projects and processes that tinker with the earth's climate system are emerging as a new and vital growth industry.

The concept of the Hudson River Barriers and geoengineering projects of tomorrow underscore the reality that we are wasting time debating the causality of climate change. As far as people are concerned, it does not matter if tailpipe emissions or natural processes are responsible for the warming earth. We must face the consequences either way. Just the expansion of water molecules in the oceans that occurs as a result of a warmer planet will cause sea levels to creep up enough to threaten all of our coastal areas. When ice melt and other factors are considered, the situation becomes far more grave. Our way of life is in big trouble. We aren't talking about polar bears clinging to icebergs thousands of miles away.  The rising tide affects people, will cost billions, and will require some very creative and very massive solutions sooner than we think.
 
Further reading on the NYC flood barrier topic:
 
http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2009/05/designs_for_hurricane_barriers.html
 
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/08/new-york-considering-erec_n_780241.html
 
http://www.stevens.edu/ses/cms/fileadmin/cms/pdf/Malcolm_Bowman.pdf
 
http://www.halcrow.com/Our-projects/Project-details/Concept-Storm-Surge-Barrier-USA-/
 
 

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