New Study Forecasts Rising Sea Level Impacts on New York

Not long ago, NRDC received a call from a reporter wanting to know what New York will look like in 50 years. She wasn't talking about the skyline or whether cars will be obsolete; she wanted to know how the city's 578-mile coast would be affected once climate change has forced sea levels to rise. Thanks to a new report from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, we now have a better idea.

In 2007, the State Legislature directed DEC to study the state's vulnerability to sea level rise and coastal flooding, and the Sea Level Rise Task Force was born. The study’s results, released last month, are the culmination of years of work by about 100 scientists, policy experts, and other stakeholders charged with addressing how rising seas will affect our communities, natural resources, and infrastructure. The report – the first of its kind in the state – widens the scope of what sea level rise means for New York, and provides fourteen specific recommendations for how we might adapt.

Its bottom line is that every coastal community in New York will be affected by rising sea levels, including those along the 315-mile Hudson River, the Long Island Sound, and the Atlantic Coast. If you couple that with the fact that more than 60 percent of New Yorkers live in homes on or near a waterfront, the implications for New York's coastal communities are profound.

The report also rightfully included a section on public health impacts, since sea level rise has the potential to significantly affect community health. It warns that storm surges and coastal flooding can introduce a host of environmental hazards, including: contaminated drinking water, disrupted sewage and solid waste systems, hazardous material spills, increased or displaced populations of disease-carrying insects and rodents, and moldy houses. It also has the potential to lower quality of life. What would happen if a storm collapsed a community's only hospital or ruined someone's small business?

There’s no doubt that we will need to make significant investments over the next few decades in our infrastructure to cope with these changes. This means our state and local governments will make hefty decisions – likely guided by this report – to ensure that we adapt to the changes in the best way possible, while protecting the health and livelihoods of New York's coast-dwellers.

Last week, NRDC submitted comments for the next iteration of the report. Here are a few of the public health-relevant observations that we believe the task force should take into account:

  • Impacts to public health, infrastructure, and natural resources must be fully integrated. Again, we welcomed the inclusion of a section on public health. The report should highlight the importance of integrating infrastructure damage, natural resource/ecosystem disruption, and the associated harmful effects on public health from sea level rise. Too often, these three communities operate separately in framing adaptation policies.
  • Leaders from community groups are vital to the adaptation planning process. Those best equipped to inform adaptation plans are the ones dealing with climate impacts every day – i.e., families who regularly experience flooding in and near their homes. The report recommends funding and guidance for community-based vulnerability assessments, and high levels of community participation in post-storm recovery and adaptation planning processes – steps that can help protect our most vulnerable neighborhoods. 
  • Local public health officials must have a strong presence in climate-health preparedness planning. Other states have suffered from scant public health expertise to inform their climate change adaptation planning process; New York State could learn from others’ mistakes and add more local public health expertise as our process continues.

Of course, these comments could (and should) apply to local panels across the nation addressing the impacts of sea level rise on their cities, but the reality is that too few have the resources available. New York is lucky to be a hotbed of activity for climate modelers who are creating state-of-the-science local projections of New York in the near future under a changing climate.  At the very least, this new study gives us the opportunity to lead the way in preparedness and show other states how to do it right.