New York Assembly Hearing Explores Steps to Lessen the Environmental Impact of Severe Weather

Recognizing that Superstorm Sandy is “only the most recent example of extreme weather events,” the New York State Assembly’s Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation sought expert testimony about actions that might mitigate the factors contributing to a changing climate and the impacts caused by such alternations.  Joining the committee’s chairman, Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, at the January 16 hearing in New York City were assembly members Thomas Abinanti, Brian Kavanaugh, and Barbara Lifton.

Invited witnesses addressed a range of questions, including predictions about sea level rise in our region, steps that could protect both natural and man-made environments from severe flooding, and actions that could simultaneously help to lessen the damage from multiple weather extremes.  These extremes include not only the type of coastal and inland floods caused by Sandy and Tropical Storms Irene and Lee in 2011 but also periods of extreme heat, intense rainfall, and prolonged drought.

Even apparently small increases in sea level – inches rather than feet – can have dramatic impacts on coastal flooding, said Ben Strauss, who directs the program on Sea Level Rise at Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists. In a recent study of sea level rise at 55 sites along the contiguous U.S. coast, Strauss and colleagues estimated that by mid-century, some locations may experience high water levels on an annual basis that would qualify today as ‘century’ extremes, while for about a third of the sites, century events could become ‘decadal’, that is, they would have a 10-percent chance of occurring annually.

Strauss said that current sea levels around New York City have increased by eight inches due to expanded water volume from warming temperatures, and an additional seven inches due to subsidence, or sinking of land levels from natural shifts and human activity. By about 2050, New York City may experience a significant enough sea level rise to expose it to a 15- percent likelihood of Sandy-type flooding each year, he said. The increased risk would follow from our local sea level upswing being amplified by subsidence plus possibly shifting currents in the Atlantic Ocean that may occur as a result of additional global warming, he said.

Other witnesses at the hearing emphasized the importance of taking steps both to mitigate the greenhouse-gas emissions that drive climate change and to adapt to a range of climate extremes as flexibly and cost-effectively as possible.

Professor Franco Montalto of Drexel University told the committee that he favored an “ecosystem approach” for tackling the threats associated with climate change as opposed to traditional, issue-specific engineering solutions. Montalto said such an approach integrates management of natural resources in ways that are dynamic, promote conservation and sustainability, and can address a range of problems.

“We cannot know which climatic extremes will affect us most powerfully, and therefore we must think in terms of broad resiliency,” he said.

For example, ecosystems such as wetlands work well in areas that may experience frequent small-scale floods, and may also help the built infrastructure function better under less frequent storm conditions, Montalto said. Similarly, urban trees and vegetated areas known as swales reduce the strain on sewer systems by absorbing storm water, and can also reduce heat-island effects in cities where extended heat waves have caused far more deaths than hurricanes or tropical storms do, he said.

Unfortunately, few ecosystems persist to anything like their historical extent, but research and recent examples from Sandy demonstrate that properly restored wetlands and coastal dunes offer reasonable levels of protection, said Montalto.

Other speakers who suggested similar approaches included Stuart Gruskin, the chief conservation and external affairs officer of The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit advocacy organization that has developed a series of climate tools to help municipalities assess risk and develop adaptation plans.

Gruskin recommended expanding our view of infrastructure to include natural systems, which are equally at risk from severe weather as roads, bridges and the electricity grid. He, too, recommended government support for projects that offer multiple environmental benefits.  For example, if sewage treatment plants are upgraded, don’t just build for better resilience from storms but also improve water quality at the same time, said Gruskin, who was formerly executive deputy commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

The Council of State Governments/Eastern Regional Conference was represented at the hearing by Eleanor Saunders, a researcher from its energy and environment program. Her testimony is available here.

Assemblyman Sweeney has set a second hearing date for January 24 in Lindenhurst on the South Shore of Long Island, where the impact of Sandy on both the natural and built infrastructure was also severe.

By Eleanor Saunders

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