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February 09 2012


August 25 2011


Hurricane Irene, Climate Change, and the Need to Consider Worst Case Scenarios

In May of 2005, a few months before Hurricane Katrina, I wrote an article that nobody noticed. It was entitled “Thinking Big About Hurricanes: It’s Time to Get Serious About Saving New Orleans.” In it, I talked about how devastating a strong hurricane landfall could be to my home city:

In the event of a slow-moving Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane (with winds up to or exceeding 155 miles per hour), it’s possible that only those crow’s nests [of lakefront houses] would remain above the water level. Such a storm, plowing over the lake, could generate a 20-foot surge that would easily overwhelm the levees of New Orleans, which only protect against a hybrid Category 2 or Category 3 storm (with winds up to about 110 miles per hour and a storm surge up to 12 feet). Soon the geographical “bowl” of the Crescent City would fill up with the waters of the lake, leaving those unable to evacuate with little option but to cluster on rooftops—terrain they would have to share with hungry rats, fire ants, nutria, snakes, and perhaps alligators. The water itself would become a festering stew of sewage, gasoline, refinery chemicals, and debris.

Afterwards, the article was passed around furiously and I was hailed for having some sort of deep insight. I didn’t: The danger was staggeringly obvious and I was only channeling what many experts at the time knew.

With all eyes now focused on Hurricane Irene, which threatens a series of U.S. east coast landfalls, it is time to think seriously once again about worst case scenarios—and also, about how global warming could amplify them. And no, I am not saying that Irene threatens to bring about a worst case, that global warming caused Irene, or taking any other silly reductionist position.

Rather, I’m saying that Irene focuses our attention on our serious vulnerability, and we need to seize that moment--because too often our default position is to act like nothing bad is going to happen.

There are several places in the United States, besides New Orleans, where a strong hurricane landfall could be absolutely devastating. These include the Florida Keys, the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area, Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg, and Houston/Galveston. But they also include some east coast locations, and chief among these is New York/Long Island.

This last is currently within the forecast cone for Irene. That’s not saying that the storm portends anything like a worst-case scenario for New York City—it seems likely to be pretty weak by then, forecast tracks often change, etc—but it still could be bad if it goes directly at Manhattan. Simply put, there is a lot of wealth and personal property along that path.

The precise impact of any storm depends upon innumerable factors that cannot be known in advance. This include the storm's size, speed, angle of approach, and much else. So I am not forecasting anything about Irene--I'm just saying it's time to look at worst cases in general.

What's the worst case for New York City, as the world warms and sea levels rise? Here's what I wrote in my 2007 book Storm World:

Even as we act immediately to curtail short term vulnerability, every exposed coastal city needs a risk assessment that takes global warming scenarios into account....Scientists at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York have been studying that city's vulnerability to hurricane impacts in a changing world, and calculated that with 1.5 feet of sea level rise, a worst-case-scenario Category 3 hurricane could submerge "the Rockaways, Coney Island, much of southern Brooklyn and Queens, portions of Long Island City, Astoria, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, lower Manhattan, and eastern Staten Island from Great Kills Harbor north to the Verrazano Bridge.” (Pause and think about that for a second.)

We live in a presentist country that rarely pays attention to long term risks or worst case scenarios, until it is too late. That’s what happened to poor New Orleans—and it’s only a matter of time until it happens somewhere else. When it comes to hurricane disasters in particular, rising sea levels make the risk steadily worse over time, whether or not hurricanes themselves get much stronger.

So what are our major coastal cities doing to protect themselves? That’s the question we should all be asking right now.

May 16 2011


Satellite Images Display Extreme Mississippi River Flooding from Space

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110513204423.htm ScienceDaily (May 14, 2011) — Recent Landsat satellite data captured by the USGS and NASA on May 10 shows the major flooding of the Mississippi River around Memphis, Tenn. and along the state borders of Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas as seen from 438 miles above Earth.  The flood crest of 47.87 feet on [...]

February 26 2011


Unscientific hype about the flooding risks from climate change will cost us all dear

The warmists have sound financial grounds for hyping the dangers of flooding posed by climate change, writes Christopher Booker

August 24 2010


A Moment to Ask: Will This Protect New Orleans?

"The Big Uneasy," a documentary by the actor Harry Shearer, looks at the causes of the levee failures in New Orleans and whether the Army Corps of Engineers is doing the right job this time.

July 06 2010


June 13 2010


The Day the Shucking Stopped

The P&J Oyster Company, the oldest oyster processor and distributor in New Orleans, has stopped shucking oysters because of the oil spill.
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