Skip to main content

Climate change raises stakes for coast

By Ben Orlove, Special to CNN
updated 4:25 PM EDT, Mon October 29, 2012
A man watches the waves in New York Harbor from Battery Park during the arrival of Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012 in New York City. The core of Sandy's force is supposed to hit the New York area Monday night.
A man watches the waves in New York Harbor from Battery Park during the arrival of Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012 in New York City. The core of Sandy's force is supposed to hit the New York area Monday night.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ben Orlove: Some people still look at hurricanes through an outdated perspective
  • He says officials have been pro-active in preparing for the storm
  • Climate change has raised sea level, he says, and storm surge endangers subways
  • He asks: Why can't we take the threat of climate change as seriously as the storm?

Editor's note: Ben Orlove, an anthropologist, is a professor in the School of International and Public Affairs and in the Earth Institute at Columbia University, director of the Master's Program in Climate and Society, and director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.

(CNN) -- I spent much of Sunday in touch with a group of fellow researchers. Like myself, they are college professors who are interested in understanding how people respond to weather and climate.

When we recognized last week that Hurricane Sandy was likely to make landfall rather than turning out to sea, we decided to conduct a telephone survey.

On Friday, we began asking East Coast residents how likely they thought the storm was to strike, how dangerous it would be, and what steps they were taking to protect themselves from the storm.

Ben Orlove
Ben Orlove

We are curious to see how well they could sort out the multiple threats -- wind, storm surge, heavy rain. We will not know the full results of our work for weeks, when we have processed the interviews, which are still under way as I write. But our initial impressions are that a number of people still focus on the features of hurricanes that were emphasized decades in the past, particularly the specific path of the storm's eye and the speed of the winds.

They do not adequately appreciate that a storm can be violently destructive hundreds of miles from its center, and that it can bring damage from threats other than wind -- threats that are particularly serious for Sandy. The scientific understanding of hurricanes has not yet been fully translated into public understanding.

Opinion: As Sandy descends, tips from Katrina survivors

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



I did have some time for breaks, though, on this Sunday of work. In the morning, I went to the gym, where television screens gave details about the evacuations in low-lying areas and alerted people to the closure of the subways that evening. After lunch, I went to pick up some additional food. The pedestrians in my neighborhood were not strolling leisurely, but rather hurrying to supermarkets and drugstores, or walking back home, with heavy bags of supplies.

In the mid-afternoon, after a round of e-mails to colleagues, my wife and I decided to take a walk through the park in our neighborhood, before the mandatory closing at 5 p.m. went into effect. We knew that we might not be able to go outside for a day or two. Here, too, there were fewer people strolling than usual. The gray sky and strong breezes might have frightened off or discouraged some of the ones who were done with their preparations. The park was occupied largely by dog walkers, who recognized that their pets would soon be confined to their apartments.

Sandy could bring 'catastrophe,' affect 60 million

People, pets evacuate ahead of hurricane
Obama: Take hurricane 'very seriously'

We paused at an overlook with a view west to the Hudson River, and saw ships heading north, seeking safe waters. In the open waters off Long Island, waves are projected to reach 40 feet or higher, and even in New York Bay they might crest at five or six feet. Conditions would be calmer further upstream. What impressed me was the large size of the wakes that the ships made as they rushed against the outgoing tide. The ships that travel upriver usually wait for an incoming tide to carry them. But these ships could afford no delay.

As we turned to leave the park, I looked back at the river, still ebbing rapidly. I knew that the tides would turn and the storm arrive in full fury. And I thought of the most vulnerable structure in Manhattan, the sea wall at the southern tip of the island. This wall, which protects the city's subways from flooding, is nine feet high, usually a firm bulwark. But it faces three forces that bring waters higher. The tides are the first, and the second is the water pushed coastward by storms. The third is climate change.

Throughout the 20th century, sea levels were rising as a result of the warming of the oceans and the melting of ice in glaciers. This rise, which varies from place to place depending on patterns of wind and ocean currents, has been about a foot in the New York harbor.

Opinion: How Sandy will test Obama, Romney

When this foot is added to the four feet of the high tides at the full moon, it reaches five feet, more than half the height of the sea wall. Sandy's relentless winds have been pushing water in front of the storm as it approaches the coast; this storm surge will be heightened by the configuration of the coast at New York. If it exceeds four feet, the subways will flood, disrupting transportation for days or weeks, and causing billions of dollars of damage.

Last year, Hurricane Irene also arrived at a time of especially high tides, and its storm surge came within inches of flooding the sea well. Storms and tides are natural, but sea level rise is not. As it continues, New York grows more vulnerable. Every coastal city does.

The ships could sail north up the Hudson to escape danger, but sea walls and the subways are fixed in space. Governments, media and communities spring into action with the immediate threat of a hurricane, taking steps to prepare and to reduce harm. They issue warnings, remind people to obtain supplies, close parks and subways, open shelters, and organize evacuations.

Will they take the larger and more difficult actions to protect themselves from the slower, and far greater, threat of climate change?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ben Orlove.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT